Casey Kelbaugh is a NYC-based photographer and the founder of Slideluck. He works primarily as an editorial and commercial photographer for a variety of clients including The New York Times, T Magazine, New York Magazine, The Washington Post, Mashable, Creative Time, MoMA PS1, The Art Production Fund, The Standard Hotels, and NYU. He is also the photo editor of GOOD Magazine, occasionally has writing published and artwork exhibited. More of Casey Kelbaugh’s photography, press, bio and clients can be found here.
Carrie: Welcome to Artist Strong Casey. For Artist Strong readers who don’t know: what is Slideluck?
Slideluck is a non-profit dedicated to building and strengthening community through food and art. Since 2000 we have produced multimedia slideshows combined with potluck dinners in over 100 cities worldwide – from Stockholm to São Paulo to Singapore. In the course of hosting these events – ranging in size from 25 to 1200 people – we’ve exhibited the work of over 10,000 emerging artists.
In addition to this, we also have a Youth Initiative and teach photography and multimedia storytelling in Harlem, Brooklyn, the Bronx, East Los Angeles and most recently, Kathmandu. In Europe we also just published a photo cookbook, Hungry Still, and launched a second website, Slideluck Editorial, which focuses on the best multimedia work being made today.
We have been involved in countless collaborations and initiatives with other organizations, galleries, museums, art fairs, conferences and collectives around the globe.
Carrie: Can you give us a bit of background about yourself? How would you describe your own creative work?
I was always very visually-inclined and grew up drawing and painting. I didn’t pick up a camera until after college but quickly felt it was the medium with the most potential for me.
I’ve primarily worked as an editorial and commercial photographer over the last 15 years or so. Most of the pictures I take are for an assignment or commission. While many would find this cumbersome or limiting, I appreciate the confines of an assignment. It’s a big, big world out there and there is endless subject matter, so I find it useful to have a reason to narrow it down: a story to illustrate, a product to highlight, or a personality to capture, and a time frame for doing so. Without such parameters I can feel a bit lost. And there’s just so much magic that exists in the real world, I rarely feel the impulse to construct images from thin air.
I actually work out of a large, gorgeous photo studio as Sandbox Studio sponsors the Slideluck office in Bushwick, Brooklyn. I have access to all of the space, lighting, etc., and I rarely am compelled to use it unless I’m doing work for a client. The idea of commuting each day to my own white-box photo studio and forcing myself to create on a daily basis is one of the most terrifying things I can think of.
Carrie: How did you get the idea for such an organization?
Like many things, Slideluck was born out of frustration. I decided that I was going to have a career in photography but I had no idea where to start. I was desperate to connect with other creatives, not just photographers, to get feedback on my work, to see what others were doing and feel like I was part of a community. I felt like each path for a photographer, be it editorial, commercial or fine art, required validation by a club and these clubs didn’t exactly have an open door application process.
Taking cues from some of the DIY things I was seeing in the performing arts and photojournalism communities I thought to myself, “Why do we have to wait to be validated from some institution on high? Why not just do it without them?”
And so the first Slideluck (formerly Slideluck Potshow) was born. It was a slideshow and a potluck dinner in the tiny side yard of my house in Seattle. We had about 50 remarkably creative people working in any media you can think of, from pottery to fashion design and portrait photography.
It worked! So we decided to do it again. And here we are 15 years later.
Carrie: What has been one hurdle you’ve overcome creating Slideluck and how did you navigate that problem?
I never went into this thinking that I wanted to run an international non-profit organization. I’m a photographer, but along the way, I’ve certainly had to learn a lot of skills I never thought I’d need. The biggest challenge for me (not a planner) has been the financial aspect of the organization.
In the beginning it was just a side project that I’d happily channel a couple hundred dollars a year into. Once I moved to New York in 2003 and Slideluck began to really take off, in a viral, exciting way, it quickly grew financially unsustainable. I was bankrolling all of our productions and traveling through my commercial photography work, and after a few years of jolly globetrotting, found myself in some serious debt. Debt that I am only now getting out from under.
We’ve explored every model there is under the sun to generate support and eventually became a non-profit. What I wasn’t prepared for and still have a lot to learn about was that my primary duty would shift from Creative Director to Executive Director (i.e. chief fundraiser). Spending my time chasing after financial support from individuals, corporations, and foundations is just not something I’m hard-wired to do, but that doesn’t mean I’m not doing it.
Carrie: What advice do you have for other creatives thinking about building arts based organizations?
For any idea to have practical success it’s necessary to build an effective team to get it there. Find others that share in your vision but complement your strengths and weaknesses.
In my case it would have been extremely valuable to have someone alongside me from day one that was a finance/numbers/structural person. It would have saved me a lot of time, energy, and money if we had been thinking big picture/sustainable from the outset. Instead, we had to fumble our way into finding it. That is, if we have found it. I’m still not entirely sure as our monthly expenses are quadruple what they were a year ago and we’re struggling to keep up on the fundraising side.
I also think finding a mentor, or someone that has traveled a similar path to you, to tap from time to time for advice would be extremely valuable. Since beginning on the Slideluck journey, I’ve never been able to find that person. All of our growth and expansion was happening as the internet and social media was coming into it’s own and everything we were doing felt like it hadn’t really been done before. I could find no roadmap and no one I looked up to to steer me in the right direction. Instead, I have sought counsel from dozens of other friends and advisors, which has also been invaluable.
Carrie: Slideluck now has “chapters” all over the world. Have you been able to visit different locations? Does each have its own “flavor?”
This has certainly been the most exciting part. The good news is that I’ve been to probably about seventy five percent of our launches (on every continent) and had the opportunity to break bread with fascinating, creative people all over the world.
While the slideshow-potluck structure doesn’t change all that much (though there are variations), each show is unique unto itself. You will always have different artists presenting, the slideshow will have a distinct theme, in a new location, with new people attending and bringing different dishes to the table. So while there is a familiarity to each event, they are all very distinct.
This week, for example, we had our first show in the Berkshire mountains of western Massachusetts. Everyone brought blankets and sat on the lawn and the slideshow was projected onto the side of the barn. The average age was probably 60 years old. Contrast that to a year ago when we had our first show in Fez, Morocco. We had a couple hundred young Moroccans clustered in a courtyard in the old medina under the lemon trees. Most of the women were wearing headscarves and the potluck table was full of massive clay tagines overflowing with couscous, lamb, and vegetables.
Carrie: How do you navigate working on your own creative projects as a photographer while also developing Slideluck?
This has been one of my greatest challenges because I always put Slideluck first. In the beginning I would use Slideluck to motivate me to go out and shoot projects that fit the theme of each show. So not only would I be producing the event, but I was also trying to present the most creative entry in the show. This eventually became unsustainable and I felt it was only fair to let others take my spot in the show. So now, only rarely and when it makes sense, do I present my own work.
In terms of other personal projects, I have had to fight very hard over the last couple years to squeeze in my own photo, writing and other projects. I’m making a lot of headway, in terms of getting stories published and just shooting for the sake of creative expression. It feels great. I’ve also been doing more writing, speaking, and I’m now working as the photo editor for GOOD magazine. As much as I’ve been able to divest a great deal of responsibility to my (amazing) team, not a day goes by that Slideluck doesn’t suck me in one way or another.
Carrie: How does collaboration impact creativity?
Depends on the medium, but collaboration is going to be important at some phase of pretty much every project. Learning how to work well with other creatives is vastly important in reaching one’s goals. It’s important to let others take ownership in their areas of expertise and to focus on what you do best. It can be a delicate dance between egos, compromise, and accountability when participating in creative endeavors with groups of people.
What I find to be most impressive is the sheer number of people that have to be working towards the same goal to bring a feature film into existence. This is a level of collaboration I have yet to experience.
Carrie: Related, but somewhat different to collaboration, why is community so important for creativity?
An engaged, authentic community can provide support – moral, financial and otherwise – for one’s creative endeavors. One can also draw upon their community for honest feedback and criticism. Ideas can be tested and refined within the relatively safe atmosphere of your community. It’s a great forum for building confidence in your ideas and projects.
Carrie: What do you hope Slideluck to “look like” in 5 years time?
My hope is that over the next five years I will be able to back farther and farther away from the project in a way that it continues to live on, independent of me. It’s a tricky process, because so much of what we’ve done has grown out of my interests and relationships. That being said, with the help of my board, many advisors and an incredible team, I’ve been able to step back from a previously-unfathomable amount of responsibilities within the organization.
I’m already seeing a solid team in our Bushwick HQ (Jen Plaskowitz, Jordan Frand, Andrew McFarland and Dasha Shapovalova), fantastic leadership in our Youth Initiative (Rachel Langosch, Winston Struye and Angie Smith) and our European, Latin American and Asian Directors (Maria Teresa Salvati, Andres Ronderos and Kim Campbell respectively). We’re moving into a much more solid, robust, and promising place!
Carrie: What advice and recommendations do you have for someone interested in starting their own Slideluck?
Becoming a local director for Slideluck is an extremely gratifying experience, but it’s a significant commitment as well. We have worked with all types of people from every field imaginable, but I think the underlying theme is that each of them wants to make their community a better place. They too, see the gap that I felt in Seattle or are frustrated with the lack of options available and want to make something happen. The good news is that it’s completely in reach!
We have created a whole series of systems and resources that help pave the way. We look for people that are motivated, adept at building a team around them (very important), are creative about problem-solving and are able to pull in the necessary resources to make their program a success. It’s very much a two-way street and our team in Bushwick is there to provide as much support as possible, but we rely on our local partners heavily, as there are certain things that can only be done right on the ground.
Carrie: How do you define Creativity?
I think of it as problem-solving. You’re backed in a corner, construct, or what have you and are forced to figure your way out. It’s not necessary to have external pressure on you to produce anything, it may come from within, but regardless, it’s the impetus to make something that is novel and has value. Yeah, I think that’s what it might be.
BE COURAGEOUSLY CREATIVE: How do you help foster the “pressure” or impetus to create in your creative life? I want to know! Let’s talk in the comments below.
*Description of today’s Featured Image: SLIDELUCK Northside took place at the Brooklyn Brewery in Williamsburg, Brooklyn on Thursday, July 19, 2012. Photograph by John Mazlish