“I had wanderlust when I was very young and dreamed of being in other places.”
Lori Grinker has spent most of her career finding inspiration across the world, from the cityscapes of Ukraine to Iraqi refugees. Her recent work looks inward toward her own family. The photographer, videographer, writer, and professor grew up with creative parents and has been learning about photography since she was a kid when her father brought her along to his job in television. Grinker has published three books of her work, one of which is based on her experiences shooting boxer Mike Tyson.
What was your early life like?
I grew up on Long Island, right outside of New York City on the border of Queens. My dad was very creative and worked in television documentaries. Nobody knew what that meant. People’s fathers were gardeners, doctors or owned bowling alleys. Being a producer, director and writer for television documentaries or educational television was new. My mom was a housewife. She was creative as well but never really developed it.
Did your father being a filmmaker lead you to want to become a photographer?
It’s funny because I was so rebellious. I didn’t want to do what my dad did. I thought that was too easy. But I did work for him, and I did a lot of stills on different sets. When I was in college, I was doing more documentary. Somebody came to my school to talk about Muhammad Ali. His name was Jim Jacobs. They asked me to take pictures of him for the school. This guy had a fight film archive, managed boxers and paid for this house upstate. When I heard about that, I wanted to go up there to do my college project. There was a nine-year-old named Billy Ham. Mike Tyson was 14 and he was there, but I ended up publishing the story about Billy Ham. I just started shooting all this boxing stuff because I was there and Mike was turning pro. Then, I started working for magazines all over the place. I was renting out my apartment, going overseas and staying for months at a time. I had wanderlust when I was very young and dreamed of being in other places.
What has been the most challenging part of your career so far?
Getting into some places as a female, even though I did well at it, was challenging when I was younger. Making money, too, but I didn’t care about that then. I just wanted to get by, and I wanted to do what I was doing. Now, the most challenging thing is balancing my teaching load, my personal work, fixing a house upstate and balancing a relationship. Interestingly, I spent my whole career telling stories about other people and now the projects I’m working on are about my family.
What are some of the projects that you’re working on right now?
I’m working on a documentary film on my dad about aging and creativity. The other project I’m working on is about my family’s diaspora and it’s just a way to get away from sad stories about people. It’s called “Dear Grinkers” because it started with a letter that somebody wrote to all the grandparents he could find saying he thought we were all related. So many of this family’s stories have to do with anti-Semitism. A lot of these pictures aren’t about war but they hold histories of war beyond them.
I’m doing a book and, hopefully, some artwork about my mom, dementia and the experience with a mother-daughter relationship. It’s called “All the Little Things” because I started photographing all of the scenes around us. We were having Chinese food one night, and my fortune cookie said, “All the little things will lead to a happy life.” It’s about caregiving. I recorded every conversation I had with her as I was taking care of her during the pandemic. I hope it helps some people find humor in these situations, and also understand how difficult it is to know what is dementia and what’s not. I took a lot of things personally, and it was very difficult. Now looking back on parts of it, I’m like, “Oh, that wasn’t really her.”
What are your goals moving forward for the future of your career?
I want to try to remain healthy and to produce work. I just want to keep producing work.
How does it feel different working on other people’s stories from telling stories that are personal to you?
I think when you tell other people’s stories, especially if you’re working for magazines, you have deadlines. It doesn’t go on forever. When I do my books, they take a long time. I know people who work fast. They’ll do a whole project in six months. It takes me years. That’s partly because I’m a procrastinator or perfectionist, the same thing to me. I’m happy I’m doing it, but I would like to do something else that is not about my family. I don’t know what that will be.