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Jakarta Post

Justin Mott: An ex-bartender mixing emotions and photography

  • Hans David Tampubolon

    The Jakarta Post

Jakarta   /   Thu, October 23, 2014   /  11:14 am
Justin Mott: An ex-bartender mixing emotions and photography

JP/Jerry Adiguna

A combination of talent, passion and hard work can produce outstanding results and recognition '€” which is exactly what photographer Justin Mott'€™s career is all about.

Mott, born in 1978 in Rhode Island, New York, took on photography a bit late in his life. While world-class photographers usually began their formal education in photography in their early teens or senior high school years, Mott only began his journey in his mid-20s.

High tuition in New York led him to move to San Francisco to go to school a little bit later in his life when he was around 25. In San Francisco, he became a bartender to pay for his schooling.

'€œI went to San Francisco State University, I went to study journalism,'€ Mott told The Jakarta Post in a recent interview.

During Mott'€™s journalism studies, he took a photography class that took him into the lives of the people living in San Francisco. He saw the social issues confronted by these people on a day-to-day basis. Since that first assignment, he fell in love with photography.

'€œI fell in love because I am not a classroom person. I have a short attention span so I want to go outside and explore,'€ he said.

Mott said that the one thing he loved the most about photography was story telling. Photography has allowed Mott to explore stories and to see things he would not see if he had not been a journalist.

'€œMy family all chipped in and bought me a digital camera and so for my birthday, they all paid a little bit of money back then. It must have been 2002 or 2001, and I got my first digital camera and I used my free time on Saturdays and Sundays walking around San Francisco doing street photography,'€ he said.

Later, an event in his family life took him from doing street photography into producing world-class documentary photos in Southeast Asia, where he now resides.

'€œMy father passed away and in 2005 I needed a break from San Francisco. He grew up in a small island off the coast of Rhode Island and I saved up some money and I went there to reconnect with some of his family I didn'€™t know that well. One of the guys I worked with before I moved out, he fought in the [Vietnam] War and so he used to talk about Vietnam and he really got me curious.'€

'€œI saved up money and I moved back and I went to Vietnam. I went to Cambodia first for a workshop there and the workshop really changed my life because the photographer'€™s name, Garry Knight, who is a conflict photographer, he really taught me about photo documentaries, so I went from photo journalism to photo documentaries.'€

Mott spent two months in Vietnam and Cambodia documenting different stories, including a piece on tuberculosis and another on kids addicted to sniffing glue in Cambodia, attracting attention from major newspaper outlets.

'€œI started getting work from The New York Times and I didn'€™t really want to lose that work. For me, as a photojournalist, that was the newspaper that I thought was the best of the best. So then I stayed because they gave me assignments all over the place and I never looked back.'€

Mott'€™s choice to finish the stories came with a price. He failed to get a degree as he did not finish his journalism school in San Francisco, but he does not seem to mind.

On his official website,, Mott features stories from the darkest side of society in Southeast Asia told through emotionally powerful photos. Mott said his style was influenced by war photographer James Nachtwey, who was able to capture any kind of beauty in a photo '€” regardless of the brutality or the tragic aspect of the objects.'€œIf someone looks at my photographs I want them to be curious, nostalgic or happy or sad. Feel something. If they don'€™t feel anything in my pictures, I haven'€™t done a good job.'€

Creating emotionally powerful images, according to Mott, can also change lives, which is why Mott follows his subjects intimately.

For example, Mott has spent six years documenting a girl who is a third generation victim of Agent Orange, a toxic defoliant used by Americans in the Vietnam War.

'€œShe can'€™t see or barely hear. I had her photos exhibited and people wanted to help. Now she has better health and life. We raised enough money to support her,'€ Mott said.

Documenting photos of people suffering or dark social issues can take its toll on any photographer. Many photojournalists exposed to conflict or suffering become depressed. Mott realizes this and to keep his life balanced, he also takes different and lighter projects.

He also has a wedding and commercial photography business. He is also featured in the new reality show Photo Face Off, in which he faces amateur photographers from all over Southeast Asia to complete street photography tasks in a short amount of time.

'€œI need that balance in my life,'€ he said.

Borobudur Temple. Courtesy of Justin MottBorobudur Temple. Courtesy of Justin Mott

Courtesy of Justin MottCourtesy of Justin Mott

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