A Conversation With Photographer Michael Hanson

On his Dominican baseball project, an effort to document the academies where 13- to 16-year-old kids live with dozens of others hoping to make the big leagues, and his time with the Amish communities in the Midwest

The Dominican Braves bow for a prayer after a game as dark clouds linger overhead.     Photo: Michael Hanson

A bus-load of young professional players as they travel from their training facility to the Detroit Tigers' Dominican training camp.

Two teenagers opt out of watching the cattle and instead practice their swings. The cows graze on the town trash while one young man swings a board at a flying bottle cap.

A young boy rides his father's bicycle while his brother slides on his scooter at their barn in rural Ohio.

At the Mt. Hope Auction in March 2012, members of the Amish community throughout the Midwest travel to see the largest horse sale of the year.

Tell me how you got started in photography.
I always liked photography and, during baseball, I was exposed to this interesting lifestyle, minor league baseball. It’s a pretty interesting scene. You have a group of young kids, some with lots of money. For the first time they are living alone. Over half the team is not from the United States and don't speak English for the most part and you are all living together in small towns, and I think that just, for some reason, I wanted to document that, and I didn't know how.

My last year, I started taking pictures of minor league baseball behind the scenes. They are terrible pictures for the most part. It's hard to play baseball and document it at the same time. My mind was in two different places, but I found that I really liked photography, and I already had the access to this particular story and I found that that is the kind of photography that I like. Access is kind of the key to their world and other cultures and I found that the most logical way of documenting it and telling the story of minor league baseball was through photography. I asked for my release from the Atlanta Braves, and I drove home and I woke up and said, “What am I going to do? What's the next project,” you know?

What did you study in school?
Spanish and environmental studies. And it wasn't like I wanted to teach Spanish or really use it. I just liked the idea of speaking another language. That's the beauty of photography, I think. You don't have to go to school, you know? A lot of people do. A lot of people get a degree or whatever but anyone can wake up tomorrow and be a photographer. You know, making a living is harder.

Really? You think anyone can do it?
Well, they can wake up and be a photographer. I’m not saying that I was immediately supporting myself off of photography, but I didn't have to go through school and I didn't have to go through training. I had to teach myself, but I woke up and was a professional photographer the next day. I just had to figure out how to make a living.

How did you teach yourself?
I just started looking at tons of pictures. I started noticing what pictures appealed to me and that was mostly in the documentary photojournalism and travel magazine world and I would spend hours at the bookstore and look at magazines and then I'd look online and find people's work I liked. You know, Oh my gosh I like those pictures I’m going to try to do something like that, and inevitably you do something different but you still find inspiration from other work.

Who were some of the first people that inspired you?
I like Randy Olson’s work and Melissa Farlow, his wife, I like Jonas Bendiksen's work, Joel Sartore has become a mentor. Ed Kashi, and then Andrew Querner, among others.

You do a lot of personal projects. Do you feel like that has been an important way for you to develop your voice?
Yeah. I try to do a good amount every year. I think for a couple of reasons. One, it's good practice to keep shooting the way I want to shoot. Second, it keeps me sane. There are plenty of assignments that I do and like to do that aren't necessarily right in line with a story that I would choose on my own. And sometimes it's good to just ... it keeps the passion for photography alive if you get to do it for yourself and you have to figure out the story yourself and stay motivated to shoot it. Maybe you aren't getting paid or maybe you are going to try to sell it in the end but there's more freedom in it and it's why I started.

And I noticed, at the end of 2011 you know, the emails go around to everybody, to photographers, for contests and awards and I looked through my work, and I really didn't have any set of images that I was super proud of. Or even a handful of images that I was proud of from that year. And I realized that while it was a very successful year as far as, I was busy and I shot a lot, and I traveled a bunch, but it was weird. I really didn't add that many pictures to my portfolio. I didn't do any personal stories. I started the one on Dominican baseball last year and I did a small one in Florida but I kind of told myself that I need to do more in 2012 even if that means turning down paid jobs just to keep that interest going.

How do you come up with the ideas for the stories?
There's always ideas in the back of your head and sometimes they kind of linger for a year or more. My latest ones are the baseball project, which is obvious. I have a connection to baseball. I have always loved being around it, especially the Latin culture with baseball, so that's a natural one. The other one I’m working on is a documentary about a river in the south. I’m from the south and I love that area and I feel strongly and passionately about this river. I think it's the third most endangered river in America and, you know, it ran through my backyard. I’m interested in the environmental conservation issues around it. That's been in my mind for three years now. I've already shot some of the stuff in previous years just because it's been there and now I’ve dedicated a couple months to go shoot that.

And I’m starting a project around the Puget Sound, here, in the northwest. That one is different because a friend of mine actually passed that idea along and thought I might be interested in it. And it keeps me home. In the summer I try to stay in the northwest because the weather is so nice. So there's nothing better than having a project close to home. I went out this morning at 6 a.m. and I’m going to go out tonight again and I can be in my office all day.

Tell me more about the Dominican baseball project.
When I played baseball I was always, probably because of the fact that I spoke Spanish, but I was really close to some of the Latin players. Some of them were from the Dominican Republic, and I think it's part of the storytelling thing where I want to know a culture, or a community or a country or whatever you want to call it. You try to find ways to talk to the community. It’s not as easy as just going to document the Dominican Republic. You think, “What are some characteristics that I can see the Dominican Republic through?” and baseball is the most dominating thing. More than Catholicism and Christianity, it's like a religion and so if you are curious about a community and curious about a country or a culture, baseball is a lens to see that community.

I still have connections with the Atlanta Braves and I wanted to start with the local kids playing in the street. They play on every corner with basically bottle caps and broomsticks or just sugar cane. So I started there and ended up going to the Braves—every major league team has a Dominican academy and I spent some time at the Braves academy and throughout this process I met a top prospect named Raymel Flores who was a 16-year-old kid at the time and he was a shortstop and he was really good. I met his brother, who is a Braves player, but this kid comes from nothing. He comes from a super poor family. He and his mom and his brother lived in a very tiny shack in a very rural community and he was a top prospect, so I followed him for a couple days and hung out with him. Seeing the conditions—it's a whole side of baseball that's interesting—the 13- to 16-year-olds in the Dominican Republic, a lot of them join these programs which are basically training academies where they live with 20 or 30 other guys. And they live in old, abandoned houses, sometimes with no electricity. And they live on old, rotten mattresses with mosquito nets. And they train and play baseball all day and then they sign and sometimes they can get up to, you know, Raymel signed with the Red Sox and he got $900,000.

Why isn't there more money for the camps?
That's the next question. I don't know. I met the boss of the camp. He had five players sign out of last year. In July you can sign. One of them signed for $3 million. Well, I heard four and I heard two so I’m saying three. He signed for a few million dollars. And the boss gets, depending on his contract with that individual player, the boss of that program can get 30 percent, which, in the Dominican Republic, is a lot of money.

So Raymel Flores, you know, he made a lot of money. That day he bought his mom a new house and he has a car. So I went back recently and visited him and was able to go to the Red Sox camp and spend a day with him and then went to his mom's new house with him and his brothers. It’s interesting to see how life changes so fast and you just realize that baseball is more than just a sport there. Every boy plays. They all play and they all dream of making the big leagues. And the thing is a lot of them make the big leagues and they're some of the best players in the world. No country outside the U.S. produces more major league players than the Dominican Republic. They are really good.

So it’s not really like Hoop Dreams?
No. It can be really transformative. I would love to know the stats on drug use and violence because I would like to think, and I don't know, but I would like to think that these kids are so focused on playing baseball that they are not doing other stuff. I don't know that though and I'm not going to pretend like I know that. But I do see a huge portion of the male population really focused on playing baseball and making it to the big leagues.

So now that the thing is kind of transformed, I don't know where the project is going to go. I want to go back for the winter for the Caribbean series in February, which is a pretty big deal. You know, it's like the biggest baseball series in Latin America. And then I like the idea of following Raymel. Hopefully he makes it. You never know how far he makes it, but I think it would be cool for a book or maybe for some small publication, like a series of images of one kid's path to major league baseball. I think it tells a lot about the Dominican and about Latin culture. It’s a good way to know a good portion of the Dominican.

Have you thought about following someone who doesn't get signed?
Yeah, I have. I photographed a kid today who did not get signed and it would be interesting to see what's next for him. What are the options after baseball? He spent 10 years of his life training every day to get signed, and if you don't get signed, then what?

Do you shoot video when you are down there?
I've shot a little bit of video, especially this last trip. I would shoot more but it's a one-man operation. I would love to have someone join me and help with audio/video.

That was all self-funded?
Yes. I was in the Dominican for a magazine assignment and then I was there for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. It was a magazine assignment for the first trip and then this last trip I was there for the foundation and I just added on time before and after. It’s mostly self-funded. I’m a dirt bag so it's pretty cheap.

So you are thinking maybe a book or have you had anybody show interest in it ... or are you going to wait until you feel like you are finished?
I'm probably going to try to wait until I finish. There's no hurry, especially if I want to follow Raymel to the big leagues or through minor league baseball as far as he goes. Maybe a book. Maybe it expands and goes through Latin America. Maybe it goes just with this one kid. I’m not sure yet.

I'm not super concerned about it because I don't feel like it's finished. I feel like it has a really good start. I understand. I’m fully aware that it's not a really broad topic. It's not something that every magazine is dying to cover. Its not global climate change and its not politics or AIDS in Africa. Those are more important stories. I get that. But I do think it's an interesting story and if I can find the right publication, I'd love to have it published at some point.

What is your dream assignment?
Hard to say. It would be a long documentary or a photo story on … something important. To tell a story that's meaningful. That has some sort of significance, you know? I'm trying to do this story on pollution in the Puget Sound. I've been working on that today, tonight, this month. And is that the dream assignment? I don't know. If it has any sort of positive impact, yes.

Do you consider yourself a certain type of photographer?
I describe myself as a travel and documentary photographer. It’s a clean documentary. It’s not hardcore black and white war photography necessarily, but I am documenting something. And then travel. Travel is so wide. Travel can be portraits, interiors, food, landscapes, all that, so I do think I’m a travel and documentary photographer.

Do you carry a lot of gear when you travel?
Everyone has his or her own style and gear is really dependent on that style. Maybe I don't carry lights because I’m not as attracted to that style or maybe I just don't want to carry lights. I always do the best I can to fit in and keep up. If I’m spending a day with farmers in Peru, the last thing I want to worry about is a Pelican case with lights and a tripod and a stand and sandbag.

Gear is obviously important, but I really want to keep it from being a hindrance. Lately I’ve been carrying a shoulder bag with a few bodies, a few lenses, flash, accessories. If the subject is strong enough I don't need much gear. Just don't mess up the exposure and don't overthink it. I see too many photographers who constantly blog about their gear and the latest and greatest. To me that's just not interesting. Anyone can buy a fancy light or a special crane for a video but none of that makes up for bland images.

What other projects are in the works?
I had a couple days to photograph the Santorum campaign for Corbis and I stayed a couple days with the Amish community during the largest horse sale for the year. They are amazingly nice people but obviously very difficult to gain their trust to photograph. It's a current project. I've barely scratched the surface with it but I will revisit that one as well. It’s a good challenge for me to practice getting access. Access is not easy, and it's fun and they are really nice people and it's great once you get to know people and they let you into their house. Not just for pictures. It's a culture that I’m interested in and I just happen to be able to use photography to see it.

You got one job and then looked for something else?
I got a portrait shoot in Cleveland, so I flew to Ohio and I don't like to fly for just one picture. I like to try to find some other things to document. So I worked with Corbis to shoot the Santorum campaign for two days. And then I still wasn't quite satisfied with the trip, so I stayed for three more days and did the Amish project. I had one contact I had called and was at least able to have a contact to go say hi to and they said I could come and photograph them and their farming operation because they run a dairy farm. So I went and met up with the family and, of course, one thing leads to another and you are introduced to the community and you meet more and more people.

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