When we asked Chris and Sarah Rhoads — the husband-and-wife creative duo also known as We Are The Rhoads — whether a photograph can capture someone’s soul, they didn’t hesitate before answering yes. “I don’t think it’s taking in the form of removal,” Sarah told us. “It’s drawing it out, illuminating some inner spirit, some inner soul.”
In a way, that’s what We Are The Rhoads is all about: creating honest, spontaneous moments that flicker with soul. You can see it in their work, and you can hear it in their voices when they talk about their work. They are passionate about photography, creativity, and — to be honest — each other.
We recently chatted with Chris and Sarah about how they got started, whether or not they want to be famous (spoiler: nope), and the best piece of advice they’ve gotten so far. Oh, and Anime.
Here’s We Are The Rhoads.
When did you guys first start taking pictures?
SR: I first picked up the camera when I was 14. My dad had passed away in a plane accident, and photos became very important to me. I didn’t think I would end up being a professional photographer or anything. I just loved taking pictures of all my friends. I was fascinated by film and tried to learn anything I could about it. But really, I thought I would end up becoming a writer. I went to school to pursue journalism. It wasn’t until I went on a trip to West Africa and brought my camera along that I realized photography was what I loved to do. Photography was the thing that made me come alive. I think I had misdirected my love for storytelling toward writing, when really the most powerful medium for me was visual. I was probably like a sophomore in college when I decided, Okay, I’m going to give myself over to this. College, by the way, is where I met Chris.
CR: I’ve always been into some kind of creative endeavor. My first love was music. I was an upright bass player and an electric bass player, and I did a lot of studio work for different record labels. I had the opportunity to travel all over the world at a young age, playing music. And I always had a camera with me. I thought everyone carried a camera. I thought the mailman carried a camera. When Sarah got back from Africa, we realized we had this common interesting and overlapping passion for telling stories through photography and film.
SR: And also different strengths and weaknesses.
CR: I’m a little more cerebral and technical. Sarah shoots with feeling. It creates this interesting balance that I think has elevated our work.
I always had a camera with me. I thought everyone carried a camera. I thought the mailman carried a camera.
Did you guys go to art school or anything like that?
SR: Our art school was the school of hard knocks and learning as you go. [Laughs]
CR: Sarah has a degree in journalism, and I have a degree in philosophy, which isn’t super beneficial on the technical or art side of things. But actually, I think not having a formal education has been an advantage. It made us hustle. There was a lot of trial and error. We just tried to break things down and reassemble them in a way that made sense to us. Through that process we started to learn. We joke that it’s like pushing a boulder. You have to get a little momentum and continue to push and push and push.
SR: So much of it is about self-motivation. That’s what I tell our interns who are in art or photography school. The biggest thing about doing this type of work is knowing that it is 100 percent self-motivated. As a freelancer, you have to make your own reality. What do you want to be shooting? Get out there and try it. If there’s a technique you want to learn, you have to force yourself to go learn it even though nobody is paying you to learn it.
What’s the last thing you guys learned about photography?
CR: This is going to be super nerdy, but right now I’ve been into studying the nuances of the different silk we use to diffuse our lights. There’s just such a specific light quality that comes from quarter silent grid or old China silk.
SR: He can get really geeky on it.
CR: It’s true.
SR: But it really does change things. It feels good to be at a place where you can discern those nuances. In the beginning you have so much to learn, it can be overwhelming. But you learn more and more, and you start accessing the nuances of things. That’s when it gets really fun. You can start to define your vision.
CR: So much of the way we light is making things feel natural and believable, as if they weren’t lit at all. I think the greatest compliment we get from people is when they assume something has been shot with ambient light, which is almost never the case. But a lot of that comes down to these really minute things that make these massive differences. So that’s been my recent obsession.
So much of the way we light is making things feel natural and believable, as if they weren’t lit at all.
SR: For me, I’ve been immersed in amazing film directors recently. I’ve been rewatching Ingmar Bergman’s work. Fellini’s work. I think stills and films inform one another in important ways. There is a lot of wisdom that one can gain from the other. Also, and this is going to sound really nerdy, but we’ve been watching some amazing anime recently. This is so nerdy. I can’t even believe I’m saying this.
CR: I can’t believe you’re saying this.
SR: Chris showed me Akira recently, and the artistry in that… I mean, every frame is so inspiring. I’m just dumbfounded by the time and vision that goes into it. We can learn so much from it. You can learn something from anyone working in the visual medium.
Do you see ways that stuff translates directly into your work, or does it all sort of go into a compost pile and you see what grows out of it?
SR: I’m a big believer in digesting a lot of things: things that are interesting and challenging; things you like, things you don’t like. Because you never know when you’re going to pull from them. I have no idea how this anime stuff has any relevance to our work at all, but I can still appreciate it.
CR: I completely agree. So much of it is just digesting what you love. It will find ways of manifesting itself in your work. For example, we recently read the book Dune, an old classic sci-fi book. A few days ago we were doing an editorial shoot, and we realized that one of the outfits was exactly like what one of the characters from that book wore.
Do you guys prefer the way the world really looks or the way it looks in photographs?
CR: Man, good question.
SR: I think what’s great about a photograph is that it’s open to interpretation. That’s what’s so interesting about photography. Even if it’s a documentary photograph, it’s open to the viewer’s interpretation; and someone can take it to mean a myriad of different things. So it’s hard for me to say whether I like film or real life better, because I like them both and they inform each other so much.
CR: I like this question because it verges on the philosophical. I’d say that what I love about photography — or even reading and writing — is the ability to convey emotion. Obviously there’s emotion in real life too, but a great photographer or director can capture the essence of an emotion. That’s what we’re always striving for.
There are some cultures that believe a photograph captures part of your soul. Do you think that’s true?
SR: I think a photograph absolutely captures part of a person’s soul. A good photographer is able to tap into that. I don’t think it’s taking in the form of removal. It’s drawing it out, illuminating some inner spirit, some inner soul. That’s what a good photographer can do.
CR: I think if anything, it’s a giving back in a strange way. There’s definitely an exchange that’s happening. The photographer or director is pouring into the talent and then eliciting a response. It’s cyclical.
Would you rather take pictures of famous people or be famous people?
SR: Take pictures.
CR: Take pictures. Easy.
SR: Easiest question of the day. [Laughs]
CR: Sometimes we have the privilege of photographing celebrities, people of interest. The ones who fascinate me the most are the ones who are doing something they love, and fame is the unfortunate by-product of them being really good at their jobs.
SR: I feel very fortunate to be able to capture people of interest and not be a person of interest.
Last question: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve gotten so far?
SR: I think the most important thing is that there’s no magic formula. The magic formula is work. You never “arrive” in the creative world. You’re always evolving. So you have to be willing to be uncomfortable. Most of our career has been somewhat uncomfortable. But it’s a good kind of discomfort. It’s like when you push yourself to run a little further than you’ve ever run before. It’s uncomfortable but elating at the same time.
CR: For me, this sounds cheesy, but it’s been to remember that everyone compares their behind-the-scenes to everyone else’s highlight reels. Reminding yourself that you have to continue to grind and grow and not compare yourself to others. It’s about being constantly dissatisfied because you’ll never have this figured out. If you ever feel like you’ve figured it out, you’re moving in the wrong direction. I have to remind myself of that all the time. I’ve been told so many times, “There’s no right way to do things,” but it takes a lot of personal growth to really believe that and recognize, Hey, the only way to do this is by figuring out my way of doing it.
We Are The Rhoads have definitely figured out their own way of doing things, and it’s working out pretty well. Check out their photographs to see their soul-capturing powers in action, and keep an eye out for what’s next from these two.