Itʼs been a long road to recovery for Michael Rubenstein who, just over three months ago, was t-boned by an SUV while riding his motorcycle in rural Maryland. While his life was spared the accident still left him with a collapsed lung, 8 broken ribs, a broken ankle, broken nose and a shattered shoulder. Last week, while still working through injuries, I was grateful for the chance to accompany Michael on his first shoot back getting in the swing of day to day life…ironically making pictures of a custom motorcycle built by master fabricator Walt Siegl.
Rubenstein hadnʼt always been a photographer. His life prior to photography involved organizing work for environmental NGOʼs including Rainforest Action Network and Greenpeace, work that he attributes to shaping his vision as a photographer. When asked about how his early experiences as a child running around with a camera shaped him, Rubenstein replied, “They donʼt…I think that [environmental work] more than anything shaped who I am as a photographer. Iʼve always been interested in stories about the underdog or the oppressed. Things like that come from my activist career.”
Rubenstein continued to refine his work, “I worked harder, I looked at other peopleʼs work, I thought a little bit more about what I was doing. It was really just practice and some really nice people that helped me out along the way.” Michael recalled Stephen Voss and Mike Davis as especially memorable figures in his development as a photographer. Still the path towards becoming a pro would continue to prove wrought with potholes. After applying to and being rejected from seven MFA programs, one of which actually wrote back requesting that he not apply again, he found a home at Ohio Universityʼs School of Visual Communication. After an internship fell through at the end of his first year at Ohio, Rubenstein credits Bruce Strong in connecting him with director of photography at The Oregonian, Patty Reksten, who hired him on as a contractor to fill in for some others who had left for the summer.
It was another motorcycle accident that played a fateful role in Rubensteinʼs career. This time, however, it was Oregonian photojournalist Fred Joeʼs, which allowed Michael to stay on with the staff for several more months during Joeʼs recovery. The practice served him well and with some help from Mike Davis he came back east for a series of meetings in New York. One such meeting with Marcel Saba eventually led to representation by Redux and a three year stay in Mumbai covering South Asia for the agency. Now back in Brooklyn, New York Rubenstein is represented by Jennifer Hutz and focuses more on commercial work, leaving documentary projects for his personal endeavors. “For work Iʼm more interested in the advertising and commercial” Michael told me, “itʼs more collaborative, more money and itʼs a lot of fun…and I think in a lot of ways my work is more suited towards it.”
Solid business practices have been critical to Rubensteinʼs success as a professional, especially in an environment as competitive as New York. While heʼs always had an agent to help in the day to day business of finding work and getting paid he still has plenty to look out for on his own. Especially when faced with his recent accident that laid him up for three months. “I have a savings. I mean Iʼm 36 years old…at some point Iʼd like to retire so I save money…no oneʼs giving me a pension plan.” When asked about the future of our industry he didnʼt miss a beat, replying, “Whatever, thatʼs a silly question. Everyone freaks out about it. If youʼre good at what you do and you have the right business contacts then youʼll get work. If the business changes, change with it. If not, then do something else…I think itʼs absurd to think a business isnʼt going to change, things always change, business is never stable or stagnant…so figure it out.”
Itʼs been a long road for Michael to get where he is today and, especially given his most recent obstacle on it, itʼs not surprising that the best advice he could pass on is to never relent on your work ethic. “Thereʼs always going to be hard times and you just have to work through them if this is what you want to do.” Rubenstein also noted the importance of assisting and interning with those that have been in the business for a long time, and to find a mentor to help and look out for you.
And as far as another motorcycle goes? He bought a watch instead, so that every time he looks at it he can be reminded that heʼs living on time he probably shouldn’t have.
Born in Philadelphia and raised all over these United States Alex Federowicz currently resides in Columbus, Ohio while pursuing graduate studies in photojournalism at Ohio University. Never taking a moment of his time on this planet for granted, he covets his camera as a vehicle to understanding the subtleties and nuances of our human experience. Engaging the world in such an intimate discourse as photography is how Alex wishes to create a visual narrative that challenges our generation’s perceptions of ourselves, will hold us responsible for our future and references where we came from to get here. In the meantime, however, he enjoys Irish whiskey, the smell of the ocean, his Kindle and the company of his fiance, Cassie, and their two small cats, Orson and Charlie.