Q&A with Kōan Collective Member Alex Potter

Alex PotterAlex Potter (b. 1989) is a photographer from the Midwest living in the Middle East. She is currently based in Yemen. She began her career in Minnesota, the land of 10,000 lakes. After growing restless with her nursing job, Alex picked up to document post-revolution Yemen, a land with zero lakes, but plenty of mountains to climb. In 2012, she was selected as a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar, and moved to Lebanon. Though she didn’t study photography, Alex has attended the NYTimes Lens Review, Eddie Adams Workshop, and a VII Masterclass, which were much more beneficial than your average classroom. Since 2012 she has been chosen for the Chris Hondros Student Fellowship, Lucie Foundation Emerging Scholarship Commended (2012, 2013, 2014), PDN Photo Annual, American Photography (29,30) , and the LOOKbetween Fellowship, among others. She speaks English, Arabic, and Spanish.

Kōan is the collaboration of five young journalists (Alex Potter, Allison Joyce, Amanda Mustard, Cooper Neill, and Nicolas Tanner) exploring both new and traditional means of communication and creating unique narratives – through text, photography and the moving image – that present distinct ways of seeing and understanding the world.

How did Koan Collective come together?

I was living in and working in Yemen when Nicolas Tanner, an old friend from my first days of learning about photography contacted me. He asked what I thought about making a collective. I thought about it – but only for a minute. Living away from the main editorial bases and covering a country alone can be great – you have the freedom to shoot what you’d like, and operate independently. But I had been seeking more structure recently, especially in the form of peer mentors and support.

It’s also easy to get discouraged in a place such as Yemen where things don’t always work out the way they’re planned. All of us live quite far from the traditional bases for photojournalists – New York, London, Paris, etc. Two of us, Allison Joyce and myself, are some of the only non-local photographers based in the country. All of us have attended some sort of photo event like the Eddie Adams Workshop (Nic, Cooper, and Amanda were in the same group), NY Times Reviews, LOOKbetween, and felt the kind of community we encountered there is invaluable – a constant encouragement, a little push, a hard critique – something that we wanted in our lives.

Alex Potter

Photo by Alex Potter

Alex Potter

Photo by Alex Potter

What’s a Koan?

A koan is an anecdote or question that provokes a deeper understanding of the world. That is what we’re trying to do with our photography. Challenging people to look at a place or issue differently, beyond what their preconceived notions are, and hopefully shedding some light on themselves along the way.

What beliefs do Koan members share?

We are united in belief that stories are powerful – to challenge ideas, to shed light on issues, and to cultivate empathy through knowledge. With Koan Collective, as with the original story-based koans, our end goal is to help others see something in a different light, whether their story is halfway across the world or in their own backyard.

Allison Joyce

Photo by Allison Joyce

Allison Joyce

Photo by Allison Joyce

What’s the advantage of being part of a collective?

While all of us are in very different places geographically, and shooting very different things subject wise, we are all young and driven. I was interested in the idea of collaboration in particular, as well as future workshops and education based initiatives. When it comes to creating a reaching impact, working with a group has so many benefits. Living far from the traditional bases of photojournalism can be very difficult. Working daily without the support of editors and colleagues is possible, but leaves little to be desired for growth and development for freelance photographers. While I know any of my photo friends would welcome seeing work and are all encouraging, a formal collective with structure is something that I thought would really push me – and all of us – to the next level.

Amanda Mustard

Photo by Amanda Mustard

Amanda Mustard

Photo by Amanda Mustard

Where is everyone based?

Allison Joyce is based in Bangladesh covering South Asia, Amanda Mustard is based in Egypt right now but relocating to Bangkok soon. Cooper Neill is in Texas, Nicolas Tanner is in Massachusetts, and I’m based in Yemen.

Are the members working on any interesting projects right now?

Allison is taking on some tough stories about child marriage and mental health in Bangladesh, and Amanda is working on a long-term personal project about the generational effects of child sex abuse in the US. Nic is beginning a piece addressing masculinity in America, and developing some projects to work on in Central America. Cooper is working on a range of things, from unicycle football to a longer piece on investigating the US prison system. I’m continuing work in Yemen on the shifting political climate, and am in the new stages of a piece on youth in post-conflict Somalia.

Cooper Neill

Photo by Cooper Neill

Cooper Neill

Photo by Cooper Neill

What’s next for the collective?

We just launched, so at this point we’re focusing on promoting the collective. In the future we’re hoping to move into workshops, group projects, and public speaking. In addition to supporting each other, we’re all very interested in ways to give back to the community as photojournalists.

Nic Tanner

Photo by Nicolas Tanner

Nic Tanner

Photo by Nicolas Tanner

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