Meet the Fellow: Erika Schultz

When Erika Schultz was a child, she remembers how she felt one of the first times she had her photograph taken. The combination of excitement and nervousness is something she thinks about every time she shoots a portrait. The feeling crossed my mind too, when on a recent Friday night, The Seattle Times staff photographer took my photo.

Seattle Times photographer Erika Schultz photographs federal police officers near a border fence on the outskirts of Tijuana.

Socially, Erika is remarkably thoughtful and polite. Behind the camera, she’s commanding – in a state of professional and creative flow.

“One baby step left for me,” she says, eyes narrowing. Looking through me rather than at me, she’s focused on something beyond what I and passersby can see.

Schultz grew up in central Wyoming, and as a teenager, was eager to get out of the state. So her father drew a circle around her hometown. Inside, were all the places he could get to in a day’s drive. Everything outside, would be too far from home. Schultz chose to go west. While a university in Flagstaff, Arizona, was just outside of the circle, with her mother’s support, she was able to convince him to let her go.

In Arizona, Schultz worked at her school’s newspaper full-time in exchange for a partial scholarship. A photojournalism professor opened her up to new ideas. During this time she shot a photo series about the lives of Arizona senior citizens. This brought her to senior beauty pageants, spending multiple days and nights with a Navajo elder and sheep herder and crossing the border with elderly men and women who crossed the U.S.-Mexico border to buy prescription medication. She also spent time with the iconic southwest adventurer and environmentalist, Katie Lee, who at the time was still rafting down the Colorado River in her 80s. That idea she pitched to the Alexia Foundation – a nonprofit that offers grants to students and professional journalists – which gave her funding to study in London, and eventually got her foot in the door at one of the most reputable newspapers of the Pacific Northwest: The Seattle Times.

Twelve years later, Schultz is a staff photojournalist with the Times. In recent years, Seattle as a city has to come to face some of its biggest challenges: income inequality, rising housing costs, homelessness and gentrification. Covering these stories in a way that’s authentic, but also compassionate and empathetic, has proved challenging for Schultz and her colleagues.

“The challenge is being real about the [hardships] people face, but also doing it with dignity,” Schultz says. “So that they feel proud of the image, and that it’s fair. I want the images to be real, but I also want the images to reflect who they are and make sure that it’s done with a sense of agency – their agency.”

One of her recent projects aimed to document the lives of Seattle residents living unsheltered. At the time, The Seattle Times was covering homelessness and rising inequality from a newsgathering perspective. Schultz was part of a team that had the idea to create a collaborative journal with community members who were living in encampments south of the city.

“We had the idea to create a journal that would give community members who were living outside an opportunity to write about their challenges, their hopes, their lives and what they want the community to know about them,” she says.

After each person worked on their journal entry, Schultz asked them how they would like to be photographed and where.

“Some would say I trust you, do what you think would be nice,” she says.

Others had their own vision. The experience taught Schultz to ask questions about how someone feels comfortable being seen.

“One man wanted to smile, but he didn’t want to show a missing tooth,” Schultz says.

With this project, and with others, Schultz says visual storytelling requires collaborating with the person whose image she is capturing, so that they feel it accurately represents who they are and their experience.

“I think there’s a misconception that you show up and take pictures,” Schultz says. “Often with visual projects, the majority of the work – a big part of the work – is creating the framework for participation; helping a community member understand what it means being a part of the story.”

“Sometimes the most important work is the work you do before and after you take the photo or shoot the video. This is rooted in collaboration,” says Schultz, who strays from using the word “subject” when referring to the communities she photographs.

“They are the experts and often I’m the one that’s learning,” she says.

Collaboration also fuels Schultz’ dynamic with her colleagues at the Seattle Times, where she says she is surrounded by strong women in the newspaper’s photo and video department. She also teaches visual journalism at the University of Washington, where she learns from her students who bring new methods into the classroom.

“We need journalism to help people understand the world,” Schultz says. “Photos give a broader understanding of the world you live in – of what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes for a while.”

Alex Hall, 2019 U.S.-Mexico Border Fellow