Maria Vassett has an extremely challenging day job. As a clinical service liaison for EMPACT-Suicide Prevention Center for the past year and a half, the 46-year-old Tempe resident works with more than 25 families at a time as the contact between the families and agencies such as Child Protective Services and Division of Developmental Disabilities, and schools and other agencies involved with the team. In her free time, though, Vassett is able to get her creative juices flowing, as a photographer for everything from concerts to boudoir shots, having shot for everyone from Phoenix New Times and The Arizona Republic to US Airways and Jose Cuervo — including more than 300 concerts. Vassett, a veteran in the local music industry, also has managed bands and helped open Clubhouse Music Venue, among other exploits, and is now part of Pita Jungle‘s rotating photography series. She talked about her passions for helping people and capturing precious moments, and keep reading to hear five reasons why she loves living in the Valley.
What brought you to Arizona?
My parents brought me here when I was 2. I was born right outside of San Francisco in Walnut Creek. I went to Pueblo and Mohave for elementary school and Saguaro High School in Scottsdale. I graduated from ASU with a degree in Sociology and a minor in Criminal Justice.
What made you interested in social work?
I’ve always liked to help people. For some people, it’s hard to make it through the day, and that’s rough. Some people just don’t have the support that others do, and that’s always bothered me. The ability to help children that need a voice so they can be heard means everything to me. They are more than their behavior or their age. They’re smart, and they have a lot to say. As humans, we tend to judge, and I know growing up I didn’t care for people judging me — I still don’t. It’s important for people to feel good — our mind is the most important thing; all of our emotions and decisions come from there. If I can help a family feel better or get on their feet, then I’m doing my job.
What do you think are the biggest challenges youth face today?
Kids are brilliant. They’ve been given so many different tools to access information, to become educated in more than just a classroom setting. They can see the world up close in real time and develop relationships with people in different countries just by using the Internet. Social media has opened so many doors, but I see so many kids hiding behind a computer or a smartphone instead of having physical, social interactions. It can really make a conversation feel disconnected when talking with a kiddo who can’t participate in a conversation for more than a minute or two because she’s so anxious for the next text to come in. I know people say, “They’re just teens. That’s what they do.” This, to me, is the real challenge: being present with the person you’re with. And what’s happening in the home reflects on our children learning in school, their social skills and their behavior.
What should people know that you’ve learned in your job?
Foster and adoptive parents for older kiddos are really needed. Even if you can only give time as a mentor, you will change someone’s life, for life. Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Arizona is an amazing organization. The wait list for a child to have a Big Brother or Big Sister can be up to 3 years since there aren’t enough mentors.
What’s your first memory of being interested in photography?
When I was a kid, my dad gave me a Kodak camera – a Kodak Pocket Instamatic. I loved it. I always ask myself why I didn’t take more photos when I was managing bands. I wish I would have really spent more time on it. I loved taking pictures of bands and capturing that perfect moment.
When did you start taking photos professionally?
I started by accident 2-and-a-half years ago when I worked at The Arizona Republic. The music editor had forgotten to assign a photographer for Old Crow Medicine Show and Chuck Mead, and I jokingly volunteered to do it. Lucky for me, I sat next to the photo editor who said he’d go with me. When we got to the Marquee Theatre, he lent me a Canon 20D camera with a 70-200 f/2.8 lens and then gave me a 15-minute lesson on how to shoot a concert. I still have no idea what he actually told me, since at the time I had no clue what he was talking about. When I got down in the pit, I was terrified, but comfortable. I was so grateful for knowing what to look for, due to my experience with bands. I just allowed myself to do what felt right, and in the end, the photos looked awesome. I remember falling in love as I was shooting and thinking, “This is what I’m supposed to be doing.” I’ve been shooting concerts ever since.
How did you first get involved in the music scene?
About 15 years ago, I started managing a band called Skinny Jim, which included booking shows and writing newsletters. Not long after, other bands — Yoko Love, Tolerance, Jesus Christ Supercar, and Greeley Estates — started approaching me for management. I was able to get Yoko Love signed to Epiphany! Recordings, which was also owned by Zia Records/Impact owner Brad Singer. A few months later, he asked me to run the record label, so I did. When Brad passed away, the label folded, so I was given the opportunity to learn how the distribution center ran, how the stores worked, how the day-to-day operations ran. I became the Marketing and Promotions Director for the company. When Zia was sold, I moved on to open the Clubhouse Music Venue and then moved to Nita’s Hideaway as their talent buyer. Now I’m able to photograph some of those bands I used to book before they moved on to a bigger venue with a bigger fan base. It’s so strange how things work out.
What’s the concert photography scene like here in the Valley?
There’s nothing like the support of other photographers, no matter what they love to shoot. The photographers in the concert community are very tight-knit. You’re always shooting with the same people, and you know who’s shooting for what publication or media. You know who is pro and who isn’t, who to trust and who’s going to try to take your job. I’ve shot numerous times with Randy Johnson from the Arizona Diamondbacks, and I always enjoy answering his questions, such as what ISO and shutter speed my camera is set on. Maybe one day I’ll tell him the truth, and his pictures will look better. Just kidding. He’s actually pretty good and has been really cool to me.
Tell me about your favorite camera you use.
My love is a Canon 20D that’s probably now 8 or 9 years old. It’s the only camera body I own. My favorite lenses are the only two I own — one is a 24-70 f/2.8, and the other is a 300 f/4 long lens. I’d love to have a new 70-200 f/2.8 or 50mm f/1.8, but I’m working on buying another camera body. I love my 20D. It’s attached to me. It’s sturdy and camera-hardcore. I can pick it up and know exactly what I need to do and how it’s going to react in certain situations. I hate to say that soon it’s going to be time for an upgrade, but I haven’t had the heart to have the talk with the 20D yet, so I’m going to wait a bit longer.
What has been the most challenging concert you’ve shot?
There are always challenges, but one of my favorite nightmares is A Perfect Circle. I put myself into that panic not once, but twice. Both times, the lighting was so dark that the band’s set lists were written on yellow glow-in-the-dark tape. I remember all the photographers laughing and saying, “Really?” But the challenge is to make it work. A lot of people don’t know that concert photographers are never allowed to use flash when shooting a show. Not only does flash affect the band/artist, it will blow out other photographer’s photos, so you have to know how to use your camera. Another challenge is that when shooting bigger shows, we’re only allowed to shoot one to three of the first songs of the concert — that’s only 3 -15 minutes of shooting. It just depends on the artist — Elton John was only the first song; Pink, the first two songs; and KISS was three. There are times when we’re only allowed to shoot from the back of the arena at the soundboard. When this happens, I have to figure out a way to shoot through all the people standing in front of me with all the cell phones in the air. I’m not elevated, so I shoot at the same level as everyone standing. And there are times when we are only allowed to shoot from a small area, or we have to pick a side of the stage to shoot from, and that’s that — no moving, that’s your side. So, if you pick the wrong side, you might be in trouble. And with all that, my job is then to produce a full slideshow of excellent photos for whoever hired me.
What advice would you have for concert photographers?
Have a love affair with the artist. This is something that is impossible to do when shooting from the back of the arena, but when I shoot from the pit, there’s always one band member I connect with, be it the lead singer or the bass player. I don’t know who it will be or how it happens, but it just does. It’s the most amazing feeling when you can truly connect and capture someone in those few moments, and it shows in your photos. Those moments are so real to me that every time I go back to look at them, I can feel it all over again. I swear Paul Stanley and I were the only two people at that show.
On the technical side, watch the artist and make sure not to shoot when the mike is in his or her face. This can be challenging, since some artists/lead singers never move the mike away from their faces, such as Bret Michaels and Snoop Dogg. Also, don’t shoot 500 photos – you have to wait for your shot, for that moment. Challenge yourself. Nobody wants to edit 500 photos of the same band, so breathe, and wait for it.
What’s your favorite concert you’ve ever shot?
That’s so hard since I love music and always find myself thrilled that I have the opportunity to photograph the band or artist through my eyes. But RUSH at US Airways Center recently knocked me out, because Rush was the first concert I ever saw when I was a kid. We photographers had to stand in one area, which was in front of Geddy Lee. I smiled and cried the whole time I was shooting. How could I have ever known, back when I was in 8th grade, that one day I’d be one of the few people in this world to have such an amazing opportunity to photograph one of my favorite bands. I felt like it was such a strange full circle. I put my camera down to watch a few times, which I hardly ever do because of time constraints. But Geddy saw me, and at the end of the song, he smiled and gave me a little bow. I’ll never forget it. Shooting the Foo Fighters wasn’t too horrible, either.
How would you characterize your photography?
My photography is an extension of who I am, showing you my insecurities, my passions and the deep, gut-wrenching feelings that keep me up late at night. I want you to like what you see as much as I desperately want you to like me, even though at times I’ll say different. I want you to feel something comforting and honest in my photos, or when you’re in front of my camera. I want you to hang out and feel the need to come back around again.
I want you to have an experience. I want you to feel comfortable, sexy, vulnerable, and powerful. I want to capture those natural moments of your true self and not push. So, if that means we’re just hanging out talking, I might not start shooting for awhile. I don’t heavily manipulate what I shoot – yes, I have to edit, but I try to stay as true to the photo as possible. I won’t edit your body or your wrinkles in Photoshop. You’ll have to find another photographer who does that.
What are some basic photography tips for the everyday photographer?
Challenge yourself. Breathe, and don’t rush it. Just let it come to you. You have to do what your creative side tells you to do. The best times to shoot are in the early morning with the sun coming up or when the sun is going down. Experiment with the lighting — lighting is awesome.
Who’s your favorite photographer?
What’s your favorite photo you’ve taken?
I have a photo of my parents that’s my favorite photo of all-time. We’re at my sister’s graduation at Rula Bula in the back celebrating, and my dad had just eaten something and is smirking at me, and my mom is trying to put cheese on a cracker while making a funny face. They hate the photo, but it’s my perfect capture of them.
What’s your favorite type of photo to shoot?
Concert photography. There’s something compelling about being under that time pressure, the excitement and the confidence needed to get the best shots in that short amount of time – that’s something I really dig. I love it.
What do you think is the most common mistake people make when taking photos?
Taking too many photos — and not knowing their camera.
As someone who’s getting their picture taken, how can you make yourself look more flattering in a photo?
Wear clothes that fit your body, and try to avoid wearing patterns. Try to be natural. You are who you are. That’s where you’ll have to trust the photographer to capture the best you.
Why should women do a boudoir photo shoot?
I think it’s one of the most empowering things you can do for yourself. Doing a boudoir shoot is sexy because you allow yourself to be uninhibited and vulnerable. You don’t have to take them for anybody but yourself. I strongly suggest the experience at least one time for every woman. Any type of photo shoot should be a positive experience, but there’s nothing like a boudoir shoot. For me, it’s an honor when someone asks me to photograph her since it’s so personal.
For people who would like to be freelance photographers themselves, what advice would you have for them?
Know your niche. Know the people in your community that are good at it, and ask questions. Put yourself out there to people who can help you. It’s tough right now, but if you have the passion, you’ll succeed.
For people just getting started in photography, is there a good starter camera you’d recommend?
A Canon EOS Rebel T3i is awesome to start with. It’s a great camera, and it has video.