JENELLE BICKEL – A Conversation

by: Andrew Morris

Jenelle Bickel is from Warsaw, Indiana. In sunny weather, you can spot her because of the Norman Rockwell painting “The Runaway” tattooed onto her arm. But there is another aspect of Bickel’s style that is just as permanent as her tattoos – her camera. It’s always with her, either around her neck or in her hand. I’m not exaggerating here. It has probably been a solid three years since I’ve seen her without her camera. In fact, the last time I was with her, five of us were sitting around at a house north of Wal-Mart in Warsaw and we were discussing topics from politics to art and sex to culture. Every few minutes we heard a click as Bickel took a photo. Jenelle practices her craft with meticulous frequency.

I had gotten a hold of Jenelle several months ago, wanting to do a story on her for General Thad. I decided that an interview would be an appropriate avenue for discussing her work, so we had talked over the phone and I recorded the whole conversation, hoping to upload it on here. But as I sit here going back over our recorded conversation, I see that our discussion was so long and in depth that I doubt the General Thad readers will have the patience to listen to all 25 minutes of the recording. Also, the recording itself is pretty crappy. And it was the first live interview I’ve ever done. As a result, I’ve decided to pull out the highlights from the conversation and transcribe them in written form. If any reader has huge objections, let me know in the comment section and I might post the audio.

Bickel is currently studying Photojournalism at Ball State University, where she has shot for magazines, musicians and private events. She recently finished an Internship with Ireland’s notable music magazine Hot Press in Dublin, Ireland and is an alumni of the non-accredited and non-existent Sincroft School of Photojournalism in Warsaw, Indiana.

General Thad: It seems like a lot of your work is focused around music. When and why did you start photographing music?

Jenelle Bickel: In High School I was in the music scene. My friends were in bands that played in the venues around town [Warsaw, IN]. So when I got my first camera, I was using the cameras from [the WCHS] Journalism Department, I would use those and take them to shows. I would go up to the front and take pictures; I found it really fun. When I decided to do photojournalism I started thinking differently, so I got involved with the student newspaper and the yearbook. I started going to sporting events and theater events and everything else, so I wanted to go across the board to see what it was like to be a Photojournalist.

GT: Did the bands you photographed like that you took their pictures? 

JB: Absolutely. I’d go to shows all around Indiana and people loved getting the attention. Everyone enjoyed the atmosphere and documenting fun shows that you can look back on and be like, “oh ya! My sophomore year in high school, we were in this band. We were really shitty, but there’s photographic evidence of it!”

GT: And what sort of bands did you see? Where did you go to the shows?

JB: My best friend at the time, her boyfriend was in the band AXP, so I would go to a lot of hardcore shows, especially in Elkhart at The Post. It kind of was a blur. I saw so many bands. It wasn’t something I really kept track of… But it was definitely in the hardcore scene. I got to see The Devil Wears Prada and other bands I never thought I’d see at such a small venue in Elkhart.

GT: What did photography bring to these shows? Were you out there to portray something or document the youth culture or back then was it just about taking pictures and having fun?

JB: I think it was definitely about fun, but it was also about me coming into my photography. I got into photography late, because in high school I was a floater and didn’t know what I wanted to do. But then in my journalism class, my teacher Mr. Sincroft lent me a book called Shutterbabe and it was about a war photographer and I fell in love. Now, I know it was war photography not music photography, but it was still amazing to see how passionate somebody was about what they were doing with their life. So I decided to try that out… So when I would go to shows I was trying to find my niche. I took my camera with me just to experiment. I’d think “well this photo looks stupid” so I’d try it different the next time. Back then it was a trial and error period for me.

GT: Let’s look at two pictures we have on the blog. One is of Tiara Thomas, an Indianapolis native who was recently in a music video with the band Wale (pronounced “Wall-A”). When we juxtapose this music press shot with the coke-ad photo, a question arises. What are you, as a photographer, doing differently in each picture?

Tiara Thomas

Brittany Hearth

JB: With the coke shoot, a friend approached me to do a photo-shoot for her website, which had a vintage coke ad section. We brainstormed together and planned a lot out. We had hair, make-up and a studio for that photo shoot. The Tiara Thomas photo on the other hand was for a profile piece for Ball State’s student run magazine Ball Bearings. Thomas came to the interview really distraught and she didn’t let us do anything until we listened to Elton John. So we were just kind of sitting there… So the photos I got of Thomas were after listening to Elton John, so she was being calmer with the guitar.

GT: This next picture is of Janelle Monáe. Wow! Talk about somebody really big. Was that exciting?

Janelle Monáe

JB: It was phenomenal. That was taken this past summer when I interned at Hot Press Magazine in Ireland. That wasn’t even the biggest name I got to shoot. My first assignment was Johnny Rotten. And I saw Blondie… Monáe’s whole show was very fun and energetic. They had a ringmaster come out at the beginning.

GT: You really capture that energy in the photo. How long does it take to get that shot?

JB: It was a different experience for me because I’m used to going to shows where I can stand up front as long as want. Almost every show I shot in Ireland was at a venue where you were only allowed to take pictures of the first two or three songs. Then after that they kicked you out, because you had photography equipment. And that’s that… When you go to a show and you haven’t seen a performer before, you don’t know where they’ll be or what they’ll be like. But when I got to Janelle Monáe’s show, I knew I wanted a picture where you could see that she was singing her heart out.

GT: Moving on to this last picture, what is the story behind that?


Harpist on Grafton Street, Dublin, Ireland


JB: Well the story… This past summer in Ireland, this was in the first week I was there. It was right in the middle of the city center of Dublin, right on Grafton Street. This street is just lined with performers of all kinds… It’s a very big tourist attraction and basically the biggest shopping part of Dublin. We were just down there walking around and she caught my eye. The harpist, she was the first performer we saw before we got onto Grafton Street. She was on the very edge. At first, she wasn’t looking at anyone, just playing her music. And the photo that I got, she had just realized that I was taking photos of her. And when she looked up, I just clicked the shutter… You could tell she was interested in seeing who was watching her and who was enjoying her music. It was more of walk-by experience that created such a powerful photo.

GT: That’s incredible because it seems like the photo is so well constructed. Her hair color matches her harp, she’s looking right into the camera and she’s a little left of center, but still the center of focus. She’s out in public, but it feels like you’re the only one there. It seems like a really well crafted photo and it’s interesting that it just happened to come out in such an opportune way. Does that happen often?

JB: I definitely take into consideration composition and lighting and all that stuff is always going through my mind when I’m taking a photo. But when I’m in a situation like that I guess it is kind of lucky. And photographers are lucky if they get the shot. You can’t plan everything that is going to happen in a photograph. Once you click that shutter and look at the photo, it could be completely different from what you saw through the viewfinder… It’s some skill, but with some of those photos it just so happens that everything is perfect at the right time… And it happens. And I think that’s great.

GT: In photos like these or others is there a particular message you’re trying to get across? Or is it more about documentation? I mean what are you trying to do with your photography? 

JB: Well it’s changed a lot. When I first got to college I thought, “I’m going to work for the newspaper. I’m going to be a sports photographer.” But after getting through freshman year, I hated sports photography… So I changed to Ball Bearings and I liked it so much. They do a lot of human-interest pieces, so you have a lot of time to work on a project. It’s more than just one day for the next day’s newspaper. So with these stories, I’ve gotten to know my subjects and their stories and how to portray that through a photograph… I love knowing people’s stories and what they do. I’m working on photo-stories right now, using interviews, photos and Final Cut Pro. There’s actually a story I’m really passionate about right now. We have a coffee place in the village [in Muncie], called the MT Cup, which closed down in December. Everyone was sad when it closed… We found out recently that they are reopening. So I’m doing a photo-story about how the buyers gained the place, the renovations they’ve done and how they want to make sure they keep the Ball State atmosphere and student art in the MT Cup, now The Cup.

GT: I think it’s really good that somebody from Northern Indiana is going around getting down people’s stories. If you go abroad for example, there is this perception that Americans are self-centered and don’t listen to other people or cultures, etc. I think it’s good that you’re breaking that stereotype with the stories you do. You’re going out and listening to other people’s stories. People from Indiana… Do you think your photography has a place in a rural area like Northern Indiana? And if so, what role should photography play for the people of Northern Indiana?

JB: I believe that photography is becoming more prominent in Indiana. There are photographers that I know back in Warsaw, like for example Courtney Schmucker, who do weddings and senior photos and all of that stuff. So there will always be that market for photography. But she also takes phenomenal photos just walking around Warsaw. I mean she’s taken photographs, where I don’t recognize the place, and I lived there for 20 years. So I do believe it’s becoming more prominent. But I’d like to see more human interest. We have newspapers and magazines, but I don’t feel like we have that magazine that could show the interesting stories of people in Warsaw. Maybe that means starting an online magazine, where you could do photo-stories like the ones I was talking about, while integrating video, photographs, audio and all sorts of mediums. You could portray a story that could be really heart wrenching. You don’t know the kind of stories that are out in Warsaw until you go out looking for them… So I really do think that a bigger presence of photography is coming, in the way that it could be, potentially, human-interest pieces rather than senior photos. We do have studios everywhere for that kind of stuff…

GT: I think that’s right what you’re saying about adding more artistic and humanistic elements to what we already have. It does sort of feel like that kind of penetrating art is missing from where we grew up. And if it’s there we somehow missed it.

JB: Right.

GT: I hope in the future it gets better. I guess that’s part of the reason why we’re trying to do this blog, General Thad. Steve Henn’s working too. We just want to try and bring the community together and provide an outlet for things that would have been otherwise covered up in a print-age hyper-conservative 1970s Warsaw, Indiana. Tell about the art and the stories that get missed…

So what does the future have in store for you?

JB: Oh goodness. The age-old question. I’m planning on studying abroad next year at Liverpool Hope University. And so those will be classes, but I will be about a 30-minute flight away from Dublin! I still am really close with everyone I worked with… So I’m hoping to get back over there… But I don’t know. I have a journalism friend named Maggie who lives in New York, so I kind of want to move out there and room with her. We’ll see. It’s all up in the air right now.

GT: I think that’s kind of the way it is for all of us. Well, thanks Jenelle for taking the time to talk with us.

JB: No problem.

Check out Jenelle Bickel’s Website and feel free to contact her about any photographic needs.

May 1st, 2012

Andrew Morris


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