Artist Spotlight—Spenser Heaps

This week's spotlight photographer is a distinguished editorial and commercial photographer based in Salt Lake City—Spenser Heaps. With over a decade of experience, Spenser has honed his craft in capturing stunning, storytelling images that elevate both publications and brands. His extensive portfolio showcases his versatility and skill, with assignments spanning the Western U.S. and reaching as far as Mexico, Brazil, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Norway, Kenya, and Nepal. 

We've asked Spenser a few questions to get to know him and his photography better, delving into his creative process, inspirations, and experiences in the field. Let's get started!

Can you share the story of how you got started in photography and what inspired you to pursue it professionally?

I fell in love with photography as a teenager. I think it was the combination of liking the blend of art and technology (this was the OG Digital Rebel era – heady times) and the social act of photographing my friends and classmates. When I first went to college I was enrolled in a fine art photography program at a small liberal arts school. I took a photojournalism class my first semester and realized that was all I wanted to do – that I wanted to make images that tell meaningful stories about people. I ultimately decided to transfer to Ohio University, which has one of the country's top photojournalism programs, and that set things in motion.

(Photo by Spenser Heaps, Deseret News) Hawkwatch International field biologist Max Carlin ascends his ropes after returning a golden eagle nestling to its nest in a remote area of Box Elder County on Thursday, May 20, 2021.

You've been a photojournalist in Utah for over a decade now, what do you find most rewarding about it?

Connecting with people who are living a life different than my own and witnessing important moments in their lives has been the most rewarding part of my career. There were times when perhaps I wasn't making the best images, or at least not the images I wanted to, but I got to have an interesting conversation with someone, walk around in a beautiful place, or see something remarkable – that was always something I cherished. And, of course, there have been just unbelievably cool, rich experiences like flying in helicopters, traveling to distant places and having a perpetual front row seat/backstage pass that are hard to come by in another line of work.

(Photo by Spenser Heaps) Fernando dos Santos Araújo poses for a photograph on Sunday, June 9, 2019 at the site of a 2017 massacre of landless workers in Pau D'Arco, Brazil. Araújo survived after hiding in the brush while ten other workers, including his partner, were killed by police. He became a key witness in the attempt to prosecute those responsible for the killings, but in 2021 he was found killed in his home.

Since you've been able to travel to multiple countries for photography, what's been the most memorable?

One of my first international reporting trips was to travel to Brazil for a series of stories on deforestation in the Amazon. I spent two weeks with a talented writer and an amazing local fixer driving around a pretty wild part of the country trying to piece together complicated stories. We met with so many interesting people, including survivors of a massacre of landless workers at the hands of local police. We reported on a Catholic priest and nun who are fighting for sustainable farming practices in the Amazon, making them and the farmers the target of violence and killings from powerful interests who want to log the rainforest and establish illegal agricultural and mining operations. Their strength in the face of insurmountable odds and their graciousness in bringing us into their homes was inspiring.

(Photo by Spenser Heaps, Deseret News) Joseline Geffrard, 32, poses for a photo in her home in Batey Libertad, Dominican Republic on Saturday, March 11, 2023. Geffrard, 32, fled Port-au-Prince after being robbed at gunpoint by gang members while shopping at a market near her home.

The trip had a handful of sketchy moments, like when a known gunman was staring us down as we pushed our rented Toyota Hilux, which had a bad battery, down a hill so the fixer could pop-start it. In between, we had opportunities to chat about our stories and life over cold beers and a Brazilian soup called tacacá that makes your mouth go numb. It was a formative experience.

What are the main challenges when working as a photojournalist?

From an image-making standpoint, you’re trying to make sure you’re standing in the right place at the right time to press the shutter button and take a photo that is both meaningful and beautiful. You can’t manipulate the scene or ask someone to do something again. So, to get all the stars to align to get true, intimate moments and also have them happening in beautiful light or in front of a good background is a real dance. Then, of course, there is the challenge of working with people who may not be 100% ready and willing to share their story and have their photo taken. Sometimes that could be because they don’t want to have you there but you and your editors believe the public interest outweighs their wishes - mostly this happens with public officials and in public spaces.

(Photo by Spenser Heaps, Deseret News) Gustavo Rosales, 23, and his wife Adriana Mendoza, 22, stand outside their home in the Los Laureles neighborhood of Tijuana. Approximately 20% of the country’s allotted Colorado River water is piped up and over the Sierra de Juarez to reach Tijuana, home to 2 million people.

Other times it might be working with someone who is part of a vulnerable population or has sustained a trauma, or when you want to photograph an emotional, private moment. There’s no one way to deal with these situations, but I’ve consistently found that if you talk to people with compassion and empathy and are willing to take no for an answer, more doors open to you than close. More often than not, people want to share their stories and understand the value of journalism.

What advice would you give to aspiring photographers who want to pursue a career in photojournalism?

It is one of the most fun and rewarding jobs in the world and I would do it all over again. But, every day there are fewer and fewer full-time staff photojournalist positions out there and many outlets pay freelance rates that are not enough to make it a viable business on its own. So, as I am currently pivoting out of a staff position and trying to carve out my own niche as a freelancer, my advice would just be to diversify your skillset.

(Photo by Spenser Heaps for The New York Times) Matt Cornell, Jackson Marvell and Alan Rousseau pose for a photograph in Salt Lake City, Utah on Monday, Nov. 27, 2023. The three climbers recently made an alpine-style ascent on the north face of Jannu, a mountain in eastern Nepal.

The reality for most photojournalists is that you need to supplement that work with something like commercial, corporate or wedding work. So, if you are lucky enough to land a staff job at a news outlet, make sure you are developing your writing, your lighting skills and learning how to run a successful small business, because you don’t know how long that job is going to be around. But, to avoid ending on a sour note, I’ll say that the powerful experiences you can have working in this field far outweigh the challenges the industry can present. If you want to witness first-hand the highest highs and the lowest lows of the human experience, you can do that through photojournalism. There is nothing like it.

We appreciate Spenser for taking the time to share his intriguing story and insights with us. His journey and expertise have truly enriched us. To see more of Spenser's work, head over to his website or follow him on Instagram.

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