Interview with Karl Grobl
by Gary Wise
You havent always done photography
professionally. How did you transition from your
previous corporate career?
I was working in medical sales management for a
couple of decades. So, I squeezed photography in on
the weekends. I started full-time about six years
Was there a particular moment where being
authentic with yourself played a role in your
decision to change careers?
I dont think it was one moment, exactly.
It was more of a process where I started observing
the direction my life was taking and realizing that
my corporate job didnt seem important in the
bigger scheme of things. So, over a period of five
years, I started exploring things I really wanted
to do with my life. I convinced myself by
expressing it verbally to other people that what I
really wanted was to make a big change. So, it
really took about 5 years of thinking about it,
talking about it to finally make the leap. I did
and have never looked back.
Was there financial risk in pursuing your
Absolutely. For a number of years, I realized
that the things I had been collecting were not all
that important. So, I started bank-rolling money
from my previous job so that I could give myself a
two-year window to be successful in my new
You spend several months a year overseas. Has
that impacted your marriage?
Thankfully, my wife is incredibly supportive and
encourages me in what I do. And, shes also a
very independent person. In the early part of our
marriage, we were both in corporate jobs and only
saw each other on weekends. So, what I do now
hasnt impacted us in a way that I would need
to worry about it. Im very lucky in that
World Vision, Unicef, and other big NGOs
contract you to cover some of the worlds most
traumatic events. What kind of impact hasthis had
on your emotions?
I had to come to terms with this question
myself. For example, when I was sent to shoot the
tsunami aftermath, I had to approach it with
tremendous focus and a mindset of getting things
done. And, if that distracts me from the overall
emotional picture, Im not completely sure. I
think it does. Most of my work is initiated by
NGOs (Non-Government Organizations) and a lot
of what I shoot is relief work where the world
community is coming together to help people
whove just been devastated. So, theres
something uplifting in that.
Sounds like selective viewing on your
After about a month and a half after Id
left the tsunami, I had this lingering question in
the back of my head of, Why dont I have
a heavy-duty emotional reaction to this tragedy? Am
I just completely calloused? Maybe its
my defense mechanism. I mean, you see so many
bodies and so much destruction. Everyone you talked
to had just lost their entire family, their
children and so forth. Maybe I just couldnt
process it all. And, the angle which I am
approaching it and documenting it provides me with
a focus on the positive which helps me get through
Has there ever been a time when you broke
Yes, when it gets personal. In flying over the
tsunami areas, I viewed destruction on such a grand
scale. It was difficult for me to get emotional.
Later, we drove by mass graves with hundreds of
bodies piled up and it still didnt register.
But, when I was standing on a beach in Indonesia
talking with a man who had just lost his entire
family, his house and everything else, and he
noticed how hot and sweaty I was and offered me a
drink, it hit me. Thats when you say and
feel, Wow. This is beyond
Is that a type of message people want to
I often explain this to NGOs that the work
they are doing can be effectively told through an
individuals story. And, thats because
our emotional attachments as human beings are
geared more to individuals than to large
Do people ever get outraged that you are
photographing them in their personal moments of
In the East, theres more of a halo
effect around photographers and journalists.
People want their stories told so the world can see
whats happening. I never approach a subject
by leading with my camera. My style is to engage a
person and develop rapport first.
Does that pose a challenge in getting
compelling, candid shots?
The NGOs that hire me are, for the most
part, using these photos to inspire connection with
their donors. My viewpoint as a photographer
becomes the donors viewpoint. So, there must
be a visual rapport between me and the subject.
Consequently, my photos are not voyeuristic or
about shock value. Rather, they are about
communicating a need or an appreciation.
Why do you think people trust and give you
such immediate accessibility to their
Well, look at a camera. You point it at people
and it looks like a gun. You push a button and you
pull a trigger. It can be frightening. I lead with
a big smile and an open hand. I learn some of the
local culture, greetings and I nod. I find as long
as we are respectful of one another and show
interest in the other person, rapport occurs
naturally no matter where you are.
Why are you interested in this type of work
and putting a positive spin on it?
In the years that I was working in the corporate
health care industry, I traveled to developing
countries and compared their health care facilities
with what we have in the U.S. It struck me that
here in the States, we have state-ofthe-art
everything while in many 3rd world countries they
may not even have a medical clinic staffed with
enough people or enough supplies to deal with the
most common types of injury. So, I started
photographing with an NGO that involved doctors
volunteering their skills overseas in the hope that
making people aware would help bring about change.
I became a conduit of information.
Is there a childhood experience that impacted
you to do this type of work?
Although my mother was a teacher, I was never a
great student. Over time, I realized the importance
of education. In my travels especially, I noticed a
real gap in the availability of education and knew
that what I had taken for granted was not always
available to many throughout the world.
Understanding is really the key to everything.
While working in Haiti, where the education system
is very poor and the literacy rate very low, it
occurred to me that its easy for the
government or a charismatic individual to come
along and exploit peoples naivete.
Youd be considered an adventurer by
many. What is the adventure in what you do?
(Laughs) Every day is an adventure! I wake up in
places all over the world and pinch myself and ask,
Am I really getting to do this and get paid
for it? For a number of years, I was doing a
lot of stuff that I wasnt all that excited
about doing. And, I finally came to the realization
that, Hey, if I really want to change my life
and stop going after the brand new car and the big
house on the hill, I can. I can do what I want to
do. I can do what turns ME on! Ever since, I
decided to make that switch and be happy with my
old car and existing house. And, you know, I really
dont need the latest gadget, after all.
Sounds like you found your calling.
I was once driving in the sweltering, dusty
desert south of Khartoum in Sudan with an NGO and a
pharmaceutical company representative and the
subject of, If you won the lottery, what
would you do? came up between them. I sat in
the back seat listening to them go on about how
they would live life differently. All the while, I
smiled and thought to myself, If I won the
lottery, I would be doing exactly what Im
doing right now. Except, Id be doing it for
As an adventurer, do you ever get into
I would say, Yes. There have been
situations where my adrenaline has been pumping
pretty hard and Ive wished strongly that I
was in another place. Ive been hunkered down
in hotel rooms with shots being fired and things
blowing up outside. And, in carrying my camera gear
on the streets, Im constantly looking for
exit strategy routes. I also make a point of being
around people who look friendly and build rapport
with them so that, if Im going to get robbed,
the local apple seller will, hopefully, lend me a
Are you able to forge deep friendships in
spite of your nomadic life?
I have met some amazing individuals who live
long stretches of their lives overseas to correct
problems. A doctor in Kenya comes to mind who is
working hard to combat the ravages of the HIV/AIDS
situation. Just to sit in this guys presence
and have dinner with him is amazing. To grasp what
he is doing and to witness his level of commitment
floors me. This kind of interaction provides tons
of inspiration and I feel so blessed to spend time
with these types of people.
Any particular modern day heroes inspire
I have to tell you that my personal heroes are
people that most people have never heard of and
probably will never hear of. My heroes are not the
big names that would be recognizable in this world.
They are ordinary people out there doing
extra-ordinary things. And, theyll probably
never make the news.
Ever feel lonely and just wish you had a
regular, group of buddies to hang with?
I do have a group of friends in San Diego. But,
its weird what I do. I go to these countries
and plug into a completely different lifestyle and
then I return and re-plug back here. Its not
always easy. But, with time, I am getting better at
Ive experienced that also. Kind of
feels like youve been in a time warp and
experienced so much and you return to status quo.
Plays tricks on the brain.
My thinking time occurs on airplanes. Its
my time for looking at my life and understanding
why Im doing what Im doing. I really am
kind of a loner. You know, photography is, in and
of itself, an individuals profession. I have
my own creative vision and dont want
distractions. So, I enjoy working alone. That
isnt to say that I wouldnt strike up a
conversation with an English-speaking stranger if I
havent had anyone to talk with for weeks. We
all need connection.
In your travels outside the U.S., have you
noticed any differences in the way men interact
with one another or express connection?
In most other cultures, I think youll see
men publicly have their arms around each other or
holding hands. And, the knee-jerk reaction from
Western travelers is, Oh my gosh!
Theyre all gay! And, now its
actually funny for me to see that type of reaction.
In India, guys hold hands simply because they are
friends. Guys put their arms around each other
because they are friends. Theyre just more
demonstrative in expressing affection than we
Is there any characteristic of yourself that
you see in the subjects you photograph?
I thinks theres a lot in a
persons eyes that tells you about them. So,
my personal style is to get in tight and explore
their emotions through their eyes. And, though I do
literally see my reflection standing with the
camera in their eyeballs
(laughs) I gotta
tell ya. Im not really that deep. I take a
picture and thats that. It would be
frightening to be at some art opening with people
sitting around, drinking wine and pontificating
about the meaning behind the pictures I take.
Im really much more of a documentary
photographer than an artist.
What strengths have you developed by choosing
a more adventurous path?
The most important has been developing my own
sense of understanding. Understanding other
cultures, breaking down bias and prejudices that I
may have had has been tremendous. I think that if
everybody had the opportunity to travel like I do,
there would be a huge breakdown in destructive
Be more specific.
When you really venture out into the world and
relate to people one on one it doesnt take
long to understand that there are a great deal more
similarities between us regardless of what color or
nationality we may be. Just like you or me, some
guy in Haiti or Sudan wants to have a roof over his
head. He wants to have something to eat. And, he
wants to have opportunity. What causes all our
problems and conflict boils down to a lack of
understanding. If we all had un-limited plane
tickets to travel around the world, we could solve
our problems and prejudices.
Is there still a boy in Karl Grobl,
Oh, God yeah!!! I dont feel nearly as old
inside as I am. Its shocking to me. My last
birthday, I woke up in Cuba, looked in the mirror
and said, Im 45 years old, man. This is
insane! I still play ice-hockey with a bunch
of my friends. I ride my motorcycle. Im all
about being a kid even to the point that I
sometimes feel irresponsible because Id
rather go out and play than be doing the grown-up
things Im supposed to be doing.
How do you vent? Is there a wild man in
My way of screaming is putting images together
with music for a digital slide show and getting it
in front of people. A big frustration is that I go
to these places and see these things and cant
communicate it fully in words.
Any particular experience that was hard to
put into words?
I remember coming from shooting some orphanages
in the slums of Haiti. Shortly after, I was invited
to a catered, Christmas dinner at a multi-million
dollar mansion. And, I felt such tremendous
disconnection. Nothing could be more different from
where Id come from to where I sat at that
party. And someone at the table said, So,
Karl! Tell us something about Haiti. I
couldnt possibly do that. At times, I want to
scream out information about places Ive been
because the images dont always do it
What do you like about Karl Grobl?
I created a job for myself that I love to do.
When one of my clients says, We used one of
your pictures for an advertising campaign and it
resulted in a donor writing us a check, I
feel tremendous affirmation. I feel that what
Im doing is helping somebody less fortunate.
Thats the ultimate reward, right?
Any last words of wisdom?
Do what turns you on. There are millions of
people in Haiti, Sudan, Cambodia, the Philippines,
Afghanistan and Laos who dont have the luxury
of even thinking about what it is they want to do.
Theyre too busy thinking about what they are
going to do to put food on the table for tomorrow.
They dont have the options that we have in
Here, most people, whether they realize it or
not, if theyd just decide that the house was
big enough and the car was good enough, could step
back and do whatever it is they want to do. We have
choice. In the corporate world, I felt I had the
responsibility to ask myself what I really wanted
to do We should acknowledge our opportunities and
do whatever it is with our lives that makes us
happy and can also make a difference in the lives
of others. Because, when its time to check
out, youll look back and say, Why didnt
I do what I wanted to do with my life? Why did I
commute to that job office for the last twenty
© 2007, Reid Baer
* * *
The fame you earn has a different taste from the
fame that is forced upon you. - Gloria
Gary Wise/Phoenix Rising/camp
Caroline Sept. 2006, is a freelance writer and
photographer of fashion, fitness, and events.
Living several years in Asia and Europe inspired
Wise to capture the vivid imagery he witnessed. An
adventurer at heart, he has also traveled
extensively throughout Australia, South America and
North Africa. Overcoming a life-long, crippling
illness at 33 through dietary change, holistic
healing and visualization, Wise now believes
anything is possible and strives to bring faith and
healing to others so they can realize their own
personal adventures and talents. He lives in San
Diego ...with himself. www.GaryWisePhotography.com
Karl Grobl has
an ongoing quest to document the world's people and
global events, world-relief photojournalist, Karl
Grobl is an Adventurer with
Reid Baer, an
award-winning playwright for A Lyons
Tale is also a newspaper journalist, a poet
with more than 100 poems in magazines world wide,
and a novelist with his first book released this
month entitled Kill
The Story. Baer has been
a member of The ManKind Project since 1995 and
currently edits The New Warrior Journal for
The ManKind Project www.mkp.org
He resides in Reidsville, N.C. with his wife
Patricia. He can be reached at E-Mail.
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