We have lived a block from Jill Kaplan for over a decade and only recently realized her power. She is a photographer on paper, but her life has taken her down the roads of anthropology, sociology, gerontology and philanthropy. We were very fortunate to get to sit inside her brightly lit home filled with artifacts and tokens from her travels, to hear her tell us her story.
Tell us a bit about yourself. Where did life take you before you landed in Denver?
I’ve been in Denver for a very long time. I’m originally from the Boston area and I was a Vista Volunteer, similar to the Peace Corps, which brought me to Louisiana, then Montana and then I fell in love with somebody. He was from Denver originally, and in Solar Energy and so I followed him down here and have been here ever since. I did live in Grand Junction for a short time and worked for the Daily Sentinel as a photo journalist, and then made my way to the Rocky Mountain News as a stringer and traveled around here and there working for all the wire services.
You are an amazing photo-grapher and take beautiful por-traits of babies, families and seniors. As novice photographers ourselves, we’d love to know more about your craft. Did you study photography in school? When did you realize this was your calling?
I started as a kid, photographing my family. I was always really, really curious about people. I loved watching, witnessing and observing people, human behavior, human nature, relationships, all of it. I’m a voyeur. In college I minored in Photography and majored in Social Work. But I got into photography right away. I did a photo project on rural New Hampshire, which was a photo journalistic project on poverty. When I came down to Denver, I took a lot of classes and started working at all the weekly papers, the Westword, etc., and got really into the hustle of news coverage. You get to be a witness to things that you wouldn’t otherwise be able to see. You go into people’s homes, you witness Presidential speeches up close and personal, or the Mick Jaggers. You get to know and see people and know people in ways that you wouldn’t ordinarily get to, you’re an Anthropologist. I stayed in the news business for a time, then started having kids and life changed. It was then that I started a portrait business for a long time. You get to be part of a family for a short time and you get to sort of imagine what it must be like to be those people and live vicariously and bring that home.
I still take family portraits, but I also decided to get a certificate in Gerontology. I love working with our senior community, it is so rewarding.
Photographers have a unique way of looking at the world. What have been some of your favorite photographic experiences in your life?
I did a lot of travel photography and Cuba was one of my most treasured experiences. Cuba is so rich, for a very poor country. I was able to capture the lifestyle of what goes on in that city. I also spent some time in Africa as well, which was a beautiful experience. Again, your camera is just a tool, that’s the thing. You have to understand your camera, you let the camera do the work, but your vision is what’s most important. That’s also true with family portraits. The camera as a tool allows us to teach people how to see without it, it’s a reminder of what’s out there.
Do you miss the darkroom days? How has the shift from film to digital changed your process?
I miss film, and wish I was tough enough to get back in the darkroom. I used to go into the darkroom at ten o’clock at night after putting the kids down and do all my work until 2am. It was a place to escape the craziness of life and that was pretty much what I did. Film is raw and it’s the real thing, it’s so beautiful, that no digital photograph can come close to replicating what film captures. There are times when I think I could easily set up a darkroom in my basement, but it’s time for me to move on. It’s hard for me to wrap my head around, I feel like it’s an either-or situation. Digital was a difficult leap, I fought it tooth and nail and finally realized I had to. It was just tough; those first digital cameras and the quality was just disgusting. They were so low-res, so, yeah, that was a sad transition.
Aside from your photography work, you also dedicate a large portion of your time and energy to the Afghan refugee community her in Denver through the African Community Center. What can you tell us about this work, and how can we help?
I decided I needed to do some volunteer work, and this came up. It was right around the time when our country said, “we’re done” and pulled out. These families came in January. I was trained prior to being assigned to a family. We were assigned a large extended family of 13 members. You spend a lot of time with them to find out what they need and they needed housing, the kids in school, medical, dental, etc. We took care of all the basics to make their lives easier. You have to understand, they came here with very little skills, so we’re trying to teach Afghan women refugees about what it means to earn money. They’ve never earned a penny in their lives; they’ve never even touched money. I knew that they could sew, and I came up with this idea of an apron. It is a smock style, so we’ve been selling them to artists, gardeners, or cooks. They’ve made a ton and we sell them at fairs, local markets, Ruby’s Market. We are also having the women make naan now, which has been very successful. They really wanted to do something, and now they’re able to send money back home to Afghanistan. So, we developed this way for them to earn money. They came from the countryside of Northern Afghanistan. With this apron project, they’ve started to develop this skill. It was a long process of trial and error. But now they know what it feels like to earn money, and how empowering that can be. I think the best way to help right now, is to buy the aprons and naan from Ruby’s Market at 1569 S. Pearl St., or even volunteer at the African Community Center.
When you’re not spending time with your grand-babies, photographing our families, or working with refugees, how do you like to spend your time?
If I have any time leftover, I love to camp. I work on my art projects, I have a lot of friends, so I’m always entertaining. But I really love to camp around Telluride, or outside Buena Vista and Salida, and Crested Butte. I also have a huge garden and love to spend time there. Oh, and films, I love to watch movies.
As an artist, who are you influenced by? What inspires you? What can we expect from you in the future?
I always loved Margaret Mead, she was my idol. Margaret Bourke-White, Dorothea Lange, Annie Lebovitz and Henri Cartier-Bresson. They were all my influences, they were taking on the world and capturing it in ways that I wanted to be a part of, and did in my own little way. They broke the mold and they led me to this career. More recently I’ve been really wanting to pursue mixed media art. There’s this woman, Njideka Akunyili Crosby, she’s a modern contemporary artist and she uses fabrics, photos and pencil in her work. Her work is a study in human behavior and relationships to things. How your environment shapes you as a person. Her work focuses on the African culture. I want to just make art and hang with my grand-babies.
Jill, thank you so much for this glimpse into your rich past and colorful world.