We had the good fortune of connecting with Eric Michael Ward and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Eric Michael, where are your from? We’d love to hear about how your background has played a role in who you are today?
I’m from Beaumont, Texas, aka “big money texas,” though I’ve never called it that in my life, except for now I guess. I grew up there, along with my sister and parents, although my parents aren’t from there. My late dad is from North Carolina, and my mom is from Virginia; so, I’m Texan by upbringing. It’s not a family thing, yet, Texas is still home. As a military brat, I lived in El Paso and Killeen before I got to Beaumont just in time for 1st grade year. I grew up in an infamous Beaumont neighborhood: South Park. Beaumont, much like other smaller cities, is a pretty segregated town in the context of class and race. South Park is unique though. In early Beaumont history, it was a premier neighborhood, and all white. As time progressed, along with a race riot, Beaumont, due to its oil industry, began to expand and grow west. “White flight” ensued. South Park would eventually become “the hood.” It would become a part of town, with oil and gas factories as accompanying skylines, that would be known as “ghetto,” or “dirty.” Everything about underserved neighborhoods applies to South Park. But I loved my childhood there. I love my people. I love black people. I loved going to black schools my entire grade-school life and I loved seeing people I know every time I went outside. I loved walking to and from school in elementary. I fell in love with nature in my neighborhood. Growing up there is definitely the most influential experience of my life. It’s also a privilege to live in the same house for your entire childhood, and with the same people. I loved that. It was my dad, mom, sister and me. We grew as a unit, it seemed. During summers and some winter holidays, we’d take road trips to visit our “extended” families in NC, VA, PG county and Baltimore. Not having family in Beaumont gave us motivation to travel, and for me, experiencing my family in other parts of America was perfect for me. I was privileged with a type of experience and exposure that many aren’t privy to as children. I could go on on, but all in all, I grew up around amazing people and it seemed that everybody was Black in my world, so I learned to love and accept the nuances and different and shared experiences of black people all throughout my childhood. It definitely influenced me to get into teaching and for sure impacted my decisions on where I would teach (I taught in Alief and in Chicago), and in general has just shaped my beliefs, my views, and my outlooks on love and life. I’m thankful for everything. I can’t imagine anything other than growing up in South Park, Beaumont, Texas.
Can you open up a bit about your work and career? We’re big fans and we’d love for our community to learn more about your work.
I like to describe myself as a street photographer. I am most excited about photography when I am just living life and I have my camera on hand when something amazingly mundane or amazingly random happens. As a person I’m very observant and love to sit and watch and just be in gratitude as a human being. I think it’s remarkable and a miracle that we are existing on this earth as people with so much agency, and I love to witness other humans seemingly living their own lives, or just the earth living as it is. I don’t think much sets me apart from others, speaking strictly art, but I think my individual mind and experiences set me apart from others, which is the same for every artist, and every person. I believe that we are all uniquely set apart by our own self and experiences through that self, yet we are all part of a collective oneness. I feel most authentic and true to myself when I am leaning into me, embracing all of me, and then just being and creating from that space. My art is a reflection of that idea. I tend to gravitate toward people just doing whatever they want to do, in whatever context that may be. I think that’s love. I like to go where the love is. In life and in art.
My time in ministry and in education has informed a lot of who I am today. I taught high school english for 9 years before quitting after the ’20-’21 school year. I came into teaching after doing some work with the youth at the church I served at the time. I had a great time with the high schoolers and figured if I can connect with kids about Jesus and the bible, surely the transition to The Bluest Eye would be easier. How wrong was I. Lord. During my 2nd year teaching, I saved up my little teacher checks for a camera. I was enjoying shooting random things and people on my iphone, and was being encouraged by a few photographer folks around me to get a “real” camera. I purchased a Canon 6d and did photography as a side hobby until it emerged to a hustle right before I left Houston for Chicago in 2016. Chicago is a city’s city. It’s a huge contrast to the Houston I had been used to since 2005, the Texas I had been used to since 1987. But I instantly loved it. I ditched my car within months and took to public transportation and foot. I was immersed in the city and quickly fell in love with street photography. The people on the streets and on the trains and buses were vibrant and full of life, no matter the weather. As of now, my favorite work has been done in Chicago. I shot a ton of street with my iphone during my commutes to and fro, and would even bring out “real” cameras when I found time not being an educator. These experiences still excite me, because now I am back in Houston, and it’s those practices that help inform my street work down here. Outside of street, I also shoot weddings here and there, and I do some portraiture. I’m into a lot of documentary at this moment in my journey. I see myself going there a lot more. In that space.
Photography has always been hard for me because I have never had the time for it. Now as a full time creative, I have the time, and that’s major. Through teaching as a profession, I was always busy, but also, always in constant evolution: learning how I like to be organized, learning how I store and save, learning how I like to work, learning when I do my best work, etc. Being in an occupation that is continually evolving with newness every day and moment, it helped me broaden my approach and eye in art and in life. It helped me remain open. Helped me realize that there will be another moment after this, and at the same time, that this moment happening right now will never happen again in the exact way, ever. This mindset helps me as a full time freelancer when I am creating, and it helps keeps me disciplined as well.
Every day is a challenge. I just try to focus on the people and things and places and feelings that bring me joy and gratitude. I’m not really ambitious or want to do the most with my work. I don’t care who sees it or how many people I can reach. I care about the people I shoot though. And I do care about the impact witnessing a single mundane or random moment captured in black and white could foster in someone witnessing the art I create. I would be perfectly fine if I could just create great art with beautiful people on the streets, or wherever, as long as my bills are paid and my self is taken care of. I would be lying if I said I didn’t want people to look at my work and somehow realize that I love humans, or better yet, that they love humans, or even better, that WE are humans. That would be nice.
Let’s say your best friend was visiting the area and you wanted to show them the best time ever. Where would you take them? Give us a little itinerary – say it was a week long trip, where would you eat, drink, visit, hang out, etc.
There is too much to do in Houston. Too much. I usually go with the flow and my besties do too. I’m a nature boy. I like music. I love people. As do my friends. So we would definitely hit the scene. They have to go to Avant Garden on Wednesday, The Flat on Thursday, hopefully something is happening at Sanman Studios or Theory Studios or Prauper Studios at some point of the week. We’d proabably hit Kamp on Friday so I can say we turned up club style. We’d definitely hit a bar and just chill. Most likely Axelrad. 8th Wonder is holding too. Me and best friend would slide to the gallo one time. Do more people watching than shopping but hey. That’s the galleria. We might visit a museum. Chill outside Menil. We’d be eating good of course. Breakfast Klub. They have to try Frenchy’s. Sunshine’s. Whataburger after one of those nights out. Some food trucks if we come across any. We’d hit Westheimer in Montrose for some good thrifting on Sunday. Maybe Macgregor Park to partake in some culture if we had time. BB’s Crawfish in the Heights if it’s crawfish season. Houston is so vast. We’d get in a few of those “necessary” things but we’d definitely be doing a lot of exploring. I’d be finding new places and things with best friend for sure!
The Shoutout series is all about recognizing that our success and where we are in life is at least somewhat thanks to the efforts, support, mentorship, love and encouragement of others. So is there someone that you want to dedicate your shoutout to?
God deserves my shout — and my shoutout haha. Seriously though. But the people that God has used, I have to start with my parents. My dad (rest in peace) and mom both had a serious knack for documenting their lives. They’re also both film lovers. We grew up with cable/satellite in only one room, so I had to watch what other people were watching before I could get the remote. That was like our family’s unspoken code. Anyways, that’s how I first learned about Spike Lee and Alfred Hitchcock and music videos and pretty much everything visual. This influenced so much of my visual art direction. And my parents are amazing for allowing me to watch Clockers and Rear Window and whatever else was on, and allowing me to take in the art for myself. We didn’t talk during movies and shows. Only laughs and two-worded comments at most. That silence alone has helped me so much. I’m literally nothing without my parents, but even creatively, I’m nothing without them as well. My sister is next. She deserves everything. I’m also nothing without her. Growing up with an immediate sister, having a best friend in the next room, a truly special experience that can’t be replicated or detailed in entirety. But she has helped me in every part of my life. Without her, my childhood would be lacking, and my life would be entirely different, but for the worse. I can’t imagine the type of person I’d be if I didn’t grow up with a black girl in the South. My sister has taught me so much. She indirectly informs so much of my art and directly informs my life work. I’m huge on family. They deserve all the love. My mom has retired from one field and is now in law. Her life story and present and past beings influence me in ways I could never adequately describe. And my dad taught me so much on this side of life. He was the most gracious man I have ever encountered in my life. He loved me so right. He still teaches me every day and for this I am thankful. I have learned so much about life and love through his life and love. He and my mom both introduced me to books before I could even stand. And thus, reading has sustained me. It has expanded my imagination and my reality. Books have been a staple part of my life, and through the love of reading, a love of writing was birthed. Every writer I have ever read deserve recognition and are integral parts of my story, but some stand out and continue to serve as pivotal players in my life, as I have read, written about, taught from, and even lived by many of their shared works. Toni Morrison. Bell Hooks. Zora. Maya Angelou. Langston Hughes. James Baldwin. June Jordan. Saul Williams. Fanon. Gwendolyn Brooks. Jawanza Kunjufu. Audre Lorde.