Interviewed November 14, 2015 | Written and photographed by Ilya Natarius
I’m sitting in a diner style booth with black leather seats and a metal table that has a marble pattern printed on top of its surface. A small table lamp serves as a local light source while sunlight floods into the building through the windows that face the street across from me. Latin music quietly plays out of the speakers hung in the corners where the wall meets the ceiling. Paintings and other works from Minneapolis artists hang on the walls, contributing to the bohemian-esque decor inside of the building. It isn’t very busy yet like other similar places might be at ten in the morning; only a few individuals with laptops, some with newspapers, are present. This is Caffetto, a coffee shop in Minneapolis’ Wedge neighborhood and the location that Alex Potter, a local and international photographer and journalist, has asked me to meet her.
This morning, I decide to arrive early, take in the atmosphere of the shop, and be a casual observer, taking note of anything that piques my interest. Other than the eccentric style of decor, one aspect of Caffetto that sets it apart from other small, local coffee shops is the range of people that come and go. It’s something Alex brings up as one of the reasons she has come to make the place one of her preferred mobile offices. Alex has always been intrigued by people from all walks of life, and has a genuine curiosity about aspects of their lives that differ from her own life experiences — one of the main reasons that Alex eventually pursued photojournalism as a career. Being a photojournalist allows her to experience the lives of others up close, initially as an outsider looking in, and eventually from more of an insider’s perspective after spending some time in an area.
This connection with the place is what sets Alex’s work apart from other journalists working in her area. Instead of the initial outsider’s view, Alex is able to tell a different story while remaining objective in her work, capturing images from the perspective of a local — or at least as close as she can get to being one herself. The resulting images from the insider’s perspective capture a more intimate and focused viewpoint of the larger picture of current events in the Middle East and its surrounding area, where she has done much of her work, thus telling a story that not only reports on the events, but also on the people and how they are impacted by them. With such titles for photo essays as Me Against My Brother, After The Funeral, and The Defenders, Alex’s fascination with the impact of current events on others’ lives is made clear before even viewing the contents of the work. After the interview is over, I stay at the coffee shop for a bit longer. As I finish my coffee, I reflect on what we just spoke about, and how Caffetto embodies the ideas Alex expressed during our talk.
Alex is a photojournalist originally from the Midwest, focusing her work primarily on the Middle East. Alex graduated from Bethel University with a bachelor of science in nursing. Since 2012, Alex has worked primarily in Yemen and has focused on creating thought-provoking and emotional images that create a bridge between the familiar and the foreign. Alex’s work has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Newsweek, and on NPR.
Alex’s work as a photojournalist, though rooted in the same principles as traditional photojournalism, approaches the genre from a different viewpoint — that of somebody genuinely on the inside and who truly cares for the people who are the subjects of her stories. Alex has always been curious to learn about people from all walks of life, and through learning about others and sympathizing with their situations, her work has changed over the years to reflect this understanding. “I’ve seen my work change in Yemen the most — I’ve gotten really close to people there. I care about them like I care about my own family. I think that when you get closer to someone emotionally, it shows in your work. My work has gotten more personal and intimate; it’s no longer street scenes,” Alex says, discussing her more recent publications as well as several new works that have been published since this conversation. Alex’s goal goes beyond simply reporting. She wants her readers to take the extra step past being aware of a situation and begin to understand and sympathize with those caught up in it. “[Through] things that [were] published [last] fall, I hope that people will be able to identify with the Yemeni as a people, as opposed to my work when I started there, since I wasn’t close,” Alex says, referring to a Time article that features a slideshow of her photos and story of her time in Yemen.
Alex’s signature style of reportage has roots back in Minneapolis, where Alex was able to experience and learn from people from all walks of life and internalize those experiences. More specifically, when she is back home working on new pieces, Alex often ends up at Caffetto.
“I went to school at Bethel, and while I was at school, a lot of my friends lived in Uptown, so I would come here to see friends. I always loved that you would see everyone here. I feel like in certain coffee shops, there are specific clientele, like, ‘This one is for hipsters,’ ‘This one is for bikers.’ Not that those shops would kick anybody out, but that’s the clientele that gravitates there. Here you see everybody, and they treat everybody the same here. I see people dressed nicely, there are homeless people, people from different cultures. Some stay for a few minutes while others are here for hours,” Alex says, as she looks around the space and the people in it. “It’s unpretentious — I can be comfortable.”
Caffetto provides Alex with the drive to work, as well as feel inspired by those around her. As she discusses her work and process, Alex talks about how places like Caffetto provide the proper stimulation in which she can work. “If I’m going to work and edit and plan, I want to work in a place where I’m physically comfortable, and then seeing things that inspire me. I’m not the type of person that can work at home — I need some kind of stimulation. I can’t work in complete silence. I need something like music or background chatter,” Alex says, talking about her ideal work surroundings. “If I get out of the house and come to a place like this, where people are working and there’s hustle and bustle, it motivates me.” With her work so centered around people, it’s no wonder that Alex is able to find stimulation in places such as Caffetto. The way people impact her work is clear when viewing her images, and Alex certainly believes that as well.
“With photography, you will have better photos if you are closer with the people. I see photography as a very collaborative effort,” she says. Alex uses this belief not only to get her stories to be as well done as possible, but to give the unheard a voice as well. Speaking about a project in the works, Alex discusses the advantages of using the correct medium to most accurately portray the viewpoint of her subject. “I spent some time with a Yemeni that resettled in Slovakia, and when I photographed him, it was great, but it was not enough. For so long they’ve had others speaking for them and representing them, so when I get back and when I continue this project, as an artist and as an advocate, I’m going to bring in audio and I’m going to bring in video. It’s the best way to tell that story,” she says.
Alex’s desire to give the unheard a voice, to cover people’s stories in a closer way than an outsider ever could, is clear. Caffetto is the embodiment of that underneath one roof — a stimulating backdrop in which to work, and a diverse range of customers. Truly one can become an insider in its scene by simply being there, and contributing to the story. However, in keeping with Alex’s story, it would be best summed up in her own words: “I think in our culture we are scared of that word, ‘love.’ It doesn’t always have to be romantic — it can just be really caring deeply about somebody. It can mean caring about where they’re going in their lives and their outcomes and if they’re going to thrive or not. Every project I’ve done, it’s because of that.”