Debra Sugerman is a photographer and filmmaker. The Director of the documentaries Dear Mr. President and Broken, has vast experience working in the filmmaking business across the country. Besides working as a Director and Location Manager, she has also worked as a technician in the Art and Costume Department for major motion pictures such as: Skateland, Boys Don’t Cry, Kate and Leopold, Evening, and several others. Her photographic work is exhibited in many galleries throughout the U.S. and is also part of the collection of the San Antonio Museum of Art. Her images have been featured in The Sun Magazine as well as Conde Nast: Traveler and Parents Magazine, and on several CD and book covers. Sugerman is also co-director of the Creativity for Peace Camp, which works with teenage girls from Israel and Palestine, breaking down barriers and building coexistence between the two cultures.
H: So Debra, when did you begin making art?
D: I started studying art when I was a child. My parents put me in art classes to help me learn better. As a child I had a learning disability. They were smart enough to know that if you put your kids in art and sports and give them something to excel in, you will help build their self-esteem up. I was put in art and dance and in a lot of athletics, and those things I excelled in. I remember the first drawing class I took, I think I was ten, and we lived in Dallas at the time, and I put it up on a wall and my Dad had a friend named Uncle Lew and he stole it and left me a dollar, it was kind of upsetting because it was a picture I had made for my mother and it was my first pastel. I didn’t appreciate the man ripping me off, he apparently thought it was pretty funny, but he put it in a frame and put it in his wall.
H: When did you decide to make a career in art? Why did you choose to study photography?
D: In my undergraduate program I was first a ceramics major but I started taking photographs when I was 12, because my dad and my grandpa travelled to Japan a lot for their company and my grandpa, my dad’s father, brought me my first 35 mm really fancy camera, which isn’t fancy anymore because it’s no longer used… So, I had my first 35 mm with interchangeable lenses. My first photography class at Southwest School, which was then called the Southwest Crafts Center, and Judy Bankhead was my darkroom teacher, who is a pretty regionally famous photographer.
When I went to college, I really wanted to do clay, but I started hating clay because I didn’t really like to throw so I had to hand-build everything and then I was really discouraged by the fact of how you make a living making teapots and coffee cups… and I was tortured by my drawing and painting teachers who basically humiliated me into believing I was a horrible painter and drawer, which I kind of am, I am not horrible! I am just a very naïve drawer, I paint very flatly with some color straight out of the tube. I don’t care much for creating depth and shadow, I create bizarre-looking characters that… it looks like I am twelve basically, but I am not twelve. But it tortured me enough to get me into photography more seriously.
For a while I wanted to be an architect, but then I had to learn how to measure and I was pissed off. “What do you mean? I just want to draw a picture of an idea. You guys figure out how big the room is, I don’t care”. That whole math and writing stuff was too much. Somewhere in between there I wanted to be a Stand-up Comedian, and a Veterinarian… uh… and a Singer. I danced, I studied dance a lot, very seriously, and just focused completely in photography. I just submerged myself in it. I ended up finding my way there pretty quickly in terms of… you know the term success in many industries- means making a lot of money, but at a pretty young age I was selling my work and I was exhibiting a lot and it went pretty fast.
I finished my first art degree at UT Austin and I went to Graduate School at NYU. Then I quit that one, and it was called the NYU/ICP program it is a rotation program with the International Center for Photography, so I quit that one because my mom was sick and I wanted to go back and help take care of her. I finally finished my MFA at a small school in Vermont called Vermont College because it was a low residency program, so I could go back and forth New York City, where I was living. I was working on feature films and somehow I finished grad school. I am not even quite sure how I did it all. I had to write a lot of papers and head to the studio and hit deadlines and… you know? After it is done you are like: “ I don’t even know how I walked the dog. Much less washed my hair”.
H: So how was it that you started doing film?
D: When I finally finished my Bachelors, I was waiting tables and a friend of mine said “Why don’t you go location scout this scene for this music video I am shooting for Joe Ely, I think … it was this guy in Austin. This friend of mine who was a producer at that time had bought a photograph of this bridge, she was like “ I want the picture of the bridge and I need you to go do that”. So I suddenly went from being a photographer to being a location scout for the commercial and feature film business. Much too early in my career as a location scout I accepted a job as a location manager, and it seemed much to early because I did not know how to location manage in a super precise way… It is a big job. So I had my first management job and I almost committed Hari Kari with a dull knife, but I managed to stay alive through it. There was a lot of crying. I kept with it, I location managed and location scouted for like seven years. I kept sort of my parallel career going as a fine art photographer, exhibiting and selling my work to collectors and museums and galleries. I was very fortunate at a young age to be collected by SAMA. Don Bacigalupi bought one of my pieces for the museum, I have never seen it since. In fact, I think it is the picture of that girl on that bridge, the bridge I had to go to… scout- now that is kind of weird…I had not thought about that…Yeah! that is bizarre. How weird…
Then some of my friends in the movie industry started saying “You should be a Director. “,”You have a good eye”, ”You would make a good Director”. I decided I didn’t want to be a Director, I just want to take pictures and be a starving artist, no I do want to be a Director I just want to do documentaries and starve to death… yeah! Good idea… So, I started thinking about documentaries pretty early on in my career.
At the University of Texas at the time, when I was in the Art Department, the teacher who I won’t name was technically so inept I mean photographically and the ongoing battle of the dialogue of whether Photography is art because it is technically based when Painting and Drawing are skill based. She was the crummiest teacher I ever had in my entire career, I had to tell her how to print, I thought: “Okay. This isn’t a good sign”. So I went to the Photojournalism department because I really needed some structure to where I was as a photographer. I kind of already had my physical vision down to a very pat, habituated style. So I started going thru the Photojournalism series and learned to print very well and became a very masterful printer. I spent a lot of hours in the darkroom printing for other people who were terrible printers. I just spent hours… you know? Inhaling those toxic chemicals…
I kept working as a location manager and I was styling on my photographs so I started to become more commercial. I spent like two months in Dallas, trying to be a fashion photographer and stylist, but I knew pretty early on that if I had to photograph models for the rest of my life I would probably have to hurt myself or somebody else, because it is this horribly vapid work and I really wanted to make meaningful work. I tried working more as a journalist more reportage, while I was still exhibiting, while I was still doing location management, while I was teaching art to small children at the Art Museum in Austin, I think I might even have had a waitressing job at the time… Seven years into location management I couldn’t take it anymore so I quit and in my mind I demoted myself in terms where you are in the department, I was no longer the department head.
H: So when did you have the idea for your first documentary Dear Mr. President?
D: I was also constantly looking for brilliant ideas for a documentary. I talked a lot with a friend of mine, his name was Austin, and he was really encouraging me to come up with some documentary ideas. We used to brainstorm about it in the good times. When I finally went back to graduate school to finish, I was driving…I think that was 2003. I was driving from Montpelier, Vermont to see one of my brothers, so I was thinking about what I had been raised to do in my life, being a good person, being a humanitarian. My parents are extremely magnanimous with their time to causes they believed in. They primarily, in my minds eye, the longest cause they participated in was for the state of Israel and for the Jewish cause. So I am driving and along the way I am thinking “I wasted over 40,000 dollars in students loans, I have an idea, I think I will create a Peace Camp for Israeli and Palestinian teenage girls to come to the U.S. and use art as a mechanism to break down barriers between their enemy cultures”.
I was still in the movie business, but thinking I wanted to stop doing what I was doing in the movie business, so I could do something that really actually helped. Because while making movies can be a blast and it can also be the biggest drag in the world, I got this thing in my head like I need to leave something behind. What if I die tomorrow? What would I leave behind? A bunch photographs that people would not even know where I took them because I would not put the dates or information on them and I set everything Untitled for years and got in trouble for that with many gallery people. I came up with the idea of creating this Camp. So I went to see Jeffrey, told him the idea and he was like: “You shouldn’t do that. That is a bad idea Debra. Don’t do that. It is a bad idea for a lot of reasons. First off, nobody is going to support you and secondly, you need to start writing grants like tomorrow.” I am the kind of person that when someone tells you “You can’t do that” that just makes me want to do it.
I left there and I went to New Mexico and stopped to see two friends of mine. She was actually… Since I was a little girl because I used to misbehave just a tiny bit in High School, I was in her office a lot because she was the School’s Counselor. So I went to see them and we were having lunch and they are like: “So, What now? You finished your Graduate Degree… finally”. I said: “I have this really strange idea. I want to create a Peace Camp where we bring Israeli and Palestinian girls from occupied territory in Israel and we connect them together to live together for like a month and we use art and dialogue and sports, and that’s how they re going to break down their barriers. One by one they are going to start talking to the people in their town and their village and their leaders about how much more we have in common than we do as enemies.” So they are kind of staring me and I thought: “Oh, they are going to say the bad idea thing”.
Rick, the husband, said: “ That’s a great idea. I think we should host this idea on our property”. We came up with this idea, which is Creativity for Peace, which I wasn’t very crazy about the title but I went with it because I am crazy about those two people. For some reason that I don’t remember I was living at my parents house, and Rachel the woman of the couple calls me and she says: “ I’ve got 25,000 dollars donated from this guy Don Delaski”, “ Let’s do this! Rick and I want to host you, we are going to put the camp under our non-profit. I will start writing grants. Let’s talk.” and I was like “Okay. I will figure out about how to have a fundraiser”. So I called Ethel Shipton and I said: “Ethel, I need to have this fundraiser in San Antonio where I have artists donate”, she pulled it all together for me. I had it at my friend Kim’s house. It was pretty successful. We raised a good amount of money, 25,000 dollars from various fundraisers.
So we had about 50,000 dollars which meant we could barely get the girls here paperwork and out of there. So Rachel “hired “her long-time friend Anael and hired I use in quotes because that would indicate that we were getting paid but none of us were getting paid. We worked as volunteers for three years, she got our first group of girls: one girl from Gaza, a couple of girls from the West banks, and Israel. We had three years with two sessions each year, it was a long summer. It was a great pioneering experience, I learned a lot.
On the third year, I met this guy who does dialogue work with Palestinians and Jews. They sent some guy to me to talk about what we were doing at the camp, and one of them was a film producer and I was chewing on all these ideas about what I could do documentaries about. So we came up with the idea… because he made a movie with a guy from Israel who had a physical handicapped and they went on an RV across the U.S. to show him parts of the world. I had this idea with two of the girls at the camp, who were fifteen at the time, to take six of the girls in an RV across the country to meet our then President George W. Bush. We made the first documentary Dear Mr. President, we took five girls in a road trip from the West Coast to the East Coast to meet the president. I spent a lot of time getting that completed, I continued working on other people’s films.
H: What happened after Dear Mr. President? Where you looking to make more documentaries?
D: Well, I was working trying to get a couple scripts read but then the market fell, so that didn’t happen the market got to be really bad. I was travelling to Rhode Island and Boston and New York to work, then again L.A. Then Bessan, one of the girls in the documentary, was killed. Bessan was killed January 18th 2009. So Broken is the second documentary it is the follow-up sort –of for Dear Mr. President. I went back to the region and I interviewed the remaining girls from the first documentary who all met each other from Camp. They all attended camp two years in a row, so they knew each other somewhat.
So when Bessan was killed, we had a platform and I was heartily encouraged by every one of my friends to go do this. In about a week I raised enough money to pay for my dear friend Samantha, who shot Dear Mr. President with me, to come as a cinematographer.
We went over and we interviewed the four remaining girls, which had many challenges anyway just for the travelling for Haneen. I made BROKEN all the while I was making pictures and selling my work. I went back three times I think for the documentary, trying to get into Gaza to interview her family but also to get some important footage that we needed and the Israeli government would not let me in. They don’t tell me why they just didn’t let me in. The only way was through a tunnel in Egypt, which even I though was a stupid idea.
So BROKEN was completed in 2011. I have been trying to get it into film festivals here, which has been very daunting and has not been going well in the United States festivals. It is invited to show at one of the most important documentary festivals over there- the Al Jazeera International Documentary Film Festival in Qatar, where it will premiere in a few weeks. I am starting to plan some screenings here after I finish with the film festivals.
H: What is next in your career? Are you working on more films? What about you career as a photographer?
D: I will be going back to L.A. to work on some stuff and stay away from the heat. I am not sure what will happen after September. I have a book I am trying to option called Grayson, which is a beautiful story about a woman swimming in the ocean and her encounter with a baby whale and it is a true story. I would like to make it and it would be animated, so that will take me the rest of my life. I am trying out my writing this summer, I want to write more.
I quit exhibiting for six years. After my mom died, I needed a break of pursuing an exhibit and a sort of annual event where it is like you are getting married. It is just… there is no cake, there is no groom, there is no bridal party, and you are there trying to get it done, and sell something so you can have your money back and it is art so you know the whole Occupy movement the 99% vs. the 1%. That part of my business just took a nose-dive because of the economy and because I quit pursuing one-person exhibits or even trying to get my work out there as much. I have a gallery that I have worked with for a long time, I have a rep in L.A. that I have worked with for a long time, but it is a different kind of work, it is like for movie sets or putting the work in public buildings. This year, after my Fotoseptiembre show, I just decided: “I don’t want to show for a long time, and maybe ever again.” It just doesn’t appeal to me anymore. I feel like I have to focus more on my filmmaking career. If someone invites me to show I would say yes, I am just not going to pursue it anymore, because this next year is all about trying to get a couple of films off the ground.