Photographer Timothy McGurr, who goes by the moniker 13th Witness online, isn’t your average daredevil Instagrammer. He doesn’t like being pigeonholed as any one type of photographer — and don’t even try asking him what type of camera he uses.
Whether he’s shooting Manhattan from the edge of a helicopter seat, or Beyonce backstage, McGurr’s style straddles the spectrum of immersion. At a time when many photographers carve out a specific niche and then define themselves as such through their work, Tim’s style is hard to pin down. His feed hints at intimate portraiture one moment, then shifts the viewer to a scenic snowstorm the next. Yet it’s McGurr’s adventurous attitude that consistently shines through, attracting more than 666,000 followers on Instagram and plenty of commercial clients.
We caught up with McGurr to talk about some of his wildest photographic adventures, how he got into the world of photography, and his recent travels to India.
Business Insider: It seems like so many photographers simply stick to one style. You don't see as much of a range in subject matter in photography with a lot of other people these days.
Tim McGurr: I'm the kind of photographer who will shoot what I like. If it catches my eye and it interests me, I'll shoot it. I don't discriminate if it's a person, (or) if it's a place, whatever it is.
It's all fair game to me -- I'll shoot anything. I like to show the beautiful side of the world, and then the not-so-beautiful side.
BI: You went to Japan after high school and you ended up staying for 4 years. What's the story behind that?
TM: In high school I started to kind of f--- around. My father thought that it would be a good idea for me to maybe take a trip to Japan. I was close to not graduating high school because of attendance (and) other issues. (But) I made a push and graduated. And then two weeks later, I was out to Fukuoka, Japan, to do a homestay with a family.
After a couple of weeks I was like, 'Man this place is special.' I was really immersed in the culture. It just made so much sense to me, and I didn't want to leave. And then I met a Japanese girl and that's when everything kind of took a turn, you know, because I stopped working. On a return flight from a trip to Hawaii I remember trying to come back to Tokyo, and I was in line at immigration and they just came up behind me. They had a printout of every entry and exit over the last couple of years. They had me in a room to question me and they wanted to know what was happening, was I working illegally?
BI: They got you doing visa runs.
TM: Yeah. Over the course of several years.
BI: And then you're out.
TM: That (run-in with immigration) was abrupt and unexpected. When I got sent back home I was legit confused like, 'What do I do with my life now?' Suddenly, I found myself back here in New York.
A friend of mine who worked for a TV network managed to get me a job freelancing. After a while, the TV company promoted me to full-time staff.
BI: Which some would say is more of a burden rather than a blessing.
TM: I did not look at it as a blessing. I looked at it like, 'Wow, you know what, this is not my destiny.' I didn't go (to) Japan to come back to work on TV. Freelance was fun, but I wasn't going to be shackled by Viacom. I had to tell them no. And so I quit.
And right when I quit, that's when I took a leap of faith into photography. From that moment I went a thousand miles an hour into photography, shooting every day. Going out, walking around shooting, shooting, shooting, shooting.
Soon after, I started to get paid for my (work) and that's when I realised like, 'Whoa, I can do this.' Fast forward a couple years later, and I was on a trip to San Francisco doing a video shoot. A friend of mine showed me this app, he's like, 'It's called Instagram.' So I downloaded it, and this (was) right at the beginning of Instagram, and nobody knew what it would become.
BI: What was your experience like being on Instagram at the beginning?
TM: Well, right now there's a lot of people who, if it weren't for Instagram, wouldn't be shooting. They would be taking pictures, they just wouldn't be making money. It's a good and a bad thing.
Everyone thinks they're a photographer, but even before Instagram I was taking pictures and making some money. Instagram only helped that.
BI: How do you decide which pictures to put on Instagram?
TM: It's a toil. I definitely overthink it all the time. A lot of people (have) started photography because they were inspired by me. It feels incredible to be able to inspire and make people want to do that. So I don't look at it as, 'Oh let me just throw this up.'
I definitely put pressure on myself and feel a great responsibility when I (post images) because I'm influencing other people. And that's something I don't take very lightly. I'm very serious about it. I've kind of moulded my followers, and I know what they expect from me, and what (images) will do well.
BI: You have your independent, non-commercial, work that you put on Instagram. In your mind, when you post commercial, how is that different for you?
TM: I don't comment or caption my photos really ever. So if I hashtag a brand to my followers, they see it from a mile away and I don't want to seem deceptive, I don't want to become some salesman for someone else's brand. That's not what I want to do, but this is my job. This is how I earn money, and I've got to earn money to survive. There are moments when I have to make tricky decisions to take a paycheck.
The most important thing is aligning with brands that make sense, and finding a way to create something with them that works organically. I'm not just an individual -- I'm also (my own) brand. And one of the trickiest things is being able to separate the two, but at the same time keep them blended together. That's why I like to do a lot of work with Nike because I love sports, and I love working with athletes. Plus not for nothing with Instagram, but, it's free. I'm not charging people. You're getting all my s--- for free.
BI: What are your thoughts on 'Instagram kids', the photographers who take pictures from the highest buildings and bridges and what not?
TM: The groups of kids who climb buildings or rooftops are the same kids who climb all the bridges here in the city. They climb the Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Williamsburg (Bridges), and I mean the pictures are incredible, but I don't know, it's f------ scary, you know, doing that.
I feel a sense of responsibility. Whatever I do, there's going to be kids that are going to (want to) do it. So if I'm climbing rooftops (I'm) not setting a good example -- God forbid some kid climbs a rooftop and falls -- I don't want to be the guy that he was aspiring to be. I try to shoot things and do things in a way that (my followers) can also do it.
BI: You said you're afraid of heights. How do you explain this picture?
TM: Honestly, when I'm in the helicopter it can go two ways: certain days I get really scared, and then other days, I don't really feel (that) as much.
(We fly with) doors open, harnessed in. There are a lot of people who (are) literally hanging out, letting the harness hold them. I would never do that. I want to be in the helicopter looking out, but I don't ever want to feel like (the) harness is holding me. I want to be holding myself. It's like riding a roller coaster.
BI: What was the craziest experience you've had while shooting?
TM: One crazy time for sure was 2-3 years ago. You familiar with the Hell's Gate Bridge?
BI: Yeah, the train bridge connecting the Bronx and Queens.
TM: I went there with a bunch of people and we climbed up onto the tracks and there's a high-speed train that (goes across it). It's kind of a tricky spot when you get (up) there because you have about 10 or 15 minutes of walking before the tracks split up and you've got some room to go on each side. At the beginning its very narrow, and you're elevated on a bridge so you either have to jump off, or you have to hang on.
This one time, the train came and we had to jump off and hold on to the side. The train was passing by so fast I remember my eardrums pretty much popped. That was really scary only because I had friends of mine come (along) and one of them brought his girlfriend. I felt really guilty for that because we were all in big danger at that point.
BI: Not a very good date for your friend.
TM: No, definitely not.
BI: I notice you don't write about the interactions you have with your subjects.
TM: I don't. I mean, I could. But the way I see it is, I'm not writing, I'm taking pictures. Sure, I could write something, but to me, a lot of times writing can take away from the photo. I like to present the photo and let the viewer decide for themselves what they want it to be.
BI: What question do you hate being asked in interviews?
TM: 'What camera do you use?'
BI: So, what camera do you use? Nah, I'm just kidding. What's your favourite lens?
TM: 24 millimetre.
BI: Where do you get your inspiration from?
TM: New York City itself, movies, music, kind of, you know, everything. When I see something, I can visualise it in my head (as a photo) like nine times out of 10. I already kind of see the end result of what I really want -- not just the framing, but the colour tone and the mood of it. So if I can't even visualise it, I won't really be that inclined to shoot it.
BI: Your Instagram photos get thousands of 'likes' and hundreds of comments -- you obviously have a major presence on the platform.
TM: Yeah, but it's been a major dip (in activity) recently. A year ago I was averaging maybe 30,000 likes (per photo) and getting 300-400 comments per photo, and things have really changed. I've had tons of conversations with friends of mine, peers, everybody like brands, all across the board everything is kind of going down right now. I don't know if that's because Instagram got bought out by Facebook and they're changing their algorithms. There's a lot of things that are going on right now that people don't like.
Even Instagram made a blog post saying that 70% of people's feeds go unseen by their followers. So I mean something's happened in the last couple of years that has made the engagement go down. But, the people are still there.
BI: What do you plan on doing when you have a million followers?
TM: I don't know. I mean fortunately or unfortunately I've got a little bit of time. The problem really is that I'm not posting as frequently as I'd like to be right now, but I'm also trying to kind of pump the brakes a little bit and strategize.
BI: How do you see the future of photography on the Internet?
TM: I definitely see things taking a shift right now with people jumping from one app to another. Who knows, maybe there will be another app that will come out and dominate everything.
I can see things becoming more and more accessible -- or, it could go in the opposite direction. Sometimes, I feel like the technology is moving too fast for people to digest and there's just an overload of content. Everything is kind of saturated (right now).