Leslie Spurlock on capturing truth through photography NFTs

Ola Kalejaye
January 19, 2023
“NFTs opened my eyes to a whole new world” — Leslie Spurlock

From Haiti to Minneapolis, Leslie Spurlock's career in photojournalism has been spent documenting some of the world's most important events. She spoke with Ola Kalejaye about the challenges of the profession, why web3 has made her see her work differently, and the importance of telling the truth.

Leslie Spurlock is the kind of woman whose life experiences could easily be played out on the big screen; such is the life of an artist seeking out stories amid warzones, floods, and explosive historical protests. 

Leslie began to hone in on photojournalism during her time at photography school. Studying in the 1980s, a decade in which the USSR’s attempted invasion of Afghanistan dominated the news cycle, Leslie became inspired by the civilians caught up in the war.

“I was fascinated by telling the stories of people from other cultures, the stories of people affected by the war, not so much the war itself. I always wanted to make a difference for people and to be their voice ⁠— and photojournalism did that for me.”

A still from Leslie's Peruvian Amazon collection.

Her professional aspirations would have to wait, however. Leslie prioritised her family life coming out of school, which left little time for her photography. It was not until her children were 12, 6, and 4, that she felt that things were stable enough for her to finally follow her calling. 

Her first experience as a photojournalist came in the early 2000s, when she decided to pursue documentary work in Haiti. After an astounding false start ⁠— the organisation that she was getting ready to cover turned out to be illegitimate, and quite scandalous ⁠— she instead found work with a different nonprofit on the island. It ended up being a transformative project, and Leslie continued to travel back to Haiti in the following years.

“I always wanted to make a difference for people.”

— Leslie Spurlock

On her very next trip to the island, Leslie spent three weeks embedded with rebel insurgents who ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in a coup d’etat. Over subsequent trips, she witnessed gun battles, skirmishes, and a deadly flood. After surviving two separate attempts on her life, having fallen afoul of both sides of the conflict, Leslie cut short what she knew then would be her final trip.

While Leslie would have loved to continue her career as a photojournalist, the harsh economic realities of the profession made that difficult. “I go on spec when I go, so I have to finance everything,” she explains. “When I get published I have an agent that I split everything 50/50 with, and major outlets only pay $5 for an image nowadays. You have to do other things to make money unless you're a huge name.”

Bad Ass Female, from the 2020: A Year of Protests collection. This photograph shows one of the few female members of the NFAC who marched in Louisville, Kentucky, for Breonna Taylor.

Compounding this was the fact that Leslie got divorced a few years following her first trip to Haiti; something that she partly attributes to a lack of understanding of her challenging career. No longer able to support herself on a photojournalist’s income, Leslie took the job that many photographers do to make ends meet: shooting weddings.

She found that sharp change of pace largely unfulfilling. And though she was able to flex some creative muscles doing portraits  ⁠— and get her adrenaline fix by storm-chasing ⁠—, she longed to return to the kind of work that she had done in Haiti. After 14 years of shooting weddings, she made the conscious decision to stop on January 1st 2020: a wise choice in hindsight, to say the least.

“The biggest thing for me is that I want to tell the truth.”

— Leslie Spurlock

When protests broke out across the United States in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder in May 2020, Leslie felt called into action once again. “I went to the protests that first week in Minneapolis after it happened. I was actually just going there for me, to cover it for my own sake. I never expected to do anything with the images at all,” she recalls.

After a friend urged Leslie to publish the photos, she got back in touch with her agency. In total, she and her husband covered 17 protests across the United States. “I've always wanted to capture emotion and be there to cover history,” she says. “But the biggest thing for me is that I want to tell the truth about what is happening, and try to make the world open their eyes and care about other people for once.”

Burn It Down, photographed Leslie Spurlock. This image depicts one of the fires that Lesie and her husband came across when arriving in the 5th Precinct in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on May 29 2020.

2020 saw Leslie find her way back to her passion after a decade and a half. Unfortunately, the financial situation for photojournalists had not improved in that time. Despite having her images from the protests published all over the world, Leslie never got much in the way of compensation. In that way, Leslie’s career arc lends itself perfectly to the discovery she would make, just over a year after she returned to photojournalism. 

She discovered NFTs around August 2021 and admittedly, did not get it at first. “It made no sense to me at all. I didn't understand how this related to photography, because it was all PFPs, so I put it off for a while.”

Nevertheless, NFTs continued to appear on her timeline. Eventually, Leslie had seen enough to believe that this was where the art world was headed, and she was certainly not planning on getting left behind. After spending some time educating herself in this new sphere, she set about building a community in November 2021 and, by December 2nd, she had minted her first ever NFT on Foundation.

NFTs presented the solution to the problem that Leslie had been running into for years. Finally, she could do exactly the work that she wanted to, and sell it to people without having to acquiesce to the unfair terms set forth by legacy media outlets. NFTs have also allowed her to support her subjects in various ways that she could not before: while she still endeavours to leave as little trace as possible on the situations that she photographs, she is now able to make donations to the organisations that her subjects are part of, or help in other ways.

“NFTs opened my eyes to a whole new world. And it was pretty incredible.”

— Leslie Spurlock

The greatest gift that NFTs gave Leslie, however, was the ability to reframe how she looked at her own work. Now that she had experienced the joy of connecting with collectors and admirers of her work, she was able to truly appreciate it for herself. “NFTs made me look at my work differently”, she explains. “They made me realise that my work is something that should be displayed in galleries and should be considered as art. I never dreamed that people would want to own my work, so it opened my eyes to a whole new world. And it was pretty incredible.”

Leslie notes that it has taken photojournalists slightly longer to come around to the world of NFTs than artists in other disciplines; in part, because many of the most iconic photojournalists in the world do not own their work, but rather, the agencies that contract them do. In any case, Leslie is thrilled to see more and more photojournalists entering the industry.

If and when they do, there are certainly a few models to follow. One such model would see more photographers shoot on spec and retain ownership of their images, thus allowing them to license their photos to outlets and brands, while holding on to the ability to sell them down the road. At least, that is what has been working for Leslie… to an extent. “It’s been a little bit easier since I discovered that I could actually make some money through NFTs.” She adds, laughing, “Now granted, I'm a collector and I spent all my money on other artists, so I still have nothing, but it does help some!”

An image from Leslie's Hurricane Harvey collection. This image depicts people trying to save their belongings and children amid the floods.
An image from Leslie's Hurricane Harvey collection. This image depicts people trying to save their belongings and children amid the floods.
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Ola Kalejaye
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Ola is a US–based writer and digital nomad. He loves thinking, learning, and writing about all things web3, particularly its impact on major creative industries like film and art.