Local photographer Steven Spencer is soon to embark on a year-long world tour. During the trip, he’ll primarily photograph ballet dancers.
Steven Spencer is an Ozarks boy, but one with a global soul. “No matter where you live, you have to go somewhere else in order to bring something back,” he says. “You have to travel just to see where you belong.”
That perspective is soon to grow by leaps and bounds: This week, Spencer — that’s what he goes by — begins a year-long world tour that starts in Springfield and will take him through four continents. He’ll be accompanied by a friend, as well as his camera; the latter will be used to share his world with the rest of it.
But those photos aren’t ultimately what the trip is about for him. “It’s about meeting people,” he stresses. “It’s about the experience.”
Wandering for a reason
This isn’t the first trip Spencer has made. He talks of his time mingling in Detroit’s worst neighborhoods, visiting locals who were homeless but for an abandoned Packard plant. He mentions stints living in Texas, New Mexico and Florida; even an accidental train trip from Springfield to Memphis when he was 13 years old. “I thought I was going to the other side of town, but the train never stopped,” he says with a chuckle.
His nomadic spirit took him on a journey through the “back door” from Panama to Cuba in January 2015, allowing him a unique opportunity to photograph the Communist country — but also got him nearly arrested when the local police thought he was spreading propaganda. Even that scare didn’t quell his thirst for adventure. “If you want something interesting, you’ve got to be prepared to go after it,” he says.
And go after it he does, albeit to places slightly off the beaten path. He’s the first to admit that. But there’s a reason why he chooses those places. “I go to where the people are,” he says of the sights and places that have shown him a whole new world. “I have to see this stuff for myself. I don’t care where it is. I have to see it for myself.”
And what he’s seen, he’s shared: After all, as a photographic artist, a lot of that life has been witnessed from behind the lens of a camera. “I photograph my footprint,” he says. “Where I’m at, what I’m doing. What I’ve seen.”
The man behind the lens
Spencer looks for inspiration wherever he goes — and often finds it, such as this trio of Christmas musicians who wandered into the Mudhouse. In order to capture authentic images, he often avoids bringing the camera to his eye. That way, people don’t pose.
Laid back, personable and often clad in a trademark brimmed hat, Spencer is a regular in Springfield’s music scene. His frequent presence — earning him the nickname of Gypsy Photographer — is felt both on and offstage: If he’s not wielding his harmonica with his band, The Ozark Sheiks, he’s time-stamping moments with the help of his camera.
That love of photography dates back to 1973, when a friend’s dad gave Spencer his first camera. It was also the year he graduated from Hillcrest High School, an achievement which was followed by a career in the Navy. His military service, however, was ended by a horrific car accident that shattered both his legs and caused doctors to predict he’d never walk again.
But he did.
The next few years launched him through apprenticeships to learn cabinet making, a trade which he still practices today. In his younger years, demons such as alcoholism and drug addiction also sapped his time and energy: But finally, enough was enough. “I had nothing,” he says. “I lost everything I owned. I had the clothes on my back, and they were dirty. I just figured there had to be a different way to live.” He decided that surely he could quit for a month. “30 days turned into 23 years,” he says.
Spencer never married, although he came close three times. He doesn’t have kids, but he has battled cancer. And at 56 years old, he graduated from Drury University with a bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts in 2011. “I wanted to go back (to school) because I knew I was falling behind,” says Spencer. “I had to go back for my head.” Two years later, a master’s degree was also added to his resume.
Spencer created “A Great Day in Springfield,” a photograph of around 220 local musicians, as a part of a capstone project for his master’s degree in 2013. It was a means of historic preservation, but it was also an opportunity for connection. “Even for that brief moment, it brought people together,” says Spencer. The project was based on a 1958 photograph entitled “A Great Day in Harlem,” and was repeated in 2015. Want to learn more about the “Great Day” Springfield project? Watch this story by Ed Fillmer.
Through it all, his camera’s been by his side. Literally, because one of his hobbies is street photography. “When you’re out photographing in the street and I put my camera up, you automatically know I’m taking a photo of you,” says Spencer.
But he doesn’t want people to pose, so he doesn’t raise the camera to his eye. Instead, he simply keeps in mind the lens’ focal range, and shoots from down at his hip. Three shots are usually all it takes. “I already know what it’s going to (look like),” he says.
Special projects, special people
Over the course of a year, Spencer shot Springfield’s ballet dancers in a variety of unconventional locations. Entitled “Ballet & Modern Dancers in Places Where You Don’t See Them,” the project ultimately gave him a worldwide audience through social media, as well as many connections for his upcoming trip. “Facebook has hooked me up,” he says. “It’s stupid crazy. I just looked at (people) as Facebook friends, but now all of a sudden I’m going to meet these people.”
But that kind of photography isn’t what Spencer is best known for: In 2013, he began a project entitled “Ballet & Modern Dancers in Places Where You Don’t See Them.” The photographic series, which took around a year to complete, featured local dancers in unconventional locations such as grocery stores, libraries and coffee shops. And in the end, “it worked,” says Spencer. “It freaking worked.”
Worked, in this case, meant success. Social media shared his images with the world, making Spencer a magnet for followers from faraway places such as St. Petersburg and Athens. “They loved what I was doing,” says Spencer. “I couldn’t even wrap my mind around it.”
Those connections help lay the foundation for his upcoming trip, during which he’ll work with ballet troupes to expand the Springfield project. He says shoots are already set up in Russia, Greece, Hawaii and Australia, and he plans to connect with ballets in other countries as he goes along. “This trip will build momentum and have a life of its own,” Spencer predicts.
Recognize these locations? They’re just a few images from the project. To see more of the collection, visit Spencer’s website.
The journey ahead
Making such a trip wouldn’t be a quick decision for many people, but Spencer made up his mind one night soon after returning from Panama. “I always look for a new adventure,” he says — and originally decided that an 80-day trip around the world would be a great plan. “And then I thought, ‘Why the hell would I want to do it that fast? Why not enjoy it, make it an adventure?’ And it just kept growing from there,” says Spencer.
But to begin: After driving to Kansas City, Spencer will take Amtrak to San Diego. From there, it’s a flight aboard a cargo plane — an affordable option due to his veteran status — to Hawaii. Next up is Australia, which is followed by boats and hitchhiking to places such as Vietnam, South Korea, Russia, Cambodia, Beijing, Indonesia, New Guinea and Thailand before, “like a pinball machine, just hit every country I can,” he says.
One might wonder how Spencer plans to pay for the trip. “I live below my means, and I always have, so I can do stuff like this,” he says. His friends initially suggested that he turn to crowdsourcing to subsidize some of the expenses, but he’s glad that idea really didn’t work. “Because now I’m going to do it on the wing, which is going to make it even better,” says Spencer. “And I don’t owe nobody nothing.”
Making the experience count
London is the last stop, and it’s where Spencer will wrap things up with an art show. It’ll be filled with pieces he’s brought from Springfield, as well as work he’s gathered from local artists along the way.
After that, Spencer plans to return to the Ozarks — after all, “all roads that leave Springfield wind up back here,” he says. Who know, once he’s back, maybe he’ll use his images to make “a coffee table book that people only look at once.”
But that won’t be how he measures the trip’s success: For him, money isn’t a motivator. “If I started doing it for money, it would turn to shit,” he says. “So I’m just doing it for me.”
Not being dependent on financial results has given Spencer a license to be free — something he says is a wonderful thing. And it reaffirms his belief of not waiting for tomorrow to live one’s dreams. “You can do anything you want,” he says. “And you don’t have to wait for the right moment. Because the right moment is right now.”
After all, “we don’t really have much time here,” emphasizes Spencer. “And we don’t want to waste it.
“I have got to make it count.”
Want to follow Spencer?
Be sure to follow Spencer’s journey on Facebook: Be one of the first to “like” his page that’s especially dedicated to the trip!
Photos used by permission of Steven Spencer