When is it too late to throw yourself into what you love? Do we cross a moment in adulthood when we put aside our longings for the long haul? Do we have to? In the early 2000s, Andrew Roth was working full-time as a product development engineer in Milwaukee. He had established a practice of sequestering all his vacation days and taking an extended trip once a year. “I would come up with the craziest trip I could. It wasn’t like going to Cancun kind of trips. I was just trying to go off into the weird, remote, quiet places and see the way the world really works,” Andrew recalls. “I could walk up to somebody and hear what their story is. The camera gives you that pass. So I just fell in love with not only traveling but then really meeting people on some intimate level even if it’s just a little conversation you have with somebody.”
The outlet succeeded in allowing Andrew to relax and continue to learn, but after some time, it demanded more than his post was willing to accommodate. “I had done this long enough that every Monday morning, when I would come back to work after being gone for three weeks, I would sit down on my lunch break, start looking at my photos, and remember that feeling of ‘oh man, it’s another year before I have enough vacation time built up.’ Then, as an engineer, I’m doing the math in my head. I’m keeping this list of all the places I want to go to, and I’m thinking, ‘There are too many places on this list, and I’m never gonna do this before I die if I only do one trip a year,’” Andrew explains.
The timing wasn’t functional, and his heart wasn’t in engineering anymore. When I ask him about the moment he decided to quit and immerse himself in art, he remembers thinking, “If my heart is in photography, and I’m trying to figure out that path in life … you only get one chance at this, so I quit my job and decided that I was just going to do photography and the photography that was important to me. Not owning a portrait studio on Main Street or something like that. I wanted to go out and really see the world.” At 36 years old, Andrew made the decision to leave his engineering job, not having sold a single photograph.
Andrew’s subject has always been indigenous peoples and societies that have resisted modernization. “I put this plan together to really dive into different human cultures that have somehow remained the same, so the first big trip I went on was to North Africa. I went to Morocco.” Having hired a driver for three weeks who guided him to markets and camps, Andrew was able to get to know some Berber people and learn about their ways of life. “Berbers are essentially the ethnic group of non-Arab indigenous people north of the Sahara Desert. Some live normal modern-day kind of lives, but there is still a population of Berbers that are nomadic and live a real, traditional life.”
The time in Morocco catapulted Andrew toward promoting his material back home and, therein, landing on his feet financially. He knew he was hearing narratives that were not being represented in mainstream art and culture back in the United States, so he pushed to display his work throughout the United States.
Reflecting on the collection Morocco: Timeless Berbers, Andrew maintains, “[Morocco] is a Muslim country; it’s 99 percent Islamic faith. So I came home with all these photos, and I started exhibiting around the country. The subjects of many of these photographs are people of Islamic faith. These people and this faith aren’t focused on. You hear all sorts of feedback in terms of how it’s received. But that was the whole point—to go out there and present something that is different.”
At the same time, Andrew’s portraiture communicates a universality to human experience. In his compilation Cambodia: Not Forgotten , Andrew seeks to honor the millennia of cultural history of Cambodian people as well as their suffering at the hands of Khmer Rouge during the mid-1970s. In our conversation, Andrew challenges common tendencies. He shares that some of the most rewarding experiences can’t be attained by remaining insular and sitting on the couch. Moreover, he states that by watching television, one could think the world much more dangerous than it is. The fear of foreign people and places, he says, is unfounded. “For all these little villages that I end up traveling through, what I always find is that there’s just this commonality of life. Like in my neighborhood—I live in West Bend—obviously, I want it to be a safe place. You don’t want trouble to happen. If you’re in some village in the middle of Cambodia, those people want the same thing. They want a peaceful place to live.”
That message continues to pull Andrew around the United States because he wants folks to see his portraits and be moved. “If I can touch somebody in Texas, you know, make some emotional connection with them, then that’s a win. You take pictures—you do photography—to share it. It doesn’t matter who I’m sharing it with, if they get it, they get it.”
The best way to access Andrew’s work is at andrewrothphotography.com .
Elissa Koppel is a freelance writer and a local artist.