If there has ever been a photographer as comfortable at the apex between Turn 1 and Turn 2 of the Springfield Mile as she is at a trailer park karaoke bar in Nashville, it’s Yve Assad. Superbly talented, with an ability to adapt to any shooting scenario, Yve has captured some of the most well-composed, photojournalistic images in the motorcycle industry. We’re also pretty certain her Southern charm could get her out of any tough situation. Yve has produced work for clients such as Ford Motor Company, Harley-Davidson, Alpinestars, Filson, Patagonia, The Wall Street Journal, and Road & Track Magazine. We caught up with her in Nashville to talk shop and understand her unique journey.
Iron & Air: Every photographer has a unique journey; can we start with where you are from, and how you were originally introduced to photography?
Yve Assad: I was born in Northern California, but raised in small-town Georgia from the time I was four. My dad shot slide film, and almost every weekend he would set up the projector for a slide show. My favorite photos were the ones he took of our road trips out West. We went everywhere in our blue ’75 FJ40 Land Cruiser. I would sit on one of those back fold-out seats, with my pig-tailed head bobbing around while I slept. I was too young to remember those trips, but having the photos made it real. Those images stuck with me my whole life and definitely sparked a lifelong need for adventure. When I was a junior or senior in high school, my dad gave me his small Nikon kit. I honestly never thought I was creative because painting or drawing didn’t come naturally, but I was able to find a creative perspective through photography, which was really cool and exciting.
I&A: How did your background inform your creativity at a young age?
YA: My family was all about travel, new experiences, trying new things, and learning what was outside our little small-town bubble. I’m extremely thankful for that. When we weren’t road-tripping, we were introduced to other cultures and history. And we spent a ton of time outdoors, camping and hiking. It was fun and definitely ignited my curiosity for life. I’m still a kid that way. Later on, I discovered independent music, and that became one of the greatest creative influences of my life. Seeing performers like Sonic Youth, Fugazi, and Mos Def play live was a colossal education, not just in music, but in art, subcultures, politics, and fashion. My family gave me a good foundation, but music opened the world up to me in a totally different way.
I&A: How did you start photographing motorcycles?
YA: In photojournalism school, I was introduced to Danny Lyon’s body of work, The Bikeriders, and a switch went off. I was so drawn to his gritty black-and-whites of the Outlaws in the ’60s. With barely any exposure to motorcycles growing up, I found those images so intriguing, I had to explore that world. I found an old biker bar pitched on the side of a mountain in southern Appalachia and just started driving up there to shoot. The people were cool to me and didn’t mind having their photos taken, so I would just hang out and shoot. It was a wild experience.
I&A: How long did that project take?
YA: About a year.
I&A: What did you learn about yourself in the process?
YA: It was really the first time I had to engage with strangers by myself from a photography standpoint. I learned having a camera was a great way to meet people, but also to remain a fly on the wall. I like to observe people and places. I’m gregarious but introverted. I love meeting new, interesting people, but have a small threshold for small talk. I don’t like a lot of attention, so being behind a camera is a way to get out there without having to be in the middle of a scene. Photography was a perfect path for me.
"Self-promotion can feel artificial, so I just try to do good work, and hopefully it speaks for itself."
I&A: What were some of the early obstacles you faced, and how did you get beyond them?
YA: Confronting people with the camera and asking for permission to take a photo was really intimidating at first. I thought they would always say no, but quickly learned most people love having their photos taken. I continued to put myself out there and gained access to some fascinating people and stories. It became one of my favorite aspects of the job, and now it’s second nature.
I&A: What are your favorite — and least favorite — parts of being a pro photographer?
YA: The freelance hustle is hard sometimes, but the work is so rewarding. Coming from the photojournalism world, I was a “Lone Ranger” for a long time, doing everything by myself. Once I started working and connecting with other creatives, they pushed me to be better, and my work just progressed. The business of being a pro can be a grind: knowing how to get yourself out there, how much to charge … We all want to concentrate on the art, right? But it’s part of the deal, and the greatest lesson of my career was asking for help. Self-promotion can feel artificial, so I just try to do good work, and hopefully it speaks for itself.
I&A: Do you think there is such a thing as a “big break”?
YA: I think some people have big breaks and others have a steady rise. There’s no right or wrong way. The advice I give to photographers starting out is: create what you love and believe in, and the work will come to you. You might have to shoot some uninspiring bullshit to pay your rent, but stick with what you love and things will fall into place.
I&A: What is your ideal professional project?
YA: If a project offers travel, the outdoors, good people, and a new experience, that’s gold to me.
I&A: What is the next personal project you will share with the world?
YA: I’m working on a continuous project photographing the American South. I grew up in the South and tried to get as far away as possible when I was a young girl with a love for punk rock and plenty of teen angst. But after living in a lot of other places, the South called me back, and I appreciate it more and more the older I get. It’s definitely not perfect, that’s for sure, but the land is beautiful to me and the people are generally really kind. I want to capture those familiarities and what sets it apart from the rest of the country — even its imperfections.