Interview with Photographer David duChemin

Happy Valentine’s Day, everybody! We thought we’d share the love with you (I know, groooaan) by having someone else speak on our blog. So we asked David duChemin, a respected world and humanitarian photographer (and a cool guy in his own right) to be our Valentine today and answer some questions. David dishes on his fave travel gear, the tough work/life balance in his job, and leveraging social media to build your business. David is also our guest speaker at the Persistent Vision photography event March 15-17, so if you would like to meet him, catch him in Alberta between his journeys around the world! There’s still space in the Saturday portion of this exciting weekend photography event.

20121203-Antarctica-626-Edit

Antarctica – ©David duChemin

Personal Stuff

oopoomoo: For our friends who haven’t met you yet, how long have you been a professional photographer? What is your area of interest in photography?

David: I’ve been a photographer since I was 14, but it’s been my vocation for about 8 years. I’m most interested in landscapes, and the people that live on the land. Commercially I’ve been serving the humanitarian community for 8 years, with clients like World Vision, Save The Children, and The Boma Project.

oopoomoo: How did you learn the art and craft of photography?

David: I’m self-taught, by which I mean I directed my own learning and didn’t go to school, but I think none of us are really self-taught. We learn from all kinds of sources. In my case it was largely distant influences like Ansel Adams, Yousef Karsh, and Canada’s own Freeman Patterson who was an early hero of mine.

oopoomoo: As a world and humanitarian photographer, you must be on the road a great deal. How do you balance the demands of travel photography with running the everyday components of your business and maintaining friendships and relationships?

David: I’m lousy at balance. But then I also believe you need to play to your strengths, so I’ve got a manager that does what he’s good at, allowing me to do what I’m good at. My life/work/play are all the same thing, so there’s no compartments. I stay in touch with friends by email and Skype and I’ve got a Satellite phone for more remote locations. But I also find a way to include my loved ones in what I do. I take my partner, Cynthia, around the world with me when I can. My manager, Corwin, is also my best friend, and I travel with him when I can.

oopoomoo: Do you have a particular fondness for any one country or culture that you’ve experienced?

David: It’s so hard. That’s like asking my to pick a favourite child. I adore eastern Africa. I love India too. But then I need the open spaces of places like Iceland or Antarctica for a bit too. This is an astonishing world, full of beauty. I want to see it all. But I also know I can’t see it all, so these days I tend to go back to places I love, at least a few times, so I can experience it as deeply as time allows. I’d rather experience 50 amazing places a little deeper than 300 far too quickly.

oopoomoo: In 2006, you began photography “as a vocation” (in your own words), leaving behind a successful 12-year career as a comedian. At first glance ‘comic’ and ‘photographer’ seem quite different professions. How did being a comic prepare you for life as a professional photographer?

David: To be a good comic you need to understand why people laugh, and how to communicate in such a way that they do. It’s a very intentional communication, and I think the same is true of photography. It also taught me a lot about marketing. If you think marketing yourself as a photographer is hard, try being a comedian! Both are creative fields and I think it takes some tenacity to live solely on your creativity; comedy taught me that.

oopoomoo: Why is photography a vocation for you? How has your passion for photography helped and hindered pursuit of your photographic goals?

David: The word vocation literally means “calling” and that’s how it feels to me. It’s not just my work but my life’s work. It’s a medium that makes sense to me, that feels right, and that – most of the time – gives me a feeling I call my “this is what I was created to do” feeling. I don’t think passion for something can hinder the pursuit of it. That passion nearly took me into professional photography far too early, and I think that would have killed my love for it. My time in comedy was important in helping me figure out what I wanted to do with my photography.

herding goats in Kenya

Kenya – ©David duChemin

Photography Stuff

oopoomoo: We have to ask…what is your favourite photo gear to take when traveling to foreign destinations?

David: If I could only take one kit it would be my Nikon D3s and 16-35/4.0 lens. I have bags and bags of other stuff, but this camera and lens just seems to do it for me. That said I’ve recently been playing with a compact Sony RX100 and I love it. I’m also picking up a Fuji X-Pro1 to take to Italy with me this year. One body, 2 lenses. I can’t wait.

oopoomoo: You’ve put forth the message that “gear is good, vision is better”. Can you explain what you mean by this? Can we ever love our gear too much?

David: I think it’s a question of what you want to do. If you’re a camera collector, then collect and love all the cameras you want. If you’re an optics geek, then knock yourself out with charts and tests. But I just want to make photographs. And if it’s photographs you want to make, then the camera is just a means to an end. Much more important is your vision, or intent. Photography is a visual language and for that to mean anything, the photographer’s got to have something to say.

oopoomoo: Are you a natural at approaching people to make a portrait, or is this a challenging area for you? What approach would you advocate for other aspiring world photographers in terms of photographing people?

David: I’m an introvert. I hate approaching people for a portrait. I fear the rejection, just like most people that aren’t either extroverts or sociopaths. But I fear coming home without the photographs more. And I think fear is a good compass. Often the things we’re most afraid of are the things we should be doing, not avoiding, because we tend to fear going out of our comfort zone and nothing good happens creatively in that comfort zone. The magic happens outside that zone.

oopoomoo: Who are some photographers who have either inspired you in the past or who you follow today?

David: At the top of my list is Elliott Erwitt. I adore his wit and timing. He’s like Henri Cartier Bresson, but with a sense of humour. The last photo books I bought were from Erwitt, Andrew Zuckerman, and Bruce Percy, whose landscapes inspire me tremendously. Lesser known, I recently discovered an Indonesian photographer named Hengki Koentjoro, and his work is really beautiful.

oopoomoo: Looking into the future, and the impact of technology on photography, how do you think photography will look in the future? Do you think the camera is going to be subsumed into another, multi-purpose communication device?

David: I’m not sure. But I’m really less concerned about what the tool we make photographs with looks like, and more concerned that the technology serves us in making photographs themselves. I think constraints are important to creativity, so I won’t be thrilled with advances that just layer feature on top of feature. I don’t use half of the stuff my cameras can currently do. I go on workshops all the time and a student will say, “Hey, do you use the such-and-such on that camera” and I’ll have to confess I had no idea it could even do that. Willful ignorance allows me to focus on what I love instead of the relentless learning curve, which tends to be about technology, not making photographs.

travel jeep and campfire

Jeeping Weekend – ©David duChemin

Business Stuff

oopoomoo: In your book, VisionMongers, you describe a somewhat meteoric rise from when you first set out to be a full-time pro and publication of that book. To what would you credit your success in a relatively short period of time?

David: I think “meteoric” might be pushing it a little, but it was fast. I think it was going into it very intentionally, with a solid background in running and marketing a creative business. In show-business they say it’s 10% show and 90% business. I think in photography, to do it as working professional, you have to be 100% show and 100% business. Comedy also gave me an understanding of what it means to leverage your personality, and I’d already been blogging for several years, so my ability to write, and engage with an audience was already honed to some degree. All of that helps.

oopoomoo: When you first started out, how did you know it was time to take the plunge to full-time?

David: In my case I really had no choice. I was going bankrupt, and was at the bottom of the barrel. The bankruptcy was an accumulation of a lot of personal mistakes that finally caught up with me. So it was a good time to switch gears.  Like I said, I was already making a living, day by day, in the arts, this was just a shift from one art to another. I gave myself a year to transition, and that was all it took. Had it not gone as planned, I guess it would have taken longer.

oopoomoo: Also in VisionMongers, you give an honest assessment of the difficulties in making a living (as opposed to a life) in photography. What do you think are three, big challenges facing newcomers today, and how can they overcome them?

David: I think the challenges are the same as they’ve always been, just a little more obvious. In the past there was a sense of being a professional tradesperson and competing against peers. Now there’s a flood of people out there who feel they know how to use a camera and are glutting the marketplace with mediocrity. But there’s always been mediocrity. And there’s always been people willing to pay for excellence. Instead of looking at the challenges, I prefer to look at the opportunities and with the rise of social media and self-publishing, the opportunities to create and share our work have never been better.

oopoomoo: You have been blogging since 2005, are active on Twitter and leverage Facebook. What are your thoughts on social media as a marketing tool for photographers today? Is it essential?

David: I think if you’re not actively building and serving an audience through social media, blogs, etc., you’re insane. What a missed opportunity to share your work with the world. Sure, not everyone can write. Do a video blog. An audio blog. Do a photo-blog. But build an audience. That’s why most of us do this – to create and share. And if you want to share, this is the biggest, cheapest, most accessible way to do with a global audience. It doesn’t mean you have to do it all. I do my blog, and I interact on Facebook and Twitter. I’ve tried Google+ and I might try it again, but you can’t do it all. Or at least, I can’t do it all. Not if I also want to do it well and meaningfully engage on some level.

oopoomoo: Thanks, David!

 

Maasai Mara

Maasai Mara – ©David duChemin

About the Author

Photographing the incredible beauty of natural things, filming quirky videos, trying new foods with unpronounceable names, curling up with a good book, sharing ideas on how to live lighter on the Earth...these are a few of my favourite things!

11 Comments

  1. Guy
    February 14, 2013

    The comment about lots of mediocrity out there and people still willing to pay for excellence…I wonder if this increase in mediocrity has not helped with the increase in appreciation of excellence.

    There maybe more opportunity for us to see what is available and thus allow us to compare. If I am able to compare a number of works then I am able to appreciate the excellence when I see it. Helps those who provide the excellence.

    Humble thoughts from one of the “mediocrity” but trying to get better!!!!

    Reply
    • Stephen DesRoches
      February 14, 2013

      Possibly. I know local studios that have been around for 30 years that are just now having their best years in sales, popularity and overall demand.

  2. Samantha
    February 14, 2013

    I think groups that traditionally bought photos always had a good eye for quality and excellence. But what I see a lot now is that lots of photographers themselves don’t strive for excellence or appreciate what it takes in terms of skill (and time to develop that skill). Colour and contrast rule whether the composition is junk or not. But we have no real way to describe and differentiate photogs who like taking ‘snapshots’ vs those who consider it a very challenging and fulfilling art form. That’s part of the issue and interesting aspect of photography today: everyone’s a photographer.

    Reply
  3. Tom Robbins
    February 14, 2013

    “Now there’s a flood of people out there who feel they know how to use a camera and are glutting the marketplace with mediocrity. But there’s always been mediocrity. And there’s always been people willing to pay for excellence.”

    Uh-oh… Unless David is going to clearly define excellence, his ship is going down.

    Reply
    • Stephen DesRoches
      February 14, 2013

      The buyer can define excellence in relation to their goals but without drawing hard lines, I think it’s ok to generalize that when something becomes more popular, it has to increase the mediocre. But that should not be taken as an insult or does it imply the work is terrible.

      I believe the point of the complete answer is in an industry full of tough competition, clients are still willing to pay great rates for great and unique work.

  4. David duChemin
    February 14, 2013

    Tom – I don’t think it’s up to me to define mediocrity. Nor excellence. My comment was made in context of a discussion about doing this professionally. It is, and always has been the marketplace that decides what is mediocre. There are two ways of pricing things. One is according to the “compete on price” model, the other is according to the “pay according to value” model. The market will pay less and less for mediocrity, and more and more for excellence. My point was that we can’t make a living competing on price, and that there is no room for mediocrity – leaving, as I said, room for excellence. If you’d rather use different words, that’s fine. Ultimately there is an astonishingly high noise to signal ratio out there and it comes from people selling their goods and services before the market is ready to pay a decent rate for them. This glut has led to frustration about how hard it is to make a living in photography.

    I have no issue with the reality that there are millions of new photographers out there. I love and champion the amateur. But when you enter a discussion about supply and demand, you start using different – not better – criteria to judge your own work.

    Reply
    • Tom Robbins
      February 15, 2013

      “I don’t think it’s up to me to define mediocrity.”

      David, you used the term. So yes, it is up to you to do exactly that. You have since established that mediocrity and excellence were used in the market context. There are many passionate amateur photographers these days who do not want remuneration for their efforts. Your clarification is a good one, and is much appreciated.

  5. David duChemin
    February 14, 2013

    And yes, Guy, I agree – where the market is flooded with mediocrity – or if you prefer, lower cost/lower value services and products – there is an equal desire created for unique/excellent/hig-value work.

    Reply
  6. David duChemin
    February 14, 2013

    Just to clarify, we all learn our craft at different speeds and for different reasons. My comment about mediocrity doesn’t come from a sense of elitism. I create enough of my own mediocrity to worry about defining what yours looks like. But whether in the context of the market, which is where this conversation occurred, or otherwise, I think excellence matters. I’ll define what excellence means for myself, as we all will, but in the context of the market, we’ve no such luxury. That’s all. Forgive me if I expressed it poorly.

    Reply
  7. The Soul Explorer
    February 14, 2013

    Awesome photos!

    Reply
  8. nate parker
    February 14, 2013

    wicked good stuff here: DD has long been a hero to me- should have asked him about his second big come-back tho makes for great inspiration. Cheers David!

    Reply

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