The following article appeared in summer/fall 2016 issue (#38) of Outdoor Photography Canada (OPC) magazine. Subscribe to get this great magazine delivered to your mailbox. The latest issue (#43) is one of the best yet!
I recently found myself pondering a rather strange question…would I still photograph if I could never share the resulting images with another soul? This thought got me thinking about why people photograph in the first place. Most of us do share our memories, stories, travels, and life events with others. Without an audience to view our pictures what’s the point of making photos? Indeed, among art circles there is the contention that for art to exist there has to be a ‘connection’. You can’t have connection without an audience. By this logic art can only exist if there is someone beyond the artist to view it.
The point here is not to debate whether art needs an audience to be art but rather to get to the fundamental question of why we photograph, or why we create in the first place. Beyond recording memories and experiences, I suspect we photograph for many different reasons just like people write or paint or compose music for many different reasons. And, as with other art forms, I think we photograph because of internal and external motivations at heart.
Henry Darger was a custodian by day and a painter and writer by night. He spent most of his adult life creating fantastical paintings and writings in his spare time, and no one around him knew anything about his creative life. It was not until after his death when his landlord came to clean out his room that his art was discovered. Henry did not create his pieces with an audience in mind; he kept his art to himself and made his art for his own pleasure or more likely for his own therapy to work through his difficult childhood as an institutionalized orphan. Darger’s motivations and reasons for creating art were internal.
I wonder if there are few Darger’s out there in today’s era of social sharing. I can think of plenty of artists, probably the majority, who produce work for external reasons. They feel they have something to share with the outside world whether that’s simply to share the joy and beauty of nature as they see it or to make social statements about the world around them. They make art showcasing how they see the world but knowing at the time of creation that they will present their work to the world.
There are dangers to both approaches. For those who do it purely for internal reasons there is a danger that what you create will be too personal for anyone else to understand should it ever be seen. On the other hand, because the work was not created for an outside audience it will be pure of intent. When producing work to share with others the results are often more accessible but there is the likely possibility that the responses of your audience will inform the content of your art. I see this latter point a lot in photography where social media responses to a photographer’s work colour what and how they photograph. Personal work that does not get a lot of ‘likes’ is abandoned for a style of photo that generates many positive responses. There is the real danger of creating homogenous and predictable or fashionable and trendy work.
In the end, I think we all need to look at why we photograph and what camp of artists we generally fall into. Are you a navel gazer or a social sharer? Once you know your true motivations you can then try and avoid the pitfalls that lie in wait with either approach. In my own photography I started out making images purely for my own purposes without expectation or need to share. Later on my photography became all about sharing what I saw with others. It soon began to feel like I was creating for an audience and not for me. I am now returning full circle to creating for internal reasons and I feel a new spark of inspiration. Will I ever share this new work? It’s hard to say but for now I am creating a new body of work just for me and it feels great. So would I photograph if I couldn’t share the results with anyone else? The answer for me is a resounding yes! What about you?
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.
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.
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.
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!