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David duChemin: Vision is Better

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David duChemin is, in his own words a nomad, a world and humanitarian photographer, the accidental founder of Craft & Vision, and let me add, the author of multiple books and eBooks about photography. I had a chance to interview him recently for Phototuts+. Here are some revealing answers from one of the great voices on developing better vision in photography.

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"Gear is good, vision is better" is David duChemin's motto when it comes to photography. The photographer, known for his inspiring writing about the craft of photography, is also the founder of a unique publishing house, Craft & Vision, and more recently a magazine that goes away from beaten paths named PHOTOGRAPH. I had some questions in my mind, about all these things, and David duChemin was willing to answer them. I've to thank Corwin Hiebert who made this possible in such a short time. And thanks to David for sharing his Vision with us.

Q You're a called a humanitarian photographer. What is a humanitarian photographer to you?

I think it begins with a priority towards the human – the idea that I photograph people with kindness and respect, but it’s also been a way to communicate what I do as a photographer, and for the last eight years that’s been primarily as a visual communicator for the humanitarian community, creating photographs for clients like World Vision, Save the Children, and the Boma Project.

Q When and how did you start to photograph? Did you already have in mind that this could be a way to make a living?

I was 14 years old when I first picked up a 35mm camera, a Voigtlander rangefinder. It made sense to me, and felt right in my hands. After that I was hooked and shortly afterwards was given a used Pentax Spotmatic, my first 35mm SLR. For a couple years, I played with the idea of being a working photographer, but eventually spent time in a studio and realized it was more business than it was making photographs, and I wasn’t interested in that at the time.

In many ways, I am so glad I avoided going to school for photography. I think it would have taken the fun out of it for me. It wasn’t until 2006 that I made the transition back to photography, after 12 years in comedy and a 5-year diversion in theology school.

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Q Who are your clients these days? Have you somehow changed direction over the years in terms of your photography or are you shooting what you wanted to in the first place?

Right now I am my biggest client. My accident in Italy took me away from assignment work and I’m only now returning to it, but even that is slow and I’m still trying to make sense of it. My goal, as counter-intuitive as it seems, is to work exclusively pro-bono for the NGOs of my choice so I can work for smaller groups and maintain creative control. The rest of my work goes into my books, eBooks, and blog articles, as well as fine-art print sales and some stock.

Q You're working with NGOs and also doing "world photography." I guess you'll, sometimes, come across some difficult moments in terms of the subjects or people you have to photograph. How do you approach working in sensitive situations?

Because the work I do with people is about people and not primarily photography, I place my priority on treating people with respect and kindness. I am not a journalist or even a documentary photographer, so being objective isn’t remotely one of my goals. I want to get close, to connect, and at times, when the camera isn’t the appropriate tool, to do that without making a single image. But that’s rare.

It’s important to remember that these people have worked very hard to build relationships of trust with each other and the NGOs don’t hire me to jeopardize that. I think being able to read people and communicate without language is really important, and that focus on the people, not the photographs, in the end makes for stronger, more honest photographs.

Schoolgirls packed high on a cycle-riskshaw in the crowded streets of Old Delhi, India

Schoolgirls packed high on a cycle-riskshaw in the crowded streets of Old Delhi, India

Q Craft & Vision is a name people easily associate with David duChemin. Many eBooks available on the market appear under the C&V label. You also launched PHOTOGRAPH, a quarterly digital publication for creative photographers. Did you ever dream that your first eBook efforts would become what C&V is today?

Not even remotely. It began with a “what if…?” I wanted to learn InDesign and I’ve always loved teaching, so I put 10 short lessons into a format I thought looked good, thinking if it worked out I might put it on my blog.

Almost 4 years later we’ve got over 50 titles and something like 17 authors under our banner. It’s been tremendous fun to build this, but I think that’s the case with the best things we build. They take on a life of their own and surprise us with how much we love the labour.

Q The Craft & Vision experience makes you a publisher. You're also known for your skills when it comes to speaking to audiences. Publisher, photographer, educator - which adjective fits you best today?

I think those all work. I try hard to be those things. If I were to pick one, I would hope it would be something a little broader, and a little more inspiring than simply being a publisher or a photographer. Storyteller, perhaps? Artist? I want to light fires under people and see them create amazing photographs, and live amazing lives.

Delhi. Two older men drink chai at Nizzamudin Shrine.

Delhi. Two older men drink chai at Nizzamudin Shrine.

Q You're a constant traveler, from Kenya to Iceland, everywhere passion takes you. But in 2011, you had a nasty accident in Italy, when you fell from a high wall, and had to go to rehab for a long period. Did you, at that exact moment or during the months after, feel that your life as a traveler and photographer was finished? How was it to get back on your feet again?

I had some really dark nights while I was in hospital. Most of the time, I was really positive and I’ve never been really good with saying I can’t do something, so most of the time I was sure I’d be back on my feet, but some nights I’d go to sleep with so much pain and fear that I’d cry myself to sleep.

But while the loss of traveling would have been terrible, I also know I can write and that can be done anywhere, without the need to walk. And I love writing, so I knew that no matter what happened I’d still be able to create.

Getting back on my feet seemed to take forever and I spent several months just crawling, but stepping onto the plane to head to Laos and Cambodia five months after my accident was a huge relief. I still limped, and I had a cane and wheelchair to help get me through the airports, but I made it there and back. It’ll be a couple more years of rehab before this sorts itself out, and even then I don’t imagine it’ll ever be the same. But what is? Life is about change.

Q Your time in rehab has given fuel to two eBooks published within that period, The Inspired Eye 3 and Vision is Better 2, which partially reflect on the things you were going through. Reading through them one understands the experience has changed you. Have you made new decisions about how to lead your life after that?

I was already drinking the “life is short” kool-aid before the accident, but I think I’ve become even more intentional about living my life on my terms since the fall. People are more important than ever. And I waste less time than I used to. My decision-making process has become much more binary – things are either a “Hell, Yes!” or a “No,” now. Life is too short to do things I am not good at, or don’t enjoy doing. I think seeing the brevity of life makes it that much more valuable, that much more beautiful.

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Q "Gear is good, but vision is better" is a phrase associated with you. It is the motto for your eBooks, articles, even titles like Vision is Still Better, where you admit your overuse of the word. How do people achieve vision in photographic terms?

I’m not sure we achieve it so much as discover that it’s already there. Our vision is nothing more than the way we see the world. On an image-by-image basis, I think it’s our intent for our photographs. I think “intent” is perhaps an easier word than “vision” which is metaphor and is sometimes just a little too artsy for some.

Thinking it’s some grand thing can get in the way, can make it intimidating for some. The question, I think, is not whether we have vision, but what our vision is, and how we can best express that with our craft.

Q Can vision be expanded through the study of the work from other photographers?

Very much. Or at least I hope so. One of the things I hope for my own photographs is that it shows people the world the way I see it. I hope my photographs open some eyes now and then. It happens to me all the time. I see a photograph and it changes what I think or feel, and in small increments it changes my vision.

Two more interesting questions for photographers are, “how can I clarify my vision,” and “how can I learn from others how to express my vision in honest and unique ways?” I think what’s important is not that we answer those questions once and for all, but that we’re constantly asking the questions.

A woman prostrated herself in prayers at the Sufi shrine of Nizamuddin Darga, Delhi, India.

A woman prostrated herself in prayers at the Sufi shrine of Nizamuddin Darga, Delhi, India.

Q Who’s been an inspiration for your photography? How do you stay inspired?

So many people. My mother, my family, my friends. Photographers like Elliott Erwitt or Galen Rowell. Painters like Monet or Canada’s Group of Seven. And more often than not, just random people I find online that I’ve never heard of, yet they’re making amazing photographs that open my eyes just a little more. Right now I’ve got a photography crush on Hengki Koentjoro, an Indonesian photographer who makes some truly beautiful black and white photographs.

Q PHOTOGRAPH is a magazine like no other, with big photographs and little text on pages with images. We know it reflects your passion for simplicity in photography presentation, but is it a project that can compete with regular photo magazines? Does it intend to?

I don’t like the idea of competition. Perhaps because every effort at competitive sport in school ended badly for me. I have a knack for injury, but more than that I just don’t care. Winning someone else’s game or playing by someone else’s rules never appealed to me. I was about six years old when I started playing hockey. I was told the idea was to keep the puck away from the other team, so I did the sensible thing and sat on the puck when it came my way.

The other photography magazines all do their own thing and for those that like that kind of thing, they serve a need. I created PHOTOGRAPH because it was the magazine I wanted to read. I think there are better ways of making money, and making art, than pandering to advertisers. I think people will pay for something great. And I think there’s an audience out there that’s savvy enough to know that you can’t master photography through a constant stream of “Top 10 Landscape Tips!” and “Shoot Like A Pro with these 3 Steps!” We won’t compete because we’re playing a different game.

Hmong girls overlook schoolboys playing games during Tet. Sapa, Vietnam.

Hmong girls overlook schoolboys playing games during Tet. Sapa, Vietnam.

Q Your first fine art book, SEVEN, launched recently. It is a retrospective collection of the personal work you have done over the last seven years on seven continents. What do you want to tell people with this book? For you as a photographer what does it represent?

This is the first time I’ve done a book on my own, and put down my own money to do it. So while I did it as a legacy project and with the hope that others will enjoy it, I did first as an act of creation. I needed desperately to create something that wasn’t primarily educational.

My first question with educational books is, “how can I make the best book for my audience?” With SEVEN, my first question was, "what do I want to create?" So I got to choose the paper, the binding, the font, everything. And in the end I got a book that I’m so proud of, one that’s as much a pleasure to hold and flip through as it is to look at the images.

What it represents is a look at the world as I’ve seen it these past seven years. I think it reflects a beautiful, diverse, world, and a photographer whose own vision of that world has changed as he has. Or I hope so, anyways.

Q What is your advice for a photographer just starting out?

Fiercely protect yourself from the gear-trap. If I could teach photography from scratch my students would have a 30-year old, fully manual, 35mm SLR with one lens. They’d shoot black and white film for a year and the only digital camera they could touch would be an iPhone. And for every how-to book they read, they’d read and absorb one book of actual photographs.

I’m not even remotely a purist, and I shoot 98% digital these days, but I think gaining a foundation is harder when there are no constraints and too many distractions.

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Q People following your work know that Jessie plays an important part in your life. Do you have plans for the future that involve traveling with Jessie? Where to?

Sadly, Jessie was sold this spring. She was a beautiful, but deeply troubled, 1992 Land Rover Defender and she broke my heart and my wallet in the end. We had some great adventures and one day I might get another Defender, but Jessie’s been replaced by Emily, a newer Jeep with fewer mechanical issues.

We traveled to the Canadian Arctic last fall and will do that again for a month this fall, too, to find some adventure and photograph the turning of the leaves and the Northern Lights. I’m also toying with the idea of an around-the-world trip in 2015 or 2016, but that’s a long way off. Whatever we do, there’ll be some great adventures to some beautiful places. Canada’s a vast, beautiful place and I plan to spend a little more time here in the coming year.


In Closing

A big thanks goes to David duChemin for participating in the interview. We didn't have time to talk about the workshops he conducts, but if you're interested his next one is in October and takes place in Oaxaca, Mexico. To learn more about the workshops, his publications or his other work visit davidduchemin.com.

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