VICTORIA, BC, CANADA
We are truly honoured to have world & humanitarian photographer, nomad, educator and author David duChemin as part of our interview series at ARC. David met us over Skype to talk to us about how he lives his life with intent, a life of zero regrets and how pursuing his curiosity is at the very foundation of his life.
In this first part we discuss David’s move into photography after a 12 year career as a stand up comic, how he decided to become a humanitarian photographer, survived a bankruptcy and how falling off a 30 foot wall in Italy has given him the best 5 years of his life since the accident. Part 2 is out on Monday February 29th 2016.
Interview by Sachin Khona // February 2016
Photography Work & Practices
Hi David. thank you for joining us at ARC and being a part of this photography series. can you tell us Where is home for you? And where you work?
Home is a bit of a transferable concept. Home is wherever my wife and I are at the time, but when I’m off travelling, my things are in Victoria, Canada.
My work takes me all over the world from a couple hours away from Victoria to the other side of the planet. In the last 5 to 7 years I’ve hit every continent a couple times, so it’s fairly broad in terms of where my office of the day is.
Have you always lived in Victoria or was there a conscious choice to move to where you live?
I lived in Vancouver for years and later abandoned the big city. Before that I grew up mainly in Ottawa Valley in Ontario. As a young adult I visited British Columbia and realized this was the place I belong. Last year we made the move to Victoria purely because of the economics and the slower pace of life.
There is something about this particular coast, how rugged and kind of shaggy and wild .. the warmer climate doesn’t hurt.
I think in my heart I’m a ‘west coast, cedar forest, swim with the sea lion’s’ kind of person, not a ‘dig out from the latest snowfall’, kind of person.
In what way does location influence your work?
I think we’re all inspired by very different things and as much as I am a city person, I would much rather photograph in Venice or Rome, than here in North America.
I find there’s a sameness about things in North American culture that doesn’t particularly stir my paint creatively, whereas I find the light and certainly the history in places like Rome get me much more curious and excited.
I think curiosity is key. I’m just not excited by the visuals of Vancouver, which I love and will very happily spend time in, but it won’t be with a camera in my hand. But, different people come from all over the world to photograph something like Vancouver. If I’m in Vancouver I’d rather put my scuba gear on and go diving and photograph something a little more wild than the city itself.
When did you know you wanted to be a photographer?
When I was ten my dad gave a little point and shoot, 110 format camera. The quality was awful but you could stick it in your back pocket and it was easy to use. There were two settings: wide and telephoto and it got me hooked. I remember spending all my allowance on film and developing. Mercifully these 110 cameras didn’t come with a lot of accessories so I was limited to just buying film. Then at 14 I picked up a 35mm rangefinder Voigtlander and I got totally hooked. From there it was a Pentax. Then the ball really started rolling and now I have rooms full of gear.
Did you pursue a professional career straight away?
It started with cameras and just playing. The medium made sense to me and so I started paying more attention to it. I always bought the National Geographic as a kid. Suddenly I was seeing these photographs as photographs and imagining the life of the photographers behind them. Eventually I was on track to “becoming a professional photographer” and at the last minute I kind of bailed. I was going to go to Ryerson for their photography program.
I had a job shadowing experienced photographers and it was at the time, very disappointing but profoundly positive. The fact that I realized that so much of being a professional, working photographer was not photography. It was all of the other stuff which I wasn’t interested in doing: filing the negatives, sweeping the studio floor and all of that stuff. So I ran off to theology college and spent 5 years studying theology.
Then I became a standup comedian for 12 years and had a bit of a zig zaggy path.
I’ve certainly had my own kinda weird shaped ‘arc’ as my story’s progressed and then one day it just made sense for me.
I had always maintained my passion for photography but as someone who is purely interested for the love of it and not for the money.
One day the two kind of coincided and I had the chance to photograph in Haiti. I was still doing comedy but I came back from that trip profoundly changed and realized this is what I want to do. I want to tell stories, I want to use photography to communicate something more important than the jokes I tell from stage.
I made a transition and went straight into humanitarian photography, which is not the most lucrative way of making money in photography, but it is deeply satisfying.
Things have rolled from there and continued to zig zag but that was the point I transitioned.
What has been the most defining moment of your career? or do you feel that there was a turning point or a series of events in your life, where you felt you were on the right path in regards to photography?
There’s been a lot of little turning points and I would certainly call all of them somewhat defining. One of them of course was Haiti – it stirred my imagination, it gave me hints of the possibilities because I had become fairly good at my craft. I had the tools to tell these stories but I had no idea what kind of stories I wanted to tell.
I knew I wanted them to be important and to be a reflection of personal things I value things like compassion and kindness. Suddenly this was an opportunity.
On one small week long assignment in Haiti – I photographed kids and volunteers. Looking back, the work I produced was not my best work remotely – it was beginners work – but it was enough to ignite the spark in me.
So that would certainly be one of those turning points.
I came home and told everyone I was quitting the stage. A year later I had my first major client and was working as a full time humanitarian photographer.
Another defining moment was the accident I had 5 years ago in Italy. I fell off a wall while photographing and shattered both my feet. I went into physical rehab and surgeries and it has been a long, sort of parallel journey. But it has been defining and truly the best 5 years of my life since then.
It has slowed me down and it has further galvanized my belief that life is short and beautiful, and needs to be lived on as much as possible, on our own terms. Doing the things that we love and value, photographing the things we love and value, and telling stories of things that are important to us.
That incident would definitely be one of them – as well it kind of galvanized and solidified that belief and that journey.
I imagine you already had those beliefs before the accident but this gave you even more affirmation for the path that you are on?
You’re right, it absolutely did and I think the accident and the years subsequent to it have just made me more intolerable [laughs] to the people around me.
I used to preach those sermons and tell people they need to live intentionally, and pursue their art and their lives and their family intentionally.
Now the passion and the conviction with which I tell those stories and preach those sermons has gone up to 11.
I believed them before, but now I’m kinda all in on it.
Do you feel that because of the accident and what your belief system is now that your style has also changed?
I don’t know that my style has changed because of those things. I think in some fashion my style is always changing. I have never pursued style. I think style is a natural byproduct of pursuing our vision and evolving as artists, but certainly the things that I have photographed over the last couple of years have changed.
I have started to pursue more artistic / interpretational photography, so I’m doing more abstracts and more impressionism. Initially I was photographing almost exclusively cultural and humanitarian stuff, and I remember writing in my first book ‘Within The Frame’ that I really had no interest in landscapes and wildlife. Now I find myself spending more time doing landscapes, and in the company of sea lions and grizzly bears, than I do on humanitarian client work so that has shifted.
In part it’s an intentional shift because I really believe that if we are going to save the humans, we also have to be active in saving and protecting the ecosystem in which we live.
The more time I spend with the other beings with whom we share this planet, believe that they on their own are separate from their connection to us, and are worth protecting.
So I’ve spent more time in the wild, purely based on what I would call an expanding compassion, a compassion that includes the wild and the creatures with whom we share this planet.
Do you have a designated workspace / office and have a picture you could share of that?
I have a dedicated small little tiny spot that I work from.
So much of my work now as a photographer is teaching and writing and so my workspace is coming from a place where I store all my tripods and back drops and gear, to more of a contemplative office space where I process my work and I write and I print.
When I’m home my work doesn’t involve cameras very much. It’s when I travel that the cameras come out and I pursue the photography.
WHAT inspires and motivates you?
That changes from day to day. I would say it’s driven by my curiosity.
Some days it’s a new book. If Sebastião Salgado comes with new book like Genesis, that would inspire and motivate me for a long time, until that leads me down another path and I start looking at others work.
Experiences are very important to me. I don’t want to be that guy that gets to the end of his life and ever regrets not seeing something, not being a part of something, not doing something.
I’m spending a lot of time scuba diving. I started learning two years ago, as sort of a bucket list thing that I wanted to pursue.
Just not knowing something inspires me and motivates me tremendously. I’m naturally very curious and I think it’s probably why I picked up the camera , it’s a tool for magnifying my curiosity.
When I travel I’m greatly inspired by other cultures, other expressions of culture.
I’m motivated by the experience of the new and the unknown. And when things are difficult and challenging and others may not want to pursue it, I kind of get motivated by it.
As soon as someone tells me I shouldn’t do something, I kinda want to do it. It doesn’t always work out but it’s an inner drive that I’ve learned not to ignore, because more often than not, it leads me to new things, new experiences and I think, stronger photographs.
I feel that the camera is just a tool in some way and it’s kind of gives me the permission to get out there and explore and to create. It’s more the camera takes me, than I take the camera.
In some sense, certainly that has been more true at other points in my life.
These days it’s actually the journey takes me and I bring the camera as a bit of a sidekick. The camera is important to me but more important to me is the journey and the story and the unexplored.
I love playing with my cameras but I will just as happily go with less. In fact the gear has never been that important to me, but it’s become even less important to the point where I am now very happy with a Fuji xt1 and kit lens, than I am with several thousand dollars of Leica gear because I’m less precious with it. I don’t mind bashing it around and I’m not always thinking or worried about changing lenses.
Just one camera and one lens, because the less it gets in the way of my journey and my travels and my curiosity, the better.
what creative training do you do outside of your work?
That’s a good question. I think we train our creativity in a lot of different ways. My creativity gets trained primarily by pursuing anything that my curiosity leads me to.
I do a lot of reading and a lot of hands on learning. If I decide I need to learn something like scuba diving, I will figure out who the best person is to teach me and I will go and learn.
I think the best possible creative learning is just doing what we do.
I learn more from picking up my camera and trying something new, failing a few times and then finding my voice with that particular tool. Or I realize that particular tool has nothing to offer me specifically, but it leads me somewhere else..
I have been photographing for thirty years and the best creative education I get is just ongoing, trying new things, fail, fall down, you know, go somewhere with my camera and try something new.
brilliant. You definitely come across as a very curious person. how do you find time to pursue all the things that might strike your curiosity?
I have made pursuing my curiosity the very foundation of what I do in my life.
So if I’m writing a new book it’s because something in my curiosity has lead me there. If I’m photographing a new personal assignment it’s because my curiosity has led me there.. and then you find ways to monetize it.
I have tried very hard to live a life, where I don’t need words like “work-life balance”.
When I come home from these trips and the guy at Canada Customs asks “was it work or pleasure?”, I always feel like such a jerk because [laughs] I can’t just give him the answer he wants. Because honest to god, I don’t know which it is … everything I do is in some way both work and pleasure ..
I don’t look at myself as having a job. I look at myself as having work and its intertwined with the things I am passionate about. I also recognize that’s a luxury that comes after failing a number of times, going through bankruptcy and learning some hard lessons, over some very hard days.
I would encourage people to always keep the things that they want and the things they are curious about, as the goal, not just a side project.
Life is too short not to do the things we love, but life can also be too long not to do the things we love. So you better make your choices intentionally, rather than ad hoc.
When you are on these different adventures I imagine you can get stuck creatively. what’s the first thing you would do to get unstuck?
Two things. First I would recognize that I’m stuck and not get down on myself. The creative life has rhythms, ups and downs and if you’re in a down, then you need to treat it like you’re in a down and not gang up on yourself. Not get into that cycle of self-loathing and depression or whatever .. Artists are so good at that. If we give ourselves permission to be in that and recognize that’s the time we need to dig ourselves out.
To use a metaphor or analogy, if we are in a car and stuck in a rut, just spinning your wheels isn’t going to help, you need some different momentum, you need from a different place and you need to turn your wheels hard in a different direction to get out of that rut.
So the first thing I do is impose a new constraint. I think constraints are absolutely critical to creativity and so if I am stuck, I will give myself a new theme.
If shooting in black and white, I will switch to color. If I’m shooting wide angle, I’ll go tight. I will do anything to spin the direction and find new momentum that take some different direction.
Even if it eventually goes nowhere, it will get me out of the rut and then I can steer a moving ship.
I think constraints are vastly underrated as a discipline for creative life.
I’m getting the idea you definitely, through your work and through your life, follow your curiosity, excitement and intuition throughout everything and follow where that leads you. you definitely listen to your inner voice and where it can take you.
If there are two things you’re likely to pick up about me is that I’m very curious and very intentional.
I think we listen to a lot of different voices in our lives.
We need to be intentional about which ones we listen to and which ones we give weight to – because not every voice is helpful to us and not every critical voice is helpful – so I try very hard just to be intentional.
Sometimes I make mistakes and I pick the wrong voice, but for me the most important voice in my life is that thing on the inside, that is pushing me to find new direction. It’s my own voice that says “I like this, I don’t like that, I wonder what happens if I do this or do that”.
That voice is the fuel that pushes me.
The other voices help keep me on the track. “Am I going the right direction?”
I’m sure I drive some of my friends crazy because I ask their opinion and I do the exact opposite. A little bit like if you can’t make a decision then you flip a coin, and if you’re disappointed by the result you know which one you really wanted.
It’s a helpful tool to measure my desire for something. It shows me my blind spots. They are absolutely right that usually it takes screwing up on my own to realize that.
I think following your own voice is incredibly important but I think doing so to the exclusion of the wisdom of others can be very dangerous. I take the voices that I respect and from photographers that do work that I admire, in a way that I admire. I will listen to them.
The internet is full of voices and I can only listen to so many voices. I’m going to listen to the ones I respect, that comes from a place that I respect.
How do you know when a piece of your work is finished and needs no additional work?
I think when it scratches the itch that initially made me start that work. When I look at it and it no longer feels like its lacking and it has done the thing for which I have created it. That will be different for every piece.
But I do tend to be a get it done kind of person so I don’t dwell for very long. Having said that I also have no problems with revisiting my work.
Right now I’m doing a second edition Within the Frame and many of the photographs in that book were exactly what I wanted at the time. Now the person I am has changed, my standards have changed, my vision has changed and so I find myself taking some of that work and refining it.
Technology and Lightroom has changed. So I’m reprocessing my images and some of them are finding their best expression now as black and whites rather than color and vice versa. And some are just getting deleted from the book entirely because they just no longer do it.
Everything for me is quite an organic process.
If my opinion about individual images have changed and it becomes in a sense, a new piece of work, then whatever is driving me to make those changes, I revisit it until that itch goes away.
Are there any key lessons in your career that you would like to share or is there a best piece of career advice you have been given?
You need to stay open. Things changes, we change, the economy changes.
One of the things that I notice online is as soon as something changes, people start griping and bitching about how unfair this new business model is.
“Micro stock is killing everything.”
“People that work for free are killing everything”.
My opinions is, you go to boat and you’re on a particular kind of water and that water will change … its your responsibility to keep that boat afloat and in the direction you want it to.
You can’t blame someone else’s business model for your failure.
If someone comes up with a new business model tomorrow that makes the eBook market completely irrelevant, I can either complain about it because I make a great deal of my income selling educational eBooks or I can realize that the water is taking different direction, that my boat is taking on water and I need to do something about it ..
Stay open, stay curious, stay creative. Be as creative in business as you are in your photography and be open to dramatic course changes.
Things happen. You fall off walls and suddenly you can’t work. How open are you to pursuing new things?
Multiple income streams are very important too. Just having all your eggs in one basket on one particular kind of client can be quite dangerous if suddenly the bottom falls out of their particular industry.
There’s no reason why we shouldn’t have multiple income streams so that when those waters get a little turbulent, we have even more things to keep us afloat.
Do you have a photograph burned in your memory you never took but wish you had?
Many, many, many .. Sometimes you don’t react fast enough. And sometimes you make the choice not to react and make photographs.
I consider myself a fairly compassionate human being. Sometimes for me the right response is not raising my camera. But do I wish I had a photograph of those things? Yes, of course I do. It doesn’t mean I didn’t want to raise the camera.
However, I can’t think of a specific example. They happen often enough. Internally I have a struggle between I really want to make a photograph and it’s just not the appropriate time in my space and humanitarian photography
I’m not a journalist. I don’t need to tell every story. I need to tell the story the client needs me to tell and most often those have to do with hope.
I’m not a documentary photographer. I don’t do the darker stories that need to be told (but not by me). So how I do my work is respectfully and compassionately as possible and defaulting to sometimes putting the camera down.
If I were in a situation where I had a choice between picking up the camera and making a photograph .. and just doing something compassionate, intervening and participating, I would rather participate in life.
That’s not to say that is the only response. It’s just the way I am wired.
There have been a lot of photographs that I have missed because I have chosen to participate in things and just to enjoy the moment.
I was diving a couple of weekends ago for the first time with sea lions off the coast of Vancouver island here and I made a lot of photographs. But there were also times I put the camera down and lay with and engaged with these incredible sea lions because I didn’t want my only experience of that time to be making photographs of sea lions.
I wanted to be interacted with participating with, enjoying the moment, with these incredible animals.
There are times when the camera needs to be put back in the bag and you need to just enjoy life.
Can you share one creative tip that you use when you are working?
I’m going to go back to the idea of constraints.
The embracing and even creating constraint for ourselves is probably the most significant thing I’ve ever incorporated into my creative work.
We as creatives so often want to work outside of the boundaries and perceived boundaries, we want to kick against the rules or perceived rules. I truly don’t believe there are rules, but I do believe in imposing your own constraints on projects.
Creativity is like a muscle. It needs something to push against, something to solve and if you want your work to be more creative and more interesting, give yourself a more interesting problem to solve.
THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR YOUR TIME DAVID!
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