October 30th 2008 by Andrew S Gibson
World Vision photographer David Duchemin captures the soul of travel with his beautiful photos. He shares his insights into the world of travel and NGO photography.
David Duchemin’s work goes beyond mere photography. He has an artist’s eye that seeks out the beauty of the places he visits – and wonderful, intimate shared moments with the local people that he encounters on his journeys.
His blog is required reading for any budding travel photographer or photojournalist. David writes candidly about his profession and day to day experiences – short of being there yourself there’s no better way to learn about his job.
David’s portfolio is truly stunning. You’ll want to pack your camera and fly to these places tomorrow!
How would you describe your photographic vision? What kind of look/atmosphere/feel do you try and create in your photos?
I’d describe my vision as reactive. I see something that makes my heart or my brain do a double-take, something that moves me – and then I set out to put that into the frame. I hope that in terms of what others feel about my images that words like hope and emotion come into play. In terms of aesthetics, luminosity is important to me – the desire for my images to look like they once did on light tables; I want them to glow from within.
When did you start taking photos? What made you decide to become a photographer?
I had a 110 camera when I was a kid. Shot rolls and rolls of nothing at all, pure junk. But I loved the process. Later when I was 14 I bought a used Voigtlander rangefinder at a garage sale and I was hooked, started photographing actual subjects, learning my craft. I’m not sure it was ever a decision, more like a dream.
One day I woke up and realized I was living it. That sounds like pure drivel, but it’s true. In fact at one point I made an intentional choice not to pursue this as a vocation. I still someone ended up here. It’s a calling.
Name three photographers you like and why. Who inspires you?
Ami Vitali, Steve McCurry, Yousef Karsh. Ami for the emotion she captures, Steve for the light and texture, Karsh because, well he’s Karsh. I was weaned as a photographer on Karsh and the simple evocative stories he would tell with one face, through lines and tones, hooked me when I was 16. Like many photographers working in humanitarian work, my initial inspiration had much to do with McCurry’s Afghan Girl on the cover of the National Geographic; it’s a testimony to how powerful a photograph can be as an agent for witness and change.
How did you first get involved with working with World Vision? What motivates you do this type of work? What advice would you give photographers that would like to work for charities or NGOs? What’s the best way to get started?
Let me answer these out of order, if that’s ok. What motivates me is the children I meet assignment after assignment. I was just in Nepal working with World Education Nepal and I met children working picking trash, in carpet factories, as porters carrying rocks down mountainsides, and on and on. And you meet these kids and see them smile and laugh and hold your hand – it remains impossible to be OK with the reality of their daily lives.
These kids, and children all over the world, without any intervention, will live on pennies a day, get no education, and die young. Meanwhile we’re back in the so-called real world tuning out on our iPods and bitching that our stocks are losing value. It’s an insane imbalance.
So I shoot to in part to change the world, and in part so the world doesn’t change me. Not sure if that makes sense – it’s passion for the vulnerable and excluded, and an inability to let it just be.
As for working with World Vision, I was contacted by the agency that does their campaign work on the strength of some past work. Frankly I think they took a chance on me at the time and I’m so grateful.
As for advice – shoot what you are passionate about and don’t think for a minute that this is going to make you rich. Most NGOs have children to feed and underpaid field-staff to pay – paying a photographer his day rate plus expenses is a tough sell. The best way to get started is to shoot, create a portfolio, and meet as many people as you can. I wish there were a magic formula, but there isn’t.
Travel photography can be a tough profession to survive in financially. What business lessons have you learnt in your freelance career? How has the current economic crisis affected your work?
My world-photography doesn’t really contribute to my livelihood these days. My bread-and-butter is my NGO work; the rest is just my creative need to photograph people, places, and culture. I sell prints or the odd license, and have just started selling through stock agencies, but my real money is in NGO assignment work.
The current economic crisis hit while I was in Nepal and I’ve yet to see any real fallout. As for business lessons – avoid debt, keep the belt tight, and don’t fall into the “more gear is better” trap. Study marketing like your business depends on it, not like a hobby.
You have a lot of black and white photos in your portfolio. The general consensus seems to be that colour images sell best, especially if you’re selling them through a portal like Alamy. What’s your take on this? Is there space in the market place for high quality black and white travel imagery?
That’s funny, I was just looking at my work and wondering when I stopped shooting B/W. I assume you mean my toned images. You’re probably right, colour sells better. But I create based on my vision not on what sells.
I don’t mean that to sound arrogant; I’d love to sell more of my work, but I’m in this for the long-haul and for me I think that implies a need to serve my vision first, the market second. Is there space in the market? Absolutely. The question is which space – the pennies-an-image micro-stock? Probably not.
What’s your favourite place that you’ve ever taken photos in? The hardest? The most frustrating? The one that affected you the most emotionally?
I love India. There is just no comparison. It’s so big, so chaotic, so colourful, so diverse. But if I were to get on a plane to shoot something tomorrow, I’d go back to Lalibela in Ethiopia. It’s like stepping back (way, way back) in time. Magical.
The hardest so far was Tunisia – I love photographing people and they were very resistant to photography there. I loved it, but it was tough. Most emotional – my first NGO assignment in Haiti. It still has the power to bring me to tears.
What are the three most important qualities that a travel photographer needs to succeed in this business? What advice would you give to an aspiring travel photographer at the start of their career?
Looking at it as a business, I’d say you need a great product, an ability to market yourself, and some financial wisdom. As a craft, which informs whether you have a great product to begin with, I’d say you need a willingness to do the time and learn the technical stuff, learn as much as you can about composition; and love and relate to people with grace and ease. Of course, my answer might change if I think about it longer, but I’m going to blame the jetlag for these answers being less than lucid right now.
Where is your photography going? What future photographic project or projects are you excited about?
I wish I knew! My passion for my work is only growing as I get older. I want to keep shooting the people and places of this planet – particularly in the harder places. I’ve got a book about the passionate photography of people, places and culture coming out in 2009 and part of that book includes me doing a whirlwind round-the-world trip this January.
I’ll be photographing in 6 countries over 30 days, and I’m particularly excited (and nervous!) about that. The other thing that particularly excites me these days is the Lumen Dei Workshop I run with Matt Brandon. Last year we took a team to Kashmir, this year to Ladakh, and next year we’re discussing running a couple new and very exciting trips.
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All photos Copyright © David Duchemin. Please ask the photographer for permission to use in any way.