Editor’s Note: David DuChemin is a world and humanitarian photographer whose works and books have empowered, motivated, and inspired countless photographers to pursue great art — and, more importantly, a great life.
This Christmas, I had the honour of meeting up with the legendary DuChemin to share some drinks and talk about the past year, the new year, and how to make 2015 count — and I got to do it in Venice, Italy.
EXCLUSIVE TO MATADOR NETWORK: Use the code MatadorSTW25 to get 25% off all digital products, including the book See The World — promotion starts Feb 22 and ends 11:59 PM (PST) on March 1.
Kate: You’re back in Venice. You said it was the 5th or 6th time you’ve been here. Why Venice?
David: I think I like Venice because by nature it’s so labyrinthine. Not just as a photographer — I mean, it’s beautiful. But it’s not just the possibility of getting lost, it’s the very necessity of getting lost, and I think for me, that’s part of what I like about travel. If I wanted to stay somewhere familiar, I’d stay home. Going to a place that lacks, or at least has a different kind of homogeny than home does, but also just forces you into a discovery and exploration because it’s so unfamiliar. So, for me, it’s a place where every day I can get lost. Along the way, there’s spectacular food, and there’s great wine, it’s a very sexy city, and the light here is truly beautiful. So all of that combined with the sound of the Italian language, it just puts me into a sensory overload.
Even on the 5th, 6th visit?
Even more on the 5th or 6th visit, because the first couple of visits I was so scared of getting lost. My version of getting lost was just going from the hotel to Piazza San Marco, and I felt like I was getting lost even though I was on these well-trodden paths. Now, into five or six visits, I feel a rare freedom, because I know that getting lost isn’t truly getting lost. There’s only so many roads in Venice, you can eventually come back to your place.
You mean because it’s an island.
Yeah, it’s, you know. There is so much possibility to get lost, and it’s like a kid in a department store, but you’re not going to get so lost that you’re not going to see mom again. And so I find here that the longer here I am, the more free I am. It’s a little like creativity. Creativity happens best within constraints. I think here, getting lost, there IS the constraint of the fact that we’re on this island. You’re not going get that lost. Within that, there’s a great freedom just to photograph and see what there is to see, knowing that at the end of the day, it’s not that hard to get to a central landmark.
So that’s why I love it. I don’t think most places in the world are that different from it. I mean, Paris is the same way. You can find your way back from the Eiffel Tower or the Champs Élysées or wherever your metro stop is. Then, within that, you have such a freedom to get lost. And that’s what I love about photography as well as just travelling is that ability to getting lost and exploring and discovering. I think getting lost is fundamentally human, but when you have a camera in your hand, it gives you an even further motivation to do that.
Have you ever been legitimately lost?
I did have one experience in the Amazon when we were looking for something and —
You just went to the Amazon looking for something?
Well, no. We were in the Amazon to go build a school for street kids years ago.
Oh, you’re young in this story.
Very young. 18? Pre-life. This was my initiation. We were running through the jungle and we got kind of separated from the rest of our group, and there was a moment where I felt so deeply, truly lost. And when you’re in the jungle, it’s very different than if you’re in a city. The urban jungle is a metaphor, but it’s a really crappy metaphor, because the jungle has, like, you know, panthers.
In the end?
It was fun. The only part that wasn’t fun was that moment of realization of, “Oh my God, we have no idea were we are, and no one else knows where we are.” And yet, it remains one of the biggest, and in my own mind, one of the best stories because we were so lost. You know, I continue to come back to this idea of “What doesn’t kill you gives something to blog about.” It’s a good story, it’s a good adventure. And the only one that’s not a good story or a good adventure is the one from which you don’t return. You know, by then, you’re probably dead and don’t know it anyway. So go and get lost and see what there is to see.
Do people still warn you when you go on trips, like, “Oh, be safe?”
Oh, I get warned all the time! All the time. Except, I got “Be careful when you go to Haiti and Ethiopia” and all over. However, the only place I wasn’t warned about was Tuscany, which is where I had this accident in Pisa. I fell off the wall, I broke my feet, and I carry this Medjet evacuation policy, and I thought that I would probably get hauled out of the Congo with a bullet hole or something. No one ever said, “Watch out for Tuscany!” For me, it underlines that all of us, on some level, are a little risk-averse. What that risk is is different from person to person. But at the end of the day, it’s all so completely an illusion, this idea that you are safe or you are not safe. I’ve been in places that no one would call safe and yet have felt very, truly safe, and places that no one’s ever warned me about, and then I’m lying in an ambulance, being dragged to the hospital.
I had been writing on my blog, before this fall, about the illusion of safety and taking risks, and it seemed like fate making sure I wasn’t completely talking nonsense, that I really believed what I was saying. And more and more, I believe that you can never truly know, so it’s far better to experience this life, and to take risks, in general. Because you can’t avoid a risk. The only question is which risk can you live with? The people that will lovingly remind you that, “Oh, it’s so risky to go to Africa,” will not know that for me, it’s a greater risk to stay home. I’m okay going to Africa and getting into some trouble. I’m not okay living my life at home and having regrets the day I die and realize I could have done this, or I could have done that. That, to me, is the greater risk.
Did you take any risks in 2014?
Not in the way people would think. In 2014, I had another surgery on my feet — which I broke in that fall in Pisa — so I took almost the entire year off. I started 2014 in Lalibela, Ethiopia. I did one trip there. From there, I went to Kenya. I took my mom on safari for her first time and watched her mind just kind of explode. She was seven years old again. It was just amazing. And then my partner Cynthia and I went to Zanzibar and did scuba diving for a couple weeks.
But then I went home to this surgery and, you know, I guess in the bigger picture, the risk was taking time off to heal give in hopes of more mobility, and less pain. And so far it hasn’t. So far, it’s been very disappointing, and I took a whole year off to basically gain nothing. But it was a risk I chose to take.
I know you did a big road trip across Canada with your partner, Cynthia.
We did a cross-country trip across Canada on the Trans-Labrador Highway from Vancouver to Halifax and back. We drove 22,000 kilometres. We had my jeep, with a tent on top. But that trip never felt like a risk to me. That actually felt like me filling my calendar with something that I felt I knew would be okay in case my feet didn’t heal the way I expected, in case I needed to go back in for another surgery.
Any other risks from 2014?
Another risk was publishing two books that were close to my heart. You know, I made my living publishing photography books. And so, in 2014, we put out two books, but they were life books, not specifically about photography. Now, they tie in because I think photography is about life. I don’t believe life is about photography. Photography is, for me, a way for me to approach life, and so these books were another way for me, they enabled me to approach the things I deeply believe about life, and what it means to have a life well lived.
And those two books were A Beautiful Anarchy and How To Feed A Starving Artist?
And so, you’re of the mindset that everyone is, at heart, a creator to some extent?
Absolutely! I mean, whether you’re making a business, whether you’re making a family, whether you’re creatively solving the world’s problems through philanthropy. The arts have co-opted the word ‘creativity’, so we think about creative people only being, say, actors. The only person in the world you don’t want to be overly creative is your accountant. But I mean, even then, I say it tongue-in-cheek, because even problem solving is creativity. If we can approach life as an exercise in creativity and make even some of the more artistic endeavours more successful and apply those to daily life, I think we will live more deeply human. We will be more content and more satisfied.
Where you are right now, in Venice, sitting next to a window with quite a lovely view —
It is a lovely view, it’s not bad.
The gondoliers are cruising by at eye level, you can just stick your hand out and take funky exposures on your iPhone. Is this where you thought you’d be?
Most days, I wake up and can’t believe wherever I am. I don’t think I thought I’d make it this far. There is an incredible freedom in realizing the misconception that travel is so expensive, you know. It certainly can be, but it doesn’t have to be. You just make compromises. You know, we don’t own giant big-screen TVs, and at this point don’t own a home; I just have the jeep, in storage 250 days a year.
So we make our compromises in some areas, so we can afford to come and sit here. If you’re smart about how you spend your money, there’s no reason why you can’t spend Christmas in Venice instead of Christmas at home in Vancouver.
Absolutely. And speaking of Christmas, it’s also your birthday. Do you get reflective on your birthday, or do you just look ahead?
No, I’m profoundly introspective, and that corresponds to how much wine I’ve had.
But, no, the one thing I don’t do, I don’t look back with regret. I don’t look forward with longing so much as I am deeply grateful for my experiences. You know, a lot of people, the older they get, the less they talk about their birthdays. For me, I think it’s yet another reason to celebrate having made it this far and the possibilities and the things that we fill our years with.
But, one never knows. My birthday is Christmas Eve, January is hot on the heels of Christmas. It’s named after the Roman god Janus, who is represented as two faces in the sense that one face is looking into the past, and one face is looking into the future. But it seems to me that if one face is looking into the past, and one is looking into the future, there’s no moment at which you’re simply living in the present. So rather than be introspective in the sense of “What am I going to do?” or “regretting what I haven’t done,” I think the healthiest place to be at is to, if you’re going to look back at all, look back with gratitude. If you’re going to look forward at all, look back with hope and anticipation. But neither of those should take me out of the present and prevent me from just being here right now, right this minute.
“Right here right now” is pretty damn good.
And today is all we have. Yesterday’s gone.
So, looking ahead to 2015… Oh my God, 2015. Who knew? Where’s the flying cars already?
I want my rocket pack.
You have a book coming out in February, early 2015.
I have a couple books coming out next year.
A couple! The one I’m thinking of is See The World: Twenty Lessons. I liked that title. I like lessons, not tips.
Twenty lessons… I don’t know, tips are useless. Tips are like, “Hey, did you try this?” The only thing more useless than a tip is a rule. You know, Twenty RULES For Great Travel Photography. I look at something like that, and it tells me what not to do. There’s a note in our kitchen that says, “Private: Don’t open this door.”
So lessons, then. Are these lessons that you’ve learned over the years?
Yeah, I think the only way you can teach is to be constantly learning. And I am, by nature, very introspective. The things I teach are not rules. They’re the things that I have learned. I like the word ‘principle’. I don’t like the word ‘rule’. Because a rule implies that if you break it, there’s some kind of consequence. This is art, for God’s sakes. There’s no consequence other than someone might say they hate your photograph. Is that the worst of it? Well they might say that and follow the so-called rules too.
I think I wrote this book as a reaction to a lot of things. I don’t know if it makes a difference in the way that I travel and make photographs. Because I don’t actually believe — and this is the funny thing about this book — it’s a book about travel photography, but I don’t know there’s such a thing as travel photography. Say you live in Paris, you go to a restaurant, take pictures of your food, is it travel photography? No, it’s food photography. It’s the same if you make portraits of someone on the street. Is it street photography, is it people photography? Well it is if you live there. But if you’ve travelled to get there, now it’s travel photography. So ultimately, there are no “tips” for making better “travel” photographs. Because what makes a great travel photograph where you are when you travel is the same thing that makes a great photograph when you’re at home.
So my “tips” for travel photography become lessons for stronger photographs, but they’re “travel” in the sense that they revolve more around experiencing a place. And then, how do you take the experience, or more generally speaking, your intention when you are doing so-called travel photography, is to imbue these two-dimensional photographs with that amazing experience that you’re having of a place that’s not your own. That’s what the book is about. And yes, I have a couple sidebars about a “hack”, about carry-on, how to get your camera on a plane without getting it lost, what kind of bags do you use, and tripods… But those are not among the twenty lessons. The twenty lessons are the important stuff. How you experience a place, how you see a place, what is my creative process when I’m in a new place, like Venice.
Getting lost, again.
Yeah, and every time I get lost again it’s in different weather, in different light, with different things going on, so it is kind of a new place and a new opportunity for photographs. So I think that’s the spirit of the book. And I’m not doing it to be iconoclastic, I just think it’s a better way of teaching.
It’s not, “here’s a checklist, do these ten things, and have a great travel photograph”. It’s an approach. It’s like a paradigm shift.
I think it’s a paradigm. I really do. Again, it’s not iconoclastic, it’s not twenty rules to break. It’s not, “Here’s how to be the black sheep of travel photography.” My stuff, you know, it’s not totally bizarre stuff. But it answers the question: “How do you make stronger travel photography? How do you imbue these images with an experience that is multi-sensory, that is so full of emotion, and discovery, and how do you make your photographs come a little closer to aligning with that?”
Especially without sacrificing the process of discovery and exploration and travel that you would have if you didn’t have a camera. Because I think sometimes our cameras get in the way. I think sometimes we’re so hell-bent on making great travel photographs that we don’t even experience the place.
I like that. A place is not a creature to hunt down with the one perfect photo.
But we make it so.
We are! And I think that if you can instead come to a place and have a daily routine where you go get your cappuccino, you go to art galleries, you take some time to do your other work. You can take that time just to be a normal human being and not one of these cyborgs with all this technology swinging from your shoulders.
Frantically power walking from viewpoint to viewpoint…
And hunting for that trophy, you know?
To get the same photo that everyone else already got.
Exactly. And this is the problem with so-called travel photography. You get off the plane, and the first thing you want to do is you want to shoot the photograph that you’ve seen someone else take instead of getting off the beaten path. It’s hard! It’s not easy for anyone.
There’s a quote in there: “This is not a book about being a tourist with a camera.” Which I really enjoyed. So then who’s the book for?
It’s for people who are really willing to be travellers.
Which is not a tourist.
Well, it’s semantics, but I think a tourist goes to see something very specific. I think a traveller goes without a checklist to see what is there and be surprised by what they see — to embrace other cultures, rather than to come all this way and go to the friggin Hard Rock. I mean, every time I pass the Hard Rock in Venice, I think, “Do we really need this?”
But they will not veer from their preconceived notion of —
They’re terrified of getting off the beaten path. And we all experience that. I’m not saying that I don’t experience fear. The difference between the tourist and the traveller is the tourist gets nervous about that. Experiences the fear. It pushes them back onto the beaten path. The traveller, if we’re going to make this distinction, says: “I’m fearful of veering off, and that’s exactly the thing I need to do. I need to listen to my fear and allow it push me to new places and explore something that may not be in the Lonely Planet.”
God help you if it’s not in the Lonely Planet!
And I have a bookshelf full of Lonely Planets, but I stopped bringing them on trips! Because, especially as photographers, expectations get so much in your way. And the more Google Maps you look at, the more Google Image searches you do, and the more Lonely Planet books you read, as a photographer, the more those expectations tend to blind you because then you’re looking for what you’ve been told is there and should be there. You’re not looking for or seeing what actually is there. I mean, one is about discovery, and one is about ticking off something. If that’s all you want, you should stay at home, save the money and just look at pictures online.
A few of, actually I think none of the lessons necessarily are technical. It’s not about settings.
No! I mean. I spent this morning photographing with my iPhone. There are no settings on my iPhone. I have a couple apps that allow me to do some stuff. Some multiple exposures, some slow shutters, but still, at the end of the day, you’re just pressing a button. And yet, I’m making photographs that I love, that I will print, that I will probably sell, I know that I’ll put them in books. So no, I have no interest in telling people what f-stop to use.
“This is the one!”
It’s funny — we were in Oaxaca, Mexico for the Day of the Dead, and we were sitting with a group of photographers who were down there to teach, and there was another group sitting just across from us and they all, at the end of the meal, picked up their cameras and walked out. And the one woman said to the other as they walked out, “Now remember! Your F should be 5!”
And all of us looked at each other, like, “Your F should be 5? I don’t even know that I have an F-5, per se! I think I have an F/5.6, but your F should be 5!” So that’s become my mantra. It was actually going to be a much shorter book. If you want to make photographs, your F should be 5.
You need a t-shirt that says “Your F should be 5.” Now, the book includes some interviews with pretty cool people.
It does. At this point it’s got an interview with Art Wolfe, who’s a one-time hero of mine.
Well, Art’s been doing this for 40 years, he’s travelled the world, he’s seen some amazing things, but he also approaches his travel photography less as a documentarian or a reporter, and more as an artist. Not in a pretentious sense. But he’s quite willing to orchestrate his photographs to create the greatest sense of place that he can.
Whereas someone like Bob Krist, who also has had a very long career in travel photography, he’s been a National Geographic photographer, he’s a wonderful man; I love Bob. In fact, the last time I saw Bob was probably that same day we went to that restaurant and was told our F should be 5. He was on a separate trip in Oaxaca, Mexico. He’s a lovely guy and I like him. He certainly has an artist’s eye. His stuff has a greater sense of spontaneity to it. And then I’m hoping that by the time we publish the book that we can also get Nevada Wier. She’s promised to get me something, but the problem working with travel photographers is they’re always somewhere else, so she was in India for a while, now she’s in Cuba. So will I actually get an interview with Nevada, I’m not sure. Hopefully those three. And I love Nevada’s work as well. She’s a beautiful photographer, she’s a wonderful human being. So I think the three voices together, if I can get all three, they’re a complement to the places.
Whereas someone like me, who says, “Travel light, take as little gear as possible,” you know, Art Wolfe says, “Well, actually I’m quite happy with my gigantic Canon cameras and a bunch of big lenses.” Because they allow me to do the job. He’s comfortable with bigger gear. And I am embracing the mirrorless stuff much more quickly. It may be a function of being a little younger, being more adaptable. Or we just like the tools we like. You know, I like my Fujis and my Leica, and Art likes his Canon 1D X.
And there was a big chapter in here, in the sense of going lighter, and so what have you brought to Venice? I see a pile of cameras.
There is a pile of cameras. Only two of them are mine. I brought a Leica digital M and a film, and an M6, and a bag of black-and-white film. And I brought my little 18-mm Moment lens for my iPhone. And it just clicks on and I’m as happy with my Leica as I am with my iPhone.
I don’t know if Leica wants to hear that.
Well, probably not. But Leica’s got… you know, they’ve got their own thing going on. Ultimately, for me, it’s a photograph. I love the feel of my Leicas. They’re beautiful tools. They feel right to me. They get out of the way very quickly. But so do my Fujis. I just didn’t bring my Fujis. You can only carry so much. But for me, yes. I talk in the book about going lighter because I think as human beings, the lighter we travel, both materially, emotionally, the better we…
Get out of our own way.
Yeah, the more we get out of our own way. The less crap we have. I’ve travelled with so much gear, I’ve spent more time figuring out what lens I want to put on the camera than I do making photographs. Whereas, even on my Leica, I brought four lenses, all of them are primes, and I will probably shoot with my 21mm, and my 35mm 99% of the time, and I probably won’t even leave the house with my 50 and my 90. Because they’re not the focal lengths I like. But I like the constraints! I like having the 21mm lens for the morning and going, “Well, that’s what I have.”
You leave with it and work with what you have.
Yeah, and you don’t have to go, “Oh, which lens should I use?” Well, I guess I got one, so you use the one you have. And artists since the dawn of time have worked with what they have. More options don’t always net the best results.
No. A lot of people clamour that a new piece of technology is going to solve the problem of why they’re not happy with their pictures.
And let’s face it, high ISOs — they’ve opened up all kinds of new possibilities, you know, you can shoot in light that you might not otherwise have shot in. But the camera has changed very little since it was invented. It’s a box with a hole in it with a lens on the front, and some vector to make the image — a film or sensor. It’s not that complicated. The key to photography is recognizing lines, light, moments, and being able to go for it. Knowing your craft enough that you can create the art out of what life, the universe, gives you in these moments.
Which is kind of what the book’s about, in the long run.
In the end, it is, because I think the central premise of the book is you cannot photograph what you have not experienced. So anything that gets in the way of your experience prevents you from making better photographs. If that means carrying 50 pounds of gear around Venice and trying to choose between a 500mm lens and an 8mm fisheye and everything in between, you might spend more time paralyzed by your decision-making process than you will perceiving what’s going on. You won’t see all the changes in light or the moments that present themselves to you. And whether you have a camera or not, as a traveller, the point is to experience the place. And a Lonely Planet book can be the same thing. You spend so much time with your nose in a book that you’re missing what’s going on around you and the magic.
To an extent, it’s about vision. Vision being a keyword in your journey. From Within the Frame — a book which has a profound impact on my own life and journey — to your latest books, what’s made you so passionate for the aspect of it all? The vision, as opposed to technical visions. Because there’s those photography books as well.
There are. And without sounding pretentious, all those other books are garbage. That may be overstating the case. But the fact is, it all begins and ends with vision.
That’s been almost your mantra for a decade.
Sure, and my vision’s changed as a human being, and I think everyone’s does, but if you’re not photographing from that vision, from what you see, feel, experience, believe, sort of this — vision is kind of this hairball that encompasses a lot of things.
Visually, the missing thing for a lot of photographers. They have the gear, they have the settings.
It’s not hard. Anyone can learn to, I don’t know, I mean —
The F is 5!
Your F should be 5! Really though, the most iconic photographs are so rare. But without a sense of vision, without understanding lines and moments, how do you start this? Vision is what makes it art. Now, that’s a bigger argument: is photography art? I think it is. But it certainly can remain only craft. Anyone can take a technically perfect photograph, but is it art? I think what separates the technically perfect photograph from one that is evocative and that changes the way people think and see and that expresses the way a photographer feels about a certain thing, the thing that stands between the two is vision and the ability to explore it and express it in new and authentic ways. Changing ways, but new and authentic ways that are genuine to ourselves.
To wrap it up, and so we can return to drinking and looking out your lovely window onto the canals — it’s your birthday, it’s the end of the year, it’s the cusp of 2015. Matador has a photography program. We have students finishing up the course and they’re kind of on that cusp. That kind of point, like “jump or don’t.” They think signing up for the course was kind of a jump in itself. So then they finish it and it’s like “What’s next?” What advice would you give – God, how many times have you been asked that? – to someone on the cusp to make 2015 count in the realm of travel photography?
Well, figure out what you want, truly; and dream big. The fact is, we’re all writing a story. We’re all writing our own story, and you can either live a great story or you can read someone else’s great story. The best travel photography comes out of great travel. Go somewhere. Get off your ass and go. Forget the money. You know, I’ve shot beautiful photographs with the kit lens that came with my Fuji XE1. And I have images in my books from my iPhone!
You took some this morning even. I watched.
It probably will be in See The World. There will be some from this morning, and the rest of the trip. The gear is so irrelevant that’s it’s almost not worth talking about anymore. Henri Cartier-Bresson had one Leica and a 50-mm lens, probably a 35-mm lens for some of his stuff, and he made amazing stuff. They were beautiful, but they didn’t perform any better than even the most basic cameras we have. I mean, the optics were good, but people don’t look at Henri Cartier-Bresson’s stuff and go “My God, the lens that he used was amazing.” They look at it and appreciate it for his sense of timing, his understanding of moments, and because he was there and he saw. And to get back to your question, the best thing anyone can do is go see the world, experience it, be part of it, whether it’s your backyard in Vancouver or Toronto, New York or San Francisco, whatever, just see it. Be a part of it. Live.
And bring your camera with you. That’s the best advice any photographer can get, is go be there and, of course, be good at your craft.
I did teach you last night how to use a camera on your iPhone.
You did. I don’t remember how.
Well, on that note, let’s drink.
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