David duChemin is a world & humanitarian assignment photographer, best-selling author, digital publisher, and international workshop leader whose nomadic and adventurous life fuels his fire to create and share. Based in Vancouver, Canada, when he’s home, David leads a nomadic life chasing compelling images on all 7 continents.
When on assignment David creates powerful images that convey the hope and dignity of children, the vulnerable and oppressed for the international NGO community. When creating the art he so passionately shares, David strives to capture the beauty of the natural world.
What’s the best thing about photography?
The best thing about photography is the gift of seeing – really seeing – the moments in life that otherwise pass so quickly. It’s the elevation of what we normally see as mundane, or perhaps not the elevation of it so much as the recognition that it was beautiful to begin with.
What’s the worst thing about photography?
Like any storytelling medium or art, it’s easy to fall more in love with how we tell the stories than the stories themselves. I think photographers have an unusual relationship with their gear, one that can be beautifully collaborative or strangely incestuous.
What’s the thing that interests you most about other people’s photographs?
I like to see through the eyes of others, to see what I have not. I’m a very curious person and this gives me a glimpse into a world in ways I’ve not considered it.
Who were your early photographic influences?
My earliest were portraitists, like Karsh, and later, Steve McCurry. I think you can see that in some of my work. But I also cut my teeth on work by Cartier-Bresson, and Adams, and Rowell. And in terms of teaching, the earliest voice rattling around in my head was Freeman Patterson.
Who are your photographic influences now?
Sebastaio Salgado, Michael Kenna, Elliot Erwitt. It’s funny, the closer another’s work is to my own, the less interest I have in looking at it, so there aren’t, for example, a lot of books of landscape photographs on my shelf right now. I work primarily in colour and almost everything on my shelves is black and white.
How do you know when an image doesn’t work?
An image works for me when it’s alive, when it makes me experience something more than an act of looking at a two-dimensional photograph. Conversely, when an image fails to illicit my curiosity, or to arouse some kind of emotion, it’s failed to connect with me, and doesn’t work. But I’m quick to acknowledge, most of the time, that it’s more the mix of the image and the viewer that doesn’t work. For another person, the image might succeed very well.
What’s the most useful photographic mantra?
I like to say “gear is good, but vision is better,” but that’s got more to do with my encouragement to my students than it does to myself these days. These days I find myself repeating, “light, lines, moments” a lot. I think if we can see those things we’re already, in our minds, playing with possible compositions.
Do you practice another art form? (If so, which?)
I write a lot. On some days, when I’m a little too wrapped up in myself as a photographer, I worry I’m a better writer than I am a photographer.
What benefits do you get from (this/these) other art form/s?
Writing is like photography to me in that it’s given me a way to create that makes sense to me. I play guitar terribly and am not much of a musician, but words make sense to me and give me a way to think. I don’t think to write, so much as I write to think. There are also strong parallels in the creative process of the two media – and I tend to make a photograph the way I write – with lousy first drafts and then a refinement process much like the way I edit my writing.
What failure did you learn the most from?
It’s the personal failures that I’ve learned the most from – they’ve taught me to find joy in what I do, to slow down, and to be more receptive. Those things have made me a happier human being, and – I think – a more thoughtful photographer.
What are the most important questions to you?
The ones that have no immediate answer. It’s the questions themselves that are important to me, not the answers. I went to theology school for 5 years and while it started out with some very interesting questions I found myself being given answers a little too quickly, rather than given tools to look for new ways of thinking that came out of those questions. I like questions that open new possibilities. I love any question that begins with the words, “What if…” I think answering a question too quickly closes off possibilities, I had a class in college called Rabbinic Thought, and it was my best class because finally we were honouring questions instead of demanding answers.
What’s photography really all about?
Photography’s about life. Moments. Beauty. Truth. It’s about the same thing any of our art is about – finding a way to ask questions, point at the things that matter to us, and to do so in ways that align with who we are.
How did photography change the world?
So many ways. It changed my world by giving me a way to express myself, to show others the world as I see it. It’s opened my eyes to a broader world and set me on a path to travel so much of it and experience new cultures and places. It’s played an important role, through photojournalism, in honouring justice and the victims of some unspeakable horrors. It helps us to remember, and to hope.
Who are the most important photographers working today?
I’m a bit of an iconoclast, so I’m less interested in who is popular. The notion of one photographer being better than another doesn’t interest me. You can’t win at art. But the word important is interesting to me – I think the important photographers working today are the ones at the blurry edge of what was once considered professional and amateur, the ones for whom the line doesn’t matter. But they’re all important. That’s one of the interesting things about photography – we all get to play and our voices all get a chance to be heard.
What’s the best thing about influence?
The best thing about influence is being able to make a difference. To help un-stick people who are spinning their wheels. To shine a little light into dark corners where people are fearful and show them it’s not so bad. We’re a fearful race and the ones that help others find courage are the beautiful ones.
What’s the worst thing about influence?
As someone with a sliver of influence I’d say the worst thing about it is the way it comes to define us. We change and grow but our past work does not, so people experience us through the lens of our past work, and expect us to be that, and not this. We get quoted out of the context of being a continually changing person. That can go quickly from describing us to confining us, both as the one with so-called influence, and the ones that allows themselves to be influenced.
What’s your favorite book?
I’m not good at favourites, but one I return to every year or two is My Name is Asher Lev, by Chaim Potok.
What’s your idea of perfect happiness?
To be at peace with myself and others, to be creating, preferably with a bottle of wine, a hammock, and the woman I love nearby.
What is your greatest fear?
That I’ll be overlooked. Not in a big sense, but by the people that matter most to me.
What is your greatest extravagance?
I adore a great bottle of Italian wine, though I’m not sure it’s my greatest extravagance. Time is all we have and we waste so much of it – that’s extravagance.
What is your favorite journey?
The inner journey. I’ve traveled a lot and in the end the greatest discoveries are often the ones we make of ourselves. I had an accident in Italy a couple years ago, and could easily have died. As it is I broke both feet and had to learn to walk again. Learning what I could survive, and finding joy even on my darkest days, was an amazing journey and much as I’d like to walk normally again, I’d never trade that journey for anything.
What is your greatest regret?
That it took so long to become comfortable with myself. But it took this journey to get there, so it’s less a regret than a longing for more time now that I’ve put some of the bullshit behind me.
What’s your most treasured possession?
I have several. One is a vintage watch that I bought with the royalties of my first book, something wildly extravagant to remind me that time is the most valuable thing I have. The other is a club made from olive wood, sent to my by a Rendille village in remote northern Kenya that adopted me a few years ago. When they learned of my accident in Italy, the elders gathered the village for a day of prayers for me, and sent the club to me in Canada as reminder of their care. Still brings tears to my eyes.
What other talent would you most like to have?
I’d give anything (except daily practice and actual lessons, apparently) to be able to play piano, or guitar, and sing. I love music, but it doesn’t at all come naturally to me. I’m OK with just being a fan, but there’s such power in music.
How would you like to die?
Not very much, thank you.
Oh, you’ve heard that one before? Then how about peacefully, in my sleep, after a long life of making art, making love, breathing deep, and leaving the world a little better for my presence? I’m not sure we can ask for more.