“Life Looks Better Through a Viewfinder”—Mentoring and Wisdom from David Alan Harvey
David Alan Harvey
David Alan Harvey wears many hats—as founder and editor of burn magazine, he discovers and publishes work by emerging and early-career photographers; he is an active mentor for photographers around the world; and, of course, he is a member of Magnum Photos. In his long career, Harvey has photographed over forty essays for National Geographic Magazine and has covered stories in countries across the globe, including Mexico, Kenya, Vietnam, Germany, and more.
We are thrilled that Harvey is joining us as a juror for the Street Photography Awards 2018. With several decades of experience as a photographer under his belt, Harvey offers the jury a wealth of knowledge about what it feels like to shoot on streets around the world—as well as a discerning eye for singling out powerful work. LensCulture editor Coralie Kraft spoke to Harvey about his time working with National Geographic, finding a mentor in the world of photography, and more—
LC: I believe that you can find a story anywhere, as long as you have the ability and the patience to approach it in a thoughtful, conscientious way—as long as you can sink into it. Do you adhere to that philosophy?
DAH: Oh yeah, I absolutely believe that. Look at Sally Mann or Bruce Davidson—they shot right out their back doors. Nan Goldin just photographed her friends in New York. There’s so much to see if you pay attention to the places you know best.
I never felt compelled to travel to take pictures. I ended up doing that—that’s how I put my kids through college, traveling around the world and shooting for National Geographic. That said, I never had wanderlust…except for one idea. I always wanted to go down the Mississippi River like Huckleberry Finn. But that was as far as adventure appealed to me.
Boy in San Pedro de Atacama, Chile, 1987. © David Alan Harvey
I like the little adventures. I don’t need to be frozen in the ice in the South Pole. I like the adventures that come with daily life.
LC: Did you keep that “focusing on everyday life” mentality when you did end up traveling for National Geographic?
DAH: Yes, exactly. Everything became my backyard. I remember one trip in particular: I went to Sumatra, leaving my wife and kids behind in my suburban neighborhood. I arrived in Sumatra, and I said to a person there, “I’m here to do a story.” I remember he said, “Well, what the hell are you doing here? This is a nowhere, this is just another small town.” I heard that a lot. Every place is someone’s backyard. This was a small fishing village under a few palm trees, and there was nothing there of interest as far as they were concerned, and yet it was my topic for National Geographic.
LC: Was this a typical assignment for National Geographic? How did your working relationship with the magazine begin?
DAH: I usually came to National Geographic with my own stories. I would say most, maybe 80%, of my stories for them were my own idea.
To start, I had an idea to shoot in the Chesapeake Bay here in Virginia. I could’ve gone anywhere for Nat Geo, and yet for my first three assignments, I was in my own backyard.
The first assignment I shot for them kind of tells the whole story. I was shooting on an island of about 850 people in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay. The people on this island, they have their own language. Some anthropologists have said that they have some Elizabethan English thrown in there—I don’t know if that’s true or not, but they do have phrases where they’ll completely lose you if they’re talking amongst themselves.
LC: Wow, that’s quite a story. What did you hope to capture in that series? What did you want your viewer to think about?
DAH: I just couldn’t believe that these people were living on this tiny island, surrounded by the modern world, but still living their own reality. There are large cities all along the coastline nearby, but the people there have their own routines, their own traditions.
Also, they didn’t want to be photographed. I spent the better part of the summer there and part of the winter also, and it took a long time before we got to the point where they’d allow me to photograph them at all. So, in part this project taught me how to photograph people who didn’t want to be photographed. I’d always photographed my own family, and my own neighborhood, so photographing strangers was challenging.
South Korea, Jeju Island, 2014. © David Alan Harvey
That assignment came on the heels of another experience that had schooled me in how to photograph people I didn’t know: the work that would become Tell It Like It Is, where I lived with a black family in Norfolk, Virginia in 1967.
I enjoy getting to know other people, other cultures, and learn what they’re interested in. I like having conversations with them—conversations are key to working in situations like that. I don’t work like Martin Parr or Bruce Gilden, you know. People always know when I’m photographing them.
LC: How did you encourage the family from Tell It Like It Is to open up to you? Was it easier with the parents or the children? How did you toe the line between getting the access/photographs you wanted and maintaining the family’s privacy?
DAH: Man, I don’t know how I did that. I’ve often looked back on it and wondered. That said, there was one key to that whole project, and that was Callie, the mother. She liked me, and she invited me in. I mean, you don’t knock on somebody’s door and say “Hey, I’d like to live with you for a month.” I made friends with Callie very naturally.
Street scene, Chile, 1990. © David Alan Harvey
I was hanging around for a while, and I’d taken some photographs of her and the kids. I had a darkroom that I’d cobbled together at a friend’s house nearby. I processed a photo, showed it to Callie and the kids, and the next thing I knew, it was late one day, and Callie said to me, “Hey listen, why don’t you stay here on the sofa. When we get up in the morning, you can take more pictures for us.” She endorsed me, and as soon as she endorsed me, I was in. The father wasn’t against it; he just rolled with it. I had less contact with him than with Callie and the kids—he had to go off to work most of the days anyway. With Tell It Like It Is, I wanted to document the family, and I was sincere about it. My sincerity was immediately apparent to them, I think.
That work was a key point in my career, because that’s when I realized that I could do this, and I enjoyed doing this, and—even more importantly—they enjoyed it. They enjoyed being photographed by me.
In that way, becoming close with the family—that came very naturally to me.
This is a key point: I always make sure that whoever I am photographing enjoys the experience. That has stayed true throughout all the years I’ve been working.
Untitled. © David Alan Harvey
LC: There are certain people out there who love having conversations. Personally, it’s part of what I love about being alive!
DAH: That’s just it. It’s how you learn. And my thought is—why wouldn’t you want to do that? Why wouldn’t you want your subjects to enjoy your work? It’s so important to me that the people I photograph know that I mean no harm—but it goes beyond that. You are also helping them see something else; you’re showing them their day-to-day from a different perspective.
LC: As we speak, you’re setting up to run a workshop in your living room. Photography permeates all aspects of your life. How do you stay motivated when you’re constantly enmeshed in the photo world?
DAH: I’ve been a voracious shooter for as long as I can remember. Even when I was a kid, I was always taking pictures. I was the editor of the family newspaper, and I always made a daily visual diary, starting from 12 years old. I shoot something every day, unless I’m on an airplane or I’m in the middle of a workshop. Other than that, I’m always interested in whatever’s going on around me.
Life always looks better through a viewfinder—my camera is kind of an escape from the real world. I don’t change whatever’s out there, but the world somehow seems more interesting and exciting when I’m taking a picture of it.
Work horse on a family’s porch, Cuba, 1998. © David Alan Harvey
LC: Is that because you’re able to slice out little compositions that you wouldn’t notice otherwise?
DAH: That’s right. For example, even just sitting here talking to you, if I started looking through a viewfinder, I’d be able to focus in and really see the things around me. I’ve been thinking about why that is, and I realized something. For example, this Sunday my granddaughter is having a birthday party. If I went to her birthday party and I didn’t have a camera, I’d be having heart palpitations, even though I’m not on assignment. For some reason, I’m always compelled to photograph.
When I’m going to the grocery store or the dentist, I’ve always got my camera. It’s a bit of a compulsion, really. In fact, now that I think about it, I always have my camera bag, my passport and my wallet—everything that I would need to take off on assignment. I have them with me literally all the time. I think it’s because so many times I’ve been on the other side of the world, and the only thing that was my safety net was having everything with me all the time. It’s a comfort thing.
LC: Is it a feeling of “I’m going to miss something! I need to have my camera!”?
DAH: No, I think it’s something worse than that. It’s a feeling that I can experience something better if I’m photographing. I know that I’ll have a more intense experience if I photograph it.
Untitled. © David Alan Harvey
It’s not that I know I’m going to get a photo that I’ll want to frame or anything—it’s about the action of taking a photograph. It’s almost a childlike approach. When I was a kid, I never thought about motives or any of that stuff when I shot—I just did it. And that’s the same way I work now.
LC: In a previous interview, you said you live in a “fantasy” world, that you’re a “dreamer,” but that you’re also very results-oriented. I can see how that’s a useful combination.
DAH: Yes, that’s very true, and that’s why I’ve spent so much time mentoring other photographers. I talk to students from all over the world, and I’m always trying to get them to balance those two aspects of themselves. Keeping the fantasy alive while being practical is something a lot of photographers struggle with. The spark dies if you get too caught up in the practicalities. But you can also have a photographer who has wonderful ideas, but no structure. Either way, you’re in trouble.
LC: How do you maintain your equilibrium between fantasy and practicality?
DAH: Do you mean when I’m out on assignment or at home?
LC: Well, I suppose there’s a difference between being out on assignment and creating personal work?
DAH: See, that’s the whole thing for me. I’ve been very lucky in that I’ve been able to earn a living doing personal work. It’s not that I’ve never done a “job”—but I’ve done very few. I learned about what editors need and want while I was working at a newspaper early in my career. I realized that you can’t just focus on photography. My point of view had more value if I looked at the whole publication and understood everybody’s point of view.
Soap suds party, 1991. © David Alan Harvey
My whole thing when I’m mentoring emerging photographers is to encourage them to keep all of their work on the same level. It all needs to be good, it all needs to sit inside your vision.
LC: Mentoring is an important part of your life, and something you spend a lot of time doing. Why are you drawn to educate other photographers?
DAH: An old roommate of mine had this philosophy that you never needed to make anyone lose faith in their work in order to feel better about your own. I never felt competitive with anybody, so it was an easy philosophy for me to adopt. I always felt that I just needed to make something good, and I never felt that I needed to compete with anyone else in order to make good work.
That mentality allows me to mentor other photographers without fear. I’ve had other photographers tell me, “Hey Harvey, you’re giving away all your secrets and telling everybody how to take your job!” But I never thought of it like that.
LC: Did you have a mentor in your life who encouraged you in a similar way?
DAH: My mom was a teacher and always very giving in that regard. She was always one of those people who shared things and was very open with the people around her. So, I suppose I learned by example.
Son of a fisherman in the moonlight. Mexico, Oaxaca, Chacahua, 1992. © David Alan Harvey
LC: Finally, do you have any advice for photographers who are just getting their “sea legs” with their photography? Any advice about how to produce meaningful work?
DAH: Yes. Start with small publications. National Geographic is a fantastic place to have your work published, of course—but as a general rule, you can’t just start at that magazine. You need to establish yourself as a name elsewhere. Make sure you know how a magazine works, and work with editors in a way where they’ll trust you and like you.
Also, and this is obvious, but all the work you put out in the world—on Instagram, in magazines, in competitions—needs to be good. Just make it good. It does you no good if you get your photo into The New York Times, but it’s a bad photo and it has your name under it.
I can tell you from experience, you want to be a garage-band, not a big rock band. You want to be scrappy and able to take care of yourself. You don’t want people telling you what to produce. That’s how you keep your vision, how you keep yourself going, whether you’re working in Sumatra or in your own backyard.
—David Alan Harvey, interviewed by Coralie Kraft
Our Street Photography Awards are open for entries! Submit your work now to have it seen by our international panel of jurors—including David Alan Harvey—and for a chance to exhibit your work in Arles during the world’s largest photography festival. Learn more about the prizes and jury.
Ipanema Beach, Rio de Janeiro. © David Alan Harvey
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Source: Lense Culture