Featured Photographer, September 2013: Scott Davis
This month, our featured guest photographer is award-winning pro photog, Scott Davis. We appreciate that he took some time away from his incredibly busy travel schedule to answer our questions. Please visit his links to see more of his accomplished work, and to let him know you enjoyed this interview.
:: How did you get your start with photography?
I've probably had a camera in my hand since the age of 7. I remember finding an old thumb winder camera in my parent's basement cabinet. They showed me how to load up the film and off I went snapping shots of anything of interest. We had a house in the forest and I loved exploring so there was always an abundance of subject matter. I was a big fan of nature shows like "Wild Kingdom" and magazines like National Geographic. Inspired, I often went out in search of animals, always one of my favorite subjects. From there, the hook was set and I've had a camera in my hand ever since.
Fast forward a decade or two, My educational and career background was wildlife and marine biology (once again, inspired by National Geographic and the Jacque Cousteau specials) but I always had a camera present documenting aspects of my studies. In regards to professional photography, I started by selling a few images here and there to various magazines, newspapers, and other outlets in relation to the various wildlife studies I was working. Image sales and small assignments gradually built up to the point where I could make a full time career out of photography so I decided to make the switch about 10 years ago. Knock on wood, I've been busy ever since.
:: When you started shooting as part of your biology work, at what point or how did the photography go from being strictly documentary in purpose to having artistic and creative aspects to it as well?
I think I always strived to have some sort of artistic or storytelling aspect to the images I shot, even when I was a little kid. I had really enjoyed taking art classes in elementary school. Although very basic, those initial classes helped provide a good foundation in artistic principles. Additionally, my mother was an artist in her spare time so I picked up a few tips and techniques from her. What probably influenced my photography the most was I had grown up reading a lot of documentary image based magazines, especially National Geographic, TIME and LIFE Magazines. I was always mesmerized by the images I saw in those periodicals. I would leaf through the pages for hours and would often try to deconstruct what made the image so compelling. Then when I was out shooting, I would see if I could incorporate some of those techniques into my personal work. As photographers, we often find inspiration in other's work so it was a great way to learn or explore new techniques.
:: What is your favorite animal to photograph? Which do you find the biggest challenge?
That's a tough one. I love being outdoors, preferably in remote areas photographing whatever comes my way but if I had to single out a specific category of animals, I'd certainly have to put predators of every shape and size on my list. I can't pick just one. My friends say I like things with big teeth and big mouths.
The animals that present the greatest challenges are usually the ones underwater. Shooting UW brings a whole host of additional obstacles to photography. In addition to the normal challenges of nature photography, you have to deal with dramatic light and color fallout, decompression dive times, currents, temperature extremes, buoyancy, strobes, unwieldy equipment, poor visibility, backscatter, and the list goes on.
:: You've got a list of incredible life experiences. What haven't you done that you're looking forward to?
I really look forward to working on more editorial projects that deal with humanitarian projects. I love shooting wildlife and nature but a lot of my work involves people and cultures. There are a million stories out there that should be told but often are often crowded out in the media by silly stories, celebrity style gossip and other mindless material. I believe that in every community, in every town, in every country, there are important, interesting and compelling stories that would benefit greatly by being told. For me, the more I travel nationally as well as internationally, the more compelled I am to tell the stories of those that don't have a voice.
:: You've been dangerously close to lions, sharks, bears, and probably every kind of major predator, and been in every kind of frightening scenario I can think of, what situation scares you the most? What was the most frightened you've been on a shoot?
Its funny, I've had a few close calls with animals that I would never tell my mother about but for the most part, I felt pretty calm and comfortable that the situation would turn out OK. Ironically, it's been some human stories where I've often felt the most threatened and was consistently uncertain how the day or my personal well-being would turn out. Humans are very good at hiding their true intentions whereas animals tend to give you a few clues as to what they are thinking and what their next action may be.
Working with Reuters News covering the post presidential election violence that erupted in Kenya in 2007-08 was certainly one of the more unnerving experiences of my photo career. On more than one occasion, you'd be completely surrounded by angry mobs of people, often with clubs and machetes wanting to hurt or kill or you'd find yourself in the crossfire of baton wielding soldiers firing guns and tear gas. Over the course of a few weeks, hundreds of people were killed, sometimes in the most brutal of ways, thousands injured, and hundreds of thousands of people were displaced. For a brief moment, shades of the Rwanda genocide seemed to be on the verge of erupting as violence at times turned tribal. Thankfully it didn't go that route. Witnessing this firsthand is something one never forgets.
:: You're one of the few photographers I know who have not really embraced any of the social media platforms; at least in any way the rest of us have…why is that?
It's true, I personally find very little interest in social media although I think it can provide a very valuable service, not to mention a great way to keep in touch with friends and family. I think my general avoidance stems from my desire to keep a low profile, which probably comes from a family upbringing that extolled the virtues of maintaining modesty. My parents were kinda old school that way. You know, that "don't talk about yourself" mentality. Added to that, I've always felt a bit uncomfortable talking about myself, especially around strangers. I've been extremely fortunate to have experienced some of things I've done and seen and the last thing I want to do is come across as bragging. So far, (knock on wood) my lack of social media involvement hasn't prevented me from working but I probably should be more involved in it from the business side. My more social media savvy peers are constantly pushing me to go that route so maybe this is the year to break that barrier.
:: Because you do so much work for news agencies, stock, and other clients, many people never get to see your photography, or when they do it's in a magazine or billboard and you're name rarely appears. You've sometimes lost the rights to your image, and in some cases, you don't even have these great images in your portfolio to show off. It pays the bills, sure, but do you ever get discouraged not being able to share your work with more people, or get recognition for it?
Not really. Sure it's nice to be recognized for one's work but it certainly doesn't drive me to photograph. My ego is pretty small in that regard. I'd be perfectly happy without recognition as long I kept working although I do feel I'm recognized by my immediate peers and clients. These days, I manage to keep the rights to most of my new work. I just haven't had time to post new work. This year alone I expect to be on the road for at least 220 days so my free time is somewhat limited. The reality is I'm just thrilled that I can make a living doing something that I really love, recognition or not.
:: What is the one piece of non-photographic gear you can't live without?
My Passport. Without it, I would be in big trouble.
:: You're out of the country a lot (I know I get the automated emails when I send you something), do you ever think about just settling in and making up for the travel jobs with maybe weddings and portrait type work locally, or are you driven to be on the road?
Funny you should say that. Coincidently, I'm answering these questions from my current assignment in Sumatra. To answer your question, I've pretty much always enjoyed being on the road. Even as a little kid, I would sometimes hop trains or climb radio towers just to see what's around the corner or have a better view. My work as a field biologist had me traveling around the globe and my photography continues that trend. I guess there's something in the DNA. Having said that though, I can definitely foresee a time when it would be nice to sleep in my own bed for more than a few weeks at a time.
:: How does your biology background really benefit you most in the photography aspect while photographing animals?
I think it has helped tremendously in my ability to anticipate an animal's behavior, in developing the patience necessary for nature photography as well as aiding in the strategic placing of myself in order to get a better shot. I worked for 12 years as a wildlife biologist on a variety of subjects. In those years, I spent a huge amount of time observing animals in their natural surroundings and as a result you begin to recognize subtle little behavioral patterns or clues that can really benefit the craft of wildlife photography. The more you know your subject, the better prepared you are to capture those special moments.
:: What problems do you see with photography and wildlife management in the future as photography becomes more popular?
In places like Yellowstone NP and other similar parks, there's definitely going to be more conflict between park rangers, tourists, nature photographers and the wildlife as the popularity of these places continues to increase. Without doubt, more regulations will be imposed in these areas. As much as I hate more regulations and increased restrictions (it personally affects me and my ability to get good images), I have to admit it's for the overall good and preservation of the ecosystem. I've witnessed too many people in these parks doing really stupid things when it comes to wildlife interactions. Unfortunately, when an animal attacks a human, even if the human was the cause, it's usually the animal that pays the consequence. The irony in this situation is that it's the beauty and wildlife of the region that attracts the people but too many people can detrimentally impact the beauty and wildlife of the region.
:: What is the craziest job you ever turned down? Why did you turn it down?
I'm not really sure. I'll take most any job. I suppose when the Arab Spring events began happening, there was some thought and light discussion with some of my colleagues about covering some of those stories. In the end though, other assignments presented themselves as well as a healthy dose of self-preservation probably was the deciding factor in not following up on those "opportunities." Of course I might change my mind in the future.
:: What area of photography do you find most challenging? Why?
The most challenging thing these days seems to be coming up with a fresh take on a subject that's been "done" or finding a completely new story. Competition for assignments and stories has never been fiercer and there are a ton of excellent and highly talented photographers out there working and shooting fascinating subjects. Continually separating yourself with something new and fresh is an ongoing process.
:: What was the best piece of advice you ever received while learning photography?
Take lots of images. Too many times, people snap a few shots of a subject and then move on. The more shots you take of something, the higher the chance of capturing subtle little changes that can make the distinction between a good photograph and a great one.
:: What advice do you like to pass on to those who ask "How can I do what YOU do?"
I wish there was a definitive answer to that question. Every photographer that I've encountered that "does what I do" professionally has approached it from a different angle. There's no single recipe.
My background as wildlife biologist and the studies all over the world that I worked on with the unique access they provided allowed me opportunities that others may not of had. The bottom line is that it takes work, lots of work that is ever ongoing.
This is not an easy profession. The reality is that it's typically not glamorous despite what people think, the hours are long, the work is often uncomfortable for long periods of time, it takes time and patience, and above all, it takes dedication to your profession.
If you're just starting out in photography, find subject matter that really excites you. That's what is going to keep you going when the money is not there. When you find the subject matter that really gets your blood flow going, try to find great examples of that style of work and deconstruct or find out what the photographer did to get that image.
Learn and master the basics first. The Web is an excellent source of information. If possible, work as an assistant for someone who's really good or a master in their field. I feel you'll learn far more working than spending $100k on a photo degree. Build up your portfolio with only your best images. Begin networking to potential employers and editors. Most likely in the beginning, you'll get far more no's than yes's but don't let that deter you.
Above all, shoot, shoot, shoot.
"The reality is, I'm just thrilled that I can make a living doing something that I really love, recognition or not."
Scott Davis's Links
Photographer Spotlight Interviews
Mar 2014: Nicolaus Wegner
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Jan 2014: Dan Ballard
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