Olivier Duong is a Haitian-French-Vietnamese Documentary and Street photographer based in South Florida. A self-professed ex-gear addict who is now a gear minimalist, Duong is the editor, designer and co-founder of Inspired Eye Magazine and Street Presets. Olivier sits down with Elephant Gun co-founder David Voggenthaler to discuss his working style, his approach, so-called "radical" photography, and what makes for powerful photography.
Edited by Kathryn Flowers.
What’s in your camera bag? More specifically, what's your favorite ‘kit’ and your “go-to” settings?
I'm the anti 'what's-in-your-bag' photographer, because I don't really use one. I'm a compact camera shooter, so it's mainly my pocket along with a few batteries. Occasionally, I pull my Pacsafe Venture Safe 150–a bag that doesn't say camera bag, and has safety features like anti-slash so I won't get robbed. Most times, I put my camera in my pocket and hit the streets.
What's in my pocket? A Ricoh GRD IV. That's it. My entire body of work was made on either the GRD III or GRD IV. I may move away from the GR because I’m starting to get borderline complacent with the 28mm lens. I'm learning to see things in a new way with the Panasonic Lumix DMC-LF1, because of its slower focal lengths.
My preferred settings? Snap Focus on the Ricoh GRD IV - an ingenious system. I have my camera set up so that if I half press it's going to auto focus like normal, or if I press down completely on the shutter release, it's going to focus at 1m and I'm usually at f/5.6. The setting I use is the hyperfocal setting (snap focus is a sort of shortcut to that). Snap focus is something I can't live without and it's the main reason why I need to get away from the GRD IV for a while. That camera makes shooting too easy.
"Stop looking at other photographers–look at what you are doing."
What was it that first attracted you to shooting in the streets rather than, say, studio work?
Other types of photography are compartmentalized: Portraits - Landscapes - Studio. Street Photography is where those styles converge. It’s not as specialized as most people think. Street photography is a mix of several styles, that's what I love about it.
What attracted me was the freedom of it all. I actually call “Street Photography”, “Lifestyle Photography” instead - inevitably it’s about what’s around you; it’s about life as a whole. When I go into the streets I feel part of something–like I belong.
I suppose street photography, in that sense, is one of the few forms of photography that is inherently authentic?
Authentic? I don't think so. You disturb a scene just by being there. It's one of the few forms that people wish was authentic…..but some folks outright fake it. In fact, though I haven't kept up with the discussion, it's my impression that Henri Cartier Bresson's "Baiser Volé" was staged.
Street photography being authentic also depends on your definition of the term. For some, it's urban portraiture....is that authentic? But I do see what you mean by "authentic," especially when compared to other styles like studio work. Street photography is about life, and when you make a picture, it's in the wild, not a predefined setting like a portrait session.
In street photography, pictures come from the flow of the moment, you never know what you are going to get: a portrait, something candid, a funny juxtaposition? Compare that with portrait work where you know what you are going to get: a portrait. So yes, street photography is authentic but if we want to get deeper, is any photography authentic? Don’t we inherently create disturbance by being there?
Who are your biggest artistic influences and how do they affect your work?
My biggest artistic influence is Don Springer, my partner. His influence repels other influences in a sense. Let me explain. His message can be summed up this way: “Look at what you are doing”.
In other words, stop looking at the masters–look at what you are doing. Stop looking at gear–look at what you are doing. Stop looking at other photographers–look at what you are doing
I remember when I was going to blog hard on Master Photographers, Don kicked my butt. He said: "Do you want people to know you for knowing about famous photographers? Or do you want people to know you for yourself?" He taught me that there are people who can talk the talk but not walk the walk.
So what if I could name the Masters like Pokemon? So what if I could critique photographs? Everybody has pillars to hide behind (That particular term comes from Hugh McLeod). Don taught me to always keep the focus on what I was doing as a photographer, not on others.
Don isn't anti-masters, anti-gear, or against other photographers - there’s a lot to learn there. But there is a tendency in photography to hide behind these things. Hide behind photobooks and cameras while openly giving critiques. All of these things are distractions from looking at your own work.
Don always reminds me to cut the crap and focus on the heart of photography: pictures.
Who do you think is overrated in the world of photography? (Come on, be honest)
I would love to name names, but if I did, I would have a problem because I don't like saying something negative about someone–even if it's true. Trust me, I really want to point the finger and say "the king has no clothes," but that's probably not in good taste.
Let me save myself by telling you what I think is the most overrated photography quote of all time. It's Robert Capa's "If your pictures are not good enough, you are not close enough". It's probably the most famous photography quote, and there is none truer. If it's true, how can it be overrated? Because it's been misunderstood.
It's been taken as some sort of magic shortcut to great photography: just get close to what you are shooting and your photography will be better. You would think one of the greatest photographers of all time would say something less obvious, right?
What's overrated is the whole "get close" thing - it's just misguided. Think about the opposite: You can't take great pictures if you are not close enough?
Let me suggest that what Capa meant was to get closer to your work. If your photographs aren’t good enough, you are not connected enough. Some try to push the buttons of closeness and invade people’s personal space — that’s not the point. Street photography is not about getting as close as you can to people, it’s about expressing what you feel when you are in the streets.
When you are out on the street, don’t think “how close can I comfortably get to that person without loosing consciousness” and start asking “how can I photograph what I feel inside of me?” It takes the weight off those who fear street photography because it’s not about getting physically close, it’s about expressing yourself. If your photographs aren’t good enough, you are not connected enough.
"I haven't kept up with the discussion, but it's my impression that Henri Cartier Bresson's "Baiser Volé" was staged."
How have you seen your photography evolve over time?
My photography took a radical turn when I started to (unsurprisingly) get close to my work. In the first phase, I was there taking pictures of anything and everything: bees, spiders, flowers, pavement. Then it hit me: I never took a single photo of my mother who was struggling with illness. You see, I had a very definite idea of what type of photography should be shooting, as defined by what was popular at the the time. My heart, however, started moving toward the people who were close to me. When my mother died during an earthquake in Haiti, it struck me that she, nor my wife were ever subjects of mine. In fact, I don't have a single portrait of my mom where I could say this is an accurate portrayal of my feelings for her. I began a special relationship with my work when I started taking photos of people for whom I cared.
There’s nothing wrong with nature and flower photography, but in my case, I was shooting opposite of where my heart was telling me to shoot. In the end, whatever you decide to shoot, it's all about being close to your subject and how passionate you are about your work.
Is there such a thing as 'radical' street photography today?
Street photography is an umbrella term, so it's very hard to define. Now imagine how you could recognize radical Street Photography... I'm personally very careful with anything radical within photography because that usually means it's a passing episode or wave. Radical is radical for a time, then it's forgotten.
I have yet to see "radical" street photography, but if I do I'll ask: Is that "radical" aspect coming from self expression, or is it a way to get attention? Maybe Keizo Kitajima's photography could be considered "radical"...his Tokyo pictures have no grey tones. This issue begs the question…..radical according to whom?
In terms of technology, how do you think street photography has changed since the 60s and 70s, which many consider its heyday?
The one word that differentiates the golden days from nowadays is "digital". Back then, you needed to invest to be a photographer. Thirty-six exposures required cash plus new rolls of film, developing, printing. Today, the technology is better; the cost of entry, lower. You no longer have to be as careful or thoughtful with your shots. The result is street photography that's somewhat "free" and pointless.
Digital removes many constraints from photography. That’s a good thing for me. I can focus on street photography and take shots that I wouldn’t take if I were working with film. The downside is that the removal of restraints allows for an avalanche of street photography–some good, some bad.
What kind of an impact do you think camera phones have had on the genre?
Camera phones have come a long way. The first camera phone (J-Phone) was extremely crude. Year by year, the technology got better. Today, manufacturers make their cameras a featured attribute of their phones because it's so important to consumers.
Ultimately, the impact of phones on street photography is that they allow you to fake it. You can take someone's picture really close and they might not notice it because you are on your phone, possibly doing a myriad of things. Google Glass also permits this: is that person looking at you, or taking your picture? Camera phones force us to look at street photography ethics in a new way. I think phones have a larger impact on photography as a whole by unifying the capture, processing, and publication of images into one small, pocketable package.
The traditional argument is that the image has become more ephemeral, but I guess in that sense it becomes more valuable when it’s curated and presented, for instance online or through apps?
My theory is that we are not yet ready to fully embrace the digital world...we still need real world grounding. Take your computer's trash can for example, it's a digital representation of a real item, but the computer doesn't need an icon, you do, in order to process the fact an item has been deleted.
Curation is a necessity today. Look at popular blogs, a lot of them are not creating anything per se, only curating content. Today, everyone has a camera. If you got one, you would want to use it, so can we blame the millions of people who do? As more and more people can afford cameras, more and more images will be produced.
The digital photography thing is too new but I believe it will regulate itself.
I know too many people that bought a DSLR because they already had everything: TV, Ipad, Smartphone, etc. We are in an era where the camera is now an essential consumer electronic, that's why many treat photography as something anyone can do. People will realize that photography is not as easy as it looks.
We need curation--even more so now–since anyone who owns a camera is under the delusion they can become a photographer overnight. We need curation, not to bring value to the photographs themselves - I believe that any photographer who puts h/her heart and soul into is inherently valuable but we need editing. If Bresson were alive, his images would be buried amongst thousands of pictures of grass with bokeh swirls, among other things. Editing is key.
Tell us about Inspired Eye? Where did the idea come from?
Inspired Eye is a community-powered digital magazine created by Don Springer and me. Don had this idea to create a photographic center, where photographers would come to learn how to improve their work.
When I was in design school, I was given fictitious company projects. I always imagined things that could one day be real. One of them was a magazine and the other, presets. I had the idea for the magazine design way before it ever existed in its present state.
At Inspired Eye, we have created a new type of photography magazine, where the main heroes are regular folks who work hard at the craft for the sheer love of an image, or experience. One subscriber said that the magazine was the first "real" photography magazine he's read. When you read Inspired Eye you can relate to the folks in it because we break down the walls of country, levels and accomplishments in the name of artistic passion. Inspired Eye's aim is to develop not only the photographer's eye but h/her heart and mind.
You recently published a new issue of Inspired Eye. Give us a preview…who is your ‘featured act’ or focus of the issue?
There is no featured act–that's the point of the magazine. We bring you a spectrum of photographers. When you read Inspired Eye it is clear the magazine is focused on individuals, but it's about photography in general. You see first hand, what photography means for different people around the globe, and that in turn helps expand your own view. We give everyone the same respect. In fact, it's the reader who chooses the featured act, we just present them.
You’re also the co-founder of Street Presets, probably the most complete, not to mention, kick-ass set of customized presets available for Lightroom and Nik…what’s new? What new sets should we look for in the near future?
Thanks man, we fused both the Magazine and Street Presets under the Inspired Eye website. Here's the thing: we believe in quality, not quantity.
We can't say when some new presets are coming out because we are after inspired presets, something with emotional punch. We could put out something that is sterile and bland every two months but we would never put out something we wouldn't use ourselves. All of my own images are processed with the presets. It's the same for the Magazine, we made something we wish we had.
So the only thing to expect is high quality presets when they come out - we hold ourselves to high standards!
What’s the single interview question you’ve always wanted to answer but have never been asked?
Clever question….I am itching to answer: Is photography more a conscious act or an unconscious one?
For more Olivier check out his latest article 5 Painless Steps for Getting Rid of the Fear of Street Photography Once and for All now on PetaPixel. You can also find him on Google Plus, Facebook or Twitter.
OLIVIER DUONG GALLERY (click to enlarge images)