Welcome to 10.Q Interviews.This section usually features interviews to Humanitarian, Cultural & Travel Photographers, their work and photography.
This week in 10.Q Interviews, Doug Klostermann:
“Doug Klostermann is a travel, culture, and humanitarian photographer dedicated to documenting the work of international aid organizations. He is based in Cambridge, MA. He has photographed and contributed images to numerous NGOs, non-profits, and volunteer organizations who have used his photography for documentation, publications, outreach, and fundraising.” [More about Doug...]
1. Tell us about you and your photography. Have you worked for any humanitarian organizations/magazines etc.?
Thank you Heber for this opportunity to talk about photography and about my work. I am a travel, culture, and humanitarian photographer, and am most interested in documenting the work of international NGOs as well as the cultures they work within. In my images I strive to tell the personal stories, struggles, and successes of people in a way that viewers, especially those who come from a background and environment different than that of the subject, can truly relate to. I enjoy experiencing and photographing people whose lives, cultures, and surroundings are very different from my own, and I try to share their compelling stories.
I’ve photographed for numerous small NGOs in Latin America and in the U.S., often on a volunteer basis as I started out. I’ve also submitted images to various humanitarian organizations and campaigns and to an NGO photography site called Photoshare. I was thrilled when the United Nations Development Programme selected one of my photos from Peru to be part of their Humanizing Development global campaign and traveling exhibit. And I achieved a long-time goal when a photo of mine was recently chosen for the cover of an upcoming travel guidebook.
2. We all know that you don’t get into humanitarian photography to become rich, so what does humanitarian photography mean to you? What’s your vision for it?
For me, humanitarian photography means having the opportunity to contribute to an NGO’s mission and to the people they serve in a way that best uses my strengths, skills, and interests, while spreading awareness of their work to a wider audience. I hope that through my photography more people learn about and become concerned about global issues, and in turn increase their support of the organizations that are confronting these issues. My vision for humanitarian photography is that it continues to tell the stories of organizations and aid workers in the field, celebrates the lives and accomplishments of the people they serve, and promotes positive change.
3. How did you get into humanitarian photography? Where did you get the idea to shoot these kinds of people and groups?
I worked for many years as an architect and project manager. That career was interrupted after a vacation to Peru, where I saw for the first time the realities of life in a developing country. I felt compelled to return as a long term volunteer to try to improve the lives and futures of disadvantaged kids in whatever small way I could. While I enjoyed working as a volunteer and a teacher, I soon realized that I was most interested in photographing what I was seeing and experiencing. I returned to Peru the following year to continue my volunteer work and also to focus on developing as a photographer. I discovered that I have a true passion for this type of photography and that I enjoy working in the field, and I dedicated myself to this self-designed internship for several months. When I returned home I committed myself to continuing to learn and improve in every aspect of photography and digital editing, and searched for a way to make a new career of it. At the time, I did not know there was such a thing as a humanitarian photographer, but then eventually discovered Karl Grobl and David duChemin and was pleased to learn there was a niche I was beginning to fit into.
4. What are the challenges of shooting for NGOs or non-profit organizations?
Shooting for an NGO typically means working in a culture very different from my own, so one of the challenges is trying to overcome a lifetime of western cultural influences and education, and all the assumptions and preconceived notions that I have absorbed over time.I aim to portray subjects accurately and truthfully, and so I always work to try to really understand the world from their point of view.
Another challenge is finding clients who are able to financially support this type of work. There are countless small NGOs, and many of them understand the power and value of good photography, but few have the budget for it. And the larger ones who are willing and able to pay a reasonable rate are often already working with photographers they are comfortable with. I enjoy volunteering with the small organizations, but I want to make a living at this, so I’m also reaching out to organizations I hope will offer paid assignments. I am learning a lot about how they work with photographers and their expectations, as well as about marketing and business practices. The business side is not nearly as enjoyable as being out in the field with a camera in my hand, but is essential to continue to make that happen.
5. How much do you travel every year? How do you manage your family time?
When I started testing the waters of travel, culture, and humanitarian photography I spent 3 to 4 months a year living and traveling in Peru. Those were self-financed adventures, and at the time I was single so I was able to live that lifestyle. Lately I’ve gone on much shorter trips, less often, as I work towards building a base of clients who might offer and support assignments. And now that I am in a committed relationship, it is not reasonable to run off for several months at a time. But my girlfriend works for an NGO and sometimes travels herself, and so she understands the importance of what I do.
6. Who’s been an inspiration for your photography? How do you stay inspired? Do you read blogs? If so, which ones would you recommend?
After my experiences overseas, as I searched for a vocational path in travel and culture photography, I saw a Cornell Capa exhibit at the ICP in New York. When I read his term “concerned photographer” in the exhibit text, it instantly cemented my course. It was the role I had been searching for and that soon led me to discover the current, working humanitarian photographers. Capa’s photos have been an inspiration as well, especially his work in South America. I’m also tremendously inspired by the images of Sebastião Salgado and his dramatic portrayals of the world’s marginalized populations. I’ve learned a great deal about indigenous cultures from Wade Davis’s writing, and he is an excellent photographer as well. There are countless other photographers whose work, and methods of working, I study including the exceptionally talented Ami Vitale. I recently saw a stunning exhibit of James Nachtwey’s project documenting extremely drug-resistant TB (XDR-TB). I’m going to continue to study his images to better understand how he united the subjects with his compositions and points of view to create such powerful images.
As far as blogs, I’m a regular follower of the always inspiring David duChemin. I learned a lot about the practicalities of working in the field from Karl Grobl’s website. I follow sites like Lightstalkers and Scott Kelby to keep my finger on the pulse of the larger photography community, and Canon Rumors and DPReview to stay current with the latest equipment. I like looking at the White House photostream on Flickr because the photos include all the EXIF data and I try to deconstruct Pete Souza’s thought process as he captures his images. However, it is also important to seek non-photography related inspiration. As Jay Maisel noted, to take better photos, be a more interesting person. For me this means always learning more about global issues, about the cultures of places I plan to visit, and reading any book that involves a true-life Amazon adventure.
7. How do you normally approach people from other cultures? What are your limits at the moment of shooting people in need, or in a complicated situation?
As I’ve read from many other photographers, I too have learned the key is to approach people as individuals, not as subjects. One cannot rush in behind a camera, but must communicate with people first to whatever extent that is possible based on the situation. Not only does this lead to more satisfying, authentic, and memorable interactions, it typically leads to stronger photographs. It is not always easy, and the impulse is to start capturing shots right away before they disappear. But I’ve found that the opportunities will remain, and even improve, through courteous, respectful, and genuine interaction first.
Regarding shooting sensitive situations, if it doesn’t feel right, I don’t do it. When I’ve been absorbed in the shooting process and found that I caught an improper moment, I’ve just erased the image rather than second guessing or debating over it. Working in a foreign culture that you can never fully understand is always a challenge. I feel it is extremely important to learn everything I can about the people and places I am photographing while being mindful that my own values and experiences always affect how I see the world.
8. How do you promote your work?
First and foremost I promote my work through my website, www.dojoklo.com, and I also actively maintain my blog, Picturing Change. I have a category of posts on humanitarian photography that I hope others find helpful. I look for opportunities to exhibit my photos and to share my work with people and organizations who might be interested, and I enter photo contests. And as I mentioned before, I reach out directly to NGOs to continue to build a client base.
9. Tell us about the last piece of gear that you deemed important enough to buy. How about the one that’s been most important in your career? (It can be a lens, camera, accessory, etc.)
The latest piece of gear that I bought is the Zoom H2 digital audio recorder.Based on what I’ve read from other photographers, as well as audio slideshows I’ve viewed on websites like the New York Times and Chicago Tribune, I’ve become convinced an audio recorder will come in handy for interviews and environmental sounds to pair with slideshows. The Zoom H2 seems to be a quality, economical model.