by Flemming Bo Jensen
DeShaun is a photographer and writer based in New York. I first connected online with DeShaun years ago through a comment he left on my blog. I went to his websites and was blown away first by an incredible image he made of Alicia Keys and then by his street photography and last but not least, I read his - highly recommended - photography blog. Since then I have followed his work closely, and with our new KAGE interview series I was very keen to feature DeShaun and learn more about him.
The following interview is a conversation between DeShaun and I via email. Thank you DeShaun for devoting the time to answer my many questions. - Flemming.
Tell us how you came to be a photographer?
It was a lot of trial and error, honestly! When I was a child, I loved cameras, but had no idea how to use them—I just ran around aimlessly with one of the family cameras. I picked up my first SLR in 2008, but I didn't feel comfortable with one in my hands until 2012. I think that's when I became a photographer. I had put so much of myself into learning and honing my skills, and I had a pretty good feeling about the kinds of things I wanted to photograph.
What do you love about photography?
Everything. After decades and decades of photography, it's still such a strong method of expression. I love that it is a wordless conversation I can have with anyone, or no one, if I choose.
And what do you mainly photograph?
I've lived in New York City all my life, so it is in most of my work. Street scenes and music performances are my absolute favorite things to photograph.
Is there a connection for you between shooting street and music?
The skill set is similar. When I walk the streets, I scan for a setting and try to catch things as they happen, or as they align just right. Music photography is experiencing a performance and extracting moments of excitement or wonder from that show. Both types of photography require a sensitivity to serendipity.
What does music photography give you and mean for you?
It's a lot of things. I think everyone has that moment where they go to see their favorite performer, and even though they are surrounded by hundreds of people, they feel like they are the only person in the room at the time. I feel like that when I raise my camera to my eye during a performance. It's a way for me to bottle that energy and share it with others. When I'm photographing someone I'm a big fan of (like Alicia Keys), then that intimate feeling is amplified, and I feel like I'm showing my appreciation to those artists, even though most of them never see what I create.
Do you secretly wish to be the artist playing when you shoot concert gigs (I ask because I am curious, as I not so secretly want to be a DJ!)?
I'm very comfortable just being the photographer, and I don't think could face those big crowds every day! I always wish that I had a better connection to the artists. There are some people I'd just love to work with more closely, so I just want more of that. I only want to be on the stage if there's a camera in my hand.
What are the main challenges you have faced in music photography?
There are always technical challenges like difficult lighting, but you often learn to think on your feet and make things work when you can. I'd have to say that my biggest obstacle has been actually getting the jobs I want, and the visibility I'd like. I email people, I pitch ideas, and I share my portfolio with tons of people, but it's really rare for me to actually get hired. A lot of my work comes through one or two outlets, and getting your name out there can be difficult. I'll end up being confident one moment and really down on myself the next, so I guess my own attitude is a challenge too! It's so hard not to take the rejection personally when you put so much of yourself into it. There are times when, after a series of unanswered emails or hitting yet another dead end, I start to wonder if these people like my work, or if they like me.
What would be your dream music gig?
Ideally, I'd want to tour with an artist whose work I admire, and hopefully, an artist who also admires my work. I'd want to be able to go wherever I want and really tell a story, instead of just capturing the first 15 minutes of a performance. I don't think I can even narrow it down to a specific artist at the moment, because there are just too many, but I'd want all access. As much as I love performance photos, I want to get the story leading up to the moments on stage. I want to be able to capture the types of isolated scenes that I capture in my street work. I want to make work that doesn't just make you feel like you were in the front row, but a member of the crew. That's the dream gig.
A year ago you wrote a great blog post about Race and Photography and the problems with racism and lack of diversity in the photography business - what has the reactions been to this post since ?
They have been surprisingly positive. A lot of people approached me and said that they didn't realize it was like that in photography too. Getting that kind of response makes me think that there really are a lot of people who are ready to talk about the topic and work towards establishing a balance that hasn't existed before.
I see the problems of race and gender in photography through my partner far too often. I also see it constantly in the music industry. How do we battle these problems which are far too often ignored or denied?
Well, if I knew the answer to that, I'd be a genius! Acknowledging that a problem exists in the first place is a huge step, and then making a conscious effort to correct it is another. That's a really deep problem, so staying visible and having a sense of community makes us all visible. There are groups like The Photo Ladies that showcase work from a ton of talented women, and I think those kinds of groups are necessary in a system that really seeks to divide those who are already marginalized. Even if it isn't going to be a formal group, sticking together and cooperating with one another is so crucial to individual success.
Your stories and images from NYC really makes me want to live there for a while. How has your love for New York evolved since you began photographing the city ?
You should definitely stop by for a while! My love for the city has definitely become deeper. There have been rough patches, because New York City is always becoming more expensive, more demanding, and in some ways, less inclusive. Going out and photographing the city reminds me of the little subtleties that make me love living here. There are times that I will travel on vacation, and I swear that I've had my fill of New York. Then I'll return home and see a certain scene, and I feel welcome again. It's a hard thing to describe, but photography in the city is always rekindling my love for it.
There is a solitude to a lot of your street photography and you wrote about it in The Solitude of 8 Million, where you mention the camera also gives you solitude. Why is this important to you?
I am, among many things, an introvert. There are so many people in New York that trying to find total absence of people is nearly impossible. Any tool that I can use to give myself some time to think or relax is always welcome. With a camera, I can quietly observe, and no one will question why. I also spend a lot of time thinking, so walking around with my camera is a great way to unwind after a long day.
How do you approach your street photography in NY - Do you have a favourite time or place to shoot?
I really like strong shadows and night, so I tend to choose times of day that cast long shadows down the narrow streets, or nighttime, because the city changes so much once the lights go on. Much of lower Manhattan is fun to shoot, because there's interesting architecture and some narrow streets that look amazing at certain times of day.
What attitude do you meet in the streets of NY towards candid street photography?
People are very aware of cameras these days, but I've never been the type of person to invade someone else's space when shooting. I tend to photograph people as they are walking away or from an unassuming distance. Usually, if I encounter someone who is trying really hard to avoid my camera, it turns out that they are not even the subject! I've been questioned by police a few times, usually someone being a little too suspicious about me photographing an ordinary looking parking lot or street corner. As difficult as it may be at times, I just try approaching scenes with confidence. If someone sees me take their picture, they see me.
You are also a writer for Huffington Post. How did this come about?
To clarify, I am not actually employed by Huffington Post. HuffPo has a blogging platform where you can post work and possibly give it some extra visibility through their audience. I got access after going to a portfolio review and sitting with someone who was an editor at Huffington Post. We really hit it off, and she put me in touch with someone who granted me access.
Which gear do you use and do you use the same on the street and at a concert?
I am a Nikon shooter. I have two digital cameras: a Nikon D750 and a Nikon D610. I have a 50mm f/1.4, a 24-70mm f/2.8, and a 105mm f/2 for lenses. I use the same gear out on the street and at a concert venue. I also have a few film cameras, but I don't use those at concerts. They're just for fun.
You recently finished your Abstract.NYC project. It is quite a departure from your street and music work. What made you start this project and what did it give you?
The project came from a magazine that had some photo project ideas. One of them involved panning the camera during a long exposure. When I looked at photos using this technique, they all looked the same. They were all taken at the beach or in a forest, and always used motion in one direction. After trying the technique in a few locations around the city and being really excited by the results, I decided to make that a series and explore many more neighborhoods. The concepts involving time and missed moments came to me after my 10th image or so. It felt so good to be able to express something in such a unique way, and it felt even better when people actually liked it.
Do you have a new project in the making?
Nothing in particular, no. I have recurring themes in my work, like shadows, reflections, geometry, and solitude, but I haven't actually fleshed any of them out into a project.
You mention in your review of 2015 that you are still searching for that big break and the struggles with getting the breakthrough. How has your 2016 been so far ?
Well, getting a photo featured in PDN has been wonderful! I'm still reaching out feverishly to try and get more access and get some interesting jobs, but so far the music photography has been slow. The abstract project is over, and I haven't really found it an offline home yet. The year is still young and these kinds of things take time, so I'm not discouraged just yet.
Can I get you to share 5 of your favourite images and talk about each of them ?
New York Chinatown
This is my favorite street shot. I took it back in 2012 following a Lunar New Year parade in New York's Chinatown. All the festivities were over and the cleaning crews were out to clear away all the confetti. I originally wanted to capture the confetti being blown by the leafblower, but then this man walked right through the confetti and that was a much better scene. The decision to make it black and white came 2 years later.
This is Dann Gallucci, guitarist in the band Cold War Kids. When shooting a concert, there is only so much you can prepare for ahead of time. Sometimes, you are just standing in the right spot. While a few other photographers were focused on the rest of the band, Dann was playing his hardest right in front of me. This was easily the best shot I took of that performance, and one of my favorite of 2015. Through some really crazy circumstances, Dann's father ended up asking for a print, so that was a really amazing highlight.
It's hard to choose a favorite abstract, but this is one of the last ones I made before completing the project. My favorite pieces in the project always have colors that overlap and blend in interesting ways, and this shot really surprised me. It was later considered by Apple for a project (but was not chosen).
This is Gabrielle Wortman. She's in a band called Smoke Season. This is one of my favorite performance photos ever. The colors are really deep, and it's just so close. I think it really reflects the intimacy of the venue, which was a small hotel penthouse overlooking the New York City skyline.
New York - Manhattan Bridge
I think one of the best things about NYC is how it looks under different weather conditions. The city in the snow and rain is really magical and should be experienced first hand. This was taken during our blizzard early this year—the second largest in the city's history! I went out during the storm and found this pile of shoveled snow, and lined up my shot so the Manhattan Bridge would appear to be buried. Forced perspective isn't just for looking like you're pushing the Leaning Tower of Pisa, you know!