David Maurice Smith interviewed by Lauren Young
David Maurice Smith is a Canadian documentary photographer based in Sydney, Australia. His work focuses on marginalised communities, and people on the fringe of society in Australia and around the world. His fascination with photography developed after travelling and documenting the essence of the places he visited through film photography. This career in photography began after he became frustrated with his career in social services and the institutional restrictions of social work. David uses the medium of photography to creatively engage on a more meaningful basis with social issues, to make viewers feel a sense of empathy and walk away with more questions than answers.
How did you become interested in photography?
Like many others I initially fell in love with the craft of photography through travel, experiencing interesting places and trying to capture an essence of them through images. The process of shooting rolls and rolls of film over months at a time and stashing them away, then developing them long after the events themselves had passed was like finding treasure, a way to re-live experiences.
Why did you choose to move from a career in social work to documentary photography, which do you find more fulfilling?
I have always been a creative person and I think I just hit a point in life where I was frustrated with the institutional restrictions in social services. At the same time needed to find ways of creatively engage on a more meaningful basis with the issues I thought were important. I have always been fascinated with peoples stories and been drawn to individuals on the fringes. The crossover to documentary shooting was natural. It was a combination of the things I value.
Has working as a social worker influenced your photographic style?
I learned how to make people feel comfortable and understand my intentions, which is very important in the type of photography I do. That has probably helped me to shoot more sensitive work. To tell strong stories about people, you often need to get close to them, physically and emotionally. I am comfortable with that from my social work experiences. Also I think I built up an ability to stay focused around people experiencing stress which helps.
How is taking documentary photographs in Australia different from anywhere else in the world?
All places are different. The light here is unique for sure. In summer most of the day the light is so aggressive it is hard to make good pictures. Then the light at the beginning and end of the day can be incredible, totally unique. The winter light is epic. The size of the country and its remoteness makes it difficult sometimes to access the stories I am interested in; it can be prohibitively expensive to get to some zones with the costs of flights. It can also be difficult to get Australian stories out in the international market. Foreign editors often overlook the social and environmental issues Australia faces, focusing instead on stories about the countries natural beauty and quirkiness.
What do you want your viewers to take away from your work?
I hope people walk away with a sense of empathy for the stories and their heads filled with more questions than answers.
What were some difficulties you faced when first starting documentary photography?
Getting started can be hard; there is no real set process to follow. You have to get amongst it and shoot. It has changed a great deal, you used to get a job at a newspaper or magazine and cut your teeth that way, but those jobs don’t exist. At the core it is shooting stories you are passionate about, not ones you think will help your image or career. If you do that, good things happen. It is not easy to make a living as a photographer shooting work about social issues; that is a large logistical hurdle to making the transition to being a documentary photographer. There is no shortage of stories that need to be told… There is a shortage of outlets willing to pay properly for the work.
Who are some of your favorite photographers, how have they influenced you?
Different shooters for different reasons: I am inspired by the work of Yuri Kozyrev and James Nachtwey for their relentless pursuit of classic and impactful pictures. They have covered so much difficult subject matter in their careers. Christopher Anderson is another person I really admire for the diversity he has in his work, from conflict to beautiful personal work about his family. David Alan Harvey, his use of colour and the looseness he shoots with is something that inspired me early on, he was one of my first mentors and really pushed me. Andrew Quilty’s work is so strong and he is a close friend so I have been able to watch how the decisions and sacrifices he has made have propelled him along. Adam Ferguson, another Australian with such incredible talent. Also Dean Sewell, one of the legends of Australian photography, selfless and committed to doing it the right way. He has been instrumental in my development and I can’t think of anyone whose opinion I trust more when it comes to documentary photography.
Being a documentary photographer have you ever been in a position where you have feared for your wellbeing?
Yes and possibly surprisingly they are mostly related to being in a vehicle driven erratically in a country where horrific traffic accidents are commonplace. I try not to think about it.
What does ‘documentary photography’ mean to you?
Creating pictures with an intention: to be authentic to the story itself, versus applying your own artistic narrative or subjective creativity. There is no such thing as being an entirely objective observer, however if you are a documentary photographer you should be making ethical and honest pictures about your subjects, not pictures that serve your own creative desires.
What are the benefits (disadvantages) of being apart of Oculi, does being a part of such a collective further inspire you to pursue stories?
There are career advantages, like having affiliations with agencies and representation that Oculi affords and the ability to gain momentum from the work of other members of the group, however I think the best part is having peers that you can call on for support and guidance. We spend most of our time working in isolation as photographers so to have people to regularly share work with and sound off with is invaluable. That is my favourite part. I consider some of my Oculi colleagues as dear friends. Because we are a grassroots group we have to manage the affairs of the group and everyone is busy so sometimes dealing with the business side of things can be a drag. Such is life; you get out what you put in.
What’s in store for the future?
Lately I have been focusing on research and applying for grants for some bigger projects so hoping to get those supported and underway. I shoot as much as I can about meaningful things. Dean Sewell and Myself are also teaching some workshops in Australia to emerging photographers, which I really enjoy.