Tag Archives: photography

054: Ward Roberts, Artist, Photographer
Ward Roberts. Photo by Bo Puinar Hui

054: Ward Roberts, Artist, Photographer

“Call it destiny… or call it stubborn.”

Welcome to Notes on Doing, conversations with people who love what they do.

I’m Jenna Matecki.

Our next episode goes to Ward Roberts. Ward is an artist. He’s also the photographer behind the celebrated Courts photo series – a gorgeous collection of photos of empty sports courts (think tennis courts, basketball courts, you name it).

Listen to what Ward had to say about photographing people with character, finding your voice, believing in yourself, connecting with others, and making honest work.

Also, there is now an original Notes on Doing poster illustrated by Luna Adler. Links for Luna’s Etsy store are featured on notesondoing.com. It’s amazing. Check it out and buy it! Also know that 100% of all proceeds directly support Luna, @lunaadler.

All right, plug over, here’s Ward Roberts:

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Thanks for listening to Notes on Doing Episode 054, with Ward Roberts.

Check out Ward’s work on Instagram @ward.roberts and online at ward-roberts.com. You’ll also find information for where to buy his books there.

And, as always, subscribe to Notes on Doing. Episodes release weekly, every Monday on iTunes. Please rate the show on iTunes, follow our Instagram @notesondoing, and join the Notes on Doing Facebook community.

Until next week. In the meantime, always do.

053: Scott Beale, Laughing Squid
Scott Beale, photo by Lori Dorn @HRlori

053: Scott Beale, Laughing Squid

“I haven’t had a ‘job’ since ’98.”

Welcome to Notes on Doing, conversations with people who love what they do.

I’m Jenna Matecki.

Our next episode goes to Scott Beale. Scott is the Founder of Laughing Squid, a blog that features art, culture and technology. Laughing Squid also functions as a cloud-based web hosting company.

Listen to what Scott had to say about ironic t-shirts, multimedia gulch, Burning Man, Santa Claus on the Williamsburg bridge, and a 21-year-old cephalopod (or should I blog!?) named Laughing Squid.

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Thanks for listening to Notes on Doing Episode 053, with Scott Beale.

Check out Laughing Squid across the internet at @laughingsquid.

And, as always, subscribe to Notes on Doing. Episodes release weekly, every Monday on iTunes. Please rate the show on iTunes, follow our Instagram @notesondoing, and join the Notes on Doing Facebook community.

Also, there is now an original Notes on Doing poster illustrated by Luna Adler. Links for Luna’s Etsy store are featured on notesondoing.com. Check it out and buy it! Also know that 100% of all proceeds directly support Luna, @lunaadler.

Until next week! In the meantime, always do.

052: Nick Rhodes, NickyDigital.com
Nick Rhodes, Official Photo nickydigital.com

052: Nick Rhodes, NickyDigital.com

“There are other parts of life that have to be fulfilling in order for your job to be fulfilling”

Welcome to Notes on Doing, conversations with people who love what they do.

I’m Jenna Matecki.

Our next episode goes to Nick Rhodes, the Founder and CEO of NickyDigital.com – *the* place to go to find out where the hottest events, concerts, and parties are happening across New York City… and to see great photos from last night.

Listen to what Nick had to say about mustaches, miming, adventures in retail, faces, work/life balance, backpacks, and out of office emails.

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Thanks for listening to Notes on Doing episode 052, with Nick Rhodes.

Check out NickyDigital.com! It’s across the internet and on social @nickydigital.

And, as always, subscribe to Notes on Doing. Episodes release weekly, every Monday on iTunes. Please rate the show on iTunes, follow our Instagram @notesondoing, and join the Notes on Doing Facebook community.

Also, there is now an original Notes on Doing poster illustrated by Luna Adler. Links for Luna’s Etsy store are featured on notesondoing.com. Check it out and buy it! Also know that 100% of all proceeds directly support the artist. Check out Luna’s Instagram at @lunaadler.

Until next week! In the meantime, always do.

040: Jason Jaworski, Photographer, Writer, Artist
Jason Jaworski, Official Photo

040: Jason Jaworski, Photographer, Writer, Artist

“What is this ‘something?’”

Welcome to Notes on Doing, conversations with people who love what they do.

I’m Jenna Matecki.

Our next episode goes to Jason Jaworski. Jason is a photographer, writer, and artist, who has been living a nomadic existence since he was 17. His deeply personal photos, photobooks, exhibitions, and performances have been published, featured, shelved, and shown around the world – the International Center for Photography, MOCA Los Angeles, MoMA PS1, VICE Magazine, Juxtapoz, Bookdummypress, Mana Contemporary, and Opening Ceremony to name a few.

Listen to what Jason had to say about meeting the ninja turtles, dropping out of school, living homeless underneath a bridge in Paris, sneaking into Fukushima, chatting with David Foster Wallace, making rain in the Sahara, enduring winter, finding ‘something,’ and thinking of you.

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Thanks for listening to Notes on Doing episode 040 with Jason Jaworski.

You can check out Jason’s work at jason-jaworski.com, sskpress.com, or on Instagram at @jaworskijason.

And subscribe to Notes on Doing! Episodes release weekly, every Monday, on iTunes. Follow us on Instagram @notesondoing, join our Facebook community, and if you could please rate Notes on Doing on iTunes I’d be so grateful – it helps more people to find the show and listen to the incredible people featured.

Until next week, in the meantime, always do.

 

032: Ian McNaught Davis, Documentary Photographer
Ian McNaught Davis, South Africa

032: Ian McNaught Davis, Documentary Photographer

ianmcnaughtdavisnodWelcome to Notes on Doing, conversations with people who love what they do.

My name is Jenna Matecki.

Our next episode goes to Ian McNaught Davis. Ian is a documentary photographer. He’s currently traveling around the world and taking photos. Listen to what Ian had to say about following photography, choosing to always be a beginner, and living life without limits.

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Ian
: Well the crazy thing is – I kind of started off with this whole “baptism by fire” kind of thing because I started the journey by cycling. For six months. So I was on this bicycle… and… to begin at the beginning…

Jenna: Yeah!

Ian: I had a desk job. I was working as a writer for a magazine and it got kind of…

Yeah, I just wasn’t fulfilled.

And that’s why I was really excited to do this interview, by the way, because it’s on about finding fulfillment in doing your own thing. And that was kind of the catalyst for all of this, so I really appreciated that.

So I was working at this office job and I always had a bit of “itchy feet” and really wanted to focus more on photography.

What happened was, I met this guy on my lunch break. He just cycled from Turkey all the way through Africa, and he got into Cape Town, which is where I was working. He was wearing his cycle gear and he had his bike, and his bags, and everything, and I just saw this dude and I thought “You’re just the coolest person I’ve ever seen.” [Laughs]

Because he just rocked up into the city and… I eventually bought the bike off of him, after talking with him for about half an hour, and… I resigned I think the week after.

And so I had always had this plan of cycling and working on photographs, and then all of a sudden this guy appears and he’s selling me his bicycle. And I took that bicycle up through South Africa for about six months.

In that time I realized that if you’re not going to use your stuff every day it’s not that… I don’t know… it’s just not really worth carrying, you know? And so it was a lot of this case of justifying keeping these extra things, but when you’re cycling you literally have to carry everything. And so I just posted a lot of it back home, and in the end I had very little. I started traveling with a computer but then I decided I’d just shoot photographs and keep them on the memory card. And because of that there was less time editing, obviously, but then that’s just more time shooting. And it was kind of cool because you find these photographs that you forgot that you took.  In a way I suppose that’s what it must have been like shooting in film, because you don’t get that instant access.

It was a fascinating way of getting around because… you’re just you. You’ve got less… and it was really liberating.

Having worked from month to month with the sort of safety net of a salary you don’t realize how much you can actually afford to get rid of. And so that basically prepared me for this trip. I mean it’s been 18 months so far. And you know, it’s a small bag that I’m carrying. My camera set up is pretty small, it’s one lens, it’s a camera. I am traveling with a computer now. Whatever you’re not going to use every day, it’s not worth it. I mean there are things you can buy along the way and you know a couple of things for a rainy day is probably important. But other than that it’s been really… it just… frees you up. Less things to hold you down, literally, and I suppose figuratively as well.

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Jenna: What… you know you realize there’s so many different questions I can ask you now. [Laughs]

OK – So going back to the start of the story, just because you know, it’s one thing to see a really cool guy on a bike and it’s another thing to be like ‘let me buy that bike off of you, I’m going to quit everything that I know, and then go ride that bike up through South Africa.’

During that time was it just like ‘I really have to do this, I’m on a mission, let me tell my best friends and family goodbye and just go’ or I mean was it… was it really that impulsive a decision for you? Every so often do you stop and say ‘I’m kind of crazy for doing this.’? [Laughs]

Ian: Well I still do that, I still ask myself why I’m actually doing this.

But it sounds a lot more impulsive than it was. I had actually planned to cycle within I suppose a year, and I had always been saving up – I had a kind of rainy day fund because even when I started the job I wasn’t completely sure that was where I wanted to be for the rest of the next ten years. I figured ‘if I have this little rainy day fund it’ll just you know…’ …I suppose it’s got a sort of sense of freedom ‘you know one day I could do something with this.’ And I had done a little bit of cycling before. But I didn’t have a bike and I didn’t have equipment and that sort of thing. And so it was just a case of… of something that was going to happen. And then it just happened a lot earlier than planned.

So I had two months of notice when I quit the job. And then I sold my car, furniture, and pretty much told everybody I was leaving. And that’s how it worked out. But it wasn’t like ‘I saw a cool dude on a bike and it changed my life.’ I mean, I made plans for cycling and looked at roots and things like that, kind of with that idea of photographing kind of everyday moments.

And I thought the bicycle would be quite an icebreaker – that I would be able to rock up somewhere and just look kind of out of place. Because of that it’s a bit of a conversation starter, and that’s led to a lot of photographs.

I’ve since stopped cycling because you’re just cycling eight hours a day, so you don’t really get a chance to focus on deeper photographs. But it definitely taught me a lot. It taught me a lot about traveling, about myself…

It taught me a lot about accepting hospitality – which is kind of a weird thing. It’s quite something, to knock on somebody’s door if it’s raining and say ‘hey can I stay here?’ You know? It’s just… it’s not something that comes naturally to me.

That was pretty cool. You know it really pushed me out of my comfort zone, and kind of forced me to look at South Africa. I was born in South Africa, but there are parts that I just never knew about and all those hours of introspection I think is really good. I think we need that space. We get in this routine, and there’s no real time for good daydreaming. Cycling really helped that.

“We get in this routine, and there’s no real time for good daydreaming. Cycling really helped that.”

Jenna: Good living too, right? It’s like you’re not thinking about all the other crap you have to think about at desk, right?

You’re like ‘Well, I need to get from point A to point B. I need to eat today, you know I’d like to meet some new people…’ [Laughs] What’s your list of daily needs? Now that you’ve stripped out all of the material crap, OK, and you’re just on the road, either on your bike or like now where you just have your cameras… What’s your daily checklist?

Ian: So there’s the basics, being like food and water, and that sort of thing. But… basically it’s to get photographs. And that’s been really cool because this has always been something that I’ve wanted to do.

But working on a full time job, there’s just… there’s no time for it. Or I’ll come up with some other excuse why I need to sit on my couch and watch series or something.

This has really freed up the whole day to walk around and take pictures. And the exciting thing is that it hasn’t got easier taking photographs. So I still feel like a beginner. And because of that it puts pressure on me to go out and get that photograph, because there isn’t… I spoke about the safety net of a salary. There isn’t that thing to fall back on. So… you’ve quit your job, you might as well make the most of it.

And having less… I don’t know… every day crap, you’re not going to fill your day with things that you don’t need to do.

And I realize I can’t do this forever. But this is my time to kind of give it a decent shot.

I suppose my ultimate goal would be to be able to look at things happening around me at home and kind of see it with a foreign perspective. Because you’ll find you know when you go traveling, everything’s just so exotic. It’s got this different flavor and you notice different things. I’d like to reach a point where home looks like that.

“I suppose my ultimate goal would be to be able to look at things happening around me at home and kind of see it with a foreign perspective. Because you’ll find you know when you go traveling, everything’s just so exotic. It’s got this different flavor and you notice different things. I’d like to reach a point where home looks like that.”

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Jenna: What are some things that you’ve learned about yourself that you can think about in terms of just… you know there is a certain harshness to travel and doing what you’re doing, I’m sure at times you’re roughing it if you’re knocking on someone’s door and asking if you can stay there. Looking at the person that you were before you took on this adventure to now, what were some really poignant lessons that you learned, about you?

Ian: Sure… well something that sticks out is the idea of making plans, and structure, and having a routine. Because the Ian 18 months ago was very into ‘today I’m going to do this, and that, and that,’ and to do lists, and ticking them off. And that’s really no way to live your life.

So the original plan for me was to ride a bike for three months through South Africa, which turned into six months, which turned into traveling in Turkey, and Georgia, and Armenia, and then I came back, and then I hitchhiked, and got all the way from Cape Town to Ethiopia and in Kazakhstan, and you know… but the point is that was originally a sort of… you know I even wrote it down, I had ‘day one I’ll be here, day two I’ll be here,’ and that’s just…

Life and traveling, you know, doesn’t work like that.

And I’ve realized the importance of not making plans. I don’t mean that in a kind of flippant kind of way, but genuinely I think if you can afford not to make a plan, then don’t.

I think so many times we put limits on ourselves by planning things that could be left up to chance or could be left in… in somebody else’s hands. It is the idea of trying to control everything. And that actually becomes more real when you travel.

Because they’re just things that you can’t control, where you’re a bit more exposed to other factors, and the idea of not having a plan means you can go beyond your limits and into different orbits, and you’ll meet… weird people.

And I like the idea of being out of your orbit. The kind of life I lived before, or at least at my office job, it just revolved around colleagues, flatmates, friends, family…

It was just one weekly kind of circle, and here… it just kind of opens up your life to chance, to random encounters, and coincidences, and things like that.

And a lot of that, I kind of only regret discovering it now.

But you know if you look at something like photography, or maybe more specifically documentary photography, where it’s a spur of the moment kind of perspective… There’s so much that you can’t control that it’s almost kind of liberating to just let go, and see what happens.

“There’s so much that you can’t control that it’s almost kind of liberating to just let go, and see what happens.”

And I can’t control… I don’t know… a Buddhist monk appearing out of nowhere, cracking open a beer, or something like that, [laughs] you know with perfect lighting, and with this amazing kind of compositional background. But you just got to be present and wait for it, be ready for when it happens. And so I think that’s the biggest thing for me. It’s the importance of not making plans.

And obviously there are times where you do need to plan things, like if you’ve got a wedding speech, or you’re making a baby, or something. Plan THOSE things, you know? But if you can afford not to, the rewards just outweigh the idea of being restricted.

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Jenna: Going back through your work can you identify some moments where you unexpectedly got a great photograph? So in the vein of not planning things, but being at the right place, at the right time, and what it was like to capture that – in your process of discovering what you took. So there’s the act of taking the photograph, then there’s the act of reviewing it later and saying ‘I’m proud of this. This is something that captures that moment.’ Right?

Ian: Let me try and think… I’m trying to think of a specific one. There were a couple of moments where I just…

OK, let me tell you the story about the ‘One That Got Away.’

What happened was I arrived in Georgia on this border town called Batumi on the border with Turkey and Georgia, and on the day I got in, I heard this story, somebody was talking in the hotel where I was staying, that there had been a flash flood in the capital in Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital, and it was a very specific flood and it only managed to flood the zoo. Right.

And so it broke like the gates, of the zoo, and these animals were running in the streets! Yeah. And I couldn’t believe it. It was like Jumanji. [Laughs] Yeah. And I just thought ‘well this is ‘National Geographic’ stuff, you know? And I kind of imagined that I’d get there, and I’d see this tiger walking, but in front of like a McDonald’s or something, [laughs], and obviously the light would be perfect, and you know, nobody would be in the way or anything. And so I kind of envisioned this. But apparently it was crazy, there were wolves, and there was a bear, and a hippo that had just… run amok. [Laughs]

“And I couldn’t believe it. It was like Jumanji.”

And so they closed down the streets, and there were police and army trying to, you know, chase these wild animals.

And so it was a case of ‘the one getting away.’ I got a train that day, and I managed to get there, and I kind of lied and said I was from foreign press, and I was taking photographs of the zoo with the hope that some tiger would appear somewhere.

It never happened. But that would be an example of just something that I wouldn’t even think would even be possible in real life.

But it is, and it did happen. Unfortunately I didn’t get my picture. But that just shows you that not having plans and to being able to hop on a train and then be in the capital a couple hours later,  in the scene where it happened – that’s something that I’m grateful for. But I would like to have got the shot, but you know, it’s up there.

Jenna: You know I would say ‘there’s always next time’ but I don’t really know if there’s going to be a next time for that one so… [laughs]

Going through your biography online, and you know your pictures are incredible, but in trying to paint the picture of you as a person before we kind of get more into your work…

The list of things that you’ve done – ‘cattle driver in Australia,’ [laughs], ‘carpenter,’ ‘teacher’… So is this how you make ends meet? Like do you take up an odd job in each place, or you know is it like ‘save up a lot of money, and then spend all that money, and then go save it all up again?’ What’s your… how are you… I’m still fascinated by how you’re making this work. [Laughs]

Ian: Basically the exciting parts of my life, at least you know the ones that I bring up at barbecues or dinner parties, are working as a cattle driver, and as a carpenter, and then you know being unemployed, and traveling the world, and taking pictures. Those have kind of happened at sort of quarter life, midlife, or early midlife I like to think, crises. They happened in between steady jobs.

So I studied journalism at college, and then ended up working a job, at a Men’s Magazine. And yeah. I kind of had enough of that. And I hadn’t traveled before and so I was, I think I must have been about 23 then, or 24, anyway, and I quit and I went to Australia and I worked on this cattle ranch mainly because I thought it would be cool to play cowboys for a while.

Then that led on to working in Borneo for a bit, and teaching in Malaysia. Then eventually my money ran out, as it did, and then I came back and I got another grown up job again, sort of working at a magazine, and just kind of… As I said earlier, I just felt a bit unfulfilled. And it wasn’t so much ‘itchy feet’ like I felt before, because there was a case of wanting to play cowboys and see the world. This was a case of following photography.

“As I said earlier, I just felt a bit unfulfilled. And it wasn’t so much ‘itchy feet’ like I felt before, because there was a case of wanting to play cowboys and see the world. This was a case of following photography.”

And you know I don’t want to call it a ‘calling for photography’ because I think that’s a bit airy fairy, but it’s something that I’ve done for a while now, and I feel a lot of… I just feel content doing it. And it’s very… I suppose the word is also “liberating.”

It’s a very liberating thing for me.

And I realized I was turning 30 before I left, and this really is a kind of window period. No debts, no… I’m not married, I’m not… I don’t own property. If I’m ever really going to give this photography thing a go, now is the time. So yeah… they have happened in between steady jobs these other things.

But I think traveling in general, maybe you’d agree with me, it just alters your perspective on many things. And for me the big take up from travel is that our similarities far outweigh our differences with other people. You get decent people and you get difficult people all over the world. We’re a lot similar than we think. And so I think traveling has helped me develop that, and made me more interested in people, and specifically photographing them.

And so, yeah, that’s the story so far.

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Jenna: Are you documenting these people, or is it more of a document of your trip? How do you view what it is you’re doing? You’re taking a photograph, you’re in the process of doing that. Is that documentation? Or is that art? Are you painting a scene? Revealing how you see the world? All of the above, none of the above?

Like what would you say it is that you’re doing and why are you compelled to do that, specifically? Photography, specifically?

Ian: So I think… I think looking back at the idea of people being more similar than we kind of imagine they are. I think there’s a leveler in that, and that is everyday life.

So throughout the world there are people playing, people working, people mourning, people cooking, people buying things, selling things. We have these universal themes of our daily life everywhere. And we might not look the same, places might not smell the same, or sound the same, but we have these rhythms. And so I’m interested in bringing these similarities together by showing people just going about their business, every day.

“We have these universal themes of our daily life everywhere. And we might not look the same, places might not smell the same, or sound the same, but we have these rhythms. And so I’m interested in bringing these similarities together by showing people just going about their business, every day.”

It’s not… I don’t know. It’s not concert photography, it’s not deep, ‘fly on the wall’ photography. It’s just like ‘this is what it’s like in Kazakhstan,’ ‘this is what it’s like in Ethiopia,’ and it’s always going to seem weird, and exotic, and appealing, but it’s more similar than I thought, you know just by being there myself, and that’s the message that I want to bring back in these photographs, that it’s not a… it’s not a case of, I don’t know, ‘other-ing,’ or making something seem more exotic. I’m using the example of the Buddhist monk again, but it’s a Buddhist monk taking a selfie. That’s no different than know somebody taking a selfie on their morning commute. These kind of ideas.

That’s what really excites me, those are the kind of photographs that I like to watch, or not watch… to look at.

And it’s also, I’m drawn to the intimacy of taking a picture. Just being in somebody’s presence and them allowing you to take a picture. Because a lot of the time for me there’s been a language barrier. And kind of reading the situation, when is it OK to shoot, when is it OK to just walk away, when is it OK to just kind of sit there and let people get comfortable with you. And that’s something that I’d like to, or least that I’m working on, but it’s also something that I’d like to see in a picture. That it’s not a case of a sort of ‘hit and run,’ and you take a picture and disappear. It’s a kind of… side effect of a relationship. It’s a result of somebody making a connection.

“It’s a kind of… side effect of a relationship. It’s a result of somebody making a connection.”

Jenna: How do you handle impermanence in what you do? You might not be in a place for an extended period of time, right? You’re always on this journey forward, so it’s only a short period of time. That moment that you took a photo of will never happen again, right? You know you’re doing this trip because, really you only get the opportunity to do this type of trip once, and that’s at the period of life that you’re in now, right? So there’s this, at least in the way that I’m listening to it, it’s like there’s this sense of impermanence in everything you do. It is destined but in the sense that you don’t know what’s happening next.

Ian: Exactly, yeah. So that’s something that’s pretty much on my mind all the time. You know it’s the idea…

You know, that’s a really good question by the way. So I used to work as a writer, as I said, and I did a couple of interviews, and when whenever somebody said ‘that’s a good question’ that means that they couldn’t answer it, and they’d answer something else. But that’s generally a good question.

Jenna: Thanks! [Laughs]

Ian: I always knew that if somebody said ‘mmm! good question!’ I knew that whatever follows is going to be something completely different.

Jenna: [Laughs] You know now you have to answer the question on impermanence, right? I’m going to force you to. This is on the record. It’s a question about how you deal with impermanence in your everyday life because it’s happening a lot for you. Impermanence that is.

Ian: There’s no going back. But anyway, seriously, good question.

Jenna: Thank you! [Laughs]

Ian: So with something like… this is for real. A real answer… the impermanence of it, it’s kind of similar to that to the idea of not making plans.

So my mindset has changed a bit in that I’m kind of expecting… Well I’m not expecting to get something specific. So it’s being aware of what is happening in and around you. And because it’s not… you’re not drawing or you’re not painting, you can’t make it, so it’s less creative, it’s more reactive. You’re kind of just more aware of what’s going around, and, you react to it.

But 90% of… in fact man maybe 95% of the photographs don’t work. And it’s really frustrating because they’re near misses.

So in regards to this sense of impermanence… It’s kind of taught me to deal with failure, because I can’t control these things, or the light might not be right, or the all the composition isn’t working, or somebody walks in front of your shot, and it’s kind of, it’s in a weird way made me relax a little bit, and to… I suppose what the word, just to, to be less, to have less of a tunnel vision, to realize that a lot of this is out of your control. And so the idea that they’re all fleeting moments can drive you a bit crazy because you’ll never… You’ll never catch them all.

And I mean like even today… I’m trying to think of an example… Oh, today! A perfect example –

So they have this tradition here in Cambodia that you buy these, what are they called, I think they’re called sparrows, you know those birds, and there’s people that sell them in cages, and you buy them and then you release them. That’s part of what they believe. And I had this sunset going down over this river, and there was a person selling these birds, and then there was, I suppose his last customer of the day, who came in and bought these birds and was just about to release them.

And then I’ve kind of lined everything up and I’m going to get this perfect sunset, and it is very symbolic, and you know it looks really good in my mind, and then when it happens I realize my camera’s on the wrong setting. It’s on a slow speed and everything’s a blur and it just doesn’t work. And these kind of things happen to me every day.

And they happened when I started, and then I’d kind of take it personally, but then it’s ridiculous to take it personally if cool stuff doesn’t happen in front of you, you know? Or interesting stuff. It’s just kind of self-limiting. So it has helped me get over that.

This has been a long way to answer your question. But it’s taught me to deal with failure and to kind of… Just accept what you can control, and that you’re not going to nail all of these photographs every time.

Jenna: Looking at the story of what you’re doing, I always think it’s fascinating to see someone’s ‘call to action’ and then ‘the hero’s on a journey’ right? You’re on this journey, you’re on this adventure. And then there’s always supporting cast or characters that are really strong that kind of add color to the story. When I say ‘really rich characters’ or ‘people that you’ve met along the way’ who comes to mind, and what made them so special?

Ian: Well somebody that comes to mind would be this guy I met… it would have been three weeks into cycling. And my head was still very much in that sort of daily routine of a 9-5 job.

And I met this guy who… he must’ve been in his 60s, and he had a near-death experience. He sold everything, sold his house, sold his possessions, and he’s been walking for 15 years around South Africa.

And just to hear the guy’s stories because he, I mean he really is kind of simple, minimalistic. But it’s just opened up my idea of streamlining your life.

He cared very little, relied a lot on just sort of split second decisions, and was just really independent. You know it’s nothing that, I mean I wouldn’t do that. It doesn’t rock my world. He was just, I don’t know, I suppose quite an influence in the idea of getting rid of stuff because early on in the trip I was really packed, all of the bicycle’s was really packed, and so I think that’s just something that’s stayed with me.

And then another thing that I’ve been thinking about lately is that the people you meet when you’re traveling tend to be kind of weird, you know? Like there’s a fair amount of crazies out there. And I was thinking, you know maybe that’s because we’re all a little crazy, and our routines make it normal. And everybody is as interesting, but if you see them every day you kind of get used to ‘that’s how they are.’

“And I was thinking, you know maybe that’s because we’re all a little crazy, and our routines make it normal. And everybody is as interesting, but if you see them every day you kind of get used to ‘that’s how they are.'”

But I seemed to come across a whole bunch of really weird people, and it’s not to say that they’re sitting out there waiting for travelers. And I mean “weird” not in a bad way, just you know, just a kind of eccentric way. And it really got me thinking, maybe we’re all a bit crazy, but we’ve just made it normal.

And it was kind of cool to be once again in a different orbit where you can you can encounter these people and it’s not a case of seeing you know the same cast of people every day. You’re seeing new people, and that’s really cool, that’s been quite energizing.

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Jenna: What have been the reactions of people that you’ve met along the way when you tell them what it is you’re doing?

So whether it’s someone that you’re taking a photograph of, or perhaps you know, people, these travelers, these eccentric people that you’re meeting along the way, what are some reactions to you? I mean you know similar to: you met this guy as you were biking you thought he was the coolest guy in the world.

Now that you’re doing this type of adventure yourself, how do you… what are you noticing about how others view you? No matter what country you’re in.

Ian: So I think that… well at least on the cycling part of things, most people thought I was *very* weird. A lot of people said “Why? Why are you doing this?” Interestingly enough there was a lot of, I suppose paranoia, about safety in South Africa. South Africa’s got a reputation of being quite a violent place, and unfortunately a lot of the time people would say “Have you’ve been robbed? Have you been mugged yet?” And you know, nothing happened.

And I’d cycle for six months and it would be pretty easy to rob me because I was going very slowly. And you know I was shown all sorts of hospitality and people who were incredibly welcoming. I don’t know one bad story from that part. And so there was a lot of paranoia, which obviously doesn’t help your confidence – people asking you “when have you been attacked?” But that’s also a story that I try and tell people, because that’s the story that isn’t being told – that you can actually travel around Africa, and cycle around South Africa, and be without any kind of bad incidence.

“But that’s also a story that I try and tell people, because that’s the story that isn’t being – that you can actually travel around Africa, and cycle around South Africa, and be without any kind of bad incidence.”

Anyway. So a lot of people thought it was weird in that way. Two people asked me if I was an orphan… [laughs]

Jenna: That’s horrible! [Laughs]

Ian: This poor kid! He just obviously lost his parents and now he’s on a bicycle. So there’s two separate occasions where people thought I was an orphan. [Laughs]

Jenna: It’s like ‘poor you, you must not be loved. That’s why you’re doing this.’ [Laughs]

Ian: Exactly yeah. [Laughs] So a lot of people just thought “Why are you out there?” Which, fair enough, it’s a good question.

When I say I’m taking photographs, with a view to building a portfolio and taking the photographs that I want to take as opposed to taking photographs that I’ve been commissioned for, people also kind of ask “why would you do that?”

And so I see this as more of an investment, with the idea of maybe not affording the money, but affording the time to travel and to really explore this this idea of photography and getting my message across through photographs.

And that has also confused people. “Why are you not working for someone? Why are you working for yourself?” I mean like I said earlier, it does sound like I haven’t… It was very spontaneous, this idea. But there has been a lot of planning. I put some savings aside, sold a couple of things. So it’s not like I’m kind of going in this without thinking about it. But I think a lot of people are surprised that I do this for myself, versus doing it for an income first.

“But I think a lot of people are surprised that I do this for myself, versus doing it for an income first.”

I have been able to write a couple of stories and have sold some pictures along the way, but I’ve never wanted to make that my first priority. Once again this goes back to the idea of this being a kind of window opportunity. And I don’t think it’s worth compromising on that, just yet.

Jenna: So you asked yourself a question throughout that answer, which was “So why are you out there?” which is a good question right, and you get that question…

Why are you out there? It’s one thing to say “I would like to take the photos and make a portfolio” but… it seems like, I don’t know, I think there’s multiple reasons why you do something, it’s not just one.

You know you could take photos, anywhere, and get a portfolio anywhere, right? You could travel on a vacation and not be roughing it, whether you’re riding your bike miles and miles a day, or camping in someone’s backyard, I mean it’s another thing to do it, this way.

So my question for you is “Why are you out there?” What’s the answer that you didn’t really want to give to the person that was asking you about whether or not you were an orphan. [Laughs]

Ian: I think it was a couple of questions back – we spoke about traveling and the world seeming more exotic and more appealing and more interesting. So a little bit of that is that.

A little bit of why I’m doing this is because it seems more exotic, and everything’s new and shiny, and all these different alphabets make you feel like you’re… just you’re completely illiterate, and everything is just… and I keep saying this, but exotic. So that does have a little bit of a kind of pull for me. But I think the real reason for doing it, and I probably only discovered this later, was to see how life would be like without limits. Without that return ticket.

“But I think the real reason for doing it, and I probably only discovered this later, was to see how life would be like without limits. Without that return ticket.”

Without…

[Jenna’s phone rings.]

Jenna: DAMN IT!! AGH!!!!!!!!

Ian: No worries.

Jenna: Sorry. Okay. All right. I’m going to smash my phone! Damn it. That’s like the worst interview interruption I’ve ever had… AGH!!!! All right, all right, all right. Life without limits. Please continue on this beautiful tangent you were having.

Ian: Right. Okay…

OK, so this this exotic nature of traveling, which is going to draw you in. And so that I find appealing. But the idea of living without limits. Yes. That’s where I was, wasn’t I?

I think it’s a… yeah it really does come back to the luxury of having no house to pay off. No kids. No serious debts or anything like that. That has obviously given the window to do it.

But just to kind of live life, if only for a while, without these… without these things that I’ve kind of felt held me back.

So as helpful as a Saturday was, it didn’t push me beyond… it didn’t make me any more productive than I really was. And something that I want to bring in here is the idea of what is called “The OK plateau.”

There’s a psychologist called Anders Ericsson and he works… he’s based somewhere in the States I think. I think in Florida or… anyway you might have to check that, but his name is Anders Ericsson, and he studies achievements and people’s potential and measures that.

And there’s that Malcolm Gladwell idea of a hundred thousand hours… I can’t remember if it was a hundred thousand or like a thousand hours, but you need to put in a certain amount of time to get proficient at something. I think that’s a kind of simplified way of looking at it.

This Anders Ericsson guy, he has a theory of “The OK Plateau.” And that is, when you learn a new skill, you master it kind of quickly, and then you reach this level where it just kind of plateaus.

So my example for this is learning the guitar. So I play the guitar, and I have learnt a couple of chords and I can play a couple of sing-along songs. But I have been playing guitar for about 15 years, and I haven’t gotten any better than I got after 6 months, and that is because, the theory goes, you reach this level where you just go auto pilot.

A famous example is with typing. So when people type on a keyboard you start off with your one hand going at it like that, and then you move on to two, and then looking at the keyboard, and then eventually looking at the screen. So for me, I just reached the looking at the keyboard phase, and I’m okay with that, and then I’ll just kind of stick at that. It’s the same with the guitar. I don’t want to play amazing solos, or learn scales, or read music, I just want to play a few chords. But if you want to get better you have to be in that beginner phase the entire time. So the difference between me and a professional musician is that the musician will practice the stuff that’s difficult for them. They’ll do scales they’ll do music theory, they’ll do those kind of things. With typing, you’ll look at the screen and become better at it. And so I wanted to see what it would be like to be a constant beginner. To kind of just always be in the beginning.

When you’re traveling, you’re in foreign environments, you can’t read. You can’t read the alphabet in some cases. You can’t speak the language. They ride on the other side of the road. It’s just weird. The temperature’s all wrong, and the food is weird. You’re constantly at five years old. Everything’s new, everything’s different. And that’s, that’s what I wanted.

“You’re constantly at five years old. Everything’s new, everything’s different. And that’s, that’s what I wanted.”

And when I started out, I didn’t really know… I didn’t really understand why I wanted to do this and it’s only really made sense to me later…

But it’s the idea of “what are you OK with? Are you OK with just staying at home in an office, in an office job scenario, or do you want to go further than that?”

The consequence of that is that you’re going to be a beginner for the whole time.

You know the same, and I suppose this works in with the impermanence of photography, of these fleeting moments. You’re not going to be in control, you’re always going to be learning, you’re always going to be missing the shots with the bird in the sunset. That kind of thing.

And so it’s the idea of me saying “I’m OK with just playing the guitar every now and then. Or typing the way I do. I’m not ok with just taking holiday snaps. I want to get better at that.”

“I’m OK with just playing the guitar every now and then. Or typing the way I do. I’m not OK with just taking holiday snaps. I want to get better at that.”

And in the same way I want to be a better cyclist, I want to be socially better at asking somebody if I can stay in their house if it’s raining. You know I want to be financially better that I can live off a tiny budget and stretch things and carry on and just…  

I want to explore more of this planet, and that means I’m just going to have to be a beginner.

So once again, long answer to your question. But it’s a case of me just wanting to be to kind of embrace being an amateur, you know, embrace being a complete newbie, and that’s something that I… I like I said, I didn’t know before. But that’s really why I’m doing this.

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Jenna: What are some moments where you’ve seen the best of humanity. Like just people being really, really good people.

Ian: So something that happened to me while I was cycling in South Africa was –

There’s a section of the South African coastline, which is about 300 kilometers. I’m not sure what that is in miles, but we can figure that out. Anyway –

It’s kind of long and it’s pretty much uncharted… well when I say uncharted it’s not… there are no roads that go through it, and it’s tribal land, and it’s called ‘The Wild Coast’ and for good reason.

And I decided I wanted to walk up it, and camp along the way. So I had a little one-man tent, and I left my bicycle with a friend, and I walked up. And it took three weeks of walking, and there were days where I wouldn’t see people at all. And like I mentioned earlier, there’s a fair amount of paranoia, just maybe due to news headlines, and things like that. A lot of people said “you know, this is pretty unsafe.” But it did feel right what I was doing, and I’ve always been prepared to turn back if things haven’t felt right.

Anyway what happened was, I was about to camp for the night, and I hadn’t seen people for two days and there was this cave, and I thought ‘well, let me camp in a cave’ and so I did.

So I was just about to go to bed, and two people appeared at the end of the cave, and I thought “Whoa… I’m on the wrong side of the cave. For this. This could mean problems.” And I also hadn’t seen people for two days before so it was kind of a shock to the system. And the sun had just gone down, and there was a language barrier. They couldn’t speak English, I couldn’t speak their language. And one of the guys said “you come with me.”

And I thought, well you know all these people telling me how unsafe The Wild Coast is, this is where I lose all my stuff, and I kind of made peace with the fact that was about to happen. I packed up the bag. I packed up my backpack, and my tent, and I’m kind of holding my pepper spray the whole time. But I haven’t used it, so I don’t know it works. [Laughs] Do you spray once, or do you spray a lot? Or do you spray when you’re in a cave?

“I packed up the bag. I packed up my backpack, and my tent, and I’m kind of holding my pepper spray the whole time. But I haven’t used it, so I don’t know it works. [Laughs] Do you spray once, or do you spray a lot? Or do you spray when you’re in a cave?”

You know all these things I don’t know [laughs] and so they started walking with me, and I had a torch but they didn’t have any lights so we’re walking through the dark, and we walked for 15 minutes and nothing happens, and I’m still kind of waiting, and basically they walked with me for an hour, to this the campsite, which wasn’t even on the map, and it was way out of their route.

They basically walked me to the campsite and then they were like “there you go!” and they disappeared.

And for me that was really touching, just because I’d been really alone and I hadn’t seen people for a long time.

I’d kind of gone past the point of no return, because it got pretty lonely, but I realized if I go back it’s going to take three weeks getting back. And then when I saw these people I thought well, this is this, this the end of my stuff, best case scenario. And it really wasn’t. So that was really cool.

And you know when you open yourself up to needing help along the way, by being this goofy foreigner, it’s really touching when people make an effort to help you.

So that stands out for me.

Jenna: In the work that you’ve done that’s been commissioned, what were some projects that you really enjoyed? So not like the ‘oh I’m selling this photograph, great, here you go’ but assignments that you had whether they be writing, or photographs, that just were like ‘you know, yeah, I could do this.’

Ian: So there was one that I did on one kind of lessons that I learned a lot along the way. And basically just the idea of streamlining your life, caring less, and you know maybe not following any kind of too rigid a routine. That was pretty cool.

Beyond that, I’ve written a couple of columns along the way for a travel magazine, and that’s been kind of cool, just because I haven’t been able to see my experiences from the outside, so just kind of to sit back and write about these weird things that happen when you travel.

I recently wrote a column about getting arrested in Kazakhstan, because that’s what happened. [Laughs]

I was in this area where… well every tourist in Kazakhstan has to register with the local police. But they only tell you this in Cyrillic writing. So I didn’t know that was a rule, but apparently this is what you’ve got to do, and I was in an area where I don’t think they’ve had tourists in a while, and the migration police got a hold of us, and I had to go to court.

I managed to see the lighter side of it. I got assigned this lawyer who said “I WILL FIGHT FOR YOU!”

But it turns out that was the only English she could speak, and as far as the fighting went, that’s what happened. I think she saw it on Law and Order and then she just just used that line. She used it about three times, but that’s all she said. And she didn’t really get around to fighting.

So it’s been cool to kind of see… obviously at the time I was kind of freaked out, and I thought ‘well, I’m going to end up in Kazakh prison’ or ‘I’m never going to leave the place’ and so at the time you don’t really get to appreciate how funny it actually is. And through seeing it in hindsight – that’s been pretty cool.

Jenna: Are you are you going to be putting together a book, whether it’s a photo book or a book book, about your adventures? Are you driving toward some type of conclusion at the end of all this? Or is this kind of an ongoing, never going to end, ‘this is my portfolio’ kind of thing.

Ian: I’d like to think that it’s never going to end, but it probably should end sometime.

The plan is to bring out a photo book. I’d like to also write about these things. The only thing is, I don’t think I’d like to mix the photographs and writing. Just because I like to see photos without captions, sometimes. The kind of open-ended photographs. I think if you’re told what’s going on in too much detail, it kind of takes away from the photograph a bit. I like the mystery of just leaving it as it is.

“I think if you’re told what’s going on in too much detail, it kind of takes away from the photograph a bit. I like the mystery of just leaving it as it is.”

I don’t think I’d name them. But I’d definitely like to bring out a photo book. I think these little stories, that’s something that I’d really like to do. I think the only thing I’m struggling with is to make a format, would there be a bunch of short stories, or one chapter, one story, that sort of thing. That’s something that I’m definitely going to do.

First the photos, and then looking back on these events. They get funnier, or they get weirder, and I think that’s kind of cool.

So I’ll be taking advantage of that.

 _______

Thanks for listening to Notes on Doing episode 032, with Ian McNaught Davis.

You can check out Ian’s photography on his website at https://ianmcnaughtdavis.carbonmade.com/.

And, subscribe to Notes on Doing! Episodes release weekly, every Monday, on iTunes. You can also follow us on Instagram too to stay in the loop @notesondoing.

Until next week! In the meantime, always do.

 

028: Victor Sira & Shiori Kawasaki, Book Dummy Press
Shiori Kawasaki & Victor Sira, Book Dummy Press

028: Victor Sira & Shiori Kawasaki, Book Dummy Press

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Welcome to Notes on Doing, conversations with people who love what they do.

My name is Jenna Matecki.

Our next episode goes to Victor Sira and Shiori Kawasaki, the photographers who founded Book Dummy Press – an independent, forward-thinking publishing company and online bookstore that specializes in artist publications.

Listen to what Victor and Shiori had to say about working together as husband and wife, collecting ideas, publishing books, freedom, balance, and how art makes your life better.

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Thanks for listening to Notes on Doing episode 028, with Victor Sira and Shiori Kawasaki.

You can check out Book Dummy Press online at bookdummypress.com and follow them on Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr at @bookdummypress.

And as always, follow Notes on Doing! Episodes release weekly, every Monday, on iTunes. Check us out on Instagram at @notesondoing and let us know if you have anyone that you’d love to hear on the show by emailing jenna@notesondoing.com.

Until next week! In the meantime, always do.

003: Christaan Felber, Photographer
Christaan Felber, Brooklyn 2015

003: Christaan Felber, Photographer

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Our next NODcast episode goes to Christaan Felber, a photographer commissioned for publications such as The New York Times Magazine, ESPN Magazine and The New Yorker, and companies such as Nike and RedBull Records. He’s toured with The Vaccines and photographed Alabama Shakes. His book Boxeo Clasico, has sold thousands of copies.

Here’s what he had to say about what makes good photograph, how he connects with his subjects, and the ways photography helps you see things differently.

Subscribe now to get weekly Notes on Doing episodes on iTunes.

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Christaan: For me it was film, first of all. When I was shooting, we didn’t have digital. We only had film. It makes me sound really old… there was something really magical about not really knowing what you were getting… and thinking that maybe by cropping out certain parts of the world, you create something different. Which is a nice feeling.

That’s what I think it was about. It was about documentation and trying to look at things differently.

It’s really a tool. It’s a machine, a camera, and using this machine to try to look at the world in a different way. That excitement. Just getting back a roll of film and going, “Oh, cool. That looks …” It’s really about seeing, you know? Trying to see the world in a different way and then the camera just becomes a tool.

It helps you. It helps you I think see things differently. It’s just exciting. It was exciting to go in the dark room. It’s magical. I don’t know what I’m going to get and that waiting period of seeing what’s on your film, seeing what’s on the roll. I think that was always really exciting. And processing it and seeing it come out. Just that whole process. I love that process. That’s why I still like shooting film because I think there’s that time that it takes to get the film processed and even now I think when I get my film back, it’s like a present. It feels like Christmas. I get so excited to go to the film lab. I understand there’s a time and place for each thing, I understand there’s a time and place for digital and film, but I think that process is what I really enjoy.

I love editing. I love getting my film back. It’s sometimes even more fun than the actual shooting in some cases. I just enjoy it.

It’s a gift.

Jenna: Seeing the world in a new way, does that make you feel like you’re constantly curious about what you’re looking at… or are you purposely trying to see it in a new way? Not necessarily curiosity…

Christaan: I think you have to be inherently curious. I feel like if you try to force yourself to do something in a certain way, it’s not going to happen. It’s easy to become almost too self aware. If you’re too self aware, you’re not involved in the process and it’s hard. It’s really tricky, especially if you have clients who want something or if you have a magazine.

The worst direction is when someone is like, “Just make me a beautiful photograph.” It’s like, “Fuck. I can’t…” Can I swear by the way?

Jenna: Yeah.

Christaan: It’s the worst, you know? It’s creating this… What does that even mean? It’s so subjective and then you start thinking, “what’s a beautiful photograph? What does that mean? What do they want?” I always have the tendency to get really in my head… so I don’t know. I think it’s best to take that step back and shoot. Just shoot and try to be curious. I think curiosity is the most important thing.

Especially when it comes to people, you know? You got to be curious about the subject. If you’re not curious about someone, you’re not going to get anything out of them. I feel like it’s really rare that people want to give you a photograph. I think that hardly ever happens, so it’s this process of trying to gain someone’s trust and trying to get them to open up and give you a photograph. They’re giving you a photograph. They’re giving you a gift and you have to get them to do that in a way that’s respectful. That’s really hard. It’s really hard.

I don’t know if you want me to keep going, but last week I had a shoot for the New Yorker and I had 20 seconds to take a portrait. I took 3 photographs. 3. 3 shots. It was so hard, but I got it and I was really really excited. I just felt like I was able to establish this connection. The guy I was photographing didn’t even speak English. He had a translator. He spoke Turkish and for some reason I just remember looking him in the eye and just having this really honest moment. Even though we didn’t necessarily communicate through language, I felt like we communicated on this other level and we both trusted each other and he trusted me to take a photograph and I got it. It was an amazing feeling.

That’s ultimately what it’s about. It’s about trust when you’re taking photographs of people. In order to do that, you need to be curious because you have to be inquisitive and open and asking questions.

I think people are really sensitive to that.

I feel like as long as you’re doing it for the right reasons, people will feel that and respond and… do it for the right reasons as well and give you a good photograph in exchange.

Jenna: What makes someone worthy of a good photograph? … Why would you want to capture someone?

Christaan: That’s a good question. I think there’s a couple different reasons, not necessarily one… Maybe one reason would probably be I just want to get to know them because they seem interesting. There’s just something about them that I’d like to… get to know them more… Or then I think the other case is that you just seem them in a vulnerable moment and you want to capture that.

I’ve always loved the painter Edward Hopper because he always captured these really quiet scenes. It’s always impossible. It’s so difficult to photograph. That’s why I think he pulled it off so well as a painter, but I always loved those quiet moments where people are staring off into space because it’s like they’re kind of vulnerable and in their head and they’re sort of unaware of what’s going on around them. It’s this really intimate moment. Even if they’re surrounded by a lot of people, it can still be intimate.

I see it all the time. Even on the subway, you see people staring off. Like, “Goddamn, I really want to take that photograph,” but then at the same time once you interrupt that, then it’s no longer there. Then the trick becomes the reason you want to photograph them is to try to get them back to that place and try to get them unaware of the camera and sort of in that moment, which is also really hard. I don’t know. I think … What makes me interested in certain people? I think it’s … I don’t know. I think there’s a certain openness or again, just a curiosity about someone. I think that’s a really hard thing to define, but I feel like if I’m curious about someone and there’s something about them that draws me to them, then I’ll do it.

Jenna: And you’re recording that. You’re documenting it. You’re capturing that moment in time for… what?

Christaan: I don’t know. I don’t know why anyone does that… Because I have to? I don’t know. It’s just an impulse I guess… It’s like, why do I take photographs? I don’t know. I haven’t really thought about it. I’m sure I have, but … I don’t know.

I honestly don’t know what propels me to document people. I don’t know. I think in a lot of cases it’s an excuse to talk to people. If you didn’t have a camera, you’d be a weirdo to just go up to someone and…

Also, it’s not like the photograph is necessarily the end all, be all. It’s also the process.

I think it’d be wrong to just… I think it’d be really superficial to just be like, “Yeah, I’m just doing this for the photograph.” I think you have to love the process as well of getting to know someone, of learning something. Of an experience.

I think that’s ultimately what it’s about. It’s about an experience and then the photograph is just a document of that. It’s the same thing of why do people go on family vacations and take photographs of family vacations? Yeah, it’s about the photograph, but it’s ultimately about the experience. You want to have those memories. And I think that’s what it’s about. It’s about documenting the experience of getting to know someone.

It’s being like, “Hey, I met this person. They’re amazing and they’re really open. Here’s a document of this person. In that space.”

Jenna: You get to document people in that capacity also for your job.

Christaan: Mm-hmm.

Jenna: You’re a working, professional photographer, freelance photographer in New York.

Christaan: It’s crazy. It’s goddamn crazy.

Jenna: [Laughs] In a good way?

Christaan: Yeah, it’s awesome. It’s the best thing ever. I was thinking about it… I’ve worked in an office a little bit. It’s the worst. The worst. The other day, even something that’s seemingly tedious as editing, I love it.

Last Friday I was editing all these jobs that I shot and I was just sitting there, listening to the radio, editing. I was really content. I could just keep doing this, this is awesome. I feel really lucky and blessed to be able to do it. Because it’s rare. Number one, it’s a really competitive field. I think it’s hard to make a living doing it and I’m doing it, somehow. Yeah, I don’t know. It’s cool. I’m happy about it. It’s the shit.

It’s one of those things where people go, “What else would you do?” I don’t really have a plan B. I don’t know what the hell else I would do. I don’t know. Which is probably maybe a good thing, you know?

Jenna: Does doing this in a professional capacity give you more confidence to do it or does it make you feel like there’s higher stakes for messing up?

Christaan: I think I used to be really scared of messing up, but I think I’ve gotten a lot better and more confident in what I do. I think I’ve gotten to the point where it becomes more fun than anything. That’s the thing that sucks… I think it’s good to be nervous to a certain extent because I think anxiety can be a double edged sword in that it can light a fire under your ass and make you really prepared because you really need to be prepared when you’re shooting, but at the same time I think I’m starting to enjoy the process more. I think you have to. Otherwise, it’s a nightmare. I’m getting better at it.

Jenna: There’s a lot of different styles to photography and a lot of different ways that someone can take a picture. Often times it depends on the person that’s taking the picture themselves, right? Not even on their camera which you said before is a tool, but one person’s going to take a photo a certain way. In a different way than another person. If you could try and describe the way that you take a photo, how would you describe it and what makes that different than someone else?

Christaan: It’s interesting. You know… I’m sure I’ll give you an answer, but I don’t know how accurate it’d be. It’s like describing how you walk. I don’t know if I could describe how I walk. I think if someone saw you doing it, they’d be able to describe it a little bit better. It’s almost like you’re so close to it, it’s hard to see.

I know my intent. I don’t know if it’s working… I try to approach people just as openly and honestly as possible and hope for the best, and as respectfully as possible… I think that’s usually how I do it. If that makes any sense. Again, if someone saw me I’m not sure if they would have the same opinion, but I hope they do. Again, it’s a little bit tricky when you don’t really have that perspective on yourself. If that makes sense.

Jenna: Going back to photography as a career, I have a quote for you that I’m going to read out. “If you are out there shooting, things will happen for you. If you’re not out there, you only hear about it,” by Jay Maisel. The idea is that if you go to some boxing gym, things will happen for you or you’ll be able to capture those moments in a way that if you were just sitting at home, it would never happen.

Christaan: Yeah, of course.

Jenna: So actively taking photos is what brought you to this point.

Christaan: Yeah. I think it’s true of anything. You got to live your life. If you’re just sitting at home, nothing’s happening. What the hell’s going on there? Nothing.

I think it’s important to do that and it’s tricky. I can become lazy sometimes and sometimes you have to force yourself to go. I’ve done that a lot where even with that nightwalkers series that I’ve been working on. I got to get better with that. I haven’t gone out in a bit, but it’s one of those things where I’ll be sitting at home like, “Oh, I don’t want to go out.” Sometimes I don’t and sometimes I’m like, “It’s fine.” Then other times I do and I go, “Wow, I’m really glad I went out and did this,” because it turns out to be really amazing.

I think regardless, even if it doesn’t work out what’s the worst that can happen? It’s always an experience.

Who knows? That’s the best thing, doing it. Yeah, I agree.

Jenna: Just go out and do it.

Christaan: Yeah, totally.

Jenna: Another question. If aliens came to the planet and one of them knocked on your studio door and was walking around… I know. Crazy scenario, but I’m going with it. And saw your cameras and saw your books on the wall and turned to you and said, “What is photography?” How would you describe what it is?

Christaan: [Laughs]  Good God.

Jenna: Where would you begin? And…

Christaan: Fucking…

Jenna: [Laughs] If you could try.

Christaan: What is photography? In its bare essence I just think it’s visual documentation. That’s really what it comes down to. If you really want to strip it down the bare bones. I think there’s a lot of subtleties to it obviously, but it’s really about documentation. That’s what it is.

Jenna: Got it. And that same alien’s piecing through all of your photographs and he’ll see that you got your start in music photography and taking photos of bands. That same alien asks you why you started with music photography… Why was that interesting at the time? Or was it just a gig? You’ve done a lot of music photography. What makes that something that’s interesting to shoot?

Christaan: I think I’ve always been involved in music. It’s one of my other loves. When I was in high school, it was between doing photography or doing music as a profession. I was between the two, so it’s always been a love of mine. It’s easy to talk about. If you’re passionate about something, it’s really easy to talk about it… It’s not forced. Just something that was really natural, so talking with musicians, I feel like we have a good rapport and a lot of common interests. It just makes sense. Again, it’s like talking about how important that trust and making that connection is… it makes it easier if you have common friends or common ideas to talk about.

I actually just did an interview with Rangefinder Magazine about, it was asking how you got a specific shot. I was photographing Alabama Shakes for New York Times Magazine, so they were asking me about that whole process. That was one of the things I said, that it made it so much easier to gain someone’s trust if you know about what they’re passionate about, and you’re passionate about the same things. I think it’s just something that happened naturally. It wasn’t necessarily something that I was actively pursuing. I definitely had an interest in music photography when I was in high school. I always looked at Spin Magazine and Rolling Stone…

I remember I was 15 and I really wanted to photograph this band Primus at the time. I called up their manager in San Francisco. I remember his name. I think it was David Lefkowitz. I’m not sure if they still have the same manager, but I remember that guy’s name.

I called him and I talked with his secretary and I think I lied and said I was from Spin Magazine and I was think I was 15. I waited behind Roseland Ballroom for two hours for them to show up and then Les Claypool showed up in a cab. Then I think they quickly realized that I was not from Spin Magazine. I was a 14 year old kid… with my mom’s camera, because I didn’t even own my own. It was a little Minolta camera. Their manager was really surprised. But they gave me tickets and it was cool. I saw them. It’s actually funny. I’ve actually ran into him … I hung out with him a couple years ago, and I told him that story and he laughed.

Jenna: Did you get to shoot them?

Christaan:  No. I was dating this girl from this band and they were on tour together, so she was friends with them and they got us tickets to go see Book of Mormon, so I went to go see … It was pretty awesome. I got to go see Book of Mormon with Primus which was a childhood dream. I was freaking out on the inside. It was really cool.

Jenna: Before you shoot someone or before you would shoot a certain band, would you do any research on them in advance or listen to all of their albums or…? What’s your process pre-photograph?

Christaan: It’s a good question… I’m trying to do that more. It can be a good and bad thing though… Sometimes I think it’s good to be ignorant because you’re starting from a fresh slate. As long as you’re not disrespectful… I always have the tendency to get nervous if I’m photographing an idol.

I photographed Radiohead. That was one of my second assignments I ever shot and I was freaking out and I think it worked against me, honestly. I wish I had done that shoot now instead of 4 years ago or 5 years ago, whenever it was. It can be a good thing, but it can also work against you. I think it’s good… It’s so tricky. It’s obviously good to know what they’re about and have questions for them. I photographed Ewan McGregor fairly recently for the New Yorker and I was definitely nervous just because of his celebrity, but I didn’t really know he was into motorcycles until afterwards.

Someone was like, “Oh, did you ask him about motorcycles?” And I ride motorcycles. I was like, “Fuck. That would’ve been so good.” That would’ve been a great topic. If I had done research, I would’ve known that. Then at the same time, it’s fun to go into an assignment not knowing anything. I do a lot of like… I don’t know why, but I do a lot of sports photography and maybe that’s even why I get hired because I really don’t know anything about sports, so I approach it from this really naïve perspective. I was photographing this linebacker for New York Times Magazine… It was a linebacker for the Atlanta Falcons and I went out with his family to get dinner and everything and they’re talking to me about football. I literally know nothing about football, so I was just super honest and I was like, “Listen, this is what I know about football. I know that there are touchdowns and there are quarterbacks. That’s the extent of my knowledge.”

He was like, “All right. Thanks for being so honest.” I think it was actually a good thing because I wasn’t nervous around them. I wasn’t putting anyone on a pedestal because I think that can be a mistake. And it wound up being awesome. We just hung out at his condo and drank Bud Light and watched football. And he was trying to teach me about football. It was fun. I don’t know. It can work either way, but I think for the most part it’s probably good to know and maybe … I think the anxiety thing is my own personal problem and just trying to figure out how to manage that. That’s probably the best approach.

Jenna: You often times stick to ambient light sources or available light. You use a lot of … Your stuff doesn’t have a lot of manufactured moments happening. Is that true? Do you prefer to shoot that way and, why?

Christaan: Yep. I don’t know, for some reason it just feels more honest. I know it’s more difficult because you can’t necessarily control … You can control it to a certain extent obviously, but you have way less control over sunlight compared to bringing in strobes or something. I have the tendency to really not like equipment so much. I don’t know… Again, I think ideally it’d be great if you could just take a photograph from your eye, because that’s what it’s about. That’s what you realize. It’s about seeing. It’s about seeing something. And all this other stuff is just… It matters, but… not really. Again, I see things as tools, to do a job. I feel like having all these lights and stuff holds you down. It’s one more thing that can go wrong, one more thing to think about. I just like keeping it simple.

I used to be really into lighting. I went to a really technical college and did a lot of strobes, and I don’t know. For some reason I think natural lighting just feels more pure and has a certain aesthetic that again, just to me feels more honest and more natural. I know that it’s possible to get that from strobes, but it feels different. I know I’m going to have to get over that one of these days, especially if I’m going to be doing more commercial stuff, because that’s all about control. An art director wants a specific photograph. You better make that photograph. That’s when it comes in handy.

It’s scary, honestly, going into a shoot not knowing what the light’s going to be like, but that’s also kind of part of the excitement, it’s the spontaneity. Being like, “We’ll figure it out.” It’s kind of crazy.

Jenna:  Your book Boxeo Clasico, am I pronouncing that right?

Christaan: Yeah, yeah.

Jenna: Boxeo?… Is a series of portraits and photos of a boxing gym in Bushwick. What’s great about that series is that not only are they beautiful photographs, but… it also has a root in your childhood. You studied boxing and you practiced… Studied? Practiced?

Christaan: I’m not a good boxer by any means. It was definitely not that formal. It was my dad just showing me the ropes. I think I really wanted to box. I think my mom was very much against it and talked… I’m glad I didn’t, honestly. I was some soft kid from the suburbs. I probably would’ve gotten my ass kicked, honestly. I like to think that I’m tougher than I am, [laughs] but I think it would’ve ended really badly.

Jenna: Well, the book, I’m sure it helps that you were interested in boxing and it manifested in this book later.

Christaan: Yeah totally, yeah it’s an awesome sport. I think it’s a really beautiful, incredible sport. I know that’s hard to see considering how brutal it is, but even MMA, there’s nothing really quite like boxing. It’s in a really bad place these days with this last fight with Pacquiao and Mayweather. It was just terrible. I think it was the nail in the coffin for a lot of people because I think it was a lot of greed in the sport, which has ruined it, but just conceptually I think it’s a really cool, amazing, dramatic sport that’s really incredible and it’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen.

I’m not sure if you’ve ever been to a professional boxing match, but I went to another Pacquiao fight in Las Vegas and it was at the MGM. It was 70,000 people just losing their shit and just two guys getting ushered out in robes.

It was like modern day gladiators. It was so cool. And I think I enjoyed the fact that it’s really pure. It’s not like with MMA, there’s a lot of different styles and started off as something else. It’s kind of a mash up of different styles, where as boxing has been around since the Greeks. It’s been around forever. There’s something cool about that and the training. I think the training, there’s something really beautiful about it.

Jenna: So that’s the concept that you’re passionate about and that manifested in a book. What else are you chewing on lately? Different concepts, different ideas that have been or will make their way into your photography?

Christaan: Yeah. I don’t know, that’s hard to say because I don’t know how… Even with the boxing thing, I don’t know if I would predetermined that necessarily was. It just happened and it was more of an organic process as opposed to searching it out.

I find that searching things out in a lot of cases doesn’t always work because you can sort of have this idea in your head of what you’re looking for, and it’s never how it actually is. It’s very rare.

I think in a lot of cases it’s just finding a very broad or general subject and photographing it and then editing the work and seeing where it goes and you go from there.

I definitely need to latch into something soon. I think it’s been a while. I’ve just been so busy with commercial work and editorial, which is great, but I definitely need to find something to just, sort of, shoot.

That boxing project, I wasn’t really shooting before that. I was assisting here and there, but at that point I felt like I was done with photography, honestly. I wasn’t sure if I was going to do it again and I was doing a lot of random art stuff. I was doing silk screening and, I don’t know, trying to do graffiti and stuff around the city. Then I was just like, “You know what? Let’s do this one more, one last time,” and I just tried it again and that was the project that I decided to sink my teeth into. It wasn’t anything I was really … I don’t know, thought about all that much beforehand. I think it was looking at the work and spreading it out and just trying to figure out in retrospect what I was doing. It’s like that quote. I think it’s about going out and doing it.

I think you can over think things and psych yourself out. And I do that a lot. I’m the master at it… so I think it’s jumping in head first and saying, “All right. Let’s see what I can come up with.”

Jenna: Did you psych yourself out at that point? Was that why you were going to leave photography forever?

Christaan: Ah… No. I was assisting a lot. I just wasn’t feeling it. I worked with a couple of my idols and it was amazing, but it just left a bad taste in my mouth. There’s a lot of pressure in shooting, a lot of stress, and I was just kind of sick of it too. Where I went to school was really intense. It was four years of intensive study and I just felt, felt sick. I didn’t want to do it and even now, there’s certain days where I feel that way. Where I go, “I don’t want to do this today.” It’s not always inspiration constantly. I don’t think it ever is for anyone. I think if they told you that, they’re lying.

I remember seeing this really good video of Jack White, I don’t know what it was from. It was just this one interview that I saw on YouTube, and he was talking about inspiration. He was talking about how he goes into the studio, people assume that it’s like the clouds parting and this gift of music gets handed to him. He’s like, “No. It takes a lot of work, and just doing it and being disciplined about it.” He used to be an upholsterer before he was a musician and he was saying that. There were days when he didn’t want to upholster furniture, but he just did it, and I think that same worth ethic came through in his music.

I think there’s obviously a certain struggle. It’s not always roses and you have to work through that, which is hard and I have a really difficult time doing that sometimes. It’s something I’m working on and trying to get better at.

I heard this really good interview with Jerry Seinfeld that was on Howard Stern and he was saying how he’s out eating Chinese food with his wife and he was thinking about jokes.

Howard was like, “That must be torture. Always being on and always thinking about jokes constantly.” He was like, “Yeah, but there’s nothing that’s ever not torturous and I think it’s about choosing your torture.”

Whether it’s work, whether it’s relationships. Choosing that thing where the good outweighs the bad and it works out.

Jenna: Going back to the photographer/subject relationship, do you feel like you understand people more as a photographer? That you have an ability to connect with them more or is it, is it that same struggle where you’re still having to work at it?

Christaan: I think so. I think it’s about being observant and figuring people out a little bit. I think everyone has clues based on their appearance. I’m really obsessed with that idea of looking at someone and trying to figure them out, and then trying to find a relationship between me and them. Trying to find a common thread. I realized that that’s always what it’s about.

The other night I was out, I was actually … I was out with a friend and we were at this restaurant and I was looking at this guy. I’m like, “That guy’s really interesting looking.” He had this bag that said KEXP on it which is that radio station from Seattle. I was like, “I bet you he’s from Seattle.” Then he had this bike with two seats and the rear seat was a banana seat. I was like, “Huh, that’s interesting. I wonder if he has kids. I bet he has a daughter or a son that rides on the back of that.”

Just coming up with these ideas. It’s basically judging. [Laughs] That’s essentially what you’re doing, you’re judging, and then… asking.

I wound up having a conversation. I was like, “Hey, are you from Seattle?” He was like, “Yeah, yeah, I am.” I’m like, “Oh, how long have you lived there? Oh, KEXP, I love that station.” Then just finding those similarities and finding those roads and going down them.

And that’s how you establish trust really really quickly.

Or it’s like the other day I was … I love doing this on the subway. I’ll be on the subway, especially when I wear a hat like this. I’ll block out people’s faces with my brim and just look at people’s shoes and try to figure out what they do and their back story…

It’s amazing. Sometimes there’s some really small things that you can look at and figure out… You look at someone’s shoe and you’re like, “Oh, the right side of their shoe is ripped. They’re probably a skateboarder.” That’s from ollying or whatever and it’s from the grip tape. I saw this other guy on the train and he had a P and a backwards S burnt into his shoe and it was hiking shoes. And I used to be in boy scouts and that was from the Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico. So I’m like, “Huh. I wonder if he’s an eagle scout or if he used to be a boy scout. He’s really into outdoors obviously, he’s wearing hiking boots.” And that’s an “in.” You go, “Hey …” And I asked him if he was an eagle scout, but it’s just that little thing. It was a brand on his shoe. Just knowing what that’s about.

I think that ties in with just experiences and trying to…

The more experiences you have and the more things you know, the easier it is to talk with anyone.

Not just with photography, but meeting anyone. Whether it’s meeting a friend or meeting a girl at the bar. Whatever it is. It’s about human connection and finding those things that are … Finding that common ground and just getting better at that. I feel like I’ve gotten a lot better at it.

Jenna:  Speaking of life experience, you took a road trip across the country recently and took over the New Yorker’s Instagram when you were doing that. What were some of the experiences that you had on the road and how did they result in good photographs?

Christaan: It was amazing. It was with my brother and he was moving from Atlanta to San Francisco for a new job. He called me because I’d been wanting to do this for a while. I’ve been wanting to do a road trip across the country for a really long time. The opportunity just never really presented itself and this came up and his company was basically paying for the gas and the food, so that was pretty awesome. I had to be in LA in two weeks after that so I was like, “All right, that works perfectly.” Part of the rule that we set was that for the majority of the road trip that we’d take small county and state roads instead of large interstate highways because it’s just like all the same… Just lots of fast food restaurants. You don’t actually get to see the countryside you’re driving through, so we tried to go on as many back roads as possible, and it was amazing.

I think I told you this before, but there was that … I think it was on the second day, we were driving through Mississippi. We took a county road through this really small town called Rose Hill, and we reached this fork in the road and there was a gas station and it had those old-turning-number-style gas pumps. I don’t know what the name of it is, but we stopped there and there was this guy just hanging out at a picnic table and he looked really interesting. He had these really amazing looking eyes. I was like, “I got to take this guy’s photo.” I asked him and he agreed, so I set up the camera and I was just talking with him while I was shooting. I was like, “So… What’s your deal? How long have you lived here?” He goes, “Oh, you know. I was a musician.”

“Okay, cool. What kind of stuff did you play?”

And he goes, “You know that song Fever?” and he starts singing that song that was covered by Madonna and Elvis famously and I think it was Peggy Lee, the Cramps. All these really famous bands. He starts singing it and I was like, “Yeah, yeah. I know that song.” He’s like, “Oh, I wrote that in 1956.” I was like, “What? No.” In the back of my head I was like, “He’s lying to me. There’s no way.” Then he was talking about where he grew up and where he moved and my brother was behind me fact checking on Wikipedia, and it was totally him.

The weirdest thing was the last entry of Wikipedia was like, “Nothing’s been recorded of his life since 1961.” I think that’s pretty crazy. That was cool and just meeting a lot of people like that. It was great. From all different walks of life and different places. I’ve never been in the southwest, so that was an experience.

I don’t know. I loved that. I love that whole process of just getting to know people and seeing different ways of life. It gives you own life a sense of perspective, you know? It’s probably what it’s all about, really. [Laughs]

Jenna: Just being able to understand your own experience?

Christaan: Getting to, I don’t know, maybe understand your own life better by looking at other people’s too.

Jenna: It’s pretty cool that you get to do that as a job.

Christaan: Yeah. It’s the shit. Are you kidding me?

Jenna: [Laughs] Ah… so… awesome moments.

Christaan: I’m trying to think. Last week I photographed this amazing rock climber for ESPN Magazine. This was literally a week ago.

She’s 14 and considered the best rock climber in the world. She’s awesome. The sweetest girl, and the sweetest family and it was me and an assistant and we drove out to the Catskills. She just rock climbed and I photographed her and she was amazing. Her parents were amazing. It was a really beautiful, incredible time and then we drove back home… We stopped by a farmer’s market and all hung out and ate together.

You have moments like that and it’s really beautiful. She was great.

She was like, “Oh, we should go rock climbing together.” I was like, “I would love that.”

You know, 95% of the jobs work out and are amazing, but then obviously there are times when it doesn’t. As long as I think the good outweighs the bad, you’ll be fine.

Even in a lot of the work I do, especially the music stuff, started with the Vaccines and that was amazing, going on tour with them. That was one of the best times I’ve ever had. It was amazing. I was lucky too because I think it’s always really tricky working with veteran celebrities or musicians because they’re so jaded and they’ve done it a billion times. They’ve gotten their photograph taken a billion times. When you’re working with someone young, they’re still innocent and it’s a good thing. They’re not jaded by all these photographers and it was awesome. I was one of their first photographers. I met them in 2011 and they invited me to go on tour through England and it was one of the best times I’ve ever had. I came out of it with a great body of work and they’re great friends of mine. They’re awesome.

They are countless… good moments.

Jenna: What advice would you give to someone who wants to start out in photography or better yet, what advice would you give yourself if you could go back in time?

Christaan: … That’s a good question… I don’t know what I’d tell myself because I think everything has generally worked out pretty well.

I’m really happy with where I am now…

I think it’s important to also be realistic about it and maybe that’s something I would’ve done differently. Is maybe taken some business courses or something, because at the end of the day, it’s not always just about shooting. You’re making a living and it’s a profession. It’s about making money and owning a business. You’re a business owner. That’s definitely not my forte, so I wish I had learned a little bit more about that. I think it’s important to understand that you’re not always going to be shooting if you want to do it professionally. Ideally, that would be great, but that’s never going to happen.

All day yesterday I was doing invoicing. That’s what I did. That’s part of it. That’s what you do when you own a small business. You’re invoicing and you’re trying to get people to pay you and paying other people and paying your assistants and doing taxes. That’s the shit part of it, but also that’s life and I think being realistic about it is important. The industry is hard. It’s tricky. There’s a ton of photographers and it gets really really really competitive.

I think the best advice I ever heard and I really took it to heart was, do you remember when Conan O’Brien left NBC and he gave this really heartfelt speech? It was his farewell speech and he basically… It was to all the kids in the audience. He goes to all the younger audience people or audience members, he’s like, “Don’t be cynical. Just for the record, cynicism is my least favorite trait. If you want to get anywhere, just work hard and be nice to people. No one ever gets exactly what they want, but if you work hard and are nice to people, great things will happen.” I’ve always loved that. I think it’s really really good advice for anyone.

Regardless of what you’re doing, if it’s photography or whatever. I think it’s really important.

Jenna: All right, I think I have one last question. In a few of your articles, you mention that street style, punk rock, your motorcycle, alternative culture inspires you. Do you self identify with that?

Christaan: Yeah.

Jenna: Why?

Christaan: I think that’s just what I listened to when I was growing up. I was an angsty teenager, that’s what I listened to.

I think another thing about being a photographer is that you also have to be comfortable with being an outsider because you’re always going to be an outsider. You’re always an outsider. You’re not a participant, you know? And that’s something that I struggle with too sometimes because there’s definitely times when I want to be a participant and I can’t. If you’re photographing people doing things, you’re not participating. You’re documenting. So you have to be an outsider in order to document.

I think that that’s where that comes from and I think punk rock is celebrating… It sounds so cliché, but all those guys were outsiders back in the day. I don’t know what the equivalent is now…

I also don’t think it’s necessarily good to hold onto that. I think it can be childish or whatever, but I think I hold on to certain aspects of it that I think are important to me.

I think it’s important, at least in my mind, I think it’s important to be individualistic. Especially as an artist. I think it’s important to stand out and not be afraid of that. That’s what I think makes you good compared to other people.

And if you are going to stand out, it’s tough. You can’t be really afraid to do that.

I think that all that ties in with those movements and those cultures. They’re all counter-culture. They weren’t afraid to stand out. They were doing their own things. They were independent. Especially in the ’80s, all the DIY, do it yourself culture of promoting your own stuff, not going through record labels…

I mean my book, I didn’t go through a publisher. That was all self-funded, self-promoted. It’s being sold at the Strand and a bunch of bookstores in the city, which I’m happy about. I’m sure it’s not selling as well as it would if it was with an actual publisher publisher, but there’s something nice about that. I just ride around the city on my motorcycle and deliver books to bookstores. It’s the same sort of thing with that style of music. It’s not like, I don’t know, Minor Threat came out on Atlantic Records or something. It was very much against that.

It was about creating something and creating your own thing. Instead of waiting around to be accepted or… to wait on someone else to give you something.

I’d rather just make it for myself.

________________

Thanks for listening to this Notes on Doing Episode 003 with Christaan Felber.

Check out his work at christaanfelber.com and his rockin’ Instagram, and buy his latest book, Boxeo Clasico.

Subscribe to Notes on Doing now to get weekly episodes on iTunes.

Until Monday. In the meantime, always do.