5 Questions for Mike Davis
MIKE DAVIS is the newly-appointed Alexia Tsairis Chair for Documentary Photography at Syracuse University, where he’s teaching, working with the Alexia Foundation and overseeing the Alexia grant competition. He’s done it all from photographer to photography consultant to picture editor where he’s helped shape the visual departments of National Geographic magazine, The White House and several of America’s leading newspapers — the latter earned him the distinction of being a twice-named Newspaper Picture Editor of the Year.
I’ve been lucky to be part of several great teams of people who shared heartfelt desires to tell stories in compelling ways. Continuing to learn new ways of seeing and thinking is critical. That means always striving to go beyond the day before’s effort and doing whatever it takes to make that happen. If you approach each endeavor as a new experience and bring all previous experiences to play freshly, this it goes to follow that you’ll never burn out.
I also cherish change and get bored with things that don’t grow, so I thrive in this setting.
2. How has your editing evolved over time as you see the photographic world changing? I know photographers evolve, but how do editors?
Editors exist equally in verbal and visual worlds. We have to be able to express visual concepts in words, and whether that’s to word people or visual people, the effort involves getting people to understand things in ways they haven’t before.
So my evolution has progressed along two lines. Being able to express ideas, concepts, notions, principles in ways that are both more clear and more sophisticated is one way. And being able to realize ever more sophisticated yet clear ways of seeing, of making pictures, of telling stories is the other side.
Thinking of images - whether they’re still or motion - more completely as three dimensional spaces is the latest iteration on the purely visual side. Elevating what it is you are striving to say in that space is the other side of that coin.
3. How do you define, spot and cultivate talent — in a photographer? In an editor?
Having taught a few classes now, it’s becoming more clear who is more likely to be a photographer or an editor. Editor’s have to think beyond themselves. Their primary motivation has to be to help others grow, to tell stories and make systems work - outside of their egos. Editors have to be able to conceive of and communicate ideas that are about things outside themselves. Photographers, on the other hand, for the most part have to be so self involved that they can envelop what they photograph from a completely personal perspective. The more dimensional a person who makes pictures is, the more dimensional her photographs will be, the more they will connect with a subject. We are the photographs we make, they are us.
It’s hard to know whether someone will become phenomenal in either field until you give them opportunity - that’s why good schools are important. Some people have never had their nascent skills enlivened, others don’t have those skills to enliven.
4. Trends in photography: Is there anything you wish photographers were doing right now that they’re not? Or are doing that you wish they would stop?
My big thing is that people tend to make the same picture no matter what they photograph, because they set out to say the same kinds of things in every situation. This isn’t a trend, it’s always been true. Change that paradigm: Everything you photograph is unique (even if it’s something you’ve photographed before), therefore every thing you photograph must be photographed uniquely.
And please, stop doing interview based multimedia pieces, right after we stop using the word multimedia. The word is grammatically wrong: The word media is plural so calling it media would be more accurate. It also means nothing. Audio, motion, still images, words are all multi media by themselves.
Using interviews to build story structure is like always making a portrait, when portraits are not often the best approach. The interview approach requires following the same formula that newspaper photographers are generally stuck with: Hang whatever pictures you can from the words.
That’s my rant.
5. With regards to the Alexia Foundation awards: What kind of work do you and the Foundation hope to see this year? How has the work changed over the years? Ultimately, what sets the winners apart when at this level, it’s all top notch work and proposals?
This is my first year as the Alexia Chair at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School so my direct experience with what is entered is limited to having watched the last two years of judging.
I have had conversations with a range of people in the Foundation and the profession about trying to produce stories that do more than point out the negative aspects of life on the planet. It is important to say: “This should not be happening.” But if we as a profession can as often as possible also point out solutions, or profile people and groups who are making a difference, who overcome horrible circumstances or prevent them from happening, people who challenge what is wrong and make it better, then we may increase the changes of affecting change.
The fear is that if we only hit the negative note, as our profession ages the audience willing to listen to us will progressively shrink.
Fun fact: Mike usually listens to music while editing — a great range of types. He says: “[Music] helps occupy the static layer of my brain and helps me focus. I think in part because I started in this business when typewriters were in newsrooms and it was always noisy. I carried this sweet little manual Smith-Corona to college and wrote all my papers with it. Lately, I’ve for the first time been listening to country music, but only country that’s about as old as me, or older.”
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