Kent Avenue Interview Series: David Alan Harvey

Photograph by Randall Bellows III

Photograph by Randall Bellows III

David Alan Harvey is a Brooklyn-based freelance photographer and publisher of Burn Magazine. After a youthful internship with National Geographic, he received a graduate degree from the Missouri School of Journalism and began his professional career at the Topeka Capital-Journal in Kansas. Yet it was in Virginia, where he was raised, that Harvey would shoot two important early-career series: one a personal project that challenged the segregation lines of his Southern youth, the other a professional introduction to a long and productive career with National Geographic.

In addition to shooting more than 40 stories for Geographic, Harvey’s work has been compiled into several books. The earliest of these works was 1967’s 36-page Tell it Like it Is, chronicling the Liggins family, whom Harvey lived with in Norfolk, Virginia when he was 23. He shot 38 rolls of film over roughly three weeks in August of ‘67, producing a staple-bound book priced at $2 a copy that was aimed at raising money for the family. In 2015, the book was re-published as a 76-page edition, featuring 46 black & white images, including a cover shot of seven-year-old Lois Liggins, with a portion of the profits going to her family and the establishment of a minority photographer scholarship. The project served as an early example of Harvey’s talent for establishing a personal rapport with his subjects, regardless of race, language, or cultural barriers. He utilized that skill for his first published Geographic story in the November 1973 issue, “This Is My Island, Tangier,” written by Harold G. Wheatley, about the tight-knit crabbing community of some 850 residents living on Tangier Island in Virginia’s Chesapeake Bay. The issue’s cover shows young Juke Marshall holding a blue crab in the Chesapeake shallows, the crustacean pinching the boy with one of its claws. Marshall was a sixth-generation commercial crabber in a local industry that went back to the 1890s, with the island’s settlement stretching back hundreds of years further still—its long isolation producing a peculiar colonial English-influenced accent that inspired Harvey to pitch Tangier as a story to Geographic.

Photograph by David Alan Harvey

Photograph by David Alan Harvey

Pitched stories, rather than assignments, have also taken Harvey to many foreign locales, including the vibrant, crowded beaches and close-quartered favelas of Rio de Janeiro. Harvey turned his photos from the city into a 2011 book, (based on a true story). The cover features Harvey’s sunglasses-sporting, bikini-clad assistant enjoying a sunny day on the beach, a ball and a popsicle in each hand. Inside the book, there's a photo of a drug dealer standing in a graffitied alley within the favela of Vidigal, his eyes hidden by a hat brim, his hands holding a gun and cocaine. The book came in the wake of Harvey’s larger look at the Spanish and Portuguese-speaking regions of Latin America and the Iberian Peninsula between 1977 and 2002 for Divided Soul, and a portrait of life on the Caribbean’s largest isle circa 1998 for Cuba: Island at a Crossroad.

Ten years ago, it was the global reach of rap music that inspired Harvey to begin shooting hip-hop culture for his 2006 book, Living Proof. Among the elements he captured were MCs, b-boys, graffiti artists, and DJs—some subjects known only in their neighborhood, others internationally famous names like Ice Cube, Snoop Dogg, and Kanye West. Harvey traces the journey of a musical storytelling tradition from Senegal, with its griot storytellers taken on slave ships to the New World; on to the American South churches promoting a call & response singing approach; to South Bronx streets where MCs sling rhymes by night; and back out again to Senegal, Spain, Israel/Palestine, and South Korea, where youth culture has fused the imported American music style with regional vibes and traditions.

Photograph by David Alan Harvey

Photograph by David Alan Harvey

It was on Jeju Island in South Korea that Harvey captured a unique fishing tradition carried on in 2014 beneath the surface of the Pacific Ocean. His book Haenyeo: Angels of the Sea chronicles elderly women who free dive for abalone, octopus, and shellfish. It’s a dangerous profession these wetsuit-clad 60–80-year-olds began as teenagers decades ago, demanding they hold their breath for minutes at a time in icy waters up to 50 feet deep, and which claimed two of their lives during the month Harvey photographed what is likely the last generation Haenyeo.

In 1978, the National Press Photographers Association named Harvey its Magazine Photographer of the Year. In 1993, he joined the prestigious Magnum Photos cooperative (becoming a full member in 1997), co-founded in 1947 by one of his photographic role models, Henri Cartier-Bresson. On Magnum’s website, Harvey’s portfolio page features a 2012 photo of a nude man strolling past a woman on a rocking horse occupying the roof of the apartment building at 475 Kent Avenue—where Harvey has lived for the past 15 years. His entrée to the building came courtesy of fellow Magnum member Alex Majoli and fellow National Geographic photographer Robert Clark (interviewed for the first part of this series), adding another renowned photographer to 475’s prestigious picture-taking family.

Looking to promote the work of talented emerging photographers, Harvey launched the digital/print journal Burn Magazine in December of 2008—an outgrowth of his Road Trips blog, launched two years earlier—and today serves as publisher and editor. In a letter posted to Burn’s website, the 71-year-old notes his extremely busy schedule of photography projects, before adding, “It is quite easy for me to relate to the world of younger photographers who may benefit from my editing and expertise, yet know full well that I struggle with the environs of a fickle publishing world as do they.” Helping to combat that is BurnBooks, a publishing arm that handles limited edition photography tomes.

Photograph by David Alan Harvey

Photograph by David Alan Harvey

I interviewed Harvey in the Spring of 2015 in his apartment at 475 Kent, while in the midst of a hectic travel schedule that often takes him to his other home on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. We spoke in advance of his much-anticipated participation in June 2015’s Look3 Festival of the Photograph in Charlottesville, Virginia, where 65 prints of his work were displayed as part of an exhibition titled NO FILTER. It was also site of Harvey’s announcement of the winners of two grants from the 2015 edition of the Emerging Photographer Fund, which he established in 2007. Among other topics discussed with Nomadic Press, Harvey expounded on Burn, National Geographic, several of his books, Magnum membership, and his philosophical approach to photography projects. He also sat for this interview's cover portrait, which was taken in his apartment by Randall Bellows III.

On Shooting Tell It Like It Is

We were all hippie, anti-war civil rights activists. We were idealistic [about] women's rights, gay rights, Black people's rights. We were all about that. We were all middle-class White kids, privileged. I was not in a "discriminated against" group, but I was on the side of all the discriminated groups.

I was in Virginia Beach, which is a tourist beach town in the summertime. But I was a born-again photographer from the time I was like 12. So, as far as I was concerned, I'd been a photographer for a long time by the time I was 23. I'd been a pretty serious photographer all along, through university. So this was a break in graduate school, and I'd had an internship at National Geographic, and failed at that internship. I didn't like National Geographic at all, and I went and lived with this Black family, because I thought this was where I really needed to be— out on the social change edge. So we did the book to sell the book to raise money to buy food and clothing for the families in the hood. The new version, a percentage of the profit after we pay our printing bill and everything will actually go to this family, because that was what I was trying to do in the first place. I wasn't able to do it in the first place. So now I can do it.

This little girl on the cover, Lois, is now 57-years-old, and she’s going to come with me to the [LOOK3] photo festival in Virginia.

I was 23 when I wanted to give the money from the book to those people, and last year I was giving (based on a true story) away for free down in the favelas where I work. The guys in my hip-hop book [Living Proof], I brought them into the family, so to speak. I took them out of the hood, took them down and had them on the stage at National Geographic. So I've always gotten involved. I got involved early on. I got involved last year. So I've always participated. This little girl on the cover, Lois, is now 57-years-old, and she's going to come with me to the [LOOK3] photo festival in Virginia. So it's not unusual for me to do something like that. I've always kind of done that stuff.

Photograph by David Alan Harvey

Photograph by David Alan Harvey

On Shooting Tell It Like It Is in Black and White

At the time, I never had shot any color pictures, except the ones I tried out for at Geographic, and didn't like shooting color. There was no other thought in my head but black & white for that book. But after this, I got a grant from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, and with that grant I experimented in color. So I basically shot color for the first time when I was like 25. The early color pictures that I shot when I was like 1415, I definitely need to scan those when I go back down to the Outer Banks.

Photograph by David Alan Harvey

Photograph by David Alan Harvey

I think of myself as a black and white photographer, even when I shoot in color. I had to really learn how to deal with color, because color is really, really hard. Color is harder than black & white. So I had to really learn how to shoot transparencies. Then at the same time I was experimenting in color anyway, National Geographic came back into my life like 10 years after that rejection. So then I really had to learn how to use color, because I was shooting for National Geographic, and so I learned how. For National Geographic, I shot one of only two black & white stories up to that time. I really convinced them to do a black & white story, and I did it for them, because I always liked black & white better.

On “This is My Island, Tangier”

. . . All living on this little island that was close to New York and Baltimore and Washington, D.C. Yet, no cars, half electricity when I went out there.

I had a [National Geographic] internship, a test, but I failed. I wasn't fired. I just never got hired at that time. But I had an idea to go live on an island in the Chesapeake Bay in Virginia and document these families that had been out there since Captain John Smith discovered it. Really, they still speak Elizabethan-style English out there. I just thought it was a really interesting people story. Eight hundred people that were all a little bit inbred, to tell you the truth, all living on this little island that was close to New York and Baltimore and Washington, D.C. Yet, no cars, half electricity when I went out there, and it was just a fascinating place. I thought it would be a good story for Geographic, and I mentioned it to them, and they liked the idea. They said they'd actually tried to do it, but that nobody was able to take pictures on this island, because nobody wanted to be photographed. They did not want anybody there, so that was the nut to crack.

Photograph by David Alan Harvey

Photograph by David Alan Harvey

Same way I did [for Tell It Like It Is], I’d just hang out, talk to people, listen to people, and then just slowly start taking pictures, so that I'm not a threat to them. Because you don't go knock on their door, and say, "Hey, I'm going to spend a month with you." No, you just say, "Hey, can I take a picture of you guys standing in the doorway?" You take that picture, and then you bring the print back, and the next thing you know you spend a month there. But you don't know that you're going to spend a month with them.

On (Based on a True Story)

In general, the thing that I was interested in the most was the Latin world. The Spanish-Portuguese migration into Central and South America fascinated me, so I did a lot of stories on that. So Cuba, and then all the stuff that led up to the Divided Soul book, that was probably my most significant contribution, and my biggest area of interest. I had also been in Southeast Asia before that. I never did any books on Southeast Asia, which is different. I don't even feel like doing a book on Southeast Asia now. For some reason, the Afro-Spanish-Portuguese combination, Brazil, South America, Mexico, Cuba—that was what interested me the most.

I'd been shooting in Brazil for like about 10 years before I started the book. So I'd been in the favelas long before. I was doing another story for National Geographic, not in Rio, but in Bahia, and so I was in the favelas there. From the time I went into the hood [for Tell It Like It Is], by that time I was able to go into anything. I mean, by that time I'd been to Vietnam and Cambodia. I was used to being in developing countries. I was used to being in supposedly dangerous neighborhoods. So there was no discomfort going into the favelas in Brazil. 

Photograph by David Alan Harvey

Photograph by David Alan Harvey

 [The cover] was taken in Rio. [The girl] was working as the digital assistant on [my project], and she was introduced to me by another woman who was helping me produce this whole thing in the first place. So she and her boyfriend were just down there seeking work as translators and as fixers. She kind of lucked into a job with me because there was another person that I was going to use, and her grandfather died, and she couldn’t do the job, and this person got the job as a substitute digital assistant. So we were just down on the beach drinking caipirinhas, having a good time when I took that picture.

Here's the thing with Rio: the beach isn't just the beach. Everything happens on the beach, because Rio geographically is like a stage.

You've got these little half-moon bays, and everybody lives there. The rich people are there. The poor people are right there too. Rich people, poor people are all together, and they all come to the same beach. The beaches in Rio are really democratic, and it really is like the town square for everybody there. I haven't shot beaches any other place. But there, that is where everybody lives. Either there, or very close to there. It's the most interesting thing. But within that context, I got the rich people, I got the cops, I got the people in favelas, I got the drug dealers. I do have every piece of demographic society in this thing, and in any of these pictures I’m rarely more than a mile from the beach. Those favelas are just right there. They spill down onto the beach. The rich people spill down onto the beach. So it's not just a beach there. It's a little more than most places.

On the Favela Drug Dealer Photo

I had a young kid who was my minder, and he's in touch with the drug dealers, of course. He's the guy that keeps his eye on me, and then of course we became friends, too. He could see what I was doing with my photography, and I just mentioned to him at some point, "Is there any chance of getting a picture of these guys with the guns? We see them all over the place. They don't want to be photographed. We know that. But is there a way that I can do it?" And he just said, “I’ll find out.” Then I didn't ask anymore. And then one day I went in there just to photograph some families, not to photograph that, and he said, "Okay, right now, we're going. You got permission to come into the smoke hole." So then I was in it, and then I showed that guy with the gun [Living Proof], and he said, "You took these pictures of Snoop Dogg, and all these guys?” I said, "Yeah." There’s a picture of some guys with guns in South Central L.A in that book, and he said, "You took that picture?” I said, "Yeah." And he said, "Okay, you can take my picture." I hadn't even asked to take his picture, but he knew I was a photographer. I had my camera on, too. Then he said, “But I'm going to pull my hat down so you can't see my face." I said, "Well, I'm going to take a picture, I'm going to show it to you right on the back of the camera, and you tell me if this is cool or not. If you don't like it, I'm going to fucking delete it." And he said, "Okay, that's cool." I didn't ask him to bring out the gun or the cocaine, but he just did that, and he pulled his hat down, I took some pictures. Then a bunch of guys with guns came out, and I took their pictures. But they made me do a couple of lines of something, they made me smoke—they made me do all that shit, just to make sure I wasn't a cop, and just as kind of a brotherhood thing. Then the guy gave me that gun. It was pretty cool.

Photograph by David Alan Harvey

Photograph by David Alan Harvey

I'm in favelas where, when I first went in, there were a lot of guys with a lot of guns like that. And there are still a lot of guys with a lot of guns, but they're not visible so much anymore. I mean, it was the Wild West just a few years ago. You’d go in there and everybody had an automatic weapon visible. So the police have gone in there and sort of, in theory, kind of cleaned it up. But of course, the drug business is going to go on. But the ostentatious nature of it has kind of gone away. It used to be really colorful. You’d go in there and see guys riding around on their motorcycles with an AK-47 slung over their shoulder, just in their hood. They’d have control over everything in there. So I'd say that's changed. There's even a lot of tourists going into these neighborhoods, because they're fascinated. They've seen it on TV, they've seen it in the movies. You know, Snoop Dogg did a video in one of the favelas, Michael Jackson did a video in one of the favelas, and so the favelas became popular for especially European tourists. There's even some bed & breakfast kind of hostels in some of these supposedly dangerous neighborhoods. You can actually go in there as a tourist, almost.

On Photographing Across Racial and Cultural Barriers

I’ve always liked going in and doing something on somebody where other White, middle-class people like me probably haven't been, and were afraid to go. Everything I do, it relates to my own tribe somehow. I'm the guy that actually goes there and shows you what it looks like, because you're afraid to go there yourself. So I'm in there as a White, middle-class kid at all times. I don't try to be cool. When I’m with the hip-hop guys, I was just there as a White, middle-class kid—nothing more, nothing less—and just really interested in their culture. So I enjoy seeing something that the middle-American would not understand, or not know any part of, and then going in there and kind of being the eyes for that group, because that is who I am. So it's not like I become Black, nor do I become Brazilian, nor do I become any of these other cultures that I'm photographing. But I can always relate to people, regardless of their color, their religion. There's always just a human being there, and so I can relate to everybody on that level, no matter who they are.

Being White and older—and of course, I was White and younger when I did [Tell It Like It Is]— Black people are nicer to White people than White people are to Black people, and I don't even know why. I don't even expect to be accepted by Black people, because I'm thinking, "Shit, they must look at me as their worst nightmare." But no, Black people, they just are nicer to White people than the other way around. It's just absolutely true. I mean, I can walk into a Black church, and the next thing you know they're praying on me. If a Black person walked into an all-White church, people would fucking freak out, even today. But Black people are going to treat me nice. They're going to bring me in. It's not an equal trade.

Photograph by David Alan Harvey

Photograph by David Alan Harvey

When I was in college, we had a war going on in Vietnam, and before that, World War II. So I was automatically drawn to Asia just because of the Japanese War, and the Korean War and the Vietnam War. So I'm automatically interested in Black people because they were subjugated. I was automatically interested in the Japanese because we dropped an atomic bomb on them. I'm trying to figure that one out. So I’ve got to see who these people are. I always went to the places that were the taboos—Black neighborhoods, Vietnam and Japan, my father's enemy. I always did that, always have been interested in going in behind the scenes with the misunderstood people.

On Living Proof

As I said, I was comfortable in any culture, and my two sons talked me into doing hip-hop from an anthropological perspective. [The cover] is down in the basement of a sleazy strip club in the South Bronx that I was taken to. It's kind of ironic, because I didn't know the dude that's on the cover, but it ended up being the best cover. The central focus was the South Bronx and the Bronx River Projects, basically, and so most of it was shot there. But some of it was shot in Hollywood with Snoop and LL Cool J and those guys. Some of it, I went to Israel, Palestine. I went to Thailand, and I went to Senegal, and I went to France, and I went to Spain for that story. So there's a little bit of all of that in there.

The South Bronx, it's their own world. Their world is at night. I'm out there at night with those guys, because that's when they're out moving. I went very specifically into the projects where Africa Bombaataa and Kool Herc and those guys were. So I was in their hood, where these famous rappers had come from. I went there specifically for that reason, and I knew I was in the right place. These guys all had a sense of being like second or third generation from those guys, basically. So they were very aware of the history of the whole rap thing in their own neighborhood, of course. That's what they think about all the time, because they're trying to do the same thing. So they're very aware of how it went. I mean Kool Herc and Bombaataa, for example, didn't get rich. Snoop Dogg got rich, and LL Cool J got rich, but the first generation of guys didn't make any money.

Photograph by David Alan Harvey

Photograph by David Alan Harvey

I'd read about the African griots, the storytellers, and the call & response, and how they communicated. There was no written language in Sub-Sahara Africa, so people communicated in different ways. I mean, the Guttenberg Press was for everybody up North. The Europeans were writing books, and the Africans had their drum and call & response. It was just a different way of communicating, and a different way of passing on history. It was an oral passing of history. I was absolutely fascinated by that—fascinated by the slave trade, how the griots were on the slave boats, and then they get to Bahia. So gospel music, and jazz & blues, and rock & roll were all tied together based on the griots, who were storytellers. They were rappers, they were preachers, they were scribes, they were everything. They would tell stories, they would sing a romantic song, they would spread the news, they were the whole shebang.

On Haenyeo: Angels of the Sea

When you see it, you think young boys ought to be doing this job, teenagers ought to be doing this job.

That was great. That was about lady divers. They're in Japan and they're in Korea. They're in both countries, and they free dive. They've been doing it since they were teenagers. That's a dying breed. That was incredible. They're 75, 85. They're old ladies. It's a way of earning a living. The men, their husbands would be out on the big fishing boats, and this was something that the women could do, or that the women ended up doing. I'm not quite sure why that happened. It looks like a job for young boys, to tell you truth. When you see it, you think young boys ought to be doing this job, teenagers ought to be doing this job, going down there and scooping the stuff up. But they were teenagers when they started the job, and they've been doing it their whole lives, and they're just kind of an unbelievable bunch of 7585-year-old women. They're amazing.

That was an art commission assignment. I had freedom to do whatever I wanted to do. It just seemed like a black & white subject, right off. I did have to talk them into that. Originally they wanted color, but I said, "No, no, no, no, this has got to be black & white." I just looked at it, I saw the ladies in their black rubber suits, and the sea, and Korea. No, Korea is black & white. Rio is color, but I've even turned that into black & white. But Korea is definitely black & white in the first place. That just has to be a black & white story.

On Magnum

I think everybody who's aware of it, aspires to it. Anybody who's a serious photographer, and they read about Magnum, and their independent spirit, what their goals were, their sense of humanity, and all of that sort of thing—I think that appeals to any young photographer when they find out what Magnum is. It would appeal to any photographer. It’s independence, it's authorship, and it's doing the right thing with pictures—more than commercial photography, for example, in the eyes of the Magnum photographers. There's another whole bunch of photographers that would say, "Well, that's bullshit. You're not making any money. Why would you want to do that? We're going to do commercial photography, making a lot of money, big studio, lots of employees, blah, blah, blah." But that's another ethic, and I like people who have that, like David LaChapelle and Richard Avedon, and all those people who are not Magnum photographers. There's a whole bunch of those guys that I have an incredible amount of respect for. I don't have only respect for the Magnum photographers, because they’re in this "bearing witness” school of photography. In other words, you photograph what's actually there, whereas these other guys make up their world. I have an incredible amount of respect for them. I love those guys. So I'm not disparaging them. It's just a different world. Actually, I wish it would get a little bit closer together, so that Magnum could take somebody like Gregory Crewdson, or somebody who's doing kind of fiction photography. I really like a lot of that. Maybe Magnum is a little bit limited in the way they're looking at the world of photography, because they don't have any fiction writers in Magnum. They don’t have any Gregory Crewdsons. If it were up to me, I'd probably make sure that there were.

Photograph by David Alan Harvey

Photograph by David Alan Harvey

I was never interested in [Magnum co-founder, Robert] Capa, to be honest with you. I was interested in [Henri Cartier-] Bresson. I was into that side of Magnum. There’s always been a couple of wings in Magnum. War photographers were definitively not my heroes. I figured they were brave. I respected them. But aesthetically, I didn't think they were particularly good photographers. I just thought they were there, and that was why they were known as photographers. Whereas Bresson was making images that really resonated to me a lot more, so I respected those guys more. I didn't have any idea that war photographers were anything other than brave guys who managed to take a picture in some incredible situation. So I didn't really have any real respect for that, to tell you the truth. Again, maybe I respected them because they were brave. Even today, I have some kind of respect for Capa. But I got a lot more respect for Bresson.

I went with the guys who did it on vision only, with no game, famous movie star, supermodel, or anything in front of their camera.

Bresson and Robert Frank both appealed to me, because they could make interesting photographs just out here on the street corner. I loved that. Whereas all the other photographers looked to me like they needed a prop. I figured Ansel Adams was no good if he went to New Jersey. I figured that Capa was no good if he wasn't in the middle of war. I really thought that, and I thought the celebrity photographers were no good if they didn't have a movie star in front of their camera. Everybody seemed to need some thing, another thing besides just their vision. So I went with the guys who did it on vision only, with no game, famous movie star, supermodel, or anything in front of their camera.

On Moving to 475 Kent

Alex Majoli, a Magnum photographer, told me to come over and check out his new place, because he was living here. "Come and have a beer on the roof." I went up on the roof here and had a beer with Majoli, and Paolo Pellegrin I think was here at the time. Thomas Dworzak was in the building. I was living in Washington, D.C., but I’d toyed with the idea of New York, and I was kind of over National Geographic. I was mesmerized by National Geographic for a long time, but at some point I was not as interested. I had been there and done that—much more interested in Magnum, and much more interested in New York. Those guys said that maybe I could get a place here, and then Rob Clark got into the equation, too. So a combination of Alex Majoli and Rob Clark, and I just jumped on that apartment down in 407. I just did it without even getting out of my other place in Washington. I don’t remember quite how I did that. But somehow I maneuvered the situation and ended up here. 

It was a lot of fun. Rob Clark was across the hall. We'd get together at lunch. His assistants and my assistants all hung out. It was a really cool time, because he was right there, and so we would party together, have lunch together. It was a really golden time, so I miss that aspect. When Rob was right across the hall, it was the very best time, and all those guys were in the building. Now I don't see them. Michael Brown is usually gone. Chris Anderson is usually gone. So we don't hang out like we used to when everybody was here.

Photograph by David Alan Harvey

Photograph by David Alan Harvey

It's just a fascinating building. I always like documenting things that are kind of disappearing, like I did with the Korean ladies. This is kind of the same in that regard. I figure the building is not going to last too much longer, but it's still a classic New York-eclectic-community kind of a building. It's lost a little bit from what it was when I first moved here, which was an extreme version of what I just said. Now, it's a little more gentrified, a little more hipster, a little more like the neighborhood's becoming. But there's still some characters in here, and the building has still got character.

On the Origins of Burn Magazine

I went to a Magnum meeting, and was waiting for my part of the meeting in a room alone with a guy who was in social media. I didn’t know anything about social media, nor did I care. I’d never been to a blog in my life. I didn’t even really know what a blog was. This guy was there to make a pitch to Magnum, so I was just making small talk with the guy. I had no interest whatsoever, and he started talking about social media, and building an audience, and told me the things that Magnum needed to have to be able to become a part of this new world. I thought, “Well shit, I’ve got all those things.” I had this audience. I had my students. I knew that I had an international audience, just because of the students that would show up for my classes, and I was pretty good at always interacting with students. So I thought, “I’ll just start a blog, and see what happens.” So I’m sitting around, getting stoned and thinking of crazy ideas, and I started this blog, Road Trips. I had like 1,000 followers on the first day. I thought, “Fuck, that’s pretty amazing.” People that I didn’t know knew me. I was disconnected. I had National Geographic, or some other magazine, between me and the audience. Even with Divided Soul, you don’t really know who’s out there buying it. But with social media, all of a sudden you’re actually in touch with all those people. So Road Trips was real successful. It was four blogs within a blog. I would do my little photo tip thing, I would publish [audience] work, and I had different sections to it. Then I just got more and more interested in publishing [audience] work, and right about that time all the magazine business turned to shit. I thought, “God, it would really be cool if I could create a little fund and actually give some of these readers money for their pictures”. So I started the [Emerging Photographer Fund] with my own money, which I didn’t even have any of. But I just did it as a ballsy move. All of a sudden, “Hey, I’ve got five grand to give. What do you got? Show me your pictures.“ That just woke everybody up. You know, just a crazy thing to do. But I did it. Then after that, I got funding from other people, and so Burn just rolled. Our whole point was to publish the less established [photographers]. We publish a ratio of 10:1—ten not established, and then one established.

Photograph by David Alan Harvey

Photograph by David Alan Harvey

I got Anton Kusters, who was one of my students, to be my tech guy. He was really on the tech side, and good on the editorial side as well. So he and I basically ran Burn by ourselves—for the first couple of years, anyway. Then he did Yakuza, and he kind of drifted off from Burn, because he wanted to be a photographer and do his own work more than he wanted to spend that much time with emerging photographers. I’m the one that gets stuck with all the emerging photographers, because most people can’t take that but for so long. Interacting with everybody, it’s really, really hard, because you don’t know when to say “no.” You want to help everybody. At the same time, if you’re not careful, they just gobble up your whole life. Because there’s a never-ending supply of people who need help, right? And that's what I do, but you’ve got to pace it a little bit with your own work, and with your own time. But it’s very, very difficult to say “no.” Especially at photo festivals and things, there's no way that I can go there and just relax and be a normal person. Because I'm going to have people coming to me to look at their work, and I have to look at it.

On Distributing his Work in Print versus Online

I’d rather reach a few people really, really well, than a whole bunch of people not so well.

Online absolutely is not an endgame for me. No, online is only to get to print. I’ve used online to create tactile objects. Everything that is my actual life’s work is a tactile object. It’s a new book. It’s a print exhibition. I’m a complete analog guy who just uses social media as a way to build an audience, and therefore create tactile objects. If we didn’t print Burn once in a while, and we need to print Burn Diary... No, the online experience is its own thing. You can really see pictures well online. They’re certainly beautifully reproduced online, if you have good screens and everything. But it’s not about that. The tactile nature of a book, or of a print, that you can reach out and touch and feel and be a part of in a way, it’s just a technicality. The online experience puts you in touch with all these interesting people, and all these interesting funders, and everything else. So I certainly wouldn’t disparage the online experience. It’s been amazing, and I spend a lot of time online just like everybody else does. At the end of the day though, the endgame, if I really tried with Magnum and National Geographic, I could reach a million people with some idea, at least. More than that. I mean, National Geographic alone, I think they’ve got 12 million people right there. Then I magnify Magnum, and then my own site, I could reach a lot of people. So with my tactile objects, I reach 1,000 people. That’s a bad set of likes for me on Instagram. So I reach a lot more people on Instagram, National Geographic. I reach very few people with my little art object thing. But I don’t care. I’d rather reach a few people really, really well, than a whole bunch of people not so well.

Photograph by David Alan Harvey

Photograph by David Alan Harvey

Just by its very nature, [online] changed my approach to marketing. Facebook and Instagram are my main marketing tools. I’ll just put pictures up there, or I’ll put a picture showing the contact sheets to the book that I just published, and tease people with that idea over a period of several months—just every once in a while posting it. Then when it’s published, they’re already kind of used to the idea that I’m going to publish it, and all of a sudden there it is for sale. So just once in a while I’ll sell something. Most of the time, I’m just giving information, or giving them an idea to think about.

On Shooting for Print Publications

I still have a hard time with the marriage of words and pictures that's supposed to happen in a magazine like National Geographic. I think it's very hard for people to read and look at pictures at the same time. I like reading, and I like looking at pictures. I don't know if I like trying to do both at the same time. I don't think I do like it. I'd rather read The New Yorker, and then I'd rather see a photo essay. Anybody that tells me that they take a National Geographic article, and they’re reading the text and looking at the pictures somehow at the same time, I find that really hard to believe. So text all chopped up with pictures, I don't think that is a very good way of presenting information, to tell you the truth. But what appealed to me about National Geographic was really simple. It was a predominantly picture-oriented magazine that had a good budget, and I could go all over the world for them. They were also the best display magazine out there. And I was always a champion of getting the best writers that they could get in there, and I really worked with the writers, and I was a big supporter of the text. But physically, the way that the text and the pictures get all chopped up in there, that's a very archaic way of trying to tell people a story, in my opinion.

Photograph by David Alan Harvey

Photograph by David Alan Harvey