Photojournalist Barbara Davidson
"I hope my images leave the viewer with a sense of empathy"
Interview: Nezih Tavlas / July 14, 2021
(Courtesy of Barbara Davidson)
Photojournalism News: What drew you to photojournalism?
Barbara Davidson: At 15-years-old, I decided I wanted to be a professional photographer even before I had ever made a photograph. I had an image published, in the McGill Daily student newspaper, from the first roll of 35mm film I had ever shot and that experience was addicting. Hence the beginning of my career in photojournalism at the age of 18.
Photojournalism News: What equipment do you use? Do you have a favourite lens/camera?
Barbara Davidson: My current go to camera is a Leica Q2 with a fixed 28mm lens. The quality and discreetness of this camera is remarkable. I also use a Hasselblad XID 50C, a Canon 5D MK IV for uncontrolled photojournalism situations, and an Arca-Swiss F-Classic 8x10 View Camera. I’m not a fan of long lenses so I always find myself using fixed wide angles lenses.
Photojournalism News: What social media platforms do you use?
Photojournalism News: How do you prepare yourself before any assignment? What would you put in your camera bag for a typical task?
Barbara Davidson: I deep dive in research before I take on any assignment. It’s important for me to fully understand the story and think about visual ways I will tackle the assignment before I begin the process of undertaking a story. I make sure my camera bag is loaded with charged batteries, clear flash cards, and the specific gear I will be using for said assignment. The kind of story I’m undertaking will dictate the gear I use to tackle the story - so my camera bag changes up regularly. One consistent thought are my gummy bear candies.
Photojournalism News: How would you best describe your style of work? What are you trying to say with your photography?
Barbara Davidson: My photography is concerned with the human condition - usually in times of crisis - and my mission statement is to amplify voices traditionally marginalized. My work is centered on creating awareness about underreported social issues.
Photojournalism News: How many photos do you take for one story?
Barbara Davidson: The amount of photos I make will vary from assignment to assignment and whether I’m using a photo drive or not. Usually in fluid uncontrolled photojournalism issues I tent to “spray” more meaning I will lean on my photo drive more than usual. If I’m using my Leica or my Hasselblad the photography is more contemplative and I make very few images. When I use my 8x10 camera it’s usually just a few frames as its rather expensive.
Photojournalism News: What is the last trip you made?
Barbara Davidson: I stopped flying like most of the world. My last flight was actually a vacation to Paris and London with my brother and nephew in 2020. I did travel by car across the United States working on my Guggenheim Fellowship making 8x10 film portraits of survivors of gun violence.
Photojournalism News: What projects will you be working on next?
Barbara Davidson: I’m currently working on a story about an unhoused couple here in Los Angles for the Washington Post Magazine and once I wrap up that I will get back to my gun violence survivor portrait series.
Photojournalism News: Which of your photographs would you describe as your favourite? What makes them so special to you?
Barbara Davidson: I have many favorite photos … not necessary the photo itself but favorite people in those photos. It’s impossible to choose one because there are so many people in my photographs who have really left their imprint on my heart and soul.
Photojournalism News: What message do you want your photos to convey?
Barbara Davidson: I hope my images leave the viewer with a sense of empathy and a more heightened and compassionate understanding of the people and communities in my photographs.
(All images © Barbara Davidson, The Los Angeles Times and The Dallas Morning News)
Photojournalism News: What does a photo need to be a great in your eyes?
Barbara Davidson: I prefer images that evoke a strong emotional response in the viewer whatever emotion that may be. I like images that inspire discussion and elevate understanding of people and places. I’m not a fan of ‘eye candy’ photography which touches the senses because of the technical qualities of the images rather than the content.
Photojournalism News: In the digital age people consume billions of photos every single day, under the circumstances what could make a photo memorable?
Barbara Davidson: An image will live or die depending how successful the photographer is with communicating and inspiring a connection to the image. Photography is about visual communication. Do people respond to your images or not. Successful images leave a lasting connection on the viewer when a photographer creates an emotion connection to their images.
Photojournalism News: What motivates you to continue taking pictures and what do you do to keep motivated?
Barbara Davidson: I simply follow the creative urges in me … I follow my desire to create. It’s still living and breathing in me so I keep making images.
Photojournalism News: What was the biggest professional risk you have taken and what was the outcome?
Barbara Davidson: I was held captive by a paramilitary outfit in Bosnia at the end of the war, the Arkan Tigers while covering the conflict there. That experience still haunts me to this day and it has made me work more cautiously in the field.
Photojournalism News: What would be your dream assignment?
Barbara Davidson: I have so many dream assignments but one that sticks with me is my dream of photographing in Antarctica one day.
Photojournalism News: What are the essential skills/ qualities a photojournalist should have?
Barbara Davidson: Be curious and operate from a place of compassion, empathy, understanding and allow the people in your images to be the star of the pictures … not you, the creator. Be authentic.
Photojournalism News: What do you think about the digital manipulation of images?
Barbara Davidson: Manipulation derives from a place of deceit … a misrepresentation of the truth and therefore has no place in photojournalism which survives on authenticity.
Photojournalism News: What does it mean to be an ethical photojournalist?
Barbara Davidson: To operate from a place of authenticity.
Photojournalism News: How do you see the role of photojournalism evolving in the world? Do you think photojournalism is losing its importance?
Barbara Davidson: I think photojournalism is entering into an inspiring more inclusive space and the influx of diverse visual voices is expanding and enriching the craft like never before.
Photojournalism News: What is it like to be a female photojournalist in a male-dominated field?
Barbara Davidson: I can write a book about this.
Photojournalism News: Do you have any advice for aspiring photojournalists?
Barbara Davidson: Tell stories that you are curious about because that will carry you through the highs and lows you will experience when telling other people’s stories. Create work from and an authentic place and let your empathy and compassion guide you in finding your stories.
Barbara Davidson is a three-time Pulitzer Prize and Emmy award-winning photographer/ director. Barbara mastered her story-telling approach through multiple assignments over two decades and across 52 countries covering war, humanitarian crises and the human condition for the Los Angeles Times, the Dallas Morning News and the Washington Times. She has covered both breaking world events and underreported stories, turning a compassionate eye towards individuals striving for dignity and normalcy. Early in her career, Barbara traveled with the Red Cross to cover the end of the Bosnian War. Her work since then has taken her to the Second Intifada in Israel as well as wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Democratic Republic of Congo. She has also covered natural disasters, including Hurricane Katrina as a member of a team that won a Pulitzer in Spot News Photography in 2006 for the Dallas Morning News, and more recently covering Hurricane Harvey for the New York Times. Barbara graduated from Concordia University in her hometown of Montreal, Canada, with a BFA in Photography and Film Studies.