Photojournalist David Butow
“I want my photos to convey truth, as I see it.”
Interview: Nezih Tavlas / December 22, 2021
(Credit: Wayne Serrano)
Photojournalism News: What drew you to photojournalism?
David Butow: I got interested in photography when I was about 12 years old. My dad was a good amateur photographer who would develop and print his own pictures and I was inspired in part by looking through photo magazines that he kept. In high school I got interested in current events and then I learned you could combine the two. The idea of seeing historical events first hand, and taking pictures of them seemed like an exciting job. It hasn’t disappointed.
Photojournalism News. What equipment do you use? Do you have a favourite lens/camera?
David Butow: I use full frame 35mm digital cameras. I love Leica M’s from the film days and their new digital cameras are great, so I usually have an M10-R with me and I also use their new mirrorless cameras, the SL2 and the SL2-S.
I love primes lenses in the 35-50mm range but I’ll often use a 24-70mm for quickness and telephoto lenses when I can’t get as close as I want, like when I’m shooting political events.
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?
David Butow: I try to take as little as possible, but I make sure I have a little backup and a little flexibility and I like the different ways of seeing I get with rangefinder bodies and mirrorless. So usually two bodies and occasionally a third if I know I’ll be using the telephoto a lot. Often I’ll have a 24-70mm on a mirrorless camera but I also like to have an M body with maybe a 50 1.4 so I can get something that looks a little different than the zoom. I and maybe a fast 35 for the M or the mirrorless for lower light or in case something goes weird with the zoom, which hardly ever happens.
Photojournalism News: How would you best describe your style of work? What are you trying to say with your photography?
David Butow: The way I approach taking pictures is mostly to try to give the viewer a feel for what it was like to be there. I like to use focal lengths that are close to how the eye sees naturally, so nothing too extreme. What I’m trying to say is really dependent on the subject. Mostly I’m attracted to life’s nuances, it’s ambiguity and complexity and I’m not too interested in good/bad dichotomies. So I’m trying to communicate my very subjective view of a scene and be as truthful as possible with the picture in the sense that I want it to reflect what I think, and it’s kind of up to the viewer to interpret it.
Photojournalism News: How many photos do you take for one story?
David Butow: I’m not someone who shoots a million different pictures for a story. If I’m on assignment obviously I try to give the editor’s what they need, but I don’t like shooting pictures that seem dull - just to have them.
Shooting good pictures requires a lot of effort and concentration so I try to put that effort into getting a few really good pictures instead of many ones that are just ‘ok.’
Photojournalism News: What is the last trip you made?
David Butow: As of this writing in the spring of 2021, the last trip I made was to Texas at the US border with Mexico for a few days shooting on assignment for a story about migrants entering the U.S. and seeking asylum.
Photojournalism News: What projects will you be working on next?
David Butow: At the moment I’m finishing production of a book of political photography in the U.S. from the last five years. It’s called ‘Brink’ and I’m really excited about it.
Also, I’ve just left Washington, D.C. - where I lived since 2017 to shoot politics - and I have moved to Los Angeles. I’m looking forward to tackling a wider variety of subjects there.
Photojournalism News: Which of your photographs would you describe as your favourite? What makes them so special to you?
David Butow: Now and then I’ll take a picture that captures a historical moment, like one of the ones from the U.S. Capitol insurrection in January 2021. Those are pretty rare though, the others that I like tend to be an artful reflection of something interesting I saw or experienced.
Photojournalism News: What message do you want your photos to convey?
David Butow: The main message I want my photos to convey is truth as I see it, and interpretation that is both distinctive and universal. I would like viewers to have some curiosity and empathy for what is happening in the pictures.
(All images © Courtesy of David Butow)
Photojournalism News: What does a photo need to be great in your eyes?
David Butow: To be great the picture must carry some sort of universal message. This message will probably reflect the human experience in some way, and I want it to be aesthetically pleasing.
Photojournalism News: In the digital age people consume billions of photos every single day, under the circumstances what could make a photo memorable?
David Butow: Most of the time, people react to the content of a photo first, but the design of the picture has to simply and convey a direct message that says something about the world or the human condition.
Photojournalism News: What motivates you to continue taking pictures and what do you do to keep motivated?
David Butow: There are two things that keep my motivated with photography. One is that the specific field I choose is broadly, about social evolution, like culture or politics for example.. So those things are evolving and therefore there are new pictures to take to show the changes. The other thing that keeps my interest up is that in terms of style and approach, there’s no end game, you can continue to improve in a style or you can shift and find new ways of working that inspire you.
Photojournalism News: What was the biggest professional risk you have taken and what was the outcome?
David Butow: One of the biggest risks I suppose was moving to Washington, D.C. four years ago to cover politics. I didn’t know how things would turn out, but it proved to be a very important time in American history and I am glad I was there to capture some of it.
Photojournalism News: What would be your dream assignment?
David Butow: A dream assignment would be getting to spend quality time somewhere where there is some changes happening, some sort of social and political component that affects different aspects of life. And my job is to show those things and also capture an intangible Zeitgeist, not just the specifics of the situations, but what it feels like to be there.
Photojournalism News: What are the essential skills/ qualities a photojournalist should have?
David Butow: Curiosity, empathy, patience and a good sense of light and graphics.
1 Photojournalism News: What do you think about the digital manipulation of images?
David Butow: As far as digital manipulation goes, my belief is that in photojournalism it should be used for toning only, and not change the content or meaning of the scene. In photography broadly people can do whatever they want but I prefer they are honest about what they’ve done, so viewers have an idea about what they’re really looking at.
Photojournalism News: What does it mean to be an ethical photojournalist?
David Butow: Being an ethical photojournalist is trying to capture and reflect the truth, as you see it. There are many other considerations but that’s where you start.
Photojournalism News: How do you see the role of photojournalism evolving in the world? Do you think photojournalism is losing its importance?
David Butow: The still image is valued in many of the same ways it always has been. The difference is that there are a million other kinds of images and platforms so still aren’t the only way we process the world,.
Photojournalism News: Do you have any advice for aspiring photojournalists?
David Butow: People always used to tell this to me, but it’s true, find something to photograph that you are really interested in. That will help you develop a distinctive body of work even if that subject is something other people are photographing. Take chances with your approach and be as unique as you can.
David Butow is a freelance photojournalist whose projects and assignments have taken him to over two dozen countries including Afghanistan, Burma, Iraq, Peru, Yemen and Zimbabwe.
Born in New York and raised in Dallas, he has a degree in Government from the University of Texas at Austin. After college he moved to Los Angeles and worked in newspapers before beginning a freelance career for magazines in the 1990's.
From the mid-90's through the late-2000's he worked as a contract photographer for US News and World Report magazine covering social issues and news events such as post- 9/11 in New York, the Palestinian/Israeli Intifada, the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq and the death of Pope John Paul II at the Vatican.