Ian McNaught Davis is a South African freelance photojournalist who travels the world in search of the different perspectives we have of humans and their fascinating similarities within their differences.
Please tell us a bit more about yourself: Where in South Africa did you grow up, what was your childhood like and what did you do before deciding to leave it all for documentary photography?
I grew up on a farm outside Somerset West and studied journalism after school. I volunteered as a documentary photographer for Operation Smile (an NGO that provides surgery for children with cleft palates and facial deformities) on a mission in Madagascar where I realised the potential of photography. Something as simple as a before-and-after shot would encourage parents to bring their children to upcoming surgeries, encourage donors to contribute and remind medical staff of the differences they make in people’s lives. It was a profoundly inspiring experience for me and I ended up shooting for several NGOs in my free time. I realised that if I wanted to improve my photography, I’d have to put several years aside to work on a portfolio. I left my job as features writer at a magazine to travel and work on photography full-time. Now, almost four years later, I find myself living in the post-Soviet country of Georgia where I’m working on a long-term documentary project covering the conflict in eastern Ukraine, shooting editorial commissions and wondering how I ended up living in Georgia.
You obviously need to travel light. Please take us through your entire photo gear list.
When I started working full-time on my photography, I travelled by bicycle across South Africa for six months with the idea that I’d end up in interesting situations to photograph. This meant that I’d have to pack really light, which meant that I’d have to opt for mirrorless over DLSR. The majority of my work is shot on a Fuji X100S. It’s compact, light and looks like a mik-en-druk so it doesn’t intimidate anyone – you come across more as a tourist than a photographer. It’s got the equivalent of a 35mm lens, which forces you to get close to your subjects. I have a Fuji XT-1 with a 35mm lens (the SLR equivalent of a 50mm lens) as a backup and for portraits. I have a small three-in-one reflector, a Joby Gorillapod to use as a tripod, a wallet of SD cards and four spare batteries for each camera. I edit my work on a laptop.
You’ve travelled to more than 20 countries documenting moments we can’t even begin to grasp. What keeps you going on bad photo days?
Shooting candid photographs of people has taught me how big the failure rate is for making a compelling image. But, somehow when you crack that 1% probability of being in the right place at the right time; it makes the 99% of mistakes worth it.
Those bad days still happen though, and it seems the one thing that helps is to go shooting in the hope that I can beat the odds and be in the right place at the right time. Unfortunately, this requires you leaving the bed/couch/tent. “Walk more, think less” has become a mantra for me.
How does photojournalism work in this fast-paced, digital life? How do you earn an income? And what does showcasing your work at exhibitions do for you as photographer?
I have mixed feelings about shooting photographs for the sake of being first to report on it. The work that has inspired me the most is by photographers who have been working on long-term projects. So I prefer to work on a long-term project and to fund this by editorial projects. I shoot for media platforms that focus on Georgia, but most of my income comes from writing and shooting for travel publications. It might just be me, but things seem to go wrong a lot while travelling and some of them make for good columns in hindsight. I remember sitting in the docks in a court in Kazakhstan after being arrested on some trumped up charges, thinking “if I don’t end up in a Kazakh jail, I’ll be damned if I don’t write a column about this”. I ended up writing several columns because getting out of jail in Kazakhstan is expensive.
Aside from showing your work, exhibitions open doors. Through promoting the event, you get to promote yourself as a photographer. So while not everyone can attend the event, there’s potential for plenty of people to become familiar with your work through interviews and profiles on media platforms as you and your gallery promote the exhibition. Crucially, it also means another line on your CV which gives your more street cred when schmoozing other galleries and convincing them to display your work.
What inspired your series “Her”?
The idea of “Her” came about from wanting to photograph daily life beyond face value. For example, to photograph a market not just as a scene of a market but as a place where a mother works because she has to assume the role of a breadwinner.
It’s a project that has forced me to pay attention to the mechanisms and dynamics that influence womanhood; including the media, religion and the ideals of a culture. I’m drawn to photographing the idiosyncrasies of a scene that vary from subtle gestures to glaring paradoxes – where women are sidelined, sexualised or are defying perceptions.
Please tell us about the strong contrast between your series “Her” and “Men between mountains: Masculinity in Georgia.”
Georgian men have been defending their small country from invaders for centuries and the majority of them exude a tough, proud machismo because of this. The challenge here is to shoot images that can question and interrogate this at times. This is where shooting “Her” helps me. It’s taught me to look for the subtler side of masculinity – when machismo is contrasted with moments of affection, disillusion or misdirection.
I find it incredibly inspiring that “opposite” projects and can invigorate and feed off each other.
I’ve seen a few photographs on your Instagram entitled “Guria Fight Club”. Can you please explain to us what you’re documenting there? It seems overwhelmingly stressful, whatever is going on there.
There’s an ancient Georgian folk sport where two sides of a village square off against each other on Orthodox Easter and brawl for several hours in attempt to get a 16 kg leather ball into the rival team’s river. Fortunately, I survived with my camera and all my teeth in tact.
Do you ever miss South Africa while on your travels? And, if so, what do you miss the most?
South Africa’s freedom of the press is something to be proud of. I’ve worked in several countries where sharing your opinions and beliefs is a dangerous thing to do. It’s something I took for granted before.
What can we expect to see from you in the near future?
I’m finishing up on my project “Men Between Mountains” that explores masculinity in Georgia soon. In the further future I’ve got plans to publish a photobook.
Please share with our readers your photography top tip.
When in doubt, take the picture. It might be awkward or uncomfortable or scary or boring but those are all fleeting feelings and are almost always worth it when you stand a chance of freezing a moment forever.