Today’s Questions with a Pro features photojournalist and filmmaker Dan Lamont. Dan has contributed to countless publishers worldwide like The New York Times, Der Spiegel, and Smithsonian. He is also the Past President of the ASMP foundation in addition to Past President of the Board of the Blue Earth Alliance. Dan founded Tatoosh Media, and remains the creative director, video director/producer and DP, which tells stories through still and motion works about important topics he believes truly matter to our society. He shares with us some of his vast knowledge of the photojournalism industry, details about his newest film Breaking the Cycle, and how he chooses the issues he would like to target with his work.
We asked: What inspired you to become a photographer? Were you always interested in photojournalism?
Dan said: I grew up in the era of the civil rights and Vietnam anti-war movement. As a young teen I was very politically aware and active in social justice issues. I wanted to more deeply understand and respond to the reasons behind those issues that seemed to be boiling over at the time. I grew to recognize being inquisitive and persistent in uncovering true facts and the context in which they arose were the most powerful tools in understanding the issues of the day and perhaps contributing to progressive change. I’ve always felt that ethical responsibility. When I started making photographs at age 18, I was enthralled by the emotional power of photojournalism, the dots all connected for me and I haven’t looked back since.
We asked: Can you explain what “Breaking the Cycle” is, and how you began working on the project?
Dan said: Sadly many of the pernicious issues I began covering that we all thought we might resolve back in the 1970s are, in ways, worse than ever. Poverty, homelessness, drug and alcohol abuse, domestic violence, mental illness, mass incarceration and systematic racism are a Gordian knot of misery and injustice. Youth who come from such environments often become juvenile offenders. Once incarcerated they have a 75% chance of re-offending as adults and the cycle is perpetuated. Breaking the Cycle is just one way of starting to unravel that knot. It is a 501c3 non-profit project under the fiscal sponsorship of the Blue Earth Alliance that grew out of a series of short films I made for the Center for Children and Youth Justice funded by the McArthur Foundation that demonstrated the ways in which reforming the juvenile system to keep kids out of jail could have a positive domino effect on the broader system.
At first we thought we’d do a feature-length documentary on the subject but the political environment and the funding challenges intersected our desire to create a body of work that showed different pathways to a better future in compact enough chunks so the short films we make can be seen and used by more people and hopefully have a greater impact of systematic reform. So our approach is now to look at a range of positive solutions and understand those through short character-driven stories that invite the empathy and understanding of the audience. We are also looking at ways to combine these into a feature length film.
We asked: How do you decide what issues you are going to target with your work?
Dan said: In general stories have always sort of found me. All the stories I’ve worked on have a core of social justice awareness and social responsibility. Even in the 1990s when I was doing mostly environmental projects, they all related communities and populations and political cultural processes – the touch points of environmental and social justice. Tragically there is no shortage of work to do – and regrettably no reliable source of funding to support the production. Early in my career I felt being a witness was enough and we do need to have eyes and ears in the places we can’t all be. But now having “been there and done that”, I find myself much more outcome driven. I do not think wanting the world to be a better place is somehow at variance with journalistic ethics.
We asked: How did you transition from still photography to motion or video? Did you always know you eventually wanted to create films?
Dan said: I first entered college in a unique program that was truly “multimedia”, incorporating still photography, film and video and graphic design. I was also getting involved in journalism and I’d been a (bad) painter before I picked up a camera, so I really appreciate that different media tools each have their own strengths for storytelling. The trick is picking the right tools and using them to greatest effect. Back then video cameras were big, expensive and heavy, distribution was largely accessible to only a few and broadcast TV news (the main outlet), was as it still is, mostly an intellectual wasteland.
So I gravitated toward print journalism, got a couple Leicas and went off to save the world. Now all my old clients (Times, Newsweek, etc.) are in descent and with dramatic changes in technology the emergent form of storytelling is video. Photojournalists are typically the ones who spend the most time on a story and I’d seen some gaps in text coverage I’d been part of. I am a writer too and have great respect for good reporters, but I’d always wanted to have a bigger piece of the editorial pie – a better ability to do the reporting, conduct the interviews and form the story. Working with the added depth and emotional dimensions of narrative cinematic storytelling was a natural place for me to evolve. It is also significantly more complicated and doing it well is a great challenge but the ability to take an audience deeply into a story is worth the work.
That said, I truly love still photography’s ability to share iconic moments that can burn in the memory for a lifetime, I will never let go of opportunities to make stills, and I’m more or less convinced that you can get into photographer heaven with only a Leica M4 and a brick of Tri-X (anachronistic tools that can be researched on Google).
We asked: What is your top advice for students/emerging photographers entering the field?
Dan said: Now, out of date statistics indicate that some 100 hours of video go up to YouTube every minute and 65 million photos are posted to Instagram every day. The world doesn’t need more clever, ego-driven pictures and pithy videos. What we need is people who know what the hell they are talking about and can convey that knowledge and insight in an honest, accurate, engaging and useful way. I tell young photojournalists that what they should do first is become an expert in the subjects they are most passionate about, be it global warming or homelessness or whatever. Great news organizations have always had “beat reporters” who are deeply informed specialists. Photojournalists should follow the same model. Our job is to bring something special, a deeper knowledge, understanding and analytical framework to the conversation. Building that useful knowledge takes time and effort. Then we can use our expertise with the various tools of visual journalism to tell stories with clarity and craft.
As visual journalists you own the emotional space – our work has the power to connect with our audiences on a deep emotional level. That is a great opportunity to have impact but also a great responsibility. We must treat everybody in the equation – our subjects and our audience – with honest respect. We should be a tool for truth. We need to have the courage and persistence to make the commitment.