ADP Workshop: Interview With David Degner

Photographs Dave Degner

I am a freelance photographer working mainly for magazines and newspapers while represented by ZUMA press. I’ll be living in Cairo, Egypt for the foreseeable future and my apartment beside Midan Tahrir will be my base for photographic adventures and hijinx.

You grew up and studied in the U.S., worked throughout the South, traveled extensively abroad and are now based in Cairo, but through all of this you work locally and develop a deeper understanding of the communities and topics that you photograph. How does this way of working influence your images and your approach?

Now I’ve been in Egypt for 2 years, longer than any other place. It is no longer foreign to me, I naturally overlook most of the visual cliches that new photographers get caught up in. My Arabic is good enough to make friends and comfort those around me so I can enter almost any sphere of life and make photos that show something closer to reality. My friends and curiosity naturally plug me into the latest trends. My connections allow me to easily work in most parts of the country. And now I have enough context to be able to guess what rumors will turn into something important and what is just hype. These are the skills that come naturally from living anywhere, but they make anyone a better journalist.

There are some downsides though. I walk by some really beautiful scenes because they look so normal to. I’m also more reticent to point my camera at strangers than new photographers, so I miss some more images. I’m not as fearless as photographers that fly in because I have been beaten by the police, and mobbed by crowds. I understand when people are cussing at me, and I understand why Egyptians are so distrustful of foreign journalists.  All of these get in the way of making some photos.

In the end I live here because it is the best way to reach my goal of humanizing and deciphering Egypt for a western audience.

Do you feel like that’s a fine line to walk as a documentary photographer? Between having an understanding that comes with living and working in one place while maintaining a fresh vision and a curiosity that more naturally comes from being in a new environment?

I don’t think there is much of a balance needed. I’m a documentary photographer, photojournalist, trying to portray the truth. So finding the truth is of foremost importance, having a fresh artistic vision is secondary.

Or at least in my experience the research, reading, exploring and discussing that goes into understanding is the part that I have to consciously focus on. The artistic experimentation and cultural curiosity are naturally there. They are my distractions that I too easily fall into.

There are levels of knowledge here, the more time I spend the deeper I’m sinking in and the more efficiently I can find the truth, which gives me more time to make something artistic out of my work.

But I am often afraid I am getting too comfortable.

Do you find more truths as you dig deeper into a project? When working in Mississippi during 2007, for the month following ADP, how did the amount of time you spent in the community change your understanding of the truth (or truths) you found there and the complexity of the work?

Yeah, the more time in a place the closer I get to understanding what is actually important there. For example at ADP in Clarksdale I was at first charmed by the stories of its blues history and the strange people that built there identity around it. But with more time I saw that it seemed to be a structure propped for the tourists and and to give motorcycle clubs a destination. The real culture in Clarksdale was very urban pop and rap. The busiest club on the main street had DJs and porn running on a loop above the bar.  The all white country club wasn’t all that fancy, and the loopadies Mai-Jong club had been segregated to the powder room for making too much noise.

I don’t know exactly what I learned in that month but I liked it. It wiped away the stereotypes.  Unfortunately I don’t think my photos ever got to showing all of that.  Which is where I find my largest challenge, transmitting knowledge and feeling, information and entertainment in one photo.

My time in Egypt I keep finding more and more layers and intertwining stories.  Now the city of Cairo truly feels like a small town as I’ve made connections through many of the people in power and many neighborhoods.  I love getting in taxis and asking where they are from and being able to pinpoint in my head their neighborhood and street, if I’m lucky I know a good restaurant on their street or a friend that lives nearby.  Eventually all this knowledge makes the place understandable, which allows me to do important stories in Egypt, not just a overviews of Egypt.

As the knowledge and understanding that come with living and working in one place accumulate, do you block some of that out while you work, letting it fall into a part of your subconscious that you’ve come to inherently know? 

Yeah, I’m terrible at actually recalling what I know but it’s back there somewhere and helps me filter my photos into something closer to truth.

  • Jared

    Interesting article with some very captivating photos. The last photograph is unbelievable!