Interview with Olivier Duong

I discovered Olivier Duong thanks to The Inspired Eye, the street photography magazine he creates and runs with Don Springer. I was immediately taken with how they had created a resource that made the most of the digital medium, offering a fast delivery and turn around but also providing links and media beyond text.

It made me want to know more about the people behind the magazine and Olivier obliged with this interview. Find out

What is your superhero origin story? And by extension Inspired Eye’s?

This is hard to tell. Simply because you never really know if a single action is actually the cause of something, or if it is the compounding of multiple actions. I can tell you two stories and you can see the conundrum for yourself

Story 1 is the earliest. I was probably 4 years old, overlooking my hometown from a balcony. It’s an important date because it’s the first time I’ve ever made a photograph in my life. It’s not a photograph I can show you because it was not made with a camera but with my mind. It’s the first time I was aware of making a mental image, it’s almost like something went click in my mind and I filed it somewhere in my brain. I can still see that image today and more importantly feel it.

Olivier Duong photo of a child with Umbrella

The other story is all about lust. No, not THAT kind. I remember being a teen and my friend just had her birthday gift. I still remember her showing it to me.

You know those hard cases that seem like there’s money in? That friend had that case, she opened it and I saw her camera, a Nikon D80 along with some accessories like flash all padded into the pelican case. I fell hard that day, and never saw any gear cooler than this. I never even considered becoming a photographer but dangit I wanted it ever since I saw it.

About two years later, I remember thinking to myself, waitaminute…I’m working…I got some monies…Maybe I could afford this camera now? A quick craigslist search later, found this guy selling his.

I met the guy somewhere in Brooklyn and to be honest I didn’t even have a clue how to turn on the camera, he could have ripped me off right then and there and I would have smiled. I did spend the train ride home wondering how to zoom in and out on that fixed 50mm lens!

When I got the D80 is when I got into photography, but is it REALLY my origin story? That’s just two stories. There’s many others like how I used to make dinosaurs out of clay because my mom was a clay artist…did these contribute to me becoming a photographer, kindled an artistic spirit? Who knows?

But tell you what, as a “superhero” I do have a “superpower”: I’m highly perceptive. I can’t really explain it, it’s just that I have the ability to see things at a system level and see how they work.

I became aware of this one day in school, ages ago. My teacher asked me to explain a text. I spent like 15 minutes explaining just the first two phrases of the text. I explained all the hidden meanings, the subtleties, the hints behind the words. When I was done, my classmate turned around and asked: ‘where the heck did you find all this stuff?’

Moreover I was the kid who opened up his computer to see what was inside, how it worked and then rebuild it. And yes, I was a total geek, with a bowl haircut, socks up to my knees and those big aviator like glasses. You can guess the effect on the girls!

I also remember years after, I was in a graphic design school, an Egyptian friend of mine wasn’t doing too well in class. I explained to him the system of graphic design in 5 minutes, showed him on the computer and he pretty much improved on the spot.

That’s why I am pretty confident to say I am highly perceptive. I see the elements of the system and how they change it.

That superpower doesn’t work on people though. I remember one day my wife being real upset at me. The reason? A few hours before in a friendly get-together I was talking to this woman, thinking she was just being nice talking to me…but she was totally into me and I couldn’t see it. The winks, hair play, the smiles… didn’t see anything at all. Clueless, I was. And butt-kicking, I got.

I consider my gift of perception my strength. But…Chinese proverb incoming! Any strength extended too far is a weakness. Sometimes I need to step back from seeing inner mechanics to simply appreciating what is in front of me. Another way to say that is, sometimes it’s hard for me to let go and see that the whole is greater than its parts.

Olivier Duong photo 7 people walking on a walkway

As for Inspired Eye, the real story came before I even knew I wanted to do a project like that. I remember my dad buying me a bunch photography magazines. I got extremely exited to read them, but after leafing trough the pages it was evident that most photography magazines were more about gear, simplistic tips and ads. What makes a photograph tick? What is photography really about? What’s the creative process for images?

These questions were in my heart with no answers. After maturing as a photographer and meeting Don Springer…we put together Inspired Eye, where we put out street photography related stuff like magazines and a course.

What gets you out of bed in the morning?

The alarm. No, wait, the kids! Too bad they don’t have a snooze button. But I probably know what you are talking about, you are asking for my ‘why’, my reason for being.

I’d like to tell you it’s the idea of making new photographs everyday, but that is not the case. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a photographer to the bone but I don’t make it the center of my life.

Why? Well, take Daido Moriama, many street photographers idolize him. But if you listen to certain anecdotes he shares about his life, it’s pretty clear his wife and kid left him because he was too busy being a photographer.

This is not something I want for my life. Yeah I sometimes want to spend a month somewhere shooting documentary by myself, but my family needs me so I don’t even entertain the idea.

I want to be a hero for my kids. If that means not being able to do photography to the complete maximum, so be it.

You know, there’s only two ways to learn in life: your own experiences or someone else’s. A nurse went in and surveyed people who only had like a week left to live. Their biggest regrets by far were working too hard, not spending enough time with friends and family, not living the life they wanted to live but the life that was expected of them, etc.

I heed their regrets and structured my life accordingly. I’m well aware on my death bed I won’t ask to see my images or awards once again but for my family.

That being said, while I don’t pursue photography as to sacrifice my family, it is my life. Sure, I can’t go anywhere anytime I want but my camera is always with me. I experience life better trough the camera.

Photography is a need for me. If I don’t photograph I feel uneasy, as if a need is not met.

It allows me to embrace life to the fullest and at the same time allow me some distance. I remember one day my kid fainted when he was 3, its not something you want to see as a young parent. I don’t need to tell you how I wanted to go craze, so I shot a few frames in order not to completely lose it.

But let’s get back to the original question, I might have digressed here. What makes me go out of bed? Well I realized a long time ago that a table with many legs is more stable than a table with one. So I don’t have one reason to get out of bed, I have multiple.

I’ve burned a lot of brain power thinking about this over the years, and I’ve boiled it down to 3 simple reasons why I “get out of bed”: To grow in Love, freedom and creativity.

The reasons are not items off a checklist but guiding principles. It’s a bit like Robocop, he didn’t have all the commands for all situations but only directives, stuff like protect the innocent.

These guiding principles are my reasons to get up. Take Love, it’s about loving my family and also photography. Take creativity, it’s about growing as a photographer, making a better image tomorrow than I made yesterday.

Olivier Duong 2 plane and man thinking

What do you look for in a Street photo?

Depends on what hat I am wearing. I’m either the editor of Inspired Eye…or I’m a street photographer myself. So I will give you two answers.

When I look at images with my Inspired Eye hat on, what I look for is effort. An image that looks like some kind of effort was made, and wasn’t just point and shoot. To be honest, I am very relaxed when I look at other’s images.

Why? Because some people are at different stages as photographers, some people — like I remember in a past issue of IE a mother of 3 — might have less time than others, etc.

I have the deep understanding that most people have a career and street photography is their hobby, and they are doing the best they can with what they’ve got. I receive lots of fan mail from Doctors, lawyers, IT, etc.

That is why I put myself in the photographer’s shoes, see what they are trying to do, and see the images that accomplish just that. In a sense I try to look at the images with the other persons perceived standard. Then I look for the images where that person really was “feeling it”.

I’m very compassionate and understanding when looking at images.

However when it comes to my own work, I raise the bar extremely high. Borderline impossible. First thing I’m trying to look for something I quite haven’t seen before. A unique perspective, a unique treatment, a creative mix, etc.

It’s probably a fool’s errand but for a few of my images, I have yet to see something similar done.

Second thing I am looking for is a bit complicated…

Do you ever see flock of birds flying in unison? When they move, it’s almost as if they are one mind, and when they are flying it almost looks like it’s a piece of cloth. Same thing underwater too, when you see schools of fishes swimming, it’s as if they are all of one mind.

In essence, that is what I am looking for in a street photograph: Emergence. It’s the name of the phenomenon described above. The way I would put it in street photography is, I am looking at the individual elements and at the same time I am looking for when the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

It’s a bit like writing, you can analyze each sentence for structure, grammar, etc but also take a step back to see the writing for what it is, something trying to affect you.

Since this is street photography, I also try to find the humble epicness of life, the beauty of the mundane, the serene of the chaos…that one slice of time, that one photograph where it seems God conspired for that moment to happen.

Did I say I had the bar set high for myself? Writing this made me wonder why. In the beginning I had it high probably because I was afraid of not being adequate, but it eventually evolved into just expecting a lot of myself because it helps me grow. There’s only humans that can refuse to grow. A tree grows as much as it can.

Olivier Duong 6 man in the street touching telephone wire

What is the biggest challenge for you in street photography now?

There’s mostly two things you need to focus on as a photographer: image and substance.

So far in my work I’ve only worked on substance and not image. I didn’t put myself out there much. Not because I don’t have the work but because I didn’t have time, imagine trying to raise two kids in a bedroom at your in-laws place and you can imagine the lack of time. By the way, I had my first kid at 23 with no job.

Now things are steady and finally going to put myself out there. I don’t regret not doing that before because I think substance needs to come before image. Or at least in tandem.

There’s way too many “image” photographers out there. One particular cat has so much image and so little substance that all the photographers I talked to couldn’t resist spewing expletives about him. Another guy, I saw his laundry list of where he was featured.

It was a very impressive list, but when you look at his images, you really start questioning how he got certain features.

Substance photographers are too rare. One guy I know has been struggling with his art for years, he’s a very deep dude and he finally wants to start putting his work out there.

Olivier Duong 3 Tokyo man face covering

Why should someone checkout the inspired eye magazine?

Right about the best thing to do for your street photography is to go out and shoot. But let’s face it: career, bills, family have to come first. That wouldn’t be an issue but street photography is kinda like language, if you don’t keep it fresh in your mind it will wither away. It’s no joke, lately I’ve been stumbling in French, it doesn’t sound like anything until you consider it’s one of my native languages. Crazy, right?

The second best thing to do for your street photography is to keep feeding it the right inspiration. I say right inspiration because you can feed it junk food just as well refined food. That is where the magazine comes in, we give you a balanced diet of street photographers around the world in different spots in their photographic walk. Some are in museums, some are the mother of three next door, some are the inspired newcomer, etc.

But because sometimes I felt like the magazine could be better — even if everyone emails me to say they love it as-is! Did I say I set the bar high? Don and I started doing hour long videos looking at the images in the Magazine and revealing how they work. These have been so popular we created a course with all of our knowledge brain dumped in there.

What advice would you give to someone starting out in street photography

Oooh boy, this is going to be a complex answer. Let me summarize it and then explain it. And by the way, I understand that what a beginner wants right now is ready made answers, but principles are better than tips because they are more useful in the long run.

So…here’s 5 words of advice: watch out for the iceberg. In there there’s a warning, a principle and a tip. Like I said, a complex answer!

The first word is watch out. Why? Because as a beginner you are a prime target for gooroo bloggers. When you are starting, you don’t know much, and chances are you will trust the first few search results on Google or Youtube.

You have to understand that it’s not that hard to be first on Google when you had one of the first few photography websites online. It’s the advantage of being first.

But the problem is, a lot of these gooroos have a superficial understanding of street photography and they somehow are ready to teach you. My 6 year old kid does that a lot. Last Sunday I got him a toy airplane he could throw and showed him that the plane could go straight or loop around depending on the angle of the back stabilizer (that tiny wing on the back). He, for real, spent the next 5 minutes explaining to ME how it worked.

It’s cute for kids, not so much when you really want to understand something. Watch out for those who namedrop famous photographers (it’s part of a manipulation tactic), those who illustrate their points with other photographer’s work (why not use your own images?) or those who push their achievements or education too much (another manipulation tactic).

These things by themselves are not bad, but a lot of these gooroos go overboard. It’s kinda like that cousin you have that desperately wants you to know he’s rich.

At the end of the day, only the images matter, so listen to photographers that have those.

That’s warning number one from “watch out for the iceberg”. Make sure who you follow those who walk the talk and are not some blogger or teacher. Lean from players, not spectators.

This is hard earned wisdom by the way, when I started street photography I really wanted to learn but all I had was these guys, and once I realized they were more image than substance, I felt cheated like tiger wood’s ex-wife. And let me tell you, some of the guys are slick and all I can do for you is to warn you about them.

Olivier Duong 4 close up of man’s t-shirt with slogans

The principle I will give you is rarely ever stated, and I’ve been testing it right and left and I’ve found it true every single time. It’s the iceberg principle. What is that?

The iceberg principle means that for everything you see, the most important part is what you don’t see. In other words, everything looks easy but it isn’t. There’s just a whole lot going on you aren’t aware of.

Take riding a bike, looks so easy but I’m sure you have a few bruises to prove that it wasn’t.

Nothing looks easier than shooting street photography, it’s probably the most approachable form of photography, no need for lights and studio quality cameras, just point and shoot.

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg, and it’s where most gooroos operate. There’s much, much more about street photography that meets the eye. If you are reading this, you are probably familiar with some form of the iceberg principle. Did a family member ever ask you what camera to get? They were focusing on the tip of the iceberg (cameras) rather than the bottom (how to make photographs).

That leads to the tip I have for newbies: go for the bottom of the iceberg. Go for how things really work instead of simplistic tips.

A tip from the tip — pun intended — of the iceberg would be something like “shoot from the hip” or “get closer”. Going for the bottom of the iceberg would be to know how the human eye behaves, how do you force it to look here but not there? How do you make people feel a certain way? What color creates what emotion?

Again, I know what newcomers to the craft want is quick fast-food type answers but it’s not what they need. Everyone wants fast food but what they really need is nutrients. So watch out for the iceberg, it might sound esoteric but trust me, it came after years of reflection and struggles with my work.

Olivier Duong 1 man walking along beach

One word answers

I’ll be a knuckle head in this one and give a short, straight to the point answer. I just have to say my reasons!

  • Film or digital

Digital. It’s the quickest path to the images and at the end of the day, if you shoot film, you will most likely have to digitize the images anyway.

  • Apple or PC

PC, I’m more of a power user

  • Black and white or colour

BW, however even with just looking at the images in the Magazine I publish… I ended up with a few powerful color images.

  • Bresson or Winegrad

Bresson image wise, he tickles my graphic design senses but philosophically more Winnogrand and his approach

  • you can only use one focal length, which one.

28mm. It’s harder and you can’t rely on closeups and bokeh.

Thanks for taking the time to do this Olivier, it was a real pleasure to learn more about your history and thought process.


Originally published at Chris J Wilson.

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