15 Questions With Dan Milnor

Where do ideas for your projects come from?

They come from all over, but I tend to only have quiet time to think about them while I’m driving or I’m on my bike, so many times the more intricate details come from these times. I also get inspiration from music, lyrics especially, and literature like McCarthy, Hess, Thompson, Rushdie, etc. I think I see those pages as visual. When the book forces you to see in your own mind what the author is writing…THAT is when it happens. I have many interests in life outside of photography, so the problem for me is not coming up with the idea, it is having the time to actually follow through.

Do you have to have a point of view to make a project compelling?

You don’t HAVE to, but it can sure help. Most subjects have been photographed, so when you bring your own vision, it helps the viewer relate to why this project meant something to you. Nowadays, randomness is totally accepted, but I think finding your vision, and you know when it happens, is a great feeling. But also remember, vision can change, by technique, or life experience. I’m not sure you can really control it, but searching deeper, pushing your comfort level leads the way to creation. Look at how much great art was made under duress.

Are you trying to make a statement in the projects?

Only that I am interested in this particular story or idea. Depending on the story, that can be a statement in itself, such as working in the Gulf of Mexico after the BP spill. Chances are, you are there to shed light on something dramatic. A built in statement. As one photographer stated to me, “We are pointers.” We just point at what interests us. I’m not really into waiting for the reply, or response. I put it out and move on. Sometimes, down the line, I will get a response that forces me to stop and think, or explain or ponder. But for me, the real carrot was the experience of making the work.

Are these projects so personal you have ideas already formulated, opinions you want to express?

Well, just when I think I have things figured out I got into the field and realize how little I know. Nothing prepares you for the field. You can do all the research you want, but it normally gets blown out the window in the first 24 hours. I’m a fairly opinionated person, so yes, in some cases I do have set opinions, but I’m certainly open enough to not deny what my eyes are telling me, and I think you have to go in to the projects with an open mind regardless of your opinions, otherwise you will short change yourself, the project and the audience.

How do you find stories you want to tell?

How do I find my stories? Just living baby! I can’t watch the news without coming out of my skin. Or reading a book. So much of what we do in our lives is required but perhaps not essential to us getting to the do the work we feel we really need to do, and that can be a difficult pill to swallow. So I’m looking for moments when I can really story tell. Just being aware of your surroundings, and also reading as much as possible, and talking with as many different people as possible. But, the easiest way to find stories…..travel.

Is there some unspoken formula that requires every story to have the same freakin’ images?

Well, it is has been done before, and in age when people are afraid for their jobs, they feel that something safe will allow them to keep their jobs. Or, a tried and true formula. Certain magazines are famous for using the same ingredients in every single pie. But, it works. People can digest it. Plus, there are SO many photographers today. They all want success, exposure, to be published, so they see what is being used and they frankly just go copy it. This is true of almost all the genres. You even see it in post-production today. Look at wedding and portrait photographers all buying the same filters, lenses, websites, etc. They are directly cloning one another by the thousand, with more joining the fray each and every day. And now I’m seeing things like HDR invade the editorial and commercial worlds. The images are the same images we’ve seen a thousands times before, but now they have this really awful treatment and it seems legions of people are learning the technique. I heard an author say a week ago that her agent told her NOT to write something original, to just do what had been done a hundred times before. Look at reality TV. One man in the wild show, now there are three or four. This is the model today, perhaps more so than ever before.

How does the subject matter come to you?

Often times when I’m driving or on my bike. Other times when I’m emotionally interested in something, a story, a report, a book, a certain lyric. Coming up with the ideas is the easy part. Having the time and resources to actually follow through, that is where things get tricky. Having your notebook in hand is key. You will never remember all the ideas, plain and simple.

Are your stories/projects usually kept simple and then progress into deeper territory as you dive in?

Most of the time yes. I think being able to see the edges of the project is HUGE. You can see where it starts and where it ends. Like playing touch football, but on a real football field instead of the parking lot. You can see the out of bounds line and then USE it to your advantage. Sicilian Easter. Simple. Done. I know the time frame, the location, and basically what I’m going to see. I can then focus on making the best images possible. My current project, complete opposite. I don’t even really know how to describe the project when people ask. They think I’m being evasive but it’s just that I don’t know. Look at the edits so far, all over the place. I find this really exciting, but people are rushed these days, they just want the entire concept in a nutshell so they can quickly form their opinion. Its like a college photo student saying, “I’m doing a project on homeless in America.” Well, why don’t’ you focus on ONE homeless person, and use them to represent the entire problem. A story with borders and far more personal. My projects tend to range from the simple to the overly complex, which is why I think some succeed more than others.

Where does your passion for a particular subject matter come from?

It can come from knowing a ton about something or nothing, or by knowing I’m going to be surrounded by intense visuals. Bloodless bullfighting….didn’t know much about it, but knew it would be loaded with images, easy in a way. Same with Muslim in America. Most of my stories lead me to places or people I know little to nothing about. I like the unknown. I’m learning as I go. I love NFL football, know a fair amount about it, but don’t need to ever shoot it again. I’ve been there, experienced it, but in photographic terms, it doesn’t do it for me.

Does your passion inform the work either negatively or positively?

Both. I’m not an impartial observer, even if I want or try to be because I’m not sure that is entirely possible. I think you need passion to get the level or work required to be at the top, but that passion can work for you or against you depending on how you channel it. I remember in my first journalism class hearing a reporter from a local paper talk about having something emotional happen to her at one of her assignments. Her editor came to her and said, “You can’t submit this, you are too close to this story and your article is biased.” At first she was shocked, but then gave it a few minutes, went back and realized he was correct. I think this happens to all of us, it’s only natural. If you don’t have a passion, or connection to the work, I think it is almost always directly reflected in the work. Ultimately, you can’t hide from the final edit.

How do you go about getting access?

The mother of all questions. Nowadays, very difficult. Each story requires it’s own navigation. Sicily, a public event where people are expected to be photographed. Very easy, don’t really need ANY advanced planning. Show up, point at your camera, nod and smile. You will know immediately whether you are in or out. Working here in the United States, each time out, a new set of hoops to jump through. I KNOW I can’t show up and work with the Border Patrol, I have to go through channels. But early morning in a small cafe in an area when the Border Patrol is working, I can, chances are, get access to people with nothing more than a nod, smile, hands on camera. I would know, without words, had it not been okay. It is also in great part how you carry yourself. Confident yet respectful. How you dress. Might seem trivial but it isn’t. I don’t wear shorts. I wear pants, regardless of how hot, because for some reason, people “working” in shorts don’t get the same respect. I have a notepad. I let them know I’m working on my own, but I’m not a hobbyist. Access today is far more time consuming and complex than ever before. The invasivness and tabloid-like nature of the media has really made people extremely wary. It is almost as if you are guilty untll you prove your innocence. I find many people’s first reaction to seeing a photographer is that they you trying to expose something more than tell a story. There are also more “photographers” in the field, and how people behave while working has a residual effect on the rest of us. I’ve done stories behind photographers who left a scorched Earth in their wake, and it can make things very difficult. I also work by myself, and not for any particular client, which also makes things even more difficult. The first question is always, “Who do you work for?” When I respond “For myself,” this can actually make things MORE difficult. I find that people have a difficult time grasping the idea I would sleep in my car in 100-degree weather, day after day, working on something I’m NOT getting paid for.

How do you go about researching the material needed for the story?

Lots of reading, maps, internet. Peeling back a layer at a time. And, by talking to people in the field. People are the best resource. You talk to one, they tell you about someone else. And they are your best conduit to getting into the project. You can call and explain yourself, but one impartial person calling on your behalf is FAR more powerful. Sometimes I do a fair amount of research, and other times, hardly anything, Sicily. I don’t want to taint what I’m going to see. I need to react visually more than anything else. You can’t plan great images I don’t think. Sometimes I try to kid myself about doing the research because I’m lazy or I just want to go shoot, but I do think it can be the difference between a good project and great project. Again, I don’t think you can necessarily PLAN great images, but knowing more about your subject will help you connect the dots. The more dots, the more depth.

What are you looking for during your research period?

Keys to access. Common threads. Things I’ve overlooked. Other stories. Looking at the project and seeing all the chapters within the story. I’m also looking for fallback plans in case my main plan fails. If I’m working in one area and my event falls through, I can go to a neighboring area and potentially keep working. How far, how long, where am I going to stay, what else is in the region, key contacts, and a in essence a more comprehensive understanding of what I’m trying to convey.

Do you seek input on your projects from others?

Up until recently, not really. But, this can be a great thing. Nobody is as close to the project as me, and maybe I can’t even explain to them what I’m doing, but it is a good idea to get feedback. Just be prepared for people to NOT get it. That’s okay. You have to think as a photographer, ask yourself, “Who is my audience?” Are you shooting to please a photo-editor or the person BUYING the magazine. Those are two VERY different audiences with very different levels of visual sophistication. I used to show work to my father because he didn’t really like photography or photographers for that matter. I knew if I got any kind of reaction from him I was on to something. Even a grunt or look of amusement or confusion was a good sign. Showing work to my father, in my opinion, was more important than showing it to a photo-editor. I felt he was more representative of the people who were going to be viewing my work. Now, I’ve got a few photographers I will bring projects too. I respect them not only as photographer, but as well-rounded human beings who bring more to the table than a familiarity with photography.

Do you seek ideas from others should you become stuck while in the midst of a project?

I’ve never really been stuck, and when I find myself questioning what I’m doing, I figure it out on my own. But I’m not sure this would work for everyone. You have to realize I’ve been doing projects entirely on my own for fifteen years. I love being on an island. I shoot, edit, sequence, design a book and keep digging into the work. This process for me is intensely personal and there really isn’t a right or wrong, just whatever path I find yourself on. I think sometimes as photographers we get far too wrapped up in the trappings of our mind. An easy way to unstuck yourself is to just know, most people don’t care about photography or what we are doing. People are busy, have full plates and their lives to lead, so they are never going to take the time to really connect with the work at the level we are. I don’t mean this as a bad thing, just a reality. I listen to music, and like it, but I don’t play the guiltar eight hours day. I read a lot but have never penned a novel. Most people have cameras, but have probably never given themselves up entirely to the process of being a photographer.

Dan Milnor
SMOGRANCH Community