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None of my work is about what it looks like – David Jay Photographer

None of my work is about what it looks like – David Jay Photographer


When did photography start for you?

When I was about 10 years old one of my teachers took it upon himself to teach us about his passion, his hobby.

He had us all bring a shoe box and make a pin-hole camera out of it. You basically poke a pin hole in front of the box and you put a piece of photographic paper in the back – take it outside and leave it there for about 15minutes. Somehow it creates a very faint image of exactly what it was pointing at.

I was so captivated by that experience, that I’ve spent most of my life trying to recreate that image.

What do you find intriguing about photography?

I love all the technical sides of photography because it has no place in my work, so having a deep understanding of it means I don’t have to think about it. It is part of my psyche – like an extension of me.

How do you feel going into a shoot?

When I walk into the room of where the shoot is going to take place, I don’t know how the day will go. But once I’m behind the camera taking photos, I just know what it’s going to look like – I know it in colour and I know it in black in white.

Sometimes I can feel like I don’t know what I’m doing and I just want to put my camera down and walk away. But then I pull myself together and get on with it. I always want my subjects to feel they have confidence in me especially as they trust their soul and body with me.

Colour vs. Black. Why one over the other?

I either see it one way or another. It’s not a question for me. I would look at something and just see it as black and white or colour.

Locations and weather conditions seem to be a crucial aspect to a successful picture. How do you handle these unpredictable factors?

One of the difficult things about being a fashion / commercial photographer as opposed to being any other photographer, is that you only have one day to get the shoot right.

At the end of the day you have to come up with 6-8 pages and not one of them should have an excuse if they are terrible; they better be good. You just have to do it; you still have to come up with a picture that people will turn the page and go ‘wow’.

What was the turning point for you with your photography?

The night that changed my life, I was staying in a beautiful apartment in Bondi which overlooked the ocean. At the time I was feeling on top of the world and living a beautiful life as a single fashion photographer, travelling all over the world.

I always felt very connected to something more though. I always thought that I had something to offer but I never really did something about it.

One night I woke up in the middle of the night like I had a terrible nightmare. I couldn’t go back to sleep so I got up and I walked to the window. In front of me was not the beautiful ocean I had known for 30 years but instead this vision in crystal clarity, of this eternal baron burning lifeless landscape; no water just eternal desolation. It was accompanied with this feeling like my soul was on fire. This whole thing only lasted about 30 seconds and then the ocean reappeared. The flame was so strong it was as if someone had taken a branding iron on my brain and left a scar.

The vision, the feeling of seeing my soul that night, never totally went away; I felt like it was exactly what my soul had needed although at the time I wasn’t sure why. I tried to continue living my life as nothing had happened but in the end I realised I had that vision for a reason; I needed to change the pictures I was taking – do something life changing.

First non-fashion shoot?

A few months prior to having my vision, my friend Paulina had been diagnosed with breast cancer – she was only 28 years old. A few months after her diagnosis, I had the vision of my soul wanting to do more and after her mastectomy I knew the “more” was about taking a picture of her – I knew it was important for me to do just that.

All the photos I had ever taken were fashion. So that one picture Paulina let me take of her standing there and baring her soul to the world, there was something about the process which had created an interesting effect. I started thinking ‘if I could just take one more and then one more and then one more’, and that’s what I did.

The impact that this work has is so beautiful on a humane level.

What was the experience like for you when The Scar Project series launched?

From taking Paulina’s picture, this invoked others who wanted their picture taken – from taking so many pictures of these incredible strong women, the Scar Project was born.

When the first pictures of The Scar Project were published online, I felt very humbled by the thousands of emails and letters that flooded into my life. The first email I received the writer told me, as a breast cancer survivor, the pictures changed her life – she went from feeling ashamed of her body to feeling beautiful again. There is a theme that runs through a lot of them; it’s often a very similar story that has played out over the past eight years. They often move me so deeply.

Who was your favourite person to photograph?

One that I really like, which has been acquired by The Museum of Fine Art, Houston Texas, is one of the images from The Unknown Soldier series. It’s of this guy Jerral who is about 25 years old and lives in Lancaster, a tiny little desert town out of Los Angeles.

Because he didn’t have any specific skill set to get a job that could give him health insurance, he joined the army to go to Afghanistan to obtain health insurance for his young wife who had a disease.

He went over there and came back completely burnt and paralysed in a wheelchair.

When I went to see him to take his picture, we got along really well; smoking cigarettes and drinking all through the day and night – I really liked him.

How did you hear about Jerral’s story?

I’d been spending a lot of time at military hospitals around the country where these men and women come back just after they’ve been blown up.

The hospitals are full of young guys with no arms or legs, or even both. It’s not unusual to see a young guy coming up the hallway on a motorised stainless table top, face down with no legs and no arms. It’s so disturbing to see.

Through meeting all these people at the hospital that’s how I got in touch with Jerral.

How do you want people to see your work?

None of my work is about what it looks like.

What I hope people would see is that The Scar Project series is not about breast cancer, The Unknown Soldier is not about war, The Alabama Project is not about poverty and Grief Camp is not about grieving children.

I hope they catalyse a feeling in the viewer that will allow them to understand that we all have value; the way you treat someone, the energy that you give out, whether it is to the guy walking past, or the guy at the convenient store or the taxi driver – all these moments really matter.

You just don’t know what that person is going through at that moment and it’s as simple as a smile that can change the course of their day.

What’s the message behind your pictures?

That these pictures have a life of their own.

I never want anyone to look at the pictures and think ‘what was the photographer thinking and how did he do this’; I don’t want them to think about me at all as I try not impose my energy on these pictures.

My pictures are not only there to help the subject, but to also help the viewer. The viewer will see the subject for a minute and then they slip into their psyche and see themselves; the pictures are like a mirror. You can’t help but place yourself in the situation and feel what the subjects are feeling. A transference that feels like it’s half you and half them; hopefully it catalyses a feeling of empathy.

What’s next for you?

I’m currently working on an over-arching exhibition where The Unknown Soldier will be combined with The Scar Project, The Alabama Project and The Grief Camp projects – I hope that the message will expose itself for what it is when all four projects are combined together.

What do you get from taking these pictures?

I feel like I’m a vehicle in between the subjects and their emotions and their soul and the rest of the world get to look at these pictures. I’m happiest when I’m taking pictures and engaging with these subjects.

I’ve been so blessed to have been the person taking the pictures and if I die tomorrow I would die a happy man.

>> Click here to read more about David Jay and view his work

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