David duChemin first travelled to British Columbia’s Khutzeymateen in 2013, and he’s returned twice—to a place that takes some dedication to get to—since. We talked to him about his first impressions of the grizzly sanctuary that has captured his heart and his creative eye.
You've travelled the world and been on other water-based journeys, such as Antarctica; did you find your creative path differed on this trip?
There are always similarities and differences. In the broadest strokes, I think my process is always the same in terms of needing time to get over my expectations and to really see the place, then figure out how my camera sees it. But it’s different on a small scale because every place is different, and requires a different approach. In this case, my interaction with the bears, and the need to place safety and care for the bears ahead of creative considerations, gave me a new constraint to work around. There was also a lot more rain, so working with rain covers and the constant need to keep the front elements of lenses clean meant the cameras got in the way of my process a little more.
There's such intimacy and emotion in these photographs: is that intentional? Did you expect to feel emotional about seeing the bears in this environment?
It’s very intentional. I want my photographs to do more than say, “This is how it looked.” I want them to convey an emotion, as in, “This is how it felt.” But more than that, I think first you, as the photographer, have to feel something, and I was really touched by this place. It moved me profoundly, in part because there was such a fight to save the place, and in part because my encounter with these bears was so contrary to what I expected. I expected large, mean, scary animals (and to be fair, they deserve respect in the extreme), but they can also be beautiful and gentle, curious and welcoming. Sitting only meters away from a mother and her cubs for a couple days and feeling completely welcome was something I never imagined.
How do you go from the discovery of a place to the final frame? Is that an easy or difficult process for you? Do you consider yourself more intuitive or intentional when making photographs?
It’s both a natural process for me, and a challenging one. I’m not sure how to explain it. The difficulty lies in figuring out what a place is to me, and getting over whatever technical issues I’m having in expressing that. But once I do that—which can take some wrestling at times—there’s a creative flow that comes. I’m intentional in my expression and intuitive in terms of how I do that. Thirty years after first picking up a camera, some of this has become more subconscious than conscious, but it’s taken all of those 30 years to get to this point.
And after all those years, do you still hear the self-critical voices? How do you reign them in?
I do. I think we all do, if we’re honest and approach our art without arrogance. We always wonder if it’s as good as we hope, if it will connect with others the way it connects with us, and on and on. First, I think I give the voices their chance, because they might be right. I might be able to do better. But even if I do, those voices will still be there. So then I focus on the experience and the joy I get from the work, knowing if nothing else, that I’ve done something extraordinary, and made something I’ve loved. After that, I allow the voices of others—real humans whom I trust and respect—and theirs are the voices I listen to.
David duChemin is the founder and Chief Executive Nomad of Craft & Vision. A world and humanitarian photographer, best-selling author, speaker, and adventurer, David can be found at DavidduChemin.com.