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Ways We Work

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Dave Brosha


Dave Brosha has been working as a full-time photographer since 2008, despite having gone to school for something completely unrelated. I was introduced to Dave's work through another photographer I interviewed last winter, Paul Zizka. I followed Dave's work ever since and loved how he incorporates the natural world with whomever he's taking a portrait of. I chatted with Dave about his path to becoming a photographer and the career he gave up to pursue his passion. Dave dives into the process he went through transitioning and the challenges he faced along the way.

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For those who might not know you, give us some background on what you do.

I have been a full-time professional photographer since about 2008. This has not been my profession by trade; I actually went to school for something dramatically different. I fell into photography, or caught the bug and just loved everything about it. Over the last eight years I've taken a crazy and diverse path that started up in the Canadian north. I started as a photographer in Resolute Bay, Nunavut before moving to the Northwest Territories. I spent ten years there, had a studio and all that, and eventually moved east to PEI, where I currently live. I've been fortunate that my photography has resonated with people enough that it's taken me around the country and lately, around the world. It has been truly amazing and I feel like I have one of the best jobs in the world; mostly because every single day is dramatically different than the one before it. I love that aspect because I'm one of those people who can't sit still; I don't like repetition. I'm also one of those people that didn’t get the memo about picking one type of photography and sticking to it. Over the last ten years I’ve done commercial photography, wedding photography, landscape photography, adventure photography. I shot editorially, I've done countless families' portraits, and most recently I really threw myself into teaching photography. Every day is dramatically different and I love that. I wake up, whether home or on the road, to new challenges, new people to photograph, new places to see. I love every moment of it.

You mentioned that you started out in something completely different. Tell us a bit about your path to becoming a photographer and what you did before.

In university I took, of all things, an English and literature degree. I went into that program because I knew I wanted to become a writer at one point. I had the passion but I'll be honest, I wasn't all that successful in trying to become a writer, which bummed me out because I had no clue what I wanted to do with my life outside of that. Overall, I felt like I had this artistic side to me that I wasn't successful executing on in my post-college days. From there I ended up becoming a telephone technician; one of those guys who would climb telephone poles and fix wires, and get people's phones working. I did that job in one of the craziest of places, up in the high arctic in Canada. There's nothing like being thrown into the craziest job ever. I'd be out in -40C temps, in the pitch black and I'd be climbing a pole trying to figure out why a phone wasn't working properly. I really enjoyed it but it was actually pretty crazy. One day about three months into the job, I was out climbing a telephone pole in the dark of night and I started hearing these dogs barking. I was about halfway up the pole. I looked back and over my shoulder I noticed three polar bears coming right towards me.

Oh my god. What did you do? It was probably the scariest moment of my life without a doubt. I managed to climb up high enough to tap into a phone line. It's the only thing I could think of. I was very fortunate that the bears didn't come twenty seconds earlier because I would have been on the ground and there's not much I could have done. I was up high enough that they couldn’t reach me. The mother bear stood on her hind legs and was trying to get me and I was able to phone my wife and phone the cops and it all worked out.

Is that when you went home and said, "Well honey, it’s time to do something different"? It took about five more years, but that experience was the start. It was actually up in the arctic that I caught my passion for photography. I hadn't really ever picked up a camera before I moved north. It was being up there, being amongst polar bears and icebergs and all that kind of stuff that I really fell in love with the craft. I started going out with a little point-and-shoot camera and over time I noticed that I really loved this photography thing.

“It's one of those things where I think that anyone, if they're passionate enough or hardworking enough, can create their own business and create their own market.”

Can you talk a bit about the transition you made? Did you quit your job and jump right into photography or was there a transition where you went from one to the other?

Oh, a definite transition period. I had that job which despite my joking, I actually enjoyed and it was a good job by all means. For me to go from that to photography took a lot of convincing myself. I was very passionate about photography, but I'm also a conservative person when it comes to finances and all that. I had this decent job that a lot of people would be appreciative having. I would ask myself, is it a ridiculous thing for me to even entertain the thought that I could leave being a technician to become a photographer? So there was a definite transition period. From the time I started as a telephone tech to the time I became a full-time photographer was probably five years and in that five years, I was "a photographer", but it was a slow build. I started getting clients here and there and it was probably not until my photography income roughly equated about half my telephone salary that I decided that I might be able to make a go of it. The thing that really pushed me over the edge was the support of my wife. She gave me the kick in the butt that I needed and she said, "You know what? Go try it for a year. See how you do. If a year from now we're broke and you don't have clients, get the heck back to work as a telephone tech." It was her support that definitely gave me the confidence to take the plunge.

What was that first year like?

In the first week, I gave my notice at work and I remember sitting in my photo office on day one thinking to myself, "Okay, how the heck am I going to make this work?" The following day I had one photo session booked. I was like, "Okay, that's a start, but I need a heck of a lot more than that to make a go of it." I think by day three my calendar started filling up and I never really looked back from there. It's been really busy since. It's amazing how things work out if you can allow them to.

Looking back at that time, what were some of the major challenges that you faced that you can now say you've overcome?

Well, one of the biggest challenges was the fact that I lived in a really small market. Yellowknife is about eighteen thousand people. I remember when I told people that I was leaving my job to try and become a full-time photographer, they looked at me like I was nuts. They were like, "Oh, this place is not big enough to support a photographer, especially a full-time photographer. You're going to probably want to go back to your job pretty soon." I heard a lot of that and it's one of those things where I think that anyone, if they're passionate enough or hardworking enough, can create their own business and create their own market. That was definitely one thing that I had to overcome. Luckily, I was fortunate enough to overcome it.

At the beginning, were you doing what you do today? Just a mix of everything? Was there something that you just fell into at the beginning that worked?

Well, I started off as a landscape guy. Landscape, nature, adventure because that was, by far, my passion. The idea of photographing people actually terrified me. When I looked long and hard at the idea of doing photography as a living, I realized that it would be a much tougher path by sticking strictly to nature photography vs. branching out and photographing people as well. I had to overcome that mental block. I was very much introverted at the time and photographing people was a big challenge. I quickly realized once I started getting paying clients and portrait customers that I actually really loved that world too, so I'm glad I made that transition and overcame that fear.

How did you overcome that fear? What was that process like going from an introvert out in nature to photographing people and interacting with them on a deeper level?

Just like understanding exposure and all that technical stuff in photography is a learned skill, working with people is the exact same thing. I'm sure if somebody played back a videotape of my first five photo sessions, I'd be horrified right now. I was probably super awkward being on that side of the camera and directing people. It's one of those things where, again, every single photo session you do, you're becoming more comfortable. You're developing a way of doing things. You learn what works with people and what doesn't work. People respond more and more to you over time, which gives you more confidence. Here we are ten years later, I've probably photographed literally thousands of people and I think absolutely nothing of going into a portrait session. In fact, I find it rewarding. Even though I'm still a huge nature landscape guy, I think if you ask me what I'm most passionate about, it's mixing those two worlds together and photographing a person within nature. For me, I almost feel lost if I don't have that human component now.

How about today? What kind of challenges do you face today in what you're doing?

I think it's transitioning the pie chart of what I do to doing the things that I'm most passionate about. I feel like I'm extremely fortunate in the sense that I've done okay at a bunch of the different things within the photography world that I've tried, whether it be weddings or commercial work or whatever. I enjoy so much of it, but at the end of the day, I want to be completely passionate and fired up about it every day when I go to work. I don't want to ever consider it work. I think over the last two years what I've really been trying to do is take a look, a good long hard look, at what it is I do and make sure that I'm spending my days doing the types of photography and a day-to-day work structure that I feel the absolute most rewarding or most passionate about.

That's a tricky balance because a lot of times the jobs that pay the bills aren't necessarily the ones that align with the passion. Is there something you've done to bring those two worlds together or do you still have that give and take?

One of the things I've always tried to do is to never take on photography jobs I hate. It's easy for me because I'm one of those people that enjoys shooting so much. There's not too many genres of photography that I would say I dislike. That being said, there are things that I'm way more passionate about than others and I definitely had to take those gigs over the course of my career. The benefit is that it helped me become more known and enticed people to buy into my work and understand my artistic vision. Once people knew me for a certain style, I could be a little bit more selective, and I was able to say no to jobs I didn't want. That took me quite awhile to realize, that it's okay saying no and I'm not going to go broke because of it.

“Every single photo session you do, you're becoming more comfortable. You're developing a way of doing things. You learn what works with people and what doesn't work. People respond more and more to you over time, which gives you more confidence.”

Do you ever feel disconnected from your work or go through periods of time where you feel burnt out with what you're doing? If so, how do you pull yourself out of that?

I don't know if burnt out would be the right word. I mean, I get totally exhausted from self-imposed craziness. Just take when my friend and fellow photographer Paul Zizka and I work together, for example. We’re out exploring remote places and our prime time is sunrise at 4:00am or when the Milky Way is shining at 2:00am. I put in these crazy hours that totally exhaust me at times, but at the end of the day, I’m making the choice because I couldn't imagine not doing it. I have to balance that, of course. I'm one of those people that even when I step away from those crazy hours and I'm sitting around on vacation, I still feel that creativity gives me my greatest energy and makes me relax. I actually get antsy if I don't create. Even if it's with my own family, if I have four or five days off in my schedule I can rarely go forty eight hours without saying to one of the kids, "Come on, let's go do something. Let's go photograph or let's go for a walk in the woods." This morning, for example, I woke up and my oldest boy, Luke, was just sitting there on the iPad. I was like, "Luke, let's go down to the shoreline." We went for a little hike and I brought my camera. I can't sit still. I find that, for me, creativity is like breathing. I have to create in order to feel fulfilled.

Something I've heard from a lot of photographers is this idea of comparison paralysis because there is so much content being produced. Now with social media, amazing photography is at your fingertips every second of the day. Do you ever feel like you have periods where you are comparing yourself to others and what they're doing? Does that ever affect you creatively?

Yes, absolutely, and no, at the same time. What I mean by that is, I think any human being, any artist, is going to fall victim to that to some degree. As you mentioned, photographers live on social media and whether we choose to or not, we're bombarded with images and video almost every moment of the day. If you log on to something like Facebook, you're going to see twenty five images. I think there's no way to live in a bubble to all that stuff. I mean, you look at other people and their work and you're impressed and you're blown away and you're like, "Oh, my gosh." Have I been guilty at times over the course of my career of looking at other people's work and saying, "Oh, I should shoot this because look at the success they're having with that?" Totally. Yeah. I think at the same time though it's a constant battle and if you want to be true to yourself, if you want to call yourself an artist, you have to be able to turn on the blinders. You have to be able to say, no, it's not regurgitating somebody else's voice that makes me feel fulfilled; it's me using my own voice. I think when you come to that point where you are not creating for, let's say a Facebook like, where you're not putting something out there because you think that's what other people want to see, you get to a happy place in your own art. It's a huge leap and it's not always an easy process to get to that point where you consider yourself comfortable in what you're creating and comfortable with your own voice. Don't get me wrong. Even with that though, I think it'd be a wrong thing to totally block out other voices. To me, in my own growth as an artist, I love being inspired by other people. I love incorporating other people's voices within the broader scope of who I am. If you had to break down who I am as an artist, well, I'm probably a hundred and fifty other people combined into one.

So we're all a culmination of the people who've influenced us in a way? Yeah. We're mosaics of influence and I think it's a cool thing. If you look at a lot of the great music artists, it's not like they sat in a room for thirty years and didn't hear other music. They're putting together pieces of so many other great artists that have worked before them and have played their songs and have created their masterpieces. You look at those and you say to yourself, "Hey, where's my place in this? How do I pick pieces of all these influences to create something that's uniquely mine?"

Do you have any insight on that? What do you do to do that for yourself? Is that part of the secret sauce?

Well, I think for me, I love being the sponge. To me, a happy Sunday morning is sitting with a cup of coffee on my deck, my kids and wife around me playing, hanging out, and I might have a photography book in hand, reading the words and soaking in the images of somebody else. Chances are I'll soak up a little piece of that process, that person, and their art. Next thing you know, the following week when I photograph, I've changed ever so slightly because of that experience.

“To me, in my own growth as an artist, I love being inspired by other people. I love incorporating other people's voices within the broader scope of who I am. If you had to break down who I am as an artist, well, I'm probably a hundred and fifty other people combined into one.”

“I love the idea of wearing the photojournalist hat with your own family and capturing their life and their memories. I think that stuff is so important. I try to involve them from a creative perspective as much as possible.”

It's almost like there's two worlds when you're self-employed. There's what you do, the creative work, and then there's the marketing of yourself. How do you balance these worlds?

I'm sure almost every creative professional will say the same thing and that that is one of the biggest challenges we face. If you left it up to us, we'd say, "Just let me create, I don't want to deal with any of that other stuff." If it was entirely up to me, I would book myself two creative shoots per day or four-day hikes here and there or head out with the family to do something photographically and just personally fulfilling. That's the fun stuff. That's why I do it. I love being behind the camera. I love looking at the world and creating, but the practical side of me definitely understands the importance of that other stuff, even if it's not always the most fulfilling. I enjoy the challenge of putting myself out there in a positive way. I'm not even sure the term "marketing" is the right word, but your marketing voice, how you put yourself out there draws people to your work as much as your work itself in many cases. I mean, is it fun sitting down and pouring over email for four hours? No. There are a lot of things I would sooner do, but that part is so, so important to success in this industry. I firmly believe that the best photographers in the world have never been discovered because nobody knows about them. They haven't mastered that knack to put themselves out there to be discovered. Some of them may not want to and that's fine too, but I think for all those people who want to make a living at it, being a creative professional, you really have to wear those different hats and you have to try to do them all well.

Is there something that you actively do? Is there a schedule or is there something else that you do to bring those two worlds into balance?

Well, I go in spurts. Sometimes my work takes me offline for three, five, fifteen days at a time. The administrative stuff does pile up a bit. I rely on good help, too. For example, my wife takes on so much of that stuff when I'm out. I tend to forward her an email and say, "Erin, can you deal with the ins and outs on this job?" Having good people helping you is very important. For me, a lot of my process is trying to stay as organized as possible. Even if you looked at my Gmail for example, I'm ridiculously organized in terms of my structure, how I label things. I never, ever let my inbox get above fifty emails. I get cold sweats if that happens. I see other people with thirteen thousand unread messages in their Gmail and it makes me nervous.

What does a standard week look like for you?

It really is all over the board. For example, I just came off three crazy weeks where me and my friend Paul were teaching together for ten days up in the Yukon and then two weeks in Banff. We had participants from around the country and around the world who travelled to do the workshops with us. We'd spend three days with them or five days with them or however long the workshop was. For those kind of trips, they're usually in some pretty amazing locations, some of the most beautiful places you can imagine. For example, the Yukon trip, the workshop itself was about three and a half days. I could get away with just going for four days and coming back, but then I think that would be more or less “just work” if I approached it from that manner. If I'm going to a really incredible place, I want to be able to experience it myself through my own lens because I don't really shoot during workshops. I'm there to help the participants. So I usually make sure to tack on a couple days on either end of the trip if I can, if the schedule allows it. In the Yukon for example, that week started out in Whitehorse. I might get there on a Friday and on Saturday I might be location scouting. I usually try to set up a creative portrait session myself just for my own joy, my own portfolio. I did that while I was up there. The Sunday, I taught a one-day portrait workshop. The following week, the Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, Paul, myself and another friend went up to Kluane National Park. It's about three hours outside of Whitehorse. We hiked up on top of a mountain and we drove down the highway looking at bears and wildlife. Just some of that personal creative soul time. It was the calm before the storm before all of the workshop participants came in. When they arrive, I totally switch my brain into another crazy, creative, cool place. I ride off the high of them achieving the images that they're trying to create and helping them have the “aha” moments. I’m full on for three days, five days, or whatever it is. It's exhausting, but so amazingly rewarding.

How do you balance being out for long periods like that and having relationships, family and responsibilities like that?

It's one of those things where a lot of people look at my schedule or where I am and they're like, "Oh, my gosh. How do you do that? You have a family. Do you miss them?" Absolutely. You miss them when you're on the road, but I have a very non-traditional yearly work structure that looks a little bizarre to the person working in the 9 to 5 world. When I look at how many days off I have in a year, it's probably a lot more than the traditional employee would have. It's just structured in a totally different random way. For example, my April through about October every year is absolutely crazy ridiculous. Very often, within those periods, I'm working seven days a week and doing a lot of trips. On the flip side, from the end of October through February, sometimes I might go two or three months with time off. I have some amazing breaks that I consider myself really fortunate to have. Incredible family time. For our family and our children, they're as much travellers and nomads as I am. We all love adventure and photography as a family. I try to incorporate them on as many trips as I can and they do often come on my trips, even client related ones. I've shot weddings at different places around the world and they've come along with me. Obviously they can't come on every trip; it's not practical or affordable. I think I have to try to make them as much a part of my work world as I can and then really appreciate every moment of time off that I get.

How do you think having children has impacted you creatively? Was there a change?

Oh, without a doubt. Going back to the whole idea of photographing people, if I'm being really honest, that actually came out of me wanting to photograph my own baby boy when he was first born eight or nine years ago and wanting to do it well. I don't think I really had that interest, that spark, ahead of time. My kids have changed everything about how I shoot and what I'm drawn to photographing. Somebody just asked me the other week, if you had to choose one genre of photography, if you had to push everything else aside what type of work would you do? Without a doubt, I would choose photographing my own family portraits. I don't even think of it as portraits. I love the idea of wearing the photojournalist hat with your own family and capturing their life and their memories. I think that stuff is so important. I try to involve them, from a creative perspective, as much as possible. A recent example was when my kids and I sat down and watched E.T. After watching the movie I had this idea bouncing around that I wanted to do. It involved shooting the stars and one of my kids. It was around midnight one night and it was super clear and starry out and even though it was a school night, I woke my boy up and was like, "Luke, do you want to go look at the Milky Way with me?" He was like, "Yeah, sure, Dad. What time is it?" I'm like, "Don't worry about that. Just come outside." I dragged him outside and he took his bike and I got a picture of him sitting on his bike with the Milky Way behind him. It ended up being one of my favourite pictures I took last year. To me, it's way more special than just a picture. It's a moment with my child.

Is there any experience you’ve had or advice you’ve been given along the way that's been really impactful on you and helped you in a really positive way?

One of my big influences is the American photographer Joel Grimes. He's kind of a rock star in the photo world, but a really, really down to earth guy. About six years ago, I went down to take a workshop of his and around that time, I was really struggling with the idea of my voice as a photographer, my voice as an artist. I was struggling with even using that word "artist." I thought that I was a photographer, which meant I take pictures. Almost thinking that it sounds too pretentious to call myself an artist. Is it up to you to self label? I remember Joel telling us as a group and telling me one on one, he was like, "If you don't believe that you're an artist, nobody else will. Until you give yourself the freedom to call yourself an artist, you live within the box that everyone else says you have to live within. You're never going to be fulfilled in terms of your voice." It was really, really great advice. I think from the day I got back from that workshop, I switched away from just saying, "Hey, I'm Dave. I'm a photographer. Here's my studio. Hire me." To "Hey, I'm Dave. I'm an artist. This is my work and I believe in it."

Looking at your own career, is there anyone who's really inspired or influenced your artistry?

Absolutely. A British photographer by the name of Martin Hartley. Just by chance, he passed through Resolute Bay up in the arctic right around the time that I was first becoming interested in photography. To his credit, even though I was this kid with a basic digital camera who didn't know what he was doing, that didn't faze him. He knew that I had an interest and he helped spark that interest further in me. He looked at my pictures, my portfolio and he let me come out on the ice, the Arctic Ocean, and photograph with him. I would say that was probably one of the most pivotal moments of my whole career, this guy allowing me to soak up his world and his creativity if only for a few days.

Another really big influence on me was Joe McNally. Joe is an American photographer and he's worked for National Geographic and I think he was the final Life Magazine staff photographer. He's a celebrity in the photo world, but just reading his books, hearing him lecture, has been such an inspiration for me.

In more recent years, hanging around with Paul Zizka has been a big influence. Paul and I do similar but very different kind of work and it's like we're on a similar brain wave on so many things. I feed off his energy and passion and I hope that I push him in certain ways too.

Speaking to that actually, how do you think having a person like Paul in your life impacts or reinforces what you do? Is it good to have a partner or do you think as an artist you should be a lone wolf? That's an interesting one. If you had asked me this five years ago, I would be like, no, photography is a solitary thing. You go, you shoot on your own and you develop your stuff in isolation. I never really set out to have a partner, but when Paul and I started working with each other and our friendship developed, I think I realized personally that two can be better than one in a lot of cases. Not just with Paul, but with other people too. I've got a small circle of shooting buddies. A woman named Cathie Archbould up in the Yukon, a guy named Pablo Saravanja in Yellowknife and anytime I'm in their area, I hook up with them and we go out and we shoot. I always find my work is better as a result. Even if you're shooting totally different things, you're just in the vicinity of other creative people and I find that experience steps up your own creativity a notch.

Thinking about your work specifically, why do you do what you do? What makes it all worth it?

First and foremost, I do it because I love it and I can't imagine not doing it. Once you discover something in this world you're passionate about, you can't turn that passion off. We all have interests that come and go. I'm interested in music. I'm interested in learning how to paint but I wouldn't say I have a passion for painting. I do have a passion for photography and once I discovered it, I couldn't turn it off. To me, it's that itch that you have to scratch. It's that thing that you have to do to make you feel fulfilled. A big part of it for me is the high I get when I show somebody a picture of themselves that I've taken and seeing their reaction to it. Sometimes when I’m photographing someone who has low self-confidence and says, "I'm not photogenic" I’ll show them the image I took and I’ll see tears in their eyes and they'll say, "Wow, that's me." That's such an incredible feeling. It's amazing.

Recently I've switched gears a little and teaching has become a bigger part of what I do. I’ve realized just how passionate I am about that experience. Again, it's that amazing, incredible feeling you get when somebody else has a breakthrough moment. It gives me shivers at times seeing somebody else go from being insecure in their own work or not feeling like they have any talent to all of a sudden creating art they're ridiculously proud of. It's a really cool thing.