Photographer’s Q&A – Dave Chan
Ottawa photographer Dave Chan has worked as a photojournalist for more than 20 years. He was the official photographer to Prime Minister Paul Martin and covered the Prime Minister’s daily life on Parliament Hill, across Canada and around the world.
Chan’s photographs have appeared in most major daily Canadian newspapers including The Globe and Mail, Toronto Star and National Post. His work has also appeared in several international publications including Newsweek, Time and The New York Times.
In 2002, Chan was awarded the National Newspaper Award for feature photography.
April 27, 2012: The Dalai Lama poses for a portrait during an interview in Ottawa. (Dave Chan for The Globe and Mail)
What were your first steps in the photo industry?
I first got interested in photography in high school. Like many other photographers, I started working on the school yearbook. That sparked my interest in photojournalism and because I was living in Ottawa, I decided to contact some of the Ottawa Citizen photographers to see if I could job shadow them for a few days. I spent some time with then-photojournalist Paul Latour. That really sparked my interest in photojournalism and I ended up enrolling in the photography program at Sheridan College.
My first job after college was shooting a catalogue for an art supply store. I broke into photojournalism not long after that when I got an opportunity to shoot for the Ottawa Sun.
April 30, 2004: Prime Minister Paul Martin (R) meets with US President George Bush (2-R) in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington. (Dave Chan – PMO).
What events led to you being hired by the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) to be (former) Prime Minister Paul Martin’s photographer?
Paul Martin was a major political story in 2002 when he was running for the Liberal leadership. Every news photographer was shooting him a lot those days as he travelled across the country. I got to know his staff and I did a bit of volunteer work for his campaign. One thing led to another and I ended up doing more volunteer work for him.
I travelled with him during part of his campaign and when he became Liberal leader, I was offered the photographer’s job. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and today, I feel privileged to have had the chance to document a small part of Canadian history.
Life on the 2006 campaign trail with Prime Minister Paul Martin (L). (Dave Chan – PMO)
What were the best and worst things about being the Prime Minister’s photographer?
Travelling Canada and the world was good and bad. My schedule was often crazy so I ended up seeing many places through a car window. I have been to many places in the world and I always wish I had more time to see them. I’ve visited a lot of airports, meeting rooms, hotels and the roads in between.
One of the best things about that job was having privileged access to shoot the intimate behind-the-scenes moments in a prime minister’s daily life.
February 03, 2006: Prime Minister Paul Martin walks out of the Prime Minister’s Office for the last time on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. (Dave Chan – PMO)
How did the PMO job change your opinion of politics, politicians and the job of Prime Minister? How did it change you as a photographer and maybe also as a person?
I have a better understanding of how government operates. I have a lot of respect for the institution, but I learned I would never want to run a country! Did it change me as a photographer? I don’t think so.
What kinds of jobs do you shoot today?
Today, I mainly shoot editorial portraits for news clients and I do a lot of corporate photography as well. That means lots of politicians and businesspeople-in-suits because I’m based in Ottawa.
May 10, 2012: Minister of Foreign Affairs John Baird poses for a portrait in Ottawa. (Dave Chan for The Globe and Mail)
Like many photographers, you also shoot weddings. What differences are there when working with your consumer clients and with your commercial clients?
There really isn’t any difference between shooting consumer and commercial clients. You never have enough time to shoot either and you just have to be patient and creative when you only have a few minutes with the subject.
Most of the time, I try to think ahead and have an idea about what I want to shoot. Of course, sometimes that doesn’t work out so I have to come up with “Plan B” very quickly.
November 05, 2011: Combat engineer Sgt. Ed Wadleigh poses for a photograph in Deep River, Ontario. Wadleigh was posted to Afghanistan where he searched for improvised explosive devices, cleared unexploded bombs for the infantry, and trained the Afghan National Army.
He was stationed at Combat Outpost Ballpeen, at the southwest tip of the town of Nakhonay in the Panjwai district, the former seat of the shadow government. During his time there, it was the most frequently-attacked Canadian outpost. During some stretches, the Taliban opened fire daily. His seven-person section alone found 35 IEDs. (Dave Chan for The Globe and Mail)
How important are your news photographer skills when shooting commercial/consumer jobs? What new photo/business skills have you had to learn?
I apply my photojournalism skills to all my commercial and corporate shoots all the time. For example, in news photography, I always give the editor a couple of options for the shoot I’ve been assigned. In corporate work, the client often has a vision of what they want. I try to give them a few shots of their option and a few shots of mine as well. Sometimes, the client ends up choosing what I’ve proposed.
Never underestimate the skill of interacting with clients. That’s often the most important skill you have as a photographer.
How do you market your business? (Does having “Prime Minister’s photographer” on your resumé help?)
I have a web site, Facebook page and I blog about my photo work regularly. It’s important to keep up with new avenues of promoting your work and sometimes, it’s hard to find the balance between doing the job and spending time promoting your work. I make time each week to spend promoting my work. It’s an essential part of running your own business.
As far as having been a PM’s photographer, well, it always looks great on your resumé but in my experience, the client chooses a photographer based on their portfolio of work, not their job history.
What was your biggest photo mistake?
Forgetting to load film into the camera and not letting the subject know! I made this mistake once or twice. I learned quickly how to put in the film without letting the subject know. Today, it’s an impossible mistake to make, thank goodness. You can’t shoot blank with a DSLR.
What do you like to do when not working?
I am an avid cyclist. I live very close to the Gatineau hills so I try to get up there at least once a week for a good ride. In the winter, I take the same trails on cross-country skis.
What was the silliest photo gadget you ever bought?
My wife would say it’s buying too many camera bags. I keep buying them because I have never found the perfect bag to suit all jobs. I like to travel light and I recently switched to prime lenses. I think I have now found the perfect bag. Until I see a better one.
What’s the best piece of advice anyone ever gave you about being a photographer?
Study the other photographers, their photos and learn from them.
March 01, 2012: Governor General David Johnston walks down to the outdoor rink to play hockey at Rideau Hall in Ottawa. (Dave Chan for The Globe and Mail)