Interview: Hunters in the Frame – Dotan Saguy

An Interview with Dotan Saguy by Hon Hoang

Finding myself in some good fortune, I got the opportunity to attend a photo meetup hosted by National Geographic. During this time, I met some great photographers and gained insightful knowledge about photography.

One of the photographers who generously shared their time and knowledge with me was Dotan Saguy, a Los Angeles based photographer born in Israel and raised in Paris, France.

Self taught and an avid photographer for over 20 years, Dotan decided to transition himself out of the tech industry to dedicate himself full time to street photography and photojournalism in 2015.

Dotan’s work is regularly featured in galleries throughout Los Angeles and his images were recently featured by National Geographic.

As we found ourselves in Seoul, I talked to him about his career, techniques in photography, and what advice he would give to emerging photographers.

You have a career in tech, what made you transition to photography? When did you first realize photography was a passion you wanted to pursue?

I had been an amateur photographer for over 20 years before I went pro. With a busy technology career I just didn’t have the time to pursue photography more seriously. When I started my current mobile app business a few years ago, I deliberately organized it in a way that allowed me to delegate most of my day-to-day tasks over time.

About two years ago I was able to extract myself, almost full time, to start my photography career. So to answer your question, it wasn’t so much that it took me that long to realize I wanted to pursue photography as a career, but rather that I needed to free myself up first.

What is it in a fleeting moment that catches your eye? What makes you want to stop and freeze that moment in time?

Depends on the moment, but usually it is either an action by someone or an interaction between people. You want something that will trigger an emotion with the viewer.

I recommend you study images of photographers you like that are known for capturing the fleeting moment and see what they captured. That’s the best way to answer your question.

Do you have a particular image you’ve captured that you remember most vividly? What about it makes it memorable to you?

Not really, I remember all of them. If you look at my Instagram captions I actually share a lot of the back stories behind them

Is there a narrative or message in your photography? Are you trying to capture life as it is or are you capturing life as you see it?

I think it’s a mix of both. For inspiration it’s always good to think about what you’re trying to say. For example, in Korea, I could see a theme of the old versus the new. Tradition versus modernity. And you can see some of that in my photos. I think being aware of those themes makes you more likely to find them in your environment. But once I’m shooting, I’m not actively thinking about these things. They’re just in the back of my head and guiding my instincts.

If I try to shoot the Venice drum circle I know I want to convey the sense of crazy rhythms, sweat, sexual tension, etc. so I try to find moments and angles that will be consistent with that vision.

It’s difficult to compress a scene that is multi-dimensional and multi-sensory into a single-sense two dimensional picture.

When photographing, do you go to a place seeking to capture something specific or do you allow the environment to dictate your shutter release?

You try to sniff out where the action is most likely to be. You want to sense where your environment has the most potential to develop a moment.

That’s why you have to use all your senses. You have to look beyond your immediate surroundings and listen for anything that might also tip you off.

It could be overhearing a conversation or seeing something in the distance and trying to rush to it before it’s too late

You also try to go and shoot in areas where these moments are the most likely to happen and at times when they’re the most likely to happen.

You are like a hunter. So you want to be smart about where you hunt, when you hunt and how to detect where the animals are going to appear.

What was the most tense situation you’ve ever experienced in street photography? How would you advise others to diffuse a difficult situation?

Black eye in DTLA. Note the bottle sticking out of the guy’s coat pocket. Prefocused on her back and then she turned around. I snapped the shot immediately when she turned around. She got really mad. This was a bit of a scary situation, but I apologized a lot and was able to diffuse it.

How did growing up in Israel and Paris affect the way you view a place like Los Angeles? Do you plan to go back to the places where you grew up and capture life as you remember it?

Not much, I think, but who knows. I like shooting in Paris and I’m curious about shooting in Israel too. I haven’t done either since I got really serious about photography except a little bit in Paris.

I think there’s something to be said about going to a new place with a fresh eye and trying to capture it’s essence like I did in Cuba or Seoul. I think with time you tend to see less.

What is one of the best advice you’ve received?

I attended a Momenta Workshop about shooting photo stories for non-profits back in February where Craig Semetko was a guest speaker. He gave me the best advice I have ever received and I still use it everyday:

A successful street photograph needs to include three elements that can be summed-up in the acronym: D.I.E.

“D” stands for Design and includes aspects like composition, light, color palette, etc.

“I” stands for Information. It means that the information conveyed in the image should be clear: The viewer should be able to know instantly what the image is about.

“E” stands for Emotion. It can be an emotion depicted in the photograph, an emotion triggered by the photograph or both. To me it’s synonymous with the sense of a decisive moment.

What kind of advice would you want to give to beginning photographers?

I would encourage beginning photographers to hunt for scenes with emotion. A lot of street photography out there these days focuses only on composition, design, etc. But there’s not much happening in the frame and above all there’s no human emotion emanating from the scene.

The typical street shot we see everywhere is an urban background with someone walking across the frame. Emotion is the rarest element to find and the hardest element to capture so why not start there and learn to compose around it? Photography is about freezing time. It’s all about the moment. Everything else is secondary.

To become a better photographer, you first need to become a better hunter of moments.

Photos Courtesy of Dotan Saguy




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