The Swiss-Born Photographer On His Search For The Truth And The Fast-Diminishing Line Between Fashion And Art
Raised in Switzerland, Shama now lives and works in Paris, though much of his work is characterised by the intimacy and spontaneity of travel photography. Unsurprising, since for each shoot Shama disappeared to far-flung stretches of the globe with carefully selected models, in order to capture them relaxed, un-posed and off-guard; ultimately natural and surrounded by nature.
Each shoot, therefore, tells a natural story, and photos of rural and urban environments accompany and complement the corporeal pictures his luminescent travelling companions. Here he tells us about his personal fascination with the authentic world, the importance of building a personal relationship with your subjects, and his unconventional personal style.
Topman GENERATION: Where are you from? What are the first images that turned you onto photography?
David Shama: I was born in Switzerland, in a city called Lausanne in the French part. Since I was very young I always loved photography, one of my childhood friends Stéphane had a dark room and I was very impressed by what he could achieve with his black-and-white prints. The magic of analogue photography is probably what drew me in. The image appearing on the white sheet of paper drowned in liquid. I was collecting magazines from around the world, just to look at the beautiful photography and dream. It was a very eclectic collection going from travel magazines such as National Geographic to fashion magazines like Dutch or The Face. The first camera I ever owned was the Canon A1 my mother used to use. It was a very simple straightforward camera, but I still use cameras from that era.
Topman GENERATION: Why is photography the chosen medium for your self-expression?
David Shama: The photographic medium leaves a lot of space for interpretation, it gives just enough for the mind of the observer to start, it’s just the beginning of the story and that’s what I love about it. It’s kind of like a spark that ignites your imagination. One can say that painting or other plastic art forms do the same, but in a more indirect way, in photography the subject is there and through technology you get a representation of it embedded in your negative — you can modify it all you want but it’s still somewhere in it. It's a very realistic representation of that split second the shutter was released but everything around that instant is left for the observer to imagine. I love that paradox. It means everything and nothing at the same time. It could appear at first as a faithful representation but it really doesn't mean anything out of context. So for me as a dreamer it's a source for endless wandering.
Topman GENERATION: Which photographers have most inspired you and why? How do you feel about the digital versus film debate?
David Shama: I love the work of photographers like Peter Lindberg, Robert Frank, Richard Avedon, Corinne Day, Sally Mann, Roe Ethridge, Alex Prager and many more. I think that I am inspired by photographers who convey a certain sense of honesty in their work, when I get the feeling I understand what they are trying to tell. As far as I am concerned, the Digital versus Film debate is not really a debate, as long as film is available I will continue to use it. I am not saying that digital is inefficient but much more needs to be done in post processing and retouching to make it look good so I don’t really see the benefit of using it. People shooting digital try to make it look like film, the contrary is not the case. I really love the accidents and the texture of film, shooting film also slows things down a lot so you get to interact much more with your surroundings, to observe. There is something about the imperfection of it that makes it more humane, closer to my vision.
Topman GENERATION: How do you engage with the people you shoot? Why is it important for a photographer to be able to engage their subjects?
David Shama: I engage them in a very natural way, at least I try to. I like to build a relationship with the people I shoot so I often shoot the same people on many occasions. Of course I don’t always have the opportunity to meet the models and get to know them before I shoot them. In that case it’s all about making them feel comfortable and trying to share the same goal in the pictures we are trying to make. At the end of the day, it’s like any human interaction, everyone needs to be handled differently and you quickly notice what works and what doesn’t if you have a little sensibility.
Topman GENERATION: What do you hope to draw out of your subjects in you portraiture?
David Shama: I am seeking truth, my goal is to try to show who the person is, I am getting to know them and by interacting with them, seeking the moment where they lower their guard and become a truer version of themselves, I know I will never get the whole truth but just part of it is a good start.
Topman GENERATION: Where, if at all, do you think art and fashion intersect, and in what way? Who are the photographers you think have bridged that divide the best?
David Shama: The gap between art and fashion photography recently diminished. In some cases, when a new trend emerges no one knows in which of the two worlds it originated. There was always a entanglement of the two, since the 60’s when Pop art was using objects of consumption and cinema icons as there subject. Both the art world and the fashion world take a lot of inspiration in popular culture so it’s not surprising that they sometimes intersect. I would say that photographers like Ryan McGinley, Roe Ethridge or Alex Prager evolve comfortably in both worlds.
John-Paul Pryor is editor of Topman GENERATION, contributing arts editor at AnOther Magazine, editor-at-large for PORT magazine and regularly writes for Dazed & Confused, TANK and Sabotage Times