When did you first know that you wanted to be a photographer?
It’s funny cause it seems like almost everyone has that story of their career starting at age 12 when they got a camera from some aunt. I didn’t really have any serious engagement with photography until my mid twenties, but at that point I became committed pretty quickly.
Did you think about doing something else, career-wise, before photography? Who were the first photographers or artists that inspired you?
I studied finance and worked in that field for a little while after finishing school. I quit with the intention of applying to film school. Luckily I got sidetracked into photography.
My girlfriend for a big chunk of college was studying photography. She was using a 4×5 camera for a while and the quality of those images kind of blew my mind. At the time I guess I hadn’t really seen photographs like that. Around the same time I saw a museum show of Avedon’s In the West stuff and it had a similar effect. But once I got into it and started seeking it out there were just so many people, it would be weird to name 1 or 2 without naming 100.
Can you tell me about your project, Family Meal? How did you find your subjects and what was it like documenting mealtimes with various families?
I started that project about 10 years ago and have been working on it on and off ever since. It grew out of a more general interest I had in observing and documenting family interactions. Meal-time just seemed like a good opportunity to do that. The project touches on lots of issues that are more specific to food and eating, but my primary interest is still more general.
More recently I’ve become interested in making audio recordings to accompany some of my pictures, and the photo + audio combination works really well for this project. In a lot of cases I think people lose consciousness of the fact that they are being recorded, and I feel like the audio recordings — in some cases even more than the photographs — provide a really intimate view of whats going on.
Finding subjects is always a big challenge. I mostly take these pictures when I am traveling in places where I don’t have any personal contacts, so I just have to go out and find people. I drive around neighborhoods and ask people in their front yards, or even go from house to house knocking on doors. When I think about it, it amazes me a bit that people actually let me into their homes, but they do.
Beyond the photographs themselves, the whole process has been really rich for me. From start to finish I end up spending a few hours with each family. The actual picture taking only lasts 15-20 mins, so I end up hanging out with them a fair amount before and after. I think the exchange of trust that happens when people let me let me into their homes creates an interesting dynamic. It’s a little different every time, but I think the weirdness of the situation tends to disarm them a little. When the pictures are finished I often get an invitation to stick around and have something to eat myself, and I just really enjoy that experience of hanging out with these strange people and getting to know them a little.
If you could go back ten years, what advice would you give yourself? Any words of wisdom for the up-and-coming?
Really, the best advice i could give myself or anyone else is to avoid taking anyone’s advice too seriously. I think people who have been in this business for a while tend to characterize the entire industry according to their own experience. There are so many different ways to do it, and if you start out by trying to follow someone else’s model, I think you diminish the chance of finding your own way.
Doug is based in New York and San Francisco. See more of his work, here.