Featured Photographer Interview: Dave Brosha
Today, we’re thrilled to be interviewing Dave Brosha, an award winning Canadian adventure and commercial photographer. As one of Canada’s most well-known photographers, Brosha has built up a huge fan-base and client list that stretches around the world and includes clients like Ford, the National Hockey League, and even former US Vice President Al Gore.
While Dave Brosha has plenty of big name clients and has been exhibited and published all over the globe, he has kept his small town roots, basing himself out of Yellowknife. Although it’s the capital of the Northwest Territories, Yellowknife has a subarctic climate and a population of under 20,000 residents – in December, the area gets as little as five hours of sunlight a day, while in June daylight lingers for twenty hours. While the climate might be a drawback to many photographers, Dave Brosha has embraced the unique landscape and light, incorporating it into his photography work in a way that makes many of his images easily recognizable.
Let’sBeWild: Tell us a bit about yourself and how your journey began. In less than a decade you’ve become an internationally published, award winning photographer who tours the world. How did your success come about & was it something you envisioned from the beginning or did it just happen?
It’s funny. Through most of my life I wouldn’t have said I wanted to be a photographer. Even after university, photography is nothing I would have ever considered: I wanted to be a writer. An observer. Someone who wrote creative pieces. I loved reading and I loved writing. My experience with a camera didn’t go beyond taking snapshots at social gatherings, but my life changed when I made a life-altering move. Along with my wife, Erin, I moved from Nova Scotia to pretty much as far north as you can live in Canada: Resolute Bay, Nunavut. That changed my life in many ways, and ultimately set me on the path to becoming a photographer. First, the place was so beautiful and so foreign to me…I knew I needed to document it (even if I was just using the most dinky of digital cameras at the time). So I did. I wasn’t trying to be a photographer, just a guy with an appreciation for the beauty that the Arctic provided, but then came the ‘tipping point’ for me: I was introduced to the prolific, amazing, British photographer Martin Hartley. I met him in Resolute Bay, spent some time with him, and came away completely inspired. In those weeks following my time with him, I knew I was going to become a photographer….I just had no clue how to go about it.
Let’sBeWild: On your blog you state that your goal is to become a “generalist’s generalist” – has that been your primary goal from the beginning. If not, what sparked your quest toward that goal?
I started with a love of photographing big, wide open natural places. Landscapes. Icebergs and vast tundras. My heroes were Galen Rowell. The aforementioned Martin Hartley. I knew nothing much of other forms of photography. But the more I read about photography, the more I simply looked at photos, my view of the world quickly changed (such is the power of photography). I found myself being drawn to all genres of photography – everything from landscape to adventure to advertising to documentary to portraiture. Simply, I think I found myself drawn to beautiful things. Beautiful moments. Beauty in adversity and beauty in nature. I wanted to capture it all. Part of this quest to become a ‘generalist’, too, was out of simple necessity: once the interest was sparked, I wanted to become a photographer more than anything in the world. Living in a relatively tiny place (Resolute, followed by the small city of Yellowknife), this meant shooting whatever people wanted you to shoot. That is, to do it for a living. So I took on portraiture. I took on weddings. I took on advertising campaigns. Stock photography. Maternity. I’m just fortunate enough to live in a place where I could not only do this, but also have the support of those around me in pursuing that goal. A fantastic friend and wife. A city that didn’t require me to have a genre.
Let’sBeWild: How did you come to live in the North of 60 – what catalyzed your move to make Yellowknife your permanent home? Have there been any challenges you’ve had to overcome living in a relatively remote area?
This ties into the last couple of questions, but to elaborate, we moved to Yellowknife from a “life before photography” perspective. Although by this time (2004) I was very interested in photography, I was far from becoming a full time photographer. In fact, I was a telephone technician: the guy that climbs the poles to make sure your phone works properly. I transferred to Yellowknife in this capacity – for Northwestel. Photography from a full-time perspective didn’t happen to 2008-2009. As for challenges, the biggest one would be the general weather/shooting conditions that I’ve had to endure: we live the majority of the year in winter-like conditions. Unless you want to spend your life in the studio, you have to learn how to shoot with frozen fingers and gear that’s less than reliable in sub-zero temperatures. But you know what? Adjusting to shooting in those conditions made me a much, much stronger photographer. I’ve had to learn how to shoot and to make decisions really quickly, out of necessity. And to use the conditions as inspirations for my photography….rather than something to be scorned. If you can handle the shooting conditions and have a bit of a knack for marketing yourself, I think you can do alright up here.
Let’sBeWild: What is the most exciting, adrenaline inducing assignment you’ve had throughout the world during your career as a photographer?
Without a doubt traveling to Egypt twice in the past year and a bit covering the Australian adventurer Tom Smitheringale’s “One Man Epic” journey across that ancient, beautiful, interesting country. A complete photographer’s dream. That assignment allowed me to confront fears, to push my photographic skills, and to simply experience and be inspired by life in a new way. I got to climb massive sand dunes in the Sahara. Visit ancient temples in Luxor. Sit on a decrepit barge on blistering heat on Lake Nasser near the Sudanese border. All the while spending time with a stand-up team of people and for a great cause.
Let’sBeWild: One of our favorite stories of yours is about your brush with polar bears, up the telephone pole. Can you briefly recap that experience for our readers?
It’s funny, at the time that happened I couldn’t talk about it for months. Now, I’ve been asked about that by so many people I kind of find myself feeling like it happened to someone else – I recall it almost in the third person. But it was ultimately very real, and very scary. Probably the scariest thing I’ve encountered, and I’ve lived through a head-on car accident that left me in a wheelchair and felt a 7.6 quake (in Taiwan) that took the lives of 1500+ people.
As a quick recap, I was working in the middle of dark season (meaning it was pitch black in the early afternoon) in Resolute Bay when I was assigned to fix a woman’s phone. It involved climbing a telephone pole behind her house – which was no big deal, as it was the type of work that I had done many times before. What made it different this time, however, was that as I started taking my first few steps up the pole I looked down to see three polar bears rounding the corner of another house. Where I was located, I was completely blocked off from view from the street and anyone who may have happened by. I was alone, with three large bears heading right towards me.
Although I’m sure my heart stopped, I actually acted rationally and calm in the situation. I knew I had to get higher, which I did. I knew I had tools available to me: technicians carry a sort of phone that allows them to “clip” into phone lines. I got high enough to allow me to do just this: I clipped onto a random telephone line and started dialing the only number I could think of at the time: my own. While it rang, I looked down and saw the mother bear standing on her hind legs, her claws about 6 or 7 feet below me. My wife answered, and I told her – very clinically, I think (she may differ) – that I needed her to phone the RCMP. That I was up the pole with bears below me. To her credit, she didn’t question me, or think that I was joking. The bears left before anyone came – I was “saved” by the fact that the house next to me had a dead seal under their porch. Seals are used for dog food up in the Canadian Arctic. The bears caught wind of it and left me alone and then were soon chased away by people on snowmobiles. I eventually returned to ground, drove my snowmobile home, fell into my wife’s arms, and my body went limp. I missed a week of work for about the only time in my life following that. I was pretty stressed about it after the fact, thinking a million “what ifs”. But I’ve gotten over it.
Let’sBeWild: As a photographer, have you run into any other dangerous encounters while on assignment?
The polar bear incident was probably the apex of my “dangerous encounter” counter – thankfully – and it happened before I was a photographer. I’m a very safe photographer, namely because I have four major reasons to be safe (my wife and my three beautiful children). Although I’m not shy from living my wife I consider myself a very careful person. Even when going to places that could potentially be dangerous (i.e. Egypt immediately following the revolution, where you would still see tanks in the streets and have to go through numerous security checkpoints with machine guns pointed in your direction), I assess things carefully and try to play things smart. I do this by asking questions and understanding what it is that I’m getting into. My job is diverse. I’m out on frozen ice…a lot. I’m up in helicopters. I go to places that are off the beaten track. But through it all, I rarely feel “unsafe”. I try to make a point of this through planning and keeping a rational head.
Let’sBeWild: If you had to choose your top 3 travel/adventure photos, which would they be? Can you tell us about the situations in which they were shot and what makes them special to you?
The three that stand out to me are, in no particular order:
- “The Journey” – this was photographed on one of the last days of a trip to Mount Everest Base Camp in 2009 and to me epitomized everything through a photo that I felt about being there. A place of majestic beauty. A personal journey. Taking the path that your life brings you on. This was later featured by National Geographic and is now a part of their Stock Collection.
- “African Dreams” – again, the very end of one of my trips to Egypt covering Tom. I don’t know what it is about the final days of assignments, but you seem to hit a rhythm that isn’t there the first few days, and you get some of your stronger images. This image will always bring me back to that trip in an instance.
- “Eyes On The Arctic” – in 2010 I spent a very memorable week up in Alert and on Ward Hunt Island on the very northern tip of the Canadian High Arctic on a magazine assignment. This was a portrait that I took of a lone Inuit Canadian Ranger with some blurred out regular forces in the background that didn’t really resonate with me at first. That’s actually one of the things I love about photography: the power of discovering something in an image over time. Arctic sovereignty is a really big issue at the moment and to me, this was my image from the trip that captured that the strongly: the fact that these men and woman that patrol and train in those extreme climates really are the “eyes and the ears of the Arctic”. This, too, has been featured by National Geographic.
Let’sBeWild: As a photographer who has worked in the great outdoors in locations around the globe, you’ve gotten a firsthand view of the threats the environment faces. In your opinion, what are the biggest factors that are putting the natural world in danger and what can you as a photographer and individuals at large do to help?
With each and every day that passes, I become more and more an environmentalist. I become more outspoken. I have kids – how can I not? I still have a long, long way to go…God, such a long way to go. I could offer up excuses, but they would be just that. All I know is that I’ve seen beauty – such indescribable beauty – in the places that I’ve had the good fortune to visit, to witness, and to photograph. The biggest threat is quite simply us. Even the well-meaning us. Me. I live in a house that consumes a lot of energy. I fly places. I drive. As do most people. But collectively, we’re all having a massive impact through our everyday lives and in the products we buy and the habits we have. It all adds up to something that’s not a net positive for our world. How can this be changed? I think we all know what we have to do – fix a giant series of small bad habits that collectively equals a massive problem – but we’re reluctant to do so. Why? I don’t know. I ask myself that almost every day. All I know is that I feel some strong measure of responsibility as a photographer to share what I’m able to capture both from a “record for the record” perspective and a possible inspiration, to others, to see what might be left behind if we don’t change.
Let’sBeWild: Are there any environmental or social causes that you support through your photography?
There’s a number including the Salvation Army, the CACL, the David Suzuki Foundation, and literally dozens of local organizations that I’ve either donated time and/or prints to help raise much-needed funds. I also give clients a discounted rate if the photography is done for a charitable or socially positive cause.
Let’sBeWild: Can you tell us the story of this striking image of Danny Boy Stephens on Great Slave Lake?
“Warrior: Fire and Ice”, which that image is a part of - is probably my most-known series. A collection of portraits of aboriginal pow-wow dancer (and former US Marine Sniper) Danny Boy Stephens, my “Warrior” series attempted to capture the essence of Danny through two photoshoots: one in winter, one in summer. This particular image was photographed just after 4:30AM during the peak of Yellowknife’s “light season”, when the sun only touches below the horizon for a couple quick hours. I wanted to capture warm, rising sun colours in conjunction with the majesticness of Danny’s regalia, and the morning cooperated beautifully. A little pop of fill flash and I knew I captured one of my favourite images in my portfolio.