Monday, September 19, 2011

meet Ian Willms

Who's Ian Willms? He's a freelance documentary photographer based out of Toronto and a member of the Boreal Collective.  He's also a friend of mine, which is what made this post come together.  As a few blog posts have mentioned, I love photo documentary work so I thought for those who are also interested in it, I'd ask Ian a few questions and post his answers.  I also got him to suggest some locations to make a few quick photographs (this is a photo blog after all).  

The following are my questions, his answers and some portraits inspired by the interview.
Thomas Dagg - What got you interested in photo documentary work?
Ian Willms - I know this is all going to sound a bit cheesy and personal, but I really believe that it all stems back to how I grew up. I was raised in a YWCA women's shelter by a single mother who battled regularly with drug and alcohol abuse. Being raised in that environment taught me pretty early about life's harsh realities. For some reason, this made me gravitate to the pain and suffering of others. I can remember being as young as three years old, watching the Christian Children's Network Africa relief telethons constantly. I would look at those kids living in shacks made of garbage, drinking brown, polluted water and be completely transfixed. I already knew at that age that I needed to do something that would help the people in this world who have been abandoned. That's a pretty heavy thing for a three-year-old to come up with, but that's just how I'm wired, I guess. 

From there, it was just a matter of finding the correct outlet for those feelings. I explored storytelling gradually through writing and visual arts as an adolescent. Eventually I happened into the medium of photography and everything just crystallized. 

TD - Who are your biggest influences?
IW - Woodie Gutherie is pretty high up there. He was a prolific storyteller who truly dedicated his life to his beliefs and helping the underdog. Even when everyone told him he was a loser and corporations sent goons to beat him down, he still kept going.  Anyone who doesn't know Gutherie's story should read his biography and/or watch the film Bound For Glory.

The entire genre of depression-era Delta Blues really motivates me. Those musicians created something so powerfully raw and soulful out of such extreme oppression and despair. It's just so tragically beautiful to me. Technically, the minimal approach used in that music also really speaks volumes to my own photographic process. In their case it was out of necessity that they made more from less. In my case it's a conscious decision. 

Photographer-wise, I'm pretty traditional. I sort of became obsessed with the Life Library of Photography textbooks very early on in my photography practice. As a result, people like Mary Ellen Mark, Gary Winogrand, Henri Cartier Bresson and Robert Frank loom large in my photographic foundations. I don't really keep up on who is shooting what these days. There's too much great photography and I find it all to be very distracting. I just do my own thing and take a look here and there at what's going on. I also make sure to catch the World Press Photo exhibit every year. 
TD - What do you find yourself drawn to shoot?
IW - My work focuses on the systemic power struggles of abandoned people and the environments in which they live. That's kind of my "statement" as it stands at this point in my artistic practice, but it only really refers to my purpose and what I want to say. 

Aesthetically, I am drawn to anything that is dirty, rusty, old, worn, polluted, dark and industrial. I spent a lot of time shooting abandoned factories when I was a teenager. Those excursions were sort of a proving ground of sorts. I would set out to express my own interpretation of what I thought the building was feeling. Sometimes it worked, other times it didn't.
TD - When you're drawn to something, what steps do you take to capture it?
IW - There isn't much to my process. If I feel it, I shoot it. Sometimes it translates and other times it doesn't. I try not to make it any more complicated than that. I don't use zoom lenses or lights at all and usually only carry one camera with a wide prime lens. After the photograph has been captured, I don't mess with it too much. A big part of what draws me to photography is the presence of reality and the boundaries it puts upon the art. I challenge myself to find surreal scenes within reality and bring them to the viewer untainted by manipulation. 

TD - Where do you find yourself wandering when you need to think or need inspiration?
IW - My default place to go to clear my head is often the rail yard. The train tracks are always the back alley of any given town or city. They arrive behind factories, low-income housing, auto shops, scrap yards and other gritty places. I find these landscapes to be very honest and inspiring. There's no glossy facade along the railway. It's all pretty raw. I can walk the tracks for hours sometimes, thinking about anything and nothing at the same time. 

TD - Whats your favourite camera?
IW - I have a real soft spot for the Holga. I used the same one for three years, shooting Detroit. The process was slow, painful and at times completely infuriating, but that camera taught me a lot about minimalism, patience and persistence.

Lately I've been shooting a lot with the Lomo LC-A and am really loving it for street photography. It's small, discreet, simple, fast and has a great little lens in it. It's everything I love in a camera, really.

My most often used camera is a Nikon D3s. It's easily my favourite digital camera I have ever used. I just wish it wasn't so big.

TD - How you do you feel about the constant documentation with phones?  Is it taking away from photodoc work?
IW - I feel great about it. The more we document our world, the better chance we have to learn something from our past and possibly even our present mistakes. The more cameras out there the better. Thanks to all those cell phone cameras, we now have Citizen Journalism; a wonderful and powerful trend that I'm very excited about. We all saw the potential of that power recently with the uprising in Egypt. That revolution's success hinged on the use of cellphones and social media to document, communicate and coordinate the movements and efforts of the people streets who were fighting the Mubarak regime. 

Closer to home, we also witnessed that power during Toronto's G20 summits. I was shooting the protests for the Globe and weekend and personally witnessed many horrific acts perpetrated by police in Toronto. Thanks to all those people using their cameras to document what they saw, the police are gradually being held accountable for the widespread brutality they inflicted upon innocent civilians all over Toronto that weekend. 

TD - Where do you think your field is going in the next 10-20 years?
IW - Call me crazy, but I'm optimistic. Documentary photography is so important to the positive progression of our society that it absolutely must continue. I feel that it is only a matter of time before the rest of the world is once again able to appreciate that.
TD - Best tips for people trying to get into the photo documentary world?
IW - Shoot what you feel and feel what you shoot. 
     - Don't get caught up in thinking you need to travel abroad to produce meaningful work.
     - Wear good shoes.

I have to thank both Ian and Tom Franks (my assistant for the evening) for helping me get this post.

If you are the type who likes behind the scenes, here's a glimpse at what it was like shooting Ian, from his point of view.
 We climbed through some windows, gear and all.
 We traveled to a few cool locations on our bikes, so we packed light.
We set up in some pretty interesting locations.

I shot a few BTS frames as well.
Lack of sandbags (we actually transported everything to locations on our bikes) and a 6 foot octo meant Tom had to hold things together during the gusts of wind.
A view of half the set, as seen from my apartment's door.

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