Canadian Geographic Photo Club - Interview with David Trattles

Interview with David Trattles


An established photojournalist, David Trattles travels the globe spreading his enthusiasm and passion for photographing ordinary people with extraordinary connections to their community. Whether travelling across India on a bicycle, photographing cowboys in Germany or capturing the spirit of rural Newfoundlanders here in Canada, Trattles has a unique understanding and compassion for the people he meets.

David Trattles

Trattles has been published in numerous national publications including Canadian Geographic and Maclean_s.

In addition to his editorial work, he leads photography tours in countries such as Malta and promotes community by presenting his photography in the places his images depict.

To view more of David Trattles' work, visit:

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Q What got you into photography?

A When I was in my 20s, I went on a cycling trip across Asia, from Turkey to Hong Kong. I realized that while the camera was a pretty interesting way of meeting people, the bicycle provided better access to unusual situations. The bicycle always has a certain kind of dignity to it, and so together with a camera I was perfectly set up to tell stories about people.

The first time I got published, I walked into Canadian Geographic and I showed some pictures of fisherman in Eastern Canada. I remember placing six portraits on the table and I recounted the subjects' stories. Rick Boychuk, editor-in-chief at the time, said, "Print it," and that was that. It started from that point.

Q What is your approach to documentary-style photography?

A My stories are about people who look into themselves, their friends and their families to rise above the mess of life. Often the stories that attract me are those about community because I think it's something that is often missing in people's lives. I should make it clear that my stories aren't about news, but can be thought of as a narrative about a group of people in a particular time.

Q Crossing Asia on a bicycle is something not many people get to experience. When did your interest in travel start?

A Who doesn't want to see the world? That's all I ever wanted to do. In university, I was lucky to have a friend who wanted to do the same thing. We just grabbed our bikes and I bought a camera not too long before we started and two rolls of film to last the year. The deal was I would take a photo and 10 days later he would take one, that way our film would last. But we weren't interested in the photos. We just wanted to start a huge adventure. Just as well because the photos were rubbish, almost as bad as our attempts at growing beards.

That trip changed our values completely, and as a result I turned away from pursuing engineering, which is what I took at the University of Guelph. The world is safer as a result!

Q So is photography now a way for you to keep travelling and seeing the world?

A I don't really have a message that I'm screaming out at the world but I hope that with projects like the female boxers, I can make it easier for people to understand one another. When people look at my pictures, I want them to be able to say that I'm honest when I look through the camera.

Q What inspires you?

A The first time I went to Germany, I had heard about this 'western' village right on the Czech Republic border. When I arrived at the village, I noticed their saloon, complete with swinging doors. I went in and people were playing poker, smoking Marlboro cigarettes and drinking American beer.

I got invited to their rodeo on the weekend and decided to stick around. Sixty people showed up, riding their horses in from their homes, camping along the way. During the rodeo, they put the American flag up twice a day and played Garth Brooks. At night, they sang songs like, "Thank God, I'm a Country Boy." I spent the whole weekend with them and found out that no one in that village has left Germany for a real rodeo in North America.

Their imagination is reality! They're doing this because they want to live that way. They've made a community of like-minded people and when they come together it all works. This is what inspires me. Ordinary people trying to achieve a dream by forming community and aspiring to live that dream together. Whether it's these cowboys in Germany or female boxers in Kolkata, India I think that's the toughest, noblest thing you can do.

Q So, what was it that drew you to India?

A I decided to do a bike trip across the country, from New Delhi to Kolkata. I felt that would get me excited about life and it worked! India has this great way of rejuvenating you and making you feel like your eyes are too small. In Kolkata, about halfway through my trip, I ran into the boxer women and things developed from there.

QDuring this bicycle trip across India, how did you come across these female boxers in Kolkata?

A I heard about these women who were boxing and cycled around for a few days and found the park where they train. I met the coach there. He was sitting at a school desk drinking tea alone with mosquitoes everywhere and street kids all around. I came back every day for a few weeks to photography the boxer women. After I spent more time with them, I started to understand more about their situation. I initially thought they wanted to be boxers. They do, but they really seek the "champion" title. Then they can win a job and complete what they set out to do, which is to help their families.

Often what makes a good story is time. You can get lucky with one or two good shots in a short amount of time. But you won't really have a good understanding of what you're photographing. It's interesting after all the time I've spent there, I can't even begin to understand all the historical, social, religious, street and cultural aspects of life in India. But I can get a little deeper into India with each visit and I think the more time I spent with the boxers, the more I understood the bigger picture.

Q Do you try to spend as much time as possible at a shoot?

A The longer I have, the better I'll feel about it. Even if I don't get paid, part of my reward is the truth of what I'm doing. The Russian filmmaker Tarkovsky said, "Truth doesn't exist in itself. It lies in the method. It is the way." I really enjoy the process as best I can in the time that I have.

The best learning experience I've ever had came from showing the photos of the female boxers in their community. This was the first time these people had a chance to re-visit themselves in a new space, the gallery. So it becomes not about the photographs but about the response of the community. Yes, people knew that they were female boxers but, with a collection of 100 photographs, it became more about how they were doing this rather than what they were doing. At the same time, it also became about the people that showed up to see those photos. Presenting the photographs here in Canada would have a completely different result.

Q You continue to share your travel experiences by leading photography tours to places in Northern Africa and the Mediterranean. Of all the places you've been to, why Tunisia, Sicily, Spain and Malta?

AIn summer, the Mediterranean is alive with celebrations of life, making it perfect for photography, fun and awareness-building adventures. Riding camels in the Sahara, cheese rolling in Sicily, cycling in Malta and throwing tomatoes in Spain are all excellent opportunities for adventure and photography. I have always wanted to share one of the most culturally interesting, friendly and safe regions in the world.

QIn 2007, you returned to India again, bringing some inner city youth from Toronto to Kolkata. Why was it important for you to do that?

There's so much joy and humanity in Kolkata. In terms of experience, it must be the richest city I know. That alone motivates you to turn things around in a positive way. The value system that the Kolkatans so freely share can often make you end up questioning your own system of values.

For example, shortly after the youth arrived, they met these Indian children whose parents were sex trade workers. One of the Indian children climbed a fence, returned with a flower and placed it behind one Canadian youth's ear. That welcoming gesture changed his life. Two days later, he is asking questions like, "Where is my community? Where is my sense of family? Why are these children so able to give me gifts like a broken marble or a marigold each day that I am here, yet expect nothing in return?"

Q You seem to be more interested in the stories behind the photos, rather than the photos themselves. Does equipment matter to you?

A Websites go on about technical stuff and, while those considerations are important, the one thing that matters above all else is the way you look at the world. It's the people you meet that really matter. I hope that people actually look past the surface of the photograph. It's not the end thing.

Q It sounds like you keep relationships with the people you photograph. Why is this something that's important to you?

A That's my biggest reward of all, getting to know the people I photograph. In some sense, I get to be part of their lives. It balances the solitary aspect of working as a photographer. What do you have at the end of your life? You have a bunch of relationships, people around that you care about and hopefully they care about you!



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