Interview with Documentary Photographer Ivan Lo

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I can't tell you how I first met Ivan Lo, but his documentary photography moved me from the beginning. His searing images, captured in the world's most dangerous hot spots, have resonated with me for days. (View his portfolio here.)

Ivan identifies himself as a humanitarian, travel, and street photographer. From arid hill top towns in Afghanistan to monsoon-flooded plains in Cambodia, his work reveals the human side of complex issues. Battles are fought and won over precious resources, geographical boundaries shift, and ethnic rivals clash, but what remains--no matter what the conflict--are the citizens who must carry on. In spite of their circumstances, Ivan's subjects reflect candor and grace.

an elderly couple waits as a new well is drilled in their slum - Patna, India

[November, 2009]

Traca: Tell me about your career. Did you study photography in college?

Ivan: I started out as a business major, but then I realized I didn't want to live my life that way. My university's sister school had a photojournalism program but unfortunately, I didn't get in. So I stayed at my school (University of Illinois, Chicago) and switched my major to fine art photography. I thought it wouldn't be that far off from photojournalism, which was obviously a big mistake on my part. I finished the program in about 3 years.

Traca: Technique in fine art photography vs. photojournalism is totally different. No elaborate light set ups in photojournalism!

Ivan: The only thing I really learned was how to process my own b/w film, which is something I could have just looked up. The rest of my classes were basically bullshit. They would put up a photograph of something silly like a dog on a table and the class would discuss it. Somebody with thin jeans and a bad haircut would say things like, "This is a commentary on communism in America during the Cold War."

Traca: Seriously?

Ivan: Yeah, it was absolutely brutal. I frequently butted heads with my professors because I thought their classes were a waste of time.

children at play outside the royal tomb - Kabul, Afghanistan

Ivan: I began my career while still in college, shooting during summer break.

Traca: For newspapers?

Ivan: No, just on my own. By the time I graduated--1 year late--in 2007, I had already worked in the Dominican Republic and Afghanistan.

Traca: Summer break in Afghanistan?

Ivan: I worked for several NGOs there.

Traca: I bet your parents were thrilled.

Ivan: My mother was convinced that I would be kidnapped.

Traca: Did you make money or do it for the experience?

Ivan: For the experience. Humanitarian photography doesn't really pay, although I did get to travel for free.

children walking through the bazaar - Kabul, Afghanistan

Traca: Did you approach NGO's before leaving the U.S....or line something up when you hit the ground?

I established connections with the NGOs beforehand and they covered my expenses. For Afghanistan, I worked with a team of friends that I met in college. We offered our professional expertise to NGOs. Most of the other guys were software developers.

So for instance, one of our biggest clients in Afghanistan was an airline that flew aid workers around the country. They were running flight operations out of Excel spreadsheets, which is about as primitive as it gets without pen and paper. So we stepped in and wrote flight scheduling/tracking/booking software for them from scratch.

While the rest of the guys were in an office writing code, I went into the field and took photos.

Traca: And you were able to move around the country because you were working with the airline?

Ivan: Precisely. Basically, my clients would line things up for me. For instance, if I was working for NGO X one day, they'd take me around to visit their project sites...and then the next day, I'd be working with NGO Y.

Traca: Got it. So they took care of your on the ground expenses?

Ivan: Yes, that and we established our own NGO. Fundraising pays for the expenses our clients don't cover.

Maasai women at a village meeting - Maasailand, Kenya

Traca: What kind of fundraising?

Ivan: We don't hold fundraising events, per se. We basically get on our hands and knees and beg people we know for money. We tell them it's for a good cause, that our work is helping to rebuild Afghanistan's infrastructure, etc. Things will become much more official once we really get our NGO off the ground. Right now it's a very small operation.

Traca: So you want to go back to Afghanistan?

Ivan: Definitely. I've been there three times already. I was supposed to go back again this year but the Taliban really stepped things up. Most of our clients fled the country, so if all goes well, I'll be there again sometime next year.

Traca: What are you doing now?

Ivan: Looking for work, as always. I was in Cambodia for the month of September shooting for another NGO. Now that I'm back, there's not much going on.

children play as a new well is drilled in their slum - Patna, India

Traca: Can you talk about making the shift from fine art photography to documentary work?

Ivan: There wasn't much of a shift, actually. I was never really a 'fine art photographer'. I've taken some abstract photos here and there, but most of my serious stuff is documentary.

Traca: I chatted with another documentary photographer and they talked about the importance of "being in the moment and out of the moment at the same time." And after watching The War Photographer, I'm curious about that. How to you approach the situation and get people to relax? I'm looking at your 'Life in Kabul' image with the vendor crouched on top of his street cart. Was that shot at a long distance?

Ivan: No, I was right next to him. I guess the trick is to not look suspicious. People tend to relax when they see that you're not hiding anything. I don't think about much when I'm taking photos. Overthinking kills it for me. For instance, if I'm shooting something, I'll typically take more than one shot...sometimes even more than a few, but the first images are almost always the best out of the bunch.

Traca: I think I need a faster lens. I just have the kit lens that came with my camera.

Ivan: I don't think it's absolutely necessary. Most of my best shots were made with pretty slow lenses (3.5-5.6).

Traca: Chase Jarvis says the best camera is the one you have...and learning how to use it properly.

Ivan: I'm definitely with him on that. A lot of people pay far too much attention to their equipment and they end up wasting time that could've been spent actually taking photographs.

A lot of people call themselves photographers when they're actually just camera collectors, you know?

Traca: I'm frustrated because I spend a lot of time delving into the big picture--conceptual stuff when I really should focus on the technical side of things.

Ivan: Having a good grasp on the technical side of things in definitely important. As long as it doesn't get in the way of actual photography. Cameras these days are pretty intelligent. I usually just leave my camera on full auto, and let it do the grunt work for me.

Traca: Really?

Ivan: When I first started out, I used my dad's old camera, a heavy Nikon from the 70's. manual everything.

Traca: I was in a photo seminar recently and learned how to shoot manual. I'm thinking, for quick shots--like documentary work--manual is a pain in the ass!

Ivan: It definitely is. When I finally got my first DSLR, I spent the first year or so shooting it on full manual until I realized that it was a bit silly. I spent so much money on an intelligent camera. Why not let it do what it was designed to do?

two brothers outside their father's shop - Kabul, Afghanistan

Traca: Your brother is a photographer too?

Ivan: Yeah, my brother is a motorsport photographer. My father used to be a photographer as well, as a young man in Hong Kong, but he gave it up when us kids came along.

Traca: So, do you talk about photography together?

Ivan: My brother and I do sometimes. I tag along with him to a race every once in a while. I borrow one of his enormous lenses and try to do what he does, but it never turns out nearly as good.

Traca: I hosted Scott Bourne for a lecture recently. He shoots nature with those big lenses.
Scott says most people never really learn how to press the button to shoot. You should roll your finger across the button vs. pressing it directly--because with a long focal length, every movement makes a difference.

He also talked about studying all the factors of nature. He used an example of wanting to shoot an image in the mist. Scott said, "Wouldn't it make sense if you actually knew what conditions created mist?"

Ivan: I really admire nature photographers. It takes a lot of patience to do what they do.

a mother waits patiently for her husband - Kabul, Afghanistan

You mentioned admiring James Nachtwey's work. Who else do you admire?

Ivan: It may come as a bit of a surprise but I don't spend very much time looking at photos--other than my own, that is.

So far, James Nachtwey has been the only photographer whose work has really got me going--and not just his photographs but his attitude toward his work. I really admire that.

Traca: He strikes me as a man who's singularly dedicated. I get the feeling that he lives for his work.

Ivan: I get that impression of him as well.

children play as a new well is drilled in their slum - Patna, India

Ivan: Actually, there is another photographer that has been catching my interest recently Her work was only discovered after her death.

Traca: What about her work resonates with you?

Ivan: Her street photography is extraordinary. There's a depth of feeling, of connection in her photographs even though most of her subjects might have been complete strangers to her. Plus, it's Chicago, which strikes a very personal chord with me.

Traca: Can you tell does your illness affect your work?

Ivan: Currently, I'm suffering from avascular necrosis, which is a byproduct of the leukemia. In other words, my left hip is dead. There's partial bone collapse and I usually have to use crutches to get around. This is a pretty new development--it set in only within the past year or so.

When I was in Cambodia, I was on painkillers pretty much the entire time because the only thing more annoying than walking with crutches, is trying to shoot with crutches. So yeah, my medical condition really does get in the way, but I try my best not to let it affect me.

Traca: I really admire people who do it anyway.

Ivan: The way I see it, I'm living on borrowed time. Two years ago, when I was first being treated, I faced death on a daily basis. I wasn't sure how much longer I had to live. They put me on medication to help control my blood cell counts, but it ended up wiping out my immune system. I was in medical quarantine for about a month because I was totally vulnerable to even the most common of germs. I had to have my temperature taken constantly to make sure I wasn't running a fever.

Traca: Is that why you graduated a year later?

Ivan: No, this happened after I finished school. In fact, it happened right after I spent 3 months abroad shooting. I was out there, you know? I was having afternoon tea with security forces out in the mountains of and then I came back to Chicago only to be hit with this illness. My life completely flipped upside down. From intense travel to medical quarantine in a matter of weeks.

Maasai children at their newly built school - Massailand, Kenya

Traca: And how are you dealing with it?

Ivan: My confidence was completely shattered. I became very depressed until things became stable and I was able to resume my life. That was when I realized that I was living on borrowed time and that, really, I should be dead right now. So why not take the chance and try to do some good.

Traca: What's the long term outlook? Do they know?

Ivan: I have an extremely rare form of leukemia (chronic eosinophilic). The drug that helps control it was only introduced in 2001 so absolutely nobody has had the chance to live with this disease until now. Long term outlook is a complete unknown. Me and the 25 other people in the US that have CEL are writing history, so to speak. Doctors will most likely be keeping a very close eye on me for the rest of my life.

Traca: We talked about my Life List. What's on your "life list" now?

Ivan: I used to have a life list before I was diagnosed but I've discarded it now.

Traca: Time to write a new one?

Ivan: I've already made my peace with God. I'm ready to die anytime. My only goal is to use the rest of my life to help people (hopefully through photography) which is why i'm still doing humanitarian work despite it paying next to nothing.

Interview update: At the time of this post, Ivan was on crutches with a collapsing, degenerative hip bone. He just returned from assignment in India.