▲ Douglas captures the sunset with Chagwido in the background. Photo by Eric Hevesy
If you’ve seen a copy of Jeju Weekly in the past three years then you’ll surely be familiar with many of the excellent photographs that have graced the cover and been featured in various articles. No doubt many of the photographs you’ve seen were taken by Vancouver-born Douglas MacDonald. Having lived and worked as an English Teacher in Jeju for the past twelve years, Douglas has used his passion for photography to capture the natural beauty of the island as well as the people and events which make it so special to him.
As an aspiring photographer myself, I found him to be a fount of knowledge and experience when we first met to take photos on a foggy morning at Yeongsil Trail. On our second rendezvous, Douglas and his girlfriend met me in Gosan at Chagwido Scenic Point on the west coast of Jeju to shoot what turned out to be a fantastic sunset. We then walked to nearby Sujanaerestaurant to eat delicious haemul kalguksu and discuss Douglas’ past and inspirations, tips on photography and what makes Jeju such a special place for him.
How long have you been a photographer?
I started taking pictures in about 1993. It was my first year in Japan. I remember one day, it was in the wintertime and I was working in a public high school. I got home and the sun was setting behind my house. I went out to the veranda and I was really lucky because there was an active volcano - Sakurajima- about 20 km away. You could see it silhouetted with ash spewing out of it, and it was a beautiful sunset. I had this little Olympus point and shoot camera at the time, just a cheap film camera. I took a picture and it turned out really nice.
Then I put the photo aside and had some friends visit about a month later and they said, “Wow you should be a photographer! That’s a great shot!” I thought, ‘yeah, it is a good shot. I kind of want to take more pictures like that.’
I worked in Japan for three years and after I finished I did a world trip. I traveled to about 20 countries and brought my camera with me. Then a couple years passed. I put the camera down and didn’t really use it that much. Then my father passed away in 2004. He left a digital camera for me so I switched over to digital and the rest is history.
Can you name some photographers who have influenced you on your journey into photography and why?
When I was a boy I really liked National Geographic. Like many other photographers I was really influenced by some of their great pictures.
As far as actual photographers go, Steve McCurry. His famous picture is on the cover of one of the 1985 issues - the ‘Afghan Girl,’ with the beautiful aqua-colored eyes. That picture really attracted me, but he’s got even better stuff. I’ve seen a couple of his galleries in Seoul and they were unbelievable, almost tear-inducing.
A little bit later I really liked looking at Ansel Adams’ black and white landscape photos of America – Yosemite Valley and the Southwest – so he’s really influential.Today, there isn’t really one photographer who stands out, but Magnum - the Magnum agency, one of the biggest agencies for photographers - I like their street, war and journalistic photos.
▲ Douglas' Jeju Weekly cover shots from 2013
What tips would you give to a person like me, an aspiring photographer?
Shoot as much as possible, would be number one. There’s always that saying that your first 10,000 photos are your worst photos, so yeah shoot a lot. Use different angles, up and down and sideways, just keep shooting.
Other advice, don’t be lazy. Get up early sometimes and shoot when the light is best. Also, never give up on a shot. And if it’s really hopeless, then move somewhere else, there will be a picture in another place.
Another thing would be to look at others’ photos. Go on Flickr.com, there are lots of great photographers on there. Sometimes it’s hard to emulate them because they are on a safari or something, but don’t try to compete with that. Try to learn from the photos rather than be jealous of the location. Be sociable online and offline as well. Make lots of friends because you don’t know who you’re going to run into.
What makes a great landscape photograph for you when it comes to composition?
Well, we saw it today. Dramatic light, and although some people say it’s a no-no, I like to shoot into the sun. I also like to have a dramatic foreground, whether it’s 2 million year old volcanic rocks or colorful flowers. It depends on where you are in the world but a strong foreground, good light, and shooting just before and after sunrise and sunset are key for me.But you can’t stop taking pictures because it’s not early morning or late afternoon.Sometimes you can get a good picture in the middle of the day.
What brought you to Jeju in the first place and what has made you stay?
It’s mainly job-related. I almost inquired about a job on Jeju in the late 1990s but it fell through. But it’s always been in my head like, ‘oh, an island in Korea, that would be cool.’ I knew about Seoul, it was huge and a bit too go-go-go, and even though Vancouver is kind of big, I like smaller towns.
So I looked at Jeju and it looked like a nice place to take photos and it’s got nice beaches for swimming in the summertime. Finally, I applied for a job at a hagwon, at an English academy, and I lost the job because someone took it within 24 hours. But the guy I had been talking to knew somebody else who was looking for a teacher so I ended up getting that job at Jeju University and then added jobs along the way.
I especially like working with kids. I’ve had the same students for up to eight years with the exact same class and that’s kind of a base for me. I always have that, because photography can be up and down and you don’t know one month you don’t make any money and another month you can do really well. It’s always been a very up and down thing so I’ve always had the teaching job to fall back on and it’s been the best thing I’ve ever done. It’s the best job I’ve ever had and so I’ve stayed.
Another reason as well is every year I enter the Jeju UN photo contest and I haven’t won it yet and I’m not leaving until I do. [Laughs]. It’s really annoying. I’ve placed four years in a row, I should have done better, but I guess everybody says that and says they have the best photo. One of my goals is to win or at least place in the top seven in that contest. So that’s maybe a lighter reason why I’ve stuck around. And of course Jang as well [smiles at his girlfriend]. I’ve got no reason to go...you know I like the motto, ‘don’t mess around with a good thing’ and that’s what I have here so I stay.
▲ Seen here checking his work, MacDonald states that he works on gut instinct. Photo by Diana Lim
Do you feel you have a special connection with Jeju Island?
Yeah I do in many ways, not just photography. I have a special connection with my schools and with the students and that connection makes me feel at peace so that when I go and take photos I don’t have a lot of things in my mind, no unhappiness or distractions. So I really think my job as a teacher, my happiness there gives me a solid base and makes me feel at peace when I’m doing things outside of work, including taking photos.
As far as photography related I really feel a connection to mountains.I always dream about them – kind of strange – but I always have dreams about mountains, I don’t know what that means, but it’s almost like déjà vu when I’m on top of Halla mountain and I see a beautiful scene.
Jeju is very attractive to me and the peace of mind I have here again filters down into photography. I like to take my time and that’s where landscape photography kind of fits in with that whole vibe.It’s relaxed and not crowded with hundreds of photographers lined up on the beach like mainland Korea. It’s the vibe here that I like.
Do you have a favorite location you photograph in Jeju?
I enjoy where we went today [Chagwido], especially now after taking those photos. I really enjoy this area and I love Halla mountain in the winter, especially the Seongpanak Trail and the crater at the top. I like sunrise peak [Seongsan Ilchulbong] as well but I’m yet to have a daythere like today. I also like all the oreums, the hills here are quite beautiful at the end of the day.But I guess the number one for me would be the top of Halla Mountain on a snowy day or with snow on the ground.It’s really dramatic and beautiful.
Where can we see your photos in Jeju and online?
You can go to my Flickr website [below] and also you can find some of my prize winning photos from the UN photo contest at the visitors’ center at Gomeun Oreum visitor center. They have a gallery and you can see four or five of my photos there.
What can we expect from you in the future?What are your hopes and dreams for your photography?
Like I said, getting first prize in the Jeju UN photo contest would be nice and also placing in the National Geographic contest, either the traveler or the main one. I think that would be really exciting, at least in the top eight to ten photos would be pretty cool. I’d also like to do some more traveling in China and around South East Asia to get more cool landscape and city shots in places other than Jeju.
To see Douglas' work visit his Flickr here. You can also see some of Eric Hevesy's work on Flickr here.
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