▲ A haenyeo grabs an octopus in front of Harvey's eyes. Photo by David Alan Harvey
For nearly half a century, National Geographic and Magnum Photos agency photographer David Alan Harvey has captured the attention of millions with his brightly colored, light-filled images of people and places around the world. His multi-layered photos simultaneously mix artistic and documentary styles, creating work that melds art with photojournalism.
Wanting Harvey to turn his lens to Jeju’s incredible haenyeo (diving women), Jeju province invited the American to the island in November. Harvey thus spent three weeks with Jeju's coastal communities getting shots for a photo book to be published next year, commentary for which will be provided by novelist and poet Hyun Kil-Un. I caught up with Harvey while he was shooting in Jeju’s northeast, around Hado-ri, Gujwa-eup.
Using the island's beautiful volcanic rock landscapes and shimmering sea as a backdrop, Harvey said he aims to capture the women’s beauty and endurance, qualities he recognizes throughout Korean culture. He also hopes the final collection’s impact is in its poetic simplicity. "I'm looking for little moments and back stories in their homes and private lives," he said.
Raised in Virginia, Harvey began taking photos at 11 years of age, first documenting his family life. He was soon photographing anything and everything, including the girls in his class at school. That earned him a trip to the principal's office. "You weren't allowed to take photos in the classroom apparently," Harvey recalled with a grin. "How was I supposed to know that? I was just photographing what I saw." It was this willingness to cross boundaries that made him the photographer he is today.
▲ Harvey says that photography is a language "far, far from dead." Photo by Douglas MacDonald
In 1967, he self-published his first book, "Tell It Like It Is," which documented the lives of an African-American family living "on the other side of the tracks" in Norfolk, Virginia. In spending time with the family, he says he got to know them and their environment and learned to make a deep connection with individuals from different backgrounds and walks of life.
This intimacy — a desire to “forge a bond so tight” that the subject learns as much from him as he does from the subject — is what separates Harvey from most other photographers. Once immersed in his subjects' lives, he then lets his photos do the talking.
Shortly after graduating from the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of Missouri in 1969, he began working for National Geographic and over four decades has photographed more than 40 stories for the prestigious magazine. In 1978, he was chosen as Magazine Photographer of the Year by the National Press Photographers Association.
At the heart of Harvey’s photographic philosophy is the primacy of the message over technical skill.
▲ Harvey traveled around Jeju's coasts documenting the haenyeo. Photo by Douglas MacDonald
"The key for photographers today is that they must be idea people. Concept people," Harvey said in a recent interview. "It is no longer any advantage to just have technical skills. Today one needs idea skills, to really have something to say, either journalistically or artistically. I see photography as a language, far, far from dead. In my opinion it's just being born."
His most memorable photos are often those that are filled with the emotions of the moment, immortalizing the bond he has built. Harvey concurs, saying that, "I have to fall in love with a project. I have to be feeling something about the subject I'm focused on to get memorable photos — to make something special out of the ordinary," adding, "Don't shoot what it looks like. Shoot what it feels like."
This emotional impact Harvey strives for in every image can be seen in a recent picture (see cover shot) taken in Jeju while diving with the haenyeo. One of the women had found a large octopus hiding under a rock near the shore. She excitedly snatched it out of the water and held it gleefully above her head as Harvey snapped a photo.
"Forget photography for a moment," Harvey told me. "Just getting a chance to meet the diving women is great. They are an inspiration to us all."
To see more of David Alan Harvey's work visit his website here.
To see more of interviewer Douglas MacDonald's work visit his Flickr here.
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