Daniel Maissan: Photographing with a Focus on Social Causes

Q: Let me say, I love your blog. Do you think nowadays a blog is useful for a professional photographer? Also, is your blog a part of the activity to present your vision and your work as a photographer?

A: I think a blog is useful for any type of job. It’s a way to share what you do and how you feel. It’s a way to get noticed and have the occasional ego boost every human being needs. You can share your visions, your pictures and your struggles. Also I think it’s nice to inform and help people when they have questions about what you do.

I didn’t do a course or go to a school for photography; I’m what they call a self-taught photographer. But to say that wouldn’t do credit to the people (photographers and non-photographers) around me, who I asked questions. Also it would not do justice to the blogs and forums I read to get the information I needed. People learn by example, good or bad. I think a blog can be a way to learn, to get inspired, to be informed and sometimes just to enjoy and be entertained. Now that I do what I do, I can teach, inspire or at least hopefully enjoy others.

Q: What is your idea of photography? Do you think that photography must necessarily be an important theme or can it sometimes be just entertainment, without necessarily addressing social issues?

A: For me photography is about wondering and wandering. So the boundaries are infinite. That way photography is always entertainment and at the same time touches on a deeper level. I love to work with a social cause in mind, working for foundations or portraying somebody that dedicates his life for a higher cause. But for me, showing the world the beauty of a crowded street in Delhi is a social cause as well. Producing a photo that touches people’s hearts and that makes them forget the rest of their life for a second is one of the most beautiful things you can do as a photographer or as an artist in general.

Q: The portfolio you submitted for this interview was shot in Cuzco, Peru for a foundation helping autistic children. Can you tell us a little bit about this project?

A: Sure. Abrazos is a small Dutch foundation that asked me to document what they do for 180 families in Cuzco. They trained eight local women to work as therapists with the children, as well as the parents (often just the mother). Besides this, they also raise awareness about autism in general, which is something that is much needed in Peru and many other countries.

I was able to join these women on different short sessions with the families and kids. Each time we had a therapy session of about one hour and during this I was mainly a fly on the wall documenting what was happening. Mostly in black-and-white photography, but every now and again, in HD video, which was a totally new experience for me.

Being the fly on the wall can be as hard as it can be easy with autistic children. Sometimes they really don’t even seem to notice you’re there, other times they are distracted by your presence during the full session. The most important thing I guess was to be as relaxed and plain as possible. Any sort of tension or form of being uncomfortable would immediately have an affect on the kids.

Q: Is there a strategy to raise awareness on this issue with the images you took?

A: We are in the process of working out what different things we can do with the images and the footage I’ve shot. Of course the main goal is to raise awareness about the foundation and with that raise more funds so, in time, the foundation can expand to other cities in Peru. But also, it’s a way to show contributors what they are doing with their money and we can even use it to raise awareness here in the Netherlands in, for example, primary schools. There are many different ideas we’re exploring now, from selling calendars and postcards to having a large exhibition.

Q: What camera did you use for the shoot?

A: Most of the photography was done with the Leica Monochrom, using all Summicron lenses. (35 mm, 50 mm, 75 mm). Some of the photos were taken with the Leica M and later converted to black-and-white in Silver Efex Pro. Because I also brought the Leica M, I started to explore the possibility of video as this option was suddenly available. This worked out quite nice.

Q: What is your opinion about the video feature on the Leica M?

A: The quality is amazing. As I said before, this was my first time so I know there is going to be a lot more to learn. But for now I was really happy with the results. I shot everything in black-and-white to keep the same feel as the photography. This was done in camera, as editing is a completely new skill I just started to get to know. My biggest surprise was the immense quality of the camera’s microphone. The whole idea of video came when I was already in Peru, so I didn’t bring an external microphone or even a tripod, everything was done with the set I had with me. The hardest part was that I didn’t have the opportunity to redo a take … the sessions still were only 45 minutes to an hour and that was it. So one thing I figured out quite quickly, when I decided to video one of the sessions, the Monochrom stayed in the bag (and vice versa).

Q: You worked with both the Monochrom and Leica M. What’s your favorite to use and why?

A: Pffff, that’s a tough one! To be honest, I haven’t decided yet. I really loved the Monochrom when I took it to India and also for this project it was amazing. I like the fact that Monochrom doesn’t distract from the story you want to tell, the way colour, in my opinion, always does. Besides that, I love to limit myself and this camera does that as no other camera can. There aren’t many options, because, well they’re just not there. Technically this camera has a huge dynamic range and the images are so crisp straight out of camera; there’s nothing I can think of that is not to like about it.

On the other hand, I’m really starting to like the fact that I can use video with the Leica M and this camera finally opened up the higher ISO possibilities with a colour M. Also, I occasionally look back at older work and then I love what I did shooting colour in Africa and I miss it a little bit. At these times, I’m very happy to have them both in my bag.

To be honest, I guess I’ve found my perfect kit: Monochrom, Leica M, a 35 mm, 50 mm and 75 mm Summicron, and (only as a backup as I didn’t use it once in Peru) a reportage flash unit.

Q: How did the idea and motivation for this project come about?

A: I had portrayed the founder of this foundation five or six years ago. He was talking with a mutual friend about the foundation and how it needed proper photographs to communicate what they are doing in Peru. I had spoken to that same friend a couple of days before, about how life can play a trick as another assignment was just postponed and I suddenly had quite some time to spare. Luckily this friend remembered and hooked us up again. I guess things just flow the way they should.

Q: Could you walk us through the actual process that you use to set up a portrait during an assignment?

A: I could try to make a beautiful story to answer this question — about light and technique and where I take my subject to position him or her the right way — but that would mean I had to make something up. When I’m on an assignment like this, especially when they have given me carte blanche, I stop thinking — my favorite state of mind. Everything is gut feeling, intuition and quick reactions to whatever happens right in front of me. If I really like a face, to be a close up portrait and it just doesn’t happen, I might ask somebody to stand still in a doorway or near a window, but that’s about it. I’m no technician and I’m no gear freak. I know how my camera works and I know that my gut never fails me; that’s about it. Not very exciting I’m afraid.

Extra note: I do believe that working with the Leica M series gives me the possibility to get closer to most of my subjects. It’s just a bit less scary for most people than a bulky professional DSLR.

Q: What does it mean to be a freelance photographer today for you? Have you ever thought about becoming a staff photographer and would you like it?

A: For me observing the world is the thing I love most and photography is the way I can do this best. It’s a challenge to earn your money this way, especially with new photographers and life observers starting their own business everyday. Of course I worry about getting enough work, about money, and every now and again about prestige, my photos being published and being noticed in general. Those are the times that I would love to be a staff photographer; it would make life a hell of a lot easier.

I guess that being freelance gives you the challenge to find new ways and new projects to earn your living. It also gives you a carte blanche every time you go out to do what you like to do. Finding a place where you can be a staff photographer and at the same time enjoy that kind of freedom is a tough one; I’m still searching.

Q: Will you be back in Peru to take more photos for the project or should we consider it complete?

A: For now it’s complete, although you never know how life goes. They asked me to do the work for this in one month, but it would be great to go back after a while and see how these kids are doing. Also it could be a nice idea to do a similar project with autistic children somewhere else so you can compare. But I try not to look and plan too far ahead; I like to think things will happen as they are supposed to.

Thank you for your time, Daniel!

- Leica Internet Team

 See more of Daniel’s work on his website, Tumblr, Facebook and Vimeo.

Alex Coghe is an Italian photojournalist currently based in Mexico City whose professional activity ranges from editorial photography to events. Learn more about Alex’s nasty project on his website, Tumblr, YouTube and download his books on iTunes. He is also a member of the international photography collective, noise. Check out their work on Tumblr, Facebook and Blurb.