Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Interview with Debra Schoenberger, photographer and author of 'To Be A Child'

RM: Thank you for taking time to answer my questions. I have tried asking a few sensible ones. The regular ones, no doubt, but still things I would like to know!

1. What was your very first memory of photography? 

I remember reading a National Geographic article when I was a young girl about a scientist / doctor in the 1950’s who brought his young daughter with him to Africa. There was a photograph of his fair-skinned, daughter with blond curls playing together with a dark-skinned African child of the same age. This photo fascinated me because it was so unusual to see an image like that back then. I can’t seem to find the image online unfortunately. However, is an image that is similar; a young albino girl dancing with her little Congolese friend: 

2. Is there a particular photograph that fascinated you enough to take such beautiful lifelike images? 

My dad had a book of photographs taken by street photographers that he brought back from France in the early 1960’s. Most of the images were by Robert Doisneau. Those black and white images made a very strong impact on the style I now prefer. 

3. Are there any people in this field you admire / look up to? 

Some of my favourite photographers are Vivian Maier, Steve McCurry, Maggie Steber, Elliott Erwitt, Edward Steichen, Ami Vitale, Robert Doisneau and Helen Levitt to name a few. You can see a larger example of photographers and their respective work & style on my Pinterest page: 

4. What do you usually look for in a photograph – the scene, setting or colours? 

There are many different disciplines and styles in photography. However, for street or documentary photography I look for different layers in the image that tell a story. The image can be in either black & white or colour, but the depth should be there. I often see beautiful images on the street and don’t have the right camera to capture the scene at that time. I still treasure these images in my memory. 

5. If I am not wrong in mentioning this, I noticed many photos taken in Asian countries. Did these opportunities arise while you were travelling? Or was it the other way round? 

Although I had been to several of these countries before, the initial spark or idea for my book came from the movie “Babies” where one of the families featured lived in Mongolia. A baby was sitting in a small tub next to the open door in the gur and a goat came in and started drinking the bathwater. Well, that tickled my funny bone and at that moment I thought, I have to go there and see this for myself! I chose Nepal, Tibet, India and China because I wanted to represent children from these countries in my book as well. 

6. Usually, children are difficult subjects when photographs are concerned (and I say this fondly). How did you manage getting such beautiful candid shots? 

For the most part it’s being in the right place at the right time. Children are natural clowns and often will act up in front of a camera. Even blind children like to have their picture taken! Sometimes I just put my camera down and play or talk with them. They love to show you things they’ve made or what they like to do. That’s what I find interesting. For this image, I ran around and played with this little Mongolian girl until we were both tired and sweaty. I sat down on the ground with my camera on my knees. She was tired from running as well and came over and stood in front of me. We looked at each other for a bit and then I took the shot. 

7. My favourite is the one taken in British Columbia in 1970 (yes, really. It is one of my favourites. The face behind the art! ☺ I mean it!) Do you have any? (I realise how difficult it was to choose hundreds out of thousands, but still, there must be a few that really struck a chord). 

There are so many but I really love this pic: 

8. Can you share any interesting anecdotes about a few pictures? I always believe every photograph has a memory behind it and these many would surely be fodder for many interesting memories and yes, scars in the knees. Care to share a few?

One of my favourite sub-genres are barbershop photographs. I was walking along the street and saw this young boy in the barber chair. He was staring outside and when he saw me, he shyly looked away. His dad saw me too and smiled at me.

I was walking along the street in Rome, Italy and caught this scene as I was crossing the street. I swing the camera over my shoulder (it’s a bit heavy) and shot this. To my astonishment, it turned out. A young boy is with his mom in the front of the bus with the bus driver.

With respect to the whacked up knees, I was walking back my tent in Mongolia at 2:00 in the morning. I didn’t bring my headlamp because the moon was bright. It was about 1 km walk and as I was admiring the milky way I tripped on a piece of rock and fell flat on my knees and then bruised my ribs. I had some pretty impressive scabby knees for the next few months! Just add them to the scars I had as a child as I was constantly falling off of things, horses, trees, bicycles - you name it! 

9. Could you tell us about the very first time you got accolades for your amazing talent?

Hmmm, I did receive the Intrepid Travel Award 2010 for this photograph:

and I have 8 photographs chosen as Editor’s Favourites by National Geographic. 

10. The really ‘funny’ question that is going to make you laugh (hopefully). Have you ever played with a cardboard / paper camera? 

Ha ha, not yet but I intend to just for fun. Maybe I’ll try this one:

I have used a very old pinhole camera (one of the first ever made). 

RM I sincerely wish this book was actually the size of a coffee table! Loved each and every photograph of it and I really want to see every single one of your beautiful shots. Thank you very much once again for giving me a chance to have a book I will treasure forever. 


​ Debra Schoenberger aka #girl with camera

"My dad always carried a camera under the seat of his car and was constantly taking pictures. I think that his example, together with pouring over National Geographic magazines as a child fuelled my curiosity for the world around me.

I am a documentary photographer and street photography is my passion. Some of my images have been chosen by National Geographic as editor's favourites and are on display in the National Geographic museum in Washington, DC. I also have an off- kilter sense of humour so I'm always looking for the unusual. Plus I usually have a lot of scars on my knees. ​(le sigh...)

I live with my creative director, Miss Pickles (my budgie) in Victoria, BC, Canada.

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