INTERVIEW

September 11, 2020

HUMANS IN MOTION

IN CONVERSATION WITH SHAWN BYRON DANKER

Photography by Shawn Byron Danker
Interview by Karin Svadlenak Gomez

Shawn Byron Danker is a Singapore based photographer who has been shooting professionally since 2006. To Shawn the cityscape is a physical manifestation of the very human tension between what is and what ought to be, and also the moral tension between what merely appears to be and what is unspoken. This constant double tension infuses Shawn’s photography, which both celebrates and rehabilitates the contemporary spaces and humans in their urban habitat. Shawn challenges himself to create and recreate this double vision in each new series he embarks upon, to help audiences become aware of the natural, the undiscussed, the undisputed, the implicit – and to ultimately reflect and question them. Shawn´s pictures have been showcased in publications in Bangladesh, France, Japan, the Philippines, and Singapore. Shawn has also held two exhibitions in Singapore.

"The more engaging a shot is, the longer your eye will linger upon it to drink it all in and make for a richer viewing experience."

TPL: Shawn please tell us about yourself? How did you get into photography?

SBD: I was born and raised in Singapore. I got into photography as a kid because I always wanted to create beautiful work that would make people stop to look at the story in front of them. My bread and butter is photojournalism so I use the storytelling skills I developed there in every other genre of photography I work in.

TPL: You have shared your photo project SHALL WE DANCE with us. What gave you the idea of photographing street dancers and turning it into a long-term project?

SBD: I was in the middle of finishing up my second exhibition in Singapore when I started thinking about what would be the subject for my next show. I decided that I wanted to do something fun since my previous two shows were about dour and serious subject matter. I have always loved watching the human form and enjoyed dance as a spectator, but I felt I lacked the skills to properly photograph dance. After my second show ended, I felt I was now ready to take on the challenge so I decided I was going to use every trick I had ever learned to put my own spin on photographing dance. I wanted to mesh genres to hopefully create something new...I set out to show the world that dance and dance photography is more than just ballet. What you are now seeing with this body of work, is the fruit of that resolve. The plan is to eventually take this body of work and turn it into a traveling exhibit and coffee table book.

TPL: In your street dance photographs, you pay a lot of attention to the setting. How do you pick a location, what criteria do you employ?

SBD: The art direction’s mandate for this series is that the location should matter within the composition. The setting helps set the mood and reveal character. The negative space around the dancer should enhance their presence and impart a richer meaning into the frame. I also tell my dancers that they are not dancing in a vacuum; they should be using their bodies to tell a story of how the scene makes them feel.

I use a lot of film theory when I look for locations and plan my shoots. I look for anything that helps build an engaging mise-en-scene, so that can range from the quality of light and shadow, the colors, but most importantly the shapes and forms that the structures impart to the scene. Working on this series has taught me to look at a location in front of me and see it as it could be.

From there I start to figure out how I would compose the shot. Do I go for a composition using juxtaposition and or do I want to convey a sense of scale and perspective? It all depends on how all these factors come together while I look at what is in front of me and figure out if I can somehow add some visual tension into the shot. Sometimes it can take me years to finally figure out how to best use a location for maximum visual impact.

TPL: You have told us that contextualizing your photos matters to you. Does it make a difference what type of dance genre you are shooting? For example, if you are shooting ballet, do you try to select different locations from when you are shooting street?

SBD: Many people will argue otherwise but I see the series as a form of street photography because I apply a lot of street sensibilities into the composition. That is why context matters in my composition. Context helps to make a shot more engaging. The more engaging a shot is, the longer your eye will linger upon it to drink it all in and make for a richer viewing experience.

For ballet, I look for locations that juxtapose the environment against the ballet dancer’s etherealness; soft versus hard.

When I am looking to create something with an emphasis on pronounced statuesque shapes (think Rodin’s thinker) I bring in a contemporary dancer.

I tell my jazz dancers that I want them to seduce and invite their audiences into their parlour like how a femme fatale would in film noir.

For pole dance I tell the dancers to tone down the overt raunchiness and play up their physicality. Pole dance audiences tend to focus on the dancer’s sexiness and not how amazingly fit they really are. I want to break the negative stereotype associated with the genre.

The photos you see may not show it, but some dance genres are a lot more difficult to shoot than you think.

TPL: Which dance genre do you think is the hardest to photograph then?

SBD: It depends. To be frank, Dane Shitagi made a very pertinent point when he said that dance is best consumed in video form. This is because dance is a continuous sequence of movements. What I am doing as a dance photographer is akin to what sketch artists do when they draw gesture: capturing a movement to express emotion and motion.

I love watching ballet but it can be a pain to shoot because of how perfectionist ballet dancers can be. Contemporary can be very challenging to audiences who have no dance training because they lack the dance vocabulary that would allow them to understand what they are looking at. But genre wise I would say the hardest ones to shoot are popping and pole dance. Popping is naturally stiff looking and you are confronted with this conundrum: how do you show your subjects popping their muscles while they keep their shirts on? I solved this little problem by directing the dancer to give me shapes and lines that identifies the genre to the viewer.

Pole dance is hard because of two things: The logistics involved and the competency of the dancer. I do not use those portable poles that pole dancers sometimes use because I want the pole dancer to use what is within the natural urban environment. When I shoot pole dance, the first thing that I have to do is find a street sign that is situated in an interesting location. Then I have to find a pole dancer who is confident enough to be able to dance using a street sign instead of what they are used to in the dance studio. Finally after meeting these two conditions, I have to hope and pray that the conditions on the ground are favorable when we finally head there to shoot. That is why my very first pole dance themed shot took me five years to create.

Popping is naturally stiff looking and you are confronted with this conundrum: how do you show your subjects popping their muscles while they keep their shirts on? I solved this problem by directing the dancer to give me shapes and lines that identifies the genre to the viewer.

TPL: Do you in a way “choreograph” the dances you shoot? Meaning, do you tell the dancers what to do, or do you let them do their thing and just shoot?

SBD: When I started on this series, I used to come into the shoots with a preconceived move that I wanted the dancer to do for the shot. I slowly began to realize as I gained more experience, that the best shots I ever got was when I let the dancer freestyle their moves. Doing this really let them improvise and inject their own personality into their movements instead of being boxed in by a specific expectation. I keep a large store of researched imagery on hand to show the dancers if they need some ideas, but I tell them to always put their own spin on their inspiration and make the shot/move theirs. For the most part I intentionally keep the art direction vague. I tell the dancers that they are free to do what feels right to them as long as I see shapes, lines or extensions. From there we make whatever adjustments are needed to improve the shot. The biggest breakthrough I have had was the realization that dance is not just about movement. Dance is also about what Jay Maisel and sketch artists would call gesture.

TPL: In many of your photos there are dancers performing incredible leaps and twirls, and there are passers by seemingly unconcerned with what is happening. How does that happen? Do people not stop to ask what is going on, or at least to watch the action?

SBD: Well they look unaware because they are usually on their way to wherever their life is taking them. Occasionally some of them stop to watch or ask what is going on. There has been a few times where we get an audience while we work who either applaud or smile at us while remarking “beautiful”, but that mostly happens when the passers by actually stop to pay attention to what is going on.

TPL: Other than in dance, where do you find your inspiration? What else do you like to photograph?

SBD: I find a lot of inspiration from video games, comics and movies. Some of my composition ideas come from movies by Denis Villeneuve, Wes Anderson or Akira Kurosawa. I also get a lot of ideas for my battle style dance photos from the Ryu Ga Gotoku (Like a Dragon or Yakuza) series. The cinematics in that game series contain some amazing dynamic cinematography. I love photographing street when I get the chance. It helps to hone my eye while helping me to relax.

TPL: Do you have any favourite artists or photographers you would like to share with us, and the reason for their significance?

SBD: I adore Platon and Moriyama. Little Shao has been a constant source of inspiration for dance related photography. He is constantly trying new things with dance and street instead of repeating the same thing over and over.

With regard to who has influenced my style the most. It is a combination of people. Akira Kurosawa’s movies taught me how to add a sense of kinetics into a shot by incorporating motion with stillness within my compositions. Film Noir, like the Maltese Falcon, gave me my love of using light and shadow for drama in my compositions.

But my college friend, Dena, taught me the most important lesson I ever had to learn as a photographer: “Even if the shot is not technically perfect, you should find a way to make it work for you anyway.” It’s a philosophy that I have held close to my heart ever since she said it to me. She is the reason why I am not a technical photographer. I look for emotion and I shoot by feel. That is why my style tends to be very emotive.

What camera/s do you use? Do you have a preferred lens/focal length?

My workhorse is my Canon 1DX and the 24-70mm f2.8 lens. It is fast and it lets me break down the dancers' movements frame by frame to find the best moments. The zoom length also gives me a lot of freedom and allows me to work quickly without having to waste time trying to figure out whether a wide angle or telephoto lens would work better. For situations that require stealth and discretion, I switch to my Fuji X100F. It is silent and is the perfect walk around camera because its compact size does not intimidate people on the street at all.

TPL: Are there any special projects, other than the long-term documentary on street dance, that you are currently working on?

SBD: I have a few. The other book that I am working on simultaneously with SHALL WE DANCE is THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS. It is a body of work where I am shooting revelers on the street during Shibuya Halloween. Halloween in Shibuya is like Mardi Gras in New Orleans, but with costumes. I thought it would be fun to showcase the Japanese take on Halloween.

I am also shooting PARKOUR as a spin off from SHALL WE DANCE; I take what I am doing with dance but apply it to parkour instead.

Another project that I am working on has me photographing the architecture of public housing buildings. And I have a portrait series called WAR PAINT where I photograph headshots of wrestlers as they emote: a sight that wrestling fans never get to see up close. One day if I ever get the chance, I would love to do something with cosplay.

TPL: “When I am not out photographing, I like to…

SBD: Either look at other street photographers to research locations I would like to shoot dancers with or chill out and play some video games. Or eat. Because I have a weakness for food.”