This upcoming spring quarter, we’re excited to welcome Van Ditthavong as our new instructor for Photographic Portraiture. From his lauded short films which have been screened at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival, The Independent Filmmakers Showcase, and more – to his range of editorial photographic work featured in Stern Magazine, Men’s Health, Psychology Today, Texas Monthly, Ladies Home Journal, and many others, Ditthavong is an accomplished image creator who brings a wealth of knowledge and insight to the classroom. We took a moment to ask Ditthavong a few questions about his background and career, and what students can expect from his Portraiture course.
What drew you to photography and how did you get started?
Growing up I really didn’t think about being a professional photographer. I didn’t even realize the possibilities that photography had to offer until I bought my first camera at 25. Once I got my first roll developed and saw how awful they looked, I was completely obsessed on trying to improve. It’s been well over 10 years now and I’m so thankful I didn’t throw the camera out the window with those pictures that day… and believe me I was very tempted. Photography has become a great vehicle to tell my stories. It has given me the opportunity to think differently. It has allowed me to observe the world with an open mind while seeing people and places from different angles and perspectives – and for that, I am extremely grateful.
Much of your work deals with critical social issues of today. What role do you feel photographers or artists have in advocating for positive social change?
It’s an amazing time to be a visual artist. Photographers today have a great opportunity to push for social change and awareness through their work – especially with the multiple outlets available out there. I have always thought that language can only describe so much – and that visual images often can leave more of an impact. The wonderful humanitarian Bill Gates, Sr. has said that success is directly correlated to showing up for people you love and causes you believe in – “we are all in this life together and we need each other.” I truly believe him. I believe photographers and storytellers can really make a difference with the stories they tell and create.
Tell us about an especially rewarding project you’ve worked on and why you enjoyed it so much.
One of the most rewarding project I worked on was commissioned by Texas Monthly Magazine. They wanted me to do a photo essay consisting of portraits of people on all sides of the polarizing issue of Immigration. I traveled 5,000 miles all over Texas in 21 days and made 18 portraits. As a refugee, I have always been interested in the issue of immigration and the pursuit of the American Dream and its definition. What made this assignment so amazing, besides seeing every nook and cranny of Texas, it was that I was able to spend time with people who had strong opinions about their position on the issue. I got to see the passion from both sides and learn a ton from them. Personally, that’s one thing I find important – the ultimate goal isn’t really to make a pretty picture but to learn. For that month I learned a great deal from a mayor, a sheriff, a high school teacher, an ER doctor, a Latina republican, an undocumented worker, a border patrol agent, a rancher, a pastor, an immigrant worker and a student. It was terrific.
What can students expect from your approach to Photographic Portraiture this spring?
I’m excited to be teaching Photographic Portraiture this spring. I hope that students will not only increase their understanding of camera and lighting techniques but more importantly, expand their conceptual approaches and methods to produce compelling images. Through a series of discussions and assignments that cover emotional content, subject matter, lighting, intent, mood and personal vision – students will develop the ability and confidence to create impactful portraits from his/her own unique voice. But most importantly, I hope we will all be able to learn and get inspired by one another – and have fun in the process.
Any advice for budding photographers just starting out?
Everyone has a unique voice and their own personal and life experiences. It is that essence that will make your images “yours” – so continue being curious, making mistakes, and asking questions. Once you understand the technical aspects and basics of photography and light – then all you have to do is focus on what it is you want to say. When that happens your photos will soar to greater heights and your voice we be stronger and clearer.
For more of Ditthavong’s work, please visit his website here.