Monica Denevan is the Photographer of the Year, winner of All About Photo Awards 2020 - The Mind's Eye
. My co-jurors Elizabeth Avedon, Laurent Baheux, Alex Cammarano, Julia Dean, Ann Jastrab, Juli Lowe and myself were impressed by her work 'Across the River, Burma' that won first place out of thousands of submissions. She also won 1st place for AAP Magazine 4: Shapes
. Her ongoing series, Songs of the River: Portraits from Burma, began in 2000. Since then, she has returned to many of the same small villages in Burma/Myanmar, making intimate photographs of fishermen and their families in the spare and graphic setting of the Irrawaddy River. She travels with a medium format film camera, one lens, and bags of film, working with natural light and making composed images. Once home, she makes photographic prints in her traditional darkroom. I asked her a few questions about her life and work:
All About Photo: Tell us about your first introduction to photography. What drew you into this world?
In middle school, I borrowed my mother's Kodak Instamatic camera to take pictures of my friends at Camp Mather. I remember waiting with great anticipation until the prints were ready for pick-up at the drug store and then spending a long time looking at them.
Where did you study photography?
I took my first photography class in Mercy High School where I experienced working in the darkroom for the first time. I studied photography at San Francisco State University and there discovered how much I enjoyed the interactive process of making portraits.
Do you remember your first shot? What was it?
Across the River, Burma © Monica Denevan
I remember my final print after a short one-week photography class in high school. It was an image of a cable car. At the time, I didn't know how uninteresting and badly printed it was.
Do you have a mentor or role model?
Not exactly, however, I have been influenced, helped, supported, advised, and encouraged by many wonderful people over the years.
What was the best piece of advice you were given starting out?
About your subject on Burma, could you tell us why/how you decided to cover
I was spending time with the families of fishermen and wanted to photograph them. At first, I was happy with the photographs I made but knew they could be better, so I returned.
How long did you stay in Burma?
Anchor, Burma © Monica Denevan
I try to visit every year or two. I usually stay about two weeks although I have stayed up to 28 days which is the length of a standard visa.
What difficulties you had to overcome?
Being unable to speak the language is always challenging however I usually have a translator. Also, travel sometimes involves being sick and losing days when I would like to be photographing rather than stuck in a hotel.
Do you travel alone?
While I prefer to travel alone, I've had family members accompany me a few times.
How do you prepare for your trips?
Galleon, Burma © Monica Denevan
I make a lot of lists. Rarely do I previsualize my images. I've found that it can be disappointing to do so and would rather work more spontaneously once I'm in the country.
What do you hope to achieve?
I hope that I can continue to make photographs, to travel, and to print in my darkroom.
What 3 words describe your photography style?
Spare, graphic, intimate.
What inspires your unique storytelling?
Guitar, Burma © Monica Denevan
I am inspired by the people I photograph. After many years, it is still an adventure.
What equipment do you use?
I use a Bronica medium-format camera, one lens, and Ilford Delta 400 film.
Do you spend a lot of time editing your work?
Yes. I spend a long time looking at my contact sheets and making decisions about which negatives to print. Not every negative translates well when enlarged so then the editing continues.
Why do you work only in black and white?
Oasis, Burma © Monica Denevan
I enjoy printing black and white, and while I still have a darkroom, I will continue to do so.
What compliment touched you the most?
It is always good to hear how someone interprets or talks about my photographs in a way I hadn't thought about before or in a way that has specific meaning to them. I appreciate that they have taken the time to look closer.
What advice would you give someone who would like to become a photographer today?
I would ask them to think about what they find fascinating and how they would photograph that “thing.”
What mistake should a young photographer avoid?
Sail, Burma © Monica Denevan
I think young photographers should not use social media likes as a barometer of the quality of their work but instead, keep working and nurture an internal force that isn't easily swayed by opinions negative or positive.
If you weren't a Photographer, what would you be doing?
I might be an explorer, a writer of children's books, a pastry chef, a ballroom dancer, a film director... It's fun to think about.
Anything else you would like to share?
I am thrilled to have received this award from All About Photo. Thank you!
Eden, Burma © Monica Denevan
All about Monica Denevan
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