Ryan Libre and Documentary Arts Asia

I recently heard an interview with Ryan Libre on The Candid Frame Podcast (www.thecandidframe.com – well worth investigating). I was impressed with Ryan’s interest in documentary photography. He discussed in particular his project to document the Kachin culture and independence movement (winner of the 2010 Nikon Inspiration Award).

Ryan also discussed his work forming Documentary Arts Asia (www.doc-arts.asia), which is a non-profit organization located in Chiang Mai, Thailand and working regionally. When I looked into Documentary Arts Asia (“DAA”) I was REALLY impressed and decided to contact Ryan for an interview to learn more about what he’s doing.

Ryan was raised in Northern California but now calls Chiang Mai, Thailand, his home. He has lived in various parts of Asia for over 10 years, having first started his photography career with a self-assigned project to document the largest national park in Japan. In addition to founding and running DAA, Ryan teaches photography workshops and continues his photographic projects.

Q1. Looking back on your experience as a documentary photographer, what skills and attributes do you think best equip a person to be successful?

Libre: To be a successful documentary photographer you need curiosity, passion and 12+ hours days. On top of that to be any kind of successful photographer you need to balance technical mastery and creativity. Many people are too far to one side.

Q2. You started out as a photographer, but now it looks like a lot of your time is spent helping others develop skills at or actually produce documentary work. Why the transformation?

Libre: Why is a huge question, but in a nutshell because it is deeply needed. Especially in the places like Kachin State where i am shooting myself and teaching as well.

Q3. Do you find producing and helping others produce to be equally satisfying?

Libre: Yes, and in many cases more satisfying. When i see my students get shots that would be hard for even myself to get or giving someone their first solo exhibition. These are a few of the many rewarding moments.

Q4. You formed DAA in 2008. What were your original ideas for the organization? How have your ideas evolved since 2008?

Libre: My original goals were to start to shift the documentary production from visitors who stay a few hours or maybe days to locals who live there and also shift the output of the projects that are taken from major international hubs to regional hubs close to where the story was shot and to the area being documented itself.

The plan has not changed goals really but has grown in scope a lot. I found just teaching was not enough to keep people engaged. Teaching plus a gallery to show the students and others work was more appealing. Then I added grants, then an artist in residence, then a library, then a theatre, then a festival, then an agency, now a publishing house and on and on. The more I added programs the more interesting it got and the more they supported each other.

Q5. Part of DAA’s charter is to “assist with the production and promotion of documentary projects which exist outside the standard remit of mainstream media, particularly those which represent the needs of marginalized communities and under-reported issues.” Is the assistance you provide primarily technical (such as teaching photography/video/storytelling skills) or exchanging ideas/advising/critiquing work as it develops? What types of projects have developed with DDA’s help?

Libre: The assistance DAA gives is broad and deep. It goes far beyond technical. We train, mentor, critique, make connections, support gear loans, scholarships to other workshops, provide funding, give outlets for completed work, sell work to give the artists funds and inspiration and much more.

Nothing to too basic or too big for us. DAA teaches people how to upload a photo to the web to connecting new artists with the best galleries in Asia, what ever is needed at that time for that person.

Much of the programming comes from a list I made of things that would have helped me a lot 10+ years ago when I was getting started. I tried to make everything on the list available to others.

Q6. It looks like DAA has a broad scope: gallery operations, an annual festival, workshops, a theatre to offer film screenings, an artist-in-residence program, etc. Which offerings are in highest demand? Are most participants local residents, or are you drawing people in from outside of Thailand? Is there anything you still want to offer but haven’t yet put in place?

Libre: DAA’s events are the most popular, we bring in directors and photographers to show and speak about their films and projects and that is always special and usually brings in 50-300 people. Our festival, the Chiang Mai Documentary Arts festival, brought in a huge crowd from all over Asia the first year. Next year’s festival looks to be even much bigger and better. www.cdaf.asia As much as we offer there are still many more programs I have plans to implement, but with no outside funding we are at the very max now.

Q7. You launched your artist-in-residence program in late 2011. How has that been received? Will the program change over time? What are your long-term plans for the artist-in-residence program?

Libre: Artist in residence programs are very new in Asia, especially SE asia and i dont know another documentary photography AIR in Asia. So we are spearheading this on many levels. All things considered it was well received, but we will work hard to make it even better next year. Long term plans are for the program to include a documentary photographer and film maker at the same time and also to make it four times a year. So a revolving door, as one AIR leaves the next one is coming and we have a big welcome / farewell party 4 times a year.

Q8. On a personal level, with so much going on with DAA, do you have time to photograph? What current projects are you working on?

Libre: I still shoot quite a lot all things considered. I am still actively shooting my 5-year project with the Kachin Independence Organization in Burma and some assignments as well. DAA is based on a team and community who all support our core goals and help out, so I still put in a huge number of hours but can walk away from time to time and trust the team and community who all want to see DAA succeed as much as I do.

Q9. How can people get involve or support DAA?

Libre: Many ways, like buying a print from our online gallery, or license an image from our photo agency. We also have a crowd-funding campaign to fund the first DAA photobook and documentary DVD, donate a book from our wishlist. Finally, we are a registered NGO, but we have no grants as of now. We’re always interested in potential grants to apply for to help fund some of our programs.

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