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Feature: Steve Simon's passion for documentary photography
Wednesday, July 11, 2012 | by Eamon Hickey
A career in documentary photojournalism has never been an easy path and that seems to be more true now than ever before. Yet Steve Simon persists. For us, Simon has long been an exemplar of a photographer doing consistently excellent work while pursuing his passion for documentary photography and managing, by hook or by crook, to get interesting and worthwhile projects done.

In 2006, we wrote a story about Simon and his then newly-published book called Heroines and Heroes: Hope, HIV, and Africa. It was Simon's fourth book created out of a documentary project, and we spoke with him then about the ups and downs of trying to complete such projects in a stingy financial environment for documentary photography.

This year, Simon has published his fifth book, The Passionate Photographer. Unlike his previous books, The Passionate Photographer is an instructional and inspirational book for photographers, one that draws on Simonís experiences over three decades as a professional photojournalist.

His resumť includes ten years as a daily newspaper photographer, dozens of awards, including being named Canadian Newspaper Photographer of the Year, four years as a professor in the elite photojournalism program at Canadaís Loyalist College, and multiple group and solo exhibitions around the world. Simon also teaches workshops and has recently done some testing and promotional work with Nikon, which we noted here.

Photojournalist: The Passionate Photographer, left; Steve Simon on assignment

Simon now lives in New York City and continues to work on documentary projects. We spoke with him about his new book, its message, and his own evolution as a photographer.

Q. What made you want to write The Passionate Photographer?

I've had sort of a long history of doing how-to and teaching. When I was going to photography school, I wrote a photography column that appeared weekly in a bunch of Canadian newspapers. So I had that history of writing about photography, for photographers, to help them get better.

I basically wanted to take everything I knew and learned in my journey as a photographer and just put it out there. Many roads lead to great photographs, but this was my road. Maybe it will help some photographers shortcut the things I learned the hard way. So I've wanted to do this for a very long time and the timing was right.

Q. What's the core message of The Passionate Photographer?

I think the core message is that -- and I truly believe this -- in my experience both as a photographer and as a teacher, one sure way of getting to the next level of your development as a photographer is to harness your abilities and skills and focus in on a project, a theme. Focus on it with the idea of putting together a bunch of images where ultimately the sum becomes greater than the parts.

I think a lot of photographers are out there looking for that elusive great single image. But when you take on a project or a theme, and start to put together these images, you realize -- or at least I realized -- that I was kind of shooting the same image over and over again. Putting together the jigsaw puzzle of a theme or a story is a great exercise in self-awareness as a photographer and in thinking about what it is youíre trying to say with your photography and how best to say it. That pushes you into places you likely have not been to yet. So I'm encouraging everybody who reads the book to at least give that a try and see how it works for them.

Q. Who is the book aimed at?

Well, I have to admit that from a pragmatic point of view, obviously I wanted to have a big pool of interested photographers who would buy the book. Secretly, I was hoping that even experienced photographers -- journalists, documentary people, my peers -- who read it might find some benefit in it. They've gone through similar experiences, and some things they already know, but maybe there are other things that might be useful to them. I figured if I could make it interesting to them, the less experienced photographer would definitely find a lot of information they could use.

Q. What's your definition of a passionate photographer?

I think someone who loves photography, enjoys photography as a hobby, or goes deeper into it as a profession, is passionate. You have to be passionate to get out there, wake up early in the morning when the light is right. Something is driving you to be out there. People who commit to photography in a way that goes beyond just photographing occasions in their lives I would classify as passionate photographers.

Q. In the book, you talk about your first big self-assigned project, America at the Edge. How was that a turning point for you?

My dream was to be a photographer full time, and when I achieved it, I thought, wow, this is it. I was working for a major daily newspaper in Canada, and every day I was shooting. But after a few years I realized I was starting to repeat myself -- some of the luster and the passion was wearing away.

I realized that maybe the photography that first attracted me as a young man on the streets of Montreal -- Henri Cartier-Bresson and the great street photographers -- was not what I was doing anymore. Partly because of practicality -- lack of time on assignments -- I was shooting in a very formulaic way. I wanted to see if I could break away and rekindle that innocence of vision that I [once] had. I found that the project was my way back into that wonder of photography that I experienced as a young guy.

I wanted something kind of wide open that would allow me to explore. I was living in Canada at the time, and I read an article by [Canadian writer] Margaret Atwood about how Canada was becoming more like the United States. I kind of agreed, and I realized, well, if we are becoming more like the United States maybe we're gonna start to look more like the United States. So what does the United States look like closest to Canada? And there it was, that was my project.

So I went on this amazing road trip from Maine to Alaska in my Ford Topaz. I had a variety of different cameras with me. The lesson learned, though, was that the camera I was most familiar with was the one I was most successful with because the camera really needs to fade to the background.

Traveling and just shooting my own work was such a powerful, joyous experience on so many levels that I realized I just couldn't go back to doing what I was doing. So I basically changed my life and ultimately that project led me to where I am now, talking with you in New York. It really was the project that pushed me out of my comfort zone into these new and exciting experiences.

I started in 1996. I went back in 1998. I've had exhibitions, but I've never really closed the book on that project. Itís changed with time, but I'm constantly refreshing it. I hope to do another reconfiguration of it and maybe publish it in the next couple of years. That's the beauty of finding something that you're passionate about in photography -- there is no end because you're always figuring out new ways of working it.

Q. What else are you working on now?

This past year I've taken a bit of time off from the projects to try to develop other aspects of my business -- just because, you know, you need to eat and photography as a freelancer is always challenging. Things are great for a while, but all it takes is a couple of lean months and you see your cushion depleting. I love teaching and coming out with a book was one way of spreading the knowledge, but Iím also teaching workshops.

One of the next projects that I'm hoping to complete beginning in the late fall and early next year is the grandmothers project. I've done some work in Africa around the AIDS issue, and I was very inspired by the grandmothers I met. They've lost their own children to HIV/AIDS and are now raising these little grandchildren and great-grandchildren as elderly women with little fanfare and little resources. So I'd like to shine some light on them.

A gallery of Simon's photographs are on the following pages, as well as a link to his website.
Next Page: America at the Edge, The Grandmother Spirit
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