Our first Fable & Folk interview is with Welsh documentary photographer Dan Wood. His photographic practice mainly focuses on long-term projects documenting Wales and the Welsh people. His most recent work ‘Gap in the Hedge’ – documenting his journey on the mountain pass Bwlch-y-Clawdd between the Rhondda Valley and Bridgend, the town where he lives – is now available to pre-order via Another Place Press.
We wanted to interview Dan as we think he is the perfect person to shine some light on life as a documentary photographer, getting your work published and working within the photographic industry.
Fable & Folk: Firstly, thank you Dan for letting us interview you, we really appreciate it! I’d like to begin with a question from a member of our audience @chloejuno, curator of ‘Documenting Britain’ on Instagram, who asks how did you first get into photography?
Dan Wood: I’d always been fascinated by photography since a very early age. There were always little point and shoots about the house and I was always allowed to use them. I didn’t get my first serious camera until 1994 – it was a Minolta 5000 AF and I used that to mostly take pictures of my friends skateboarding. I was hooked right away.
F&F: Many of the people who follow Fable & Folk are aspiring to turn their photographic practice into their career. Did you encounter any challenges whilst doing this yourself and do you have any advice based on this experience?
DW: I’m still trying to turn my photography into a career! Unfortunately I make next to nothing from photography – I’m just in it for the love.
F&F: We are of course all very excited about your new book Gap in the Hedge, could you tell us a little about that for our audience who might not have heard of the project?
DW: Gap in the Hedge was a 2 year study into a mountain pass (The Bwlch) in South Wales that connects the town where I live, Bridgend, to the South Wales Valleys. The project is based around a regular trip I used to make up there with my mother when I was young and explores the rugged landscape and the people within it.
F&F: What inspired you to start the project?
DW: I had recently finished my last long form project ‘Suicide Machine’ and was looking for something new. I really wanted to start something that focused on landscape, so I made a couple of reconnaissance trips up ‘The Bwlch’ to see if there was enough material to start a 2 or 3 year project. When I got the first batch of films back I realised that there was definitely something happening, so I threw myself in completely. It is a very meaningful place for me too and that powered the project right from the start.
F&F: Did you have an idea of how the project would look before shooting or was that something that developed as the project progressed?
DW: I had a vague idea of how I wanted it to look, but I’m always happy to let projects evolve. I was looking for a certain amount of ambiguity with this series as I’m a fan of the viewer having to interpret pictures themselves. Obviously I had certain pictures – particularly some of the portraits – planned and arranged, but the majority of the time I would go up there and see what happened. As the project progressed and everything became more clear, I was looking for certain pictures but I guess that was more to do with gaps in the story that needed filling.
F&F: @AdamElliottFoto asked how do you stop ‘Gap in the Hedge’ from just being a book of random roadside images? What do the images need to make it to the final edit?
DW: Its all down to the edit. There were 1420 pictures that needed to become 70. With so many pictures, it would have been easy to fall into the trap of it turning into something mediocre. However, after constantly showing people the work and taking feedback on/offline, it helped me determine which were the strongest images and which ones had that little bit of magic that separated them from the rest. Of course I had to rely on my own instinct too as it was my work and I was the one telling the story. So this blend, which is like some sort of complex puzzle, eventually starts to be cohesive and take shape into something that makes sense. I knew I was on the right track when I showed my 5 year old daughter one of the dummy books and she said in a moment of realisation, “Daddy, it’s a story!”
F&F: To build on that, @chloejuno asked how involved were you in the editing process for the book and did you enjoy it?
DW: I was involved in the editing process right from the start. The edit and sequencing started way before the project had even ended because I knew it would be a lot of work and wanted to give myself a head start. I ended up making 3 dummy books and showing them to lots of credible people which helped enormously with the edit. I flew up to Scotland to stay with Iain Sarjeant, editor and founder of Another Place Press, so we could nail the final layout. The whole process was very bittersweet, we hit some glitches that put us a month behind and things got very stressful but thankfully, Iain was terrific to work with and we came out the other side battered and bruised but victorious!
F&F: In terms of getting your work published as a book, is this something you would encourage other photographers to look into?
DW: Definitely! But make sure you take your time, work hard and concentrate on the quality of your photographs first and forget about the final goal for the meantime. Nobody will want to publish a book of pictures that are just not up to it. Patience is the key.
F&F: Something I think isn’t discussed enough between documentary photographers is costs. @chloejuno asked how do you fund your work?
DW: I fund all my own work. I have a part time job that helps pay for film/development etc. Don’t be afraid to get a shitty job to help pay for things – it’s character building!
F&F: Do you apply for grants/funding and if so, would you recommend this to other photographers?
DW: I’ve only ever received one grant and that was to carry out my ‘What is Welsh’ project back in 2011. It’s great to get some money from the Arts council or whatever but it does come with certain pressures and the paperwork you have to fill in are a nightmare.
F&F: Finally, I’d like to end by asking what was the last photobook you bought?
DW: The last photobook I bought was ‘Dream Away’ by Michael E Northrup.
Many thanks again Dan for your time.
Make sure to check out ‘Gap in the Hedge’ and pre-order it – you won’t want to miss out!
All images and text © Dan Wood