An Interview with photographer Doug Van Sant (#3)
Our interview series continues with photographer Doug Van Sant, a concert and event photographer based in Washington, DC. He is one of the most booked photographers in the dance music industry and is quickly making a name for himself by working with some of the biggest artists and festivals in the world.
He's a core photographer for Insomniac Events, which means shooting everything from EDCLV to Nocturnal Wonderland, Electric Forest, Beyond Wonderland, EDC Mexico, EDC PR, EDCNY, etc. Doug is also a part owner of aLIVE Coverage, a live event photography team that specializes in music events and conventions. Some of their clients includes Rock in Rio USA, TomorrowWorld, Buku Project, Live Nation, USO, Partnership for a Healthier America and working closely with First Lady Michelle Obama.
1. What got you interested in photography and when did you start in the dance music industry? Give us a little overview of how and when you started to where you are now...
It’s always funny looking back at how I got started in photography. There are actually two parts to it. The first part begins in 2003/2004 in Tampa, Florida. After moving to the Tampa Bay area, I quickly learned they had a pretty decent dance music scene. It was certainly better than anywhere I had lived and opened up this new door to music I had always loved. I had a few friends in the scene who threw house music parties called Paradise at Hyde Park Cafe and were introducing me to some of the great house music artists like Little Louie Vega, Josh Wink, King Britt to name a few.
I also quickly learned there was hardly any attention being paid by the local media and music writers to this particular part of the music scene. Because I was working for TBO.com, the online news source for the Tampa Tribune and WFLA News Channel 8, I decided to start a weekly dance music blog called Nocturnal Vibe. The blog grew to the point it became the 5th most read page on TBO.com and was attracting attention from every local promoter and nightclub. I scored interviews with a number of great DJs, including a young Tiesto who was still spinning on vinyl. To attract attention to the blog, I started taking a little camera to events and photographing people. That started my fascination with photography in a nightlife setting.
The second part happened a few years later when I moved to Oakland, CA. Having grown up on the east coast, I wanted to share the sights I was seeing now living in the Bay Area. I started walking around snapping city-life images in downtown Oakland, which can be very interesting. After about a year, I decided to invest in a nicer camera and enrolled in a black and white film class at a local college. I continued my interest in nightlife and kept taking the camera with me into the nightclubs of SF. It was around 2006 when I photographed Markus Schulz at Ruby Skye that I realized I truly enjoyed photographing dance music artists and the challenges of low light photography. As my interest in writing faded away photography took over.
Fast forward to 2010. At this point I was living in DC and had photographed a number of shows for Glow and had pretty much immersed myself into dance music. I had an opportunity to attend Electric Zoo and cover it for a local news outlet. After capturing an iconic image of Afrojack, I knew it was time to step up my game. I also didn’t like the idea of having to spend the whole day in the photo pit and made a promise to myself that I would soon be working directly for these types of festivals. I sold my car (I live in downtown DC after all) and literally invested thousands of dollars into new and professional gear. Over the course of a few months, my gear bag went from novice to full professional. That was the moment it became real. After a few years of building my brand and growth as a photographer, I left my day job and went full time into the photo world. I’m now part-owner of aLIVE Coverage, a full service live event photography team as well as a core photographer for Insomniac. I also travel and tour with artists like Andrew Rayel and Cosmic Gate. It was a slow progression but I couldn’t be happier.
2. What inspires and motivates you to continue pushing the limits in photography and life?
I’m inspired by everything. I don’t think I can really pinpoint one thing or moment that moves me. It’s everything I’m surrounded by. I love music, so that motivates me. I love people, so there’s another element that drives me. I love capturing memories that people can look to for years to come to remind themselves of amazing moments they’ve experienced. The best part of being a photographer is knowing I can share in that experience by capturing it. I also find that most photographers are never full happy with their work. I mean, I have favorite images I’ve shot over the years, but I always feel like I can do better, get better and capture something even more epic. So the motivation of getting better or capturing a better shot will always drive me. =)
3. Describe your favorite festival/event shooting experience? How hectic, exciting, stressful, does it get. Any stories to share...
My favorite festival to date was Beyond Wonderland Bay Area in September of 2014. I was feeling a little down on my work and didn’t think I was really capturing anything truly amazing. I had a long talk with one of my biggest mentors, Bennett Sell-Kline, who has always been straight with me about my abilities as a photographer and also my own mental road blocks. I think the best way to describe what he told me was, just go be you. So I went out and walked around that festival and captured some of my favorite moments I’ve ever captured. It changed the way I looked at shooting music festivals and opened new techniques for me. I think it was one of the biggest growing experiences I’ve had professionally and to this day it remains my favorite festival.
My favorite event that wasn’t a festival will always be shooting ASOT500 at Madison Square Garden for Armin van Buuren. It was the first time I had stepped foot in MSG and to be on stage during incredible moments with Armin was a one-in-a-lifetime experience. Not to mention, I captured some of my best pyro shots to-date and was overwhelmed by the significance of it all. I think I shed some tears later that night because I was so overcome by the emotion of getting that job and feeling like I nailed it.
4. Tell us a little about a photograph you took that gives you chills every time you look at it? Describe the feeling and did you know it when you took the photo?
My favorite photo of 2014 was captured at Beyond Wonderland Bay Area. I had rarely taken my camera into the middle of the crowd at a festival. I had always worried about what could happen when 15,000 people are raging around me while I hold my 10k in gear in one hand. It always sounds like it could end very badly. But at Beyond, I was motivated and ready to try new things. As I was making my way through the crowd, I heard the music building. I wasn’t at the center yet, but who cares, Kaskade was about to unleash some madness and I had to be ready. Within a matter of seconds, the drop hits, pyro fires off and a girl on her friends shoulders was having the time of her life. So many things happened at once but I my exposure was perfect and the timing couldn’t have been better. It’s one of those shots you get that you just know was part skill but very much luck in how everything framed out. I never get tired of seeing that image and I’m always trying to one-up it.
5. What makes a great live music/festival photo?
I think the answer above nails it. If you can capture what it truly feels like to be in that particular spot when the music is going off and people are loving life, you’ve got a good festival shot. I get into debates all the time when it comes to festival photographers vs. artist photographers, because we have such different jobs. My job as a festival photographer is to capture the memories of that event that makes you want to come back or makes your friends wish they were there. I want my client (the festival) to be able to use my shots to show off every aspect of their event in a way that sells it for years to come. A good artist photographer records the experience for the artist. A good festival photographer captures the experience as an attendee.
6. What does electronic dance culture and music mean to you? Give us your insight into the industry and the fans you shoot on a daily basis.
Dance music culture is energy and youthfulness. I just turned 41 and rarely does anyone believe me when I tell them my age. I full attribute my youthfulness to being involved in an industry that promotes movement, expression and a creativity that keeps us young. I find myself in the middle of these large crowds listening to incredible music on a weekly basis and often wonder, what are my classmates doing right now? Are they having this much fun??? I don’t know many other industries where there is so much love and energy night in and night out. And that’s the beautiful of working in dance music. Our jobs are centered around having fun, so it’s almost hard to avoid it.
To follow Doug Van Sant and scroll through more of his pictures, please visit....
Instagram - @dougvansant
Snapchat - dougvansant