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While he’s made a career out of taking stills, much of David Howells' life has been spent in movement.
“My dad lived abroad for 40 years, so the idea of travelling and moving, that was normal,” he said. “(He) was a land surveyor in Africa in the ‘50s, doing undone surveying out in the bush.”
And while he tried following in his dad’s footsteps by pursuing a geography degree, he decided to become a photojournalist after he “spectacularly failed at everything else.”
“When you’re left with no decisions whatsoever, and this has to work because there’s no other alternatives, then you tend to work harder, you tend to work more hours, you tend to be highly driven and very focused,” Howells said. “I had to make it work.”
Since then, the quick-witted Welshman — who also tends to fail at being stuck for words — has been making it work, photographing his way across the world and into rooms with some of the most influential people of our times.
He’s photographed Amy Winehouse, George W. Bush, Dog the Bounty Hunter, amongst many others, and even given camera advice to Lou Reed during a shoot.
He’s photographed the 2008 and 2012 Democratic and Republican National Conventions, capturing the excitement, passion and partisan zeal of both American parties as they vied for the public’s attention and votes.
He was also flown into New Orleans during hurricane Katrina to capture the devastation.
Yet, becoming a professional photographer isn’t as distant from following in his father’s path as it may seem.
“My dad was a very keen amateur photographer and so is my grandfather,” Howells said.
As well, his great uncle was an aerial photographer during the First World War, who was shot down and killed while taking pictures of the frontlines.
“I only found that out fairly recently and I (thought), well okay, it would explain why the family album has all these pictures pre-war when they were a bunch of Welsh farmers who shouldn’t have had a camera, let alone have these amazing photographs,” he said.
Howells spent five years based in the U.K. and 15 years in New York. But when his daughter was born, and given that his wife was originally from Newfoundland, they decided to settle in St. John’s, where they owned a house.
He now makes a living as a freelance photographer, shooting advertising across Canada.
1. What is your full name?
David Thomas Howells.
2. Where and when were you born?
1967 in Cornwall, U.K.
3. Where do you live today?
4. What is your favourite place in the world?
If you asked me six months ago I would have said Newfoundland generally. As a photographer, ending up here is absolutely extraordinary. But after the summer trip (there), I’m going to say the Torngat (Mountains). If you ever get the chance to go there, sell kidneys, children, doesn’t matter what you have to do, get there. If someone as unbelievably shallow as myself can have a spiritual moment… when I came back from it, my wife said, “Oh my God, he’s even more unbearable than usual.” There’s no distractions and you’re so tiny, I mean you’re completely irrelevant and you’re not the top of the food chain by a long shot.
5. Who do you follow on social media?
Everybody. I am a democratic follower. I follow photographers, I follow a lot of surfers, a lot of wildlife, a lot of fashion (and), without even a hint of irony, I follow a lot of models because the photography is superb. The people who are photographing really well known models are the best in the world and so it’s always great to see what they’re up to.
6. What would people be surprised to learn about you?
People are always surprised that when I was 19 I trained with the Botswana Olympic running squad. I used to be a very fast runner in my youth. My parents lived in Botswana at that point, so I went for a year and I taught sports and English. I ended up being friends with these guys and started running with them. I mean, they were laps in front of me. These guys were Olympic level runners, but it’s amazing how fast you can run when they’re in front of you. It’s kind of funny, these enormously long-legged Botswanan distance runners and a short-legged Welshman running after them.
7. What’s been your favourite year and why?
That’s easy, 2005. My daughter was born. You start aiming your future for somebody else and not yourself. You end up (thinking) what’s best for the family and you start making decisions based on that.
8. Can you describe one experience that changed your life?
When I was at photojournalism training, I had a drunk, 3 a.m., conversation with the head of the course. He said to me (in) a hotel lobby in Portugal… “You think it’s going to happen because you’re talented, don’t you? It’s not.” He said, “I’ve bet you’ve heard if you only applied yourself you could do anything you like, I’ve bet you heard that your whole life.” And I said, “Yeah.” He said, “The people who are successful doing this, it’s not how talented you are… you have to want it more than anyone else and right now you don’t want it. And until you do, it’s not going to happen.” I woke up the next morning and I was literally a changed man. I was hyper-focused from then on and I’ve never not been.
9. What is your greatest indulgence?
Coffee. Maybe just one (a day), it used to be more, but now I’ve got this environmentally friendly YETI cup that I’ve nicknamed Greta because I’m doing it for the environment. It stays hot for hours. My daughter told me I had to get one because I was drinking too many paper cups. And hot baths. I love a hot bath. That’s where I do all my thinking.
10. What is your favourite movie or book?
Movie would be “Under Fire” or “Live and Let Die.” (Book would be) “Chickenhawk” by Robert Mason. I haven’t read it in 30 years but I read it about 50 times. It’s about being a helicopter pilot in Vietnam. It’s absolutely brilliant.
11. How do you like to relax?
I'm relaxed most of the time, apart from a tennis court. Honestly, I like to lie on my sofa with the dog — Steve the dog. It’s classic. There’s no love stronger than between a dad and the dog that he didn’t want.
12. What are you reading or watching right now?
I don't watch TV as a rule, I haven’t watched TV in a very long time (but) I watched the Super Bowl. I’m presently reading “The Art of Thinking Clearly,” by Rolf Dobelli. “Talking to Strangers,” by Malcolm Gladwell. I just finished that two days ago.
13. What is your greatest fear?
Apart from the obvious, losing loved ones… the one thing I do think about is going blind. I'm pretty deaf but I just crank up the music. It’s not just because of (photography)… I’m constantly watching people. I like watching the interactions, the politics, the power plays. I’ve always been like that. I’ve got a ridiculously good memory. That’s the other thing, losing my memory.
14. How would you describe your personal fashion statement?
A homeless man that’s mugged a photographer. Once described as a badly aging Vietnam vet. I was once described as Keith Richards older brother.
15. What is your most treasured possession?
I’m very emotionally attached to (my camera). It’s covered in my sweat. I was looking through my dad’s transparencies, he was a very keen photographer, and he shot on Kodachrome most of his life. So you’re holding this Kodachrome slide that looks like it was literally shot yesterday (but) it’s 60 years old. The best thing about it, of course, is that he held that piece of film 60 years ago, it was with him.
16. What physical or personality trait are you most grateful to a parent for?
Giving everybody the benefit of the doubt, that’s my mother. It’s live and let live. And curiousness, being interested in people. My mother, my dad too, but my mother was always very interested. She could also see through people, which is very handy for this job.
17. What three people would join you for your dream dinner party?
Oscar Wilde, Tilda Swinton and Martin Luther King. Wouldn’t that be the coolest table? I’d actually shut up and listen.
18. What is your best quality?
I’d probably say sense of humour. If I’m having a sense of humour failure, things are not very good. I’m never not cracking jokes, or being stupid. I do, but I don’t, take life particularly seriously. If it wasn’t that, my ankles.
19. What is your worst quality?
I’m not as nice as I like to think I am. I go around thinking I’m really kind and really nice and then I realize I’ve had some horrendous thoughts. Some would say dubious tastes in 80s music. Wham!, Spandau Ballet, Duran Duran, I love all that.
20. What’s your biggest regret?
Not going deep-sea fishing in the Caribbean in the mid-80s. I always wanted to do it, I had a chance to do it, but my mother said “He’d probably get seasick, he doesn’t want to do it.” I’ve been going on about this for 40 years. But then I ended up doing deep-sea fishing (and) I didn’t like it. I felt very guilty. I caught a giant shark and I felt dreadful I had killed this absolutely beautiful creature.