Haitian American Haitian Artist

Meet Haitian-French-Vietnamese Photographer Olivier Duong

olivier-duongWhen I stumbled upon Olivier’s photography, I had no idea he was Haitian, I was simply drawn to his black and white photographs of Haiti and just had to know more about him and his work. After a few emails between the two of us where he explained he was born and raised in Haiti for 20+ years and explain his passion for photography, I knew I had to introduce him to my readers. I hope you enjoy his interview and charismatic personality the way I did.

Can you introduce yourself to our readers and tell them what you do?

Hey there, my name is Olivier Duong, I’m a Haitian-French-Vietnamese photographer, graphic designer and entrepreneur. I know it’s a mouthful but I’m just a ” neg Jacmel” (from Jacmel). Miss that place! I’ve been living these last few years in Fort Lauderdale, craving some Lam vertitab (Breadfruit) ever since. I’m a Fort Lauderdale-Miami wedding photographer and a documentary photographer. On the side, I also create and design a photography magazine “Inspired Eye” with a friend of mine.

How do you come up with the idea for your art pieces.?

When someone stares at a blank canvas or a blank piece of paper, they literally have to come up with something from their imagination. But photography is different in the sense that all of the pieces are given to you, up to you to make something out of it. The painter can paint anything they want but the photographer is limited by what’s in front of them. So I don’t really come up with anything beforehand per se, but when I encounter a scene, my eye, heart and mind will align and I will usually see something that comes from the corner of my mind and I’ll photograph it.

What I am trying to do in my photography is something that can be called gentle surrealism. I’m trying to find these little cracks in the fabric of reality that transcend the everyday life. In other words I’m trying to find the miracle of boring, everyday events. Photography allows me to be both grounded in reality (part of photography is recording a scene) but also to dream (by creatively shooting and editing).

What inspires you the most?

The very idea that there’s photographs out there waiting for me. Each new killer photo I have is fuel to get the next one. It’s a never ending quest.

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What do you see as the strengths of your piece, visually or conceptually?

I have a different approach to photography then most, so I will split the answer into two. Most photographers I know have something I call “Portfolio thinking”, where all they show is always portfolio shots. I have a selection of portfolio shots too, and I believe their strengths lie in their composition and the concept of gentle surrealism in them.

But I don’t stop there, there’s a whole other aspect of my photography that I will call “Life Photography”. In this work, it’s not about making the uber best photographs, it’s just about taking photography day by day, I won’t win any awards for them but that’s where the strength of this approach comes from: Making the best out of everyday.

How has the work developed since you first started?

In all due honesty, one day I came home, I asked a friend of mine about her “professional looking camera” and how much it was selling for, I counted the $$$ and behold I saw that I could swing it. And I did.

The work evolved from being yet another acquisition by an impulse buyer to a powerful tool of self expression. I was raised as a guy, and the one thing that got drilled in my head was “You shut up and you suck up those things called “feelings”. Heh, that doesn’t work, as sure as you can keep pressure in a can without exploding. So the idea that I could express myself through images was revolutionary to me. That came at a price tough, before the Haitian earthquake, my images pretty much sucked. When the earthquake happened I lost my mom and it hit me that I never made any images of my mother. That taught me to express myself or regret it.

What is your favorite work of art you’ve created?

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All of the images here were at some point my favorite. My current favorite is the one you see here ( To the right) . I’ll probably have many more favorites but that’s in the future, si bon dye vle (“God willing”).

My friend was getting married and his wife’s family wanted to go on a boat. I knew that probably I would get a good shot (and an upset stomach) if I put myself in the front. When I saw this guy trying to get the boat out with a stick, I saw that image you see in my head, about a split second later, he was doing that pose that I had in mind.

My wide angle lens exaggerated his features and the movement resulting in the image you see. Can’t wait for the next one. Speaking of my friend’s wedding, the image of the couple is my friend and his wife, they got married in Jacmel, where I made this shot.

What is a talent or skill most people would be surprised to learn you possess?

Hum, maybe that I don’t have any talent or skill? Here’s a little secret. I became the way I am with these steps:

– Look at where you at
– Look at where you want to be
– Figure out a plan to bridge the two
– Work, work, work

That’s how I became a graphic designer, a photographer and now an entrepreneur. It’s sexy nowadays to think that people wake up being enlightened and becoming an artist, the truth is much unsexier: It’s plain old hard work. You’ve been warned!

miami-wedding-photographyWhat is art?

Imagine with me for a moment a man and a woman looking at a sunset. The man in question used to watch these exact sunsets with his mother that is now gone. When he’s looking at that sunset, he’s feeling how he felt back then. He would like to express that feeling he has to the woman. That sentiment there is beyond words, because language can only express so much. So the man has 3 choices:

1) He can suck it up and never express anything. That’s the worst thing to do. Humans are hardwired for relationships, and communication is at the hart of relationships. Withholding the expression of emotions will create an inner tension because, well, we are humans and we are hardwired for expression.

2) He can find a way to plug in a wire from his brain to hers so that she can feel exactly what he feels. That doesn’t exist.

3) He can create art to try to do the same as above. In my opinion, art is transferring 1 to 1 your feelings and emotions into a piece of art well enough for that emotion to be transferred to a viewing person 1 to 1. Basically creating something so that others can feel how you feel. Bad art then is not so much aesthetics, but the failure to transfer a feeling or emotion. Makes sense? Those are my thoughts at least, let me know what you think.

If you had to be described by others in one word, which would you hope they used and why?

I would say wise. The reason why is, I’m obsessed with the right course of action. When it’s my time to go, I want to make sure I’ve been the best photographer I could ever be, the best husband/dad I could ever be, the best person I could ever be. I just want to do my best and then get going to meet the Big Boss.

How do you challenge yourself in your work?

I use a pretty simple trick actually, I’m my own worst rival. If I hit some high point in my work, I come right back and put +1 to reach higher. I don’t look to others work, it’s the shortest path to complacency (if I feel my work is better) or depression (if I feel their work is way better than mine). By rivaling myself, I always move forward and avoid headaches. I never forget to show some appreciation though, the danger there is getting burned out. It’s a balance.

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What has been the response of the Haitian American community to your work??

It’s been generally positive so far. I can’t really comment too much because not many of the Haitian community has seen it, hopefully that will change with you reading this. W’ap fe’m konnen! (“You’ll tell me”)

How did your education and experiences in school and beyond lead you to the role in which you are working today?

My classical schooling did not really help much in what I’m doing. Had to learn most by myself. For technical schooling, I only have basic design under my belt, didn’t even finish that! I learned everything by myself and gave up on school because I found out that I had more design understanding than those who had a degree. In this field, like in photography, it’s the portfolio that counts usually. Wasn’t it Mark Twain who said “Don’t let your schooling interfere with your education”? I’ve decided to be a lifelong learner a while ago 🙂

What advice do you have for aspiring artist?

I only have one: It’s not about how good of an artist you are, it’s how much you market yourself. Just look at Van Gogh! Be yourself, create the best art that you possibly can (because you have a high view of what you are doing), and learn marketing.

Artists need to make a living, and not selling your stuff means you have to find a job and not do art. Trust me, I paid dearly for not understanding that marketing comes first, art second.

Do you have any grand plans for your art work in the future?

Well, I’m going to triple my marketing efforts 🙂 Got 2 kids to feed!

Any future ideas and exclusives you can share with the readers?

Well I might turn the images into a self published book. I’m trying to get a grant to actually go in Haiti and create photo essays of people’s life. That is all 🙂

How can readers connect with you? 

Sure. First is Fstop8 for my personal photography and my wedding photography. Second is my magazine for photographers, Inspired Eye and you can “like” me on Facebook and please follow me on twitter.

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4 Comments

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  • Sure we can see a few nice shots coming from Olivier…
    He has the spirit, he has the drive…
    I doubt he could produce such nice shots if he didn’t “understand” (the land, the people…)
    Olivier photos are taken from inside…and only like that he manages to convey the soul of the land and the people!

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