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Esther Havens: Stories of Hope Through a Lens

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By Ty Clark on May 16, 2011

One of the things that I have the privilege of doing as an artist is showing with and meeting other artists outside of my own community. In February of 2009 we (Veritas Fashion) were asked to help put on an event for a brand new organization by the name of Falling Whistles.

The idea behind the event was to create an amazing creative experience through the Arts to raise support and awareness for the atrocities that were happening in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where Falling Whistles has focused its efforts.  

So we gathered a number of our Artists in our Collective to be a part of the evening. As a number of our Artists were hanging the show, we made it over to a series of large format photographs and they blew me away. I have been in the majority of the countries where the photos were taken and they somehow told pieces of my personal story! I had to meet this individual, the artist behind the lens. 

I made it over to her table during the evening for a second. The event had more than 1,500 attendees and our booth was going insane, as well as the photographers. I said hello and that I loved her work and then had to run back to the gallery because one of my paintings sold along with another one of our artists, so that was our introduction. As time went on, post-Feb. 2009, I continued to follow the photographer, whose name is Esther Havens. I followed Esther as she continued to shoot for numerous organizations like Charity:Water, TOMS Shoes, Concern Worldwide and A Glimmer of Hope.  

Here, story-telling from beyond the lens captivated me not only as an artist, but as a human being who is trying to impact communities in need through the Arts.

My wife and I in 2010 moved to Austin, Texas, the home of Esther Havens. We had numerous friends in common, not just in Texas but also in California and other states, and everything we heard came back nothing short of amazing. So we got in touch with Esther and met her for lunch on the patio of Blue Dahlia in Austin one afternoon, and a brilliant friendship began. That day we talked about our worldviews, our experiences, organizations, and solutions to world problems. We also asked Esther to join our Artist Collective as an artist who we believe represents our brand and our vision to “Inspire Hope through the Art’s around the world.”  

She said “Of course,” and the rest is history. Without further ado, I am extremely excited to introduce to you one of the humanitarian worlds most brilliant story tellers, Esther Havens.

Do you have a favorite walk-around lens…If so what is it?

I have two main lenses that I wouldn’t go anywhere without. A 50mm 1.2 and 16-35 2.8. I try to pack as light as possible, but I occasionally use a 85 1.2 as well.

Would you give a brief walk through your workflow?

What’s workflow? Ha. I think this is something creative’s are always learning to do better. Unless you are a super organized person, it’s a growth process. I shoot everything in Raw and upload images after each day’s shooting. I then batch rename with date, organization and image numbers. I backup the images on a second hard drive before deleting the CF Cards. Those images get backed up a third time once I’m stateside. I use Adobe Bridge to select my favorite images, process them, and then add metadata and image keywords before delivering a disc to a client. I usually get a handful of images to an organization right after a trip so they can start using them online for fundraising.

In general, during a session, how many pictures would you say you take to find “the right one?”

I have no idea. On an average day in the field. I shoot between 600-1500 images. I usually select a final 100-200 to process in Adobe Bridge and then pick my top 10 from those that I star 5.

Are you a self-taught photographer or did you have a mentor that showed you the ropes?

I started out with taking a darkroom course at Eastfield College in Dallas and went on to Richland Community College. We shot everything on film and developed it ourselves. I remember the first time I recognized light and shadow for the first time and wouldn’t leave home without my camera. I interned with a photographer in Dallas named Stephen Karlish, who would let me tag along for a few shoots at Neiman Marcus. I moved to Austin to assist architecture photographer Robert McGee, who gave me my first digital camera. He really taught me the ropes with lighting and composition. There is one thing he told me that has always stayed with me and it’s had a huge impact. “If you don’t know how to do something, just figure it out.” If I have no idea how something is done, I will find out how. I actually love when someone tells me I can’t do something. I set out to disprove them.

What makes you choose to edit something in B&W over color?

I think I’ve gone in phases. There was a summer in which I turned every image in black and white and over-saturated everything. I’m at a point right now where I want images to look as natural as possible. Sometimes you just look at an image and you know it needs to be a B&W.

Was there a defining moment when you knew that it was time to take pictures professionally or was it a gradual transition?

I had been working at Starbucks for 6 years as a barista. I was mainly working for the insurance there, but I also loved having conversations with people every morning. I was headed out on a trip each month and it just got to the point I was too busy to work as a barista anymore. I was missing shifts because I had left the country, so I called to tell them I quit.

Before you put your work “out there,” do you have it critiqued by someone else, or do you just go with what your heart tells you is right?

I have no problem critiquing my own bad images. Ha. I’m my own worst critic when it comes to my work. I try to have the mind of an editor at a magazine and think what would be published. I do get overwhelmed with photo content sometimes and I worry that I don’t know what’s good anymore. I’ve had a lot of stuff that’s “out there” that I wish I could take “back here” because I don’t like how I edited the image.

In the past year, who has been the most influential person in helping you discover your photography style?

Hm. I rarely look at other’s work because I don’t want to copy anyone else. I’m a firm believer that we are each created as unique individuals with ideas and visions that nobody else has. I do have a few friends that constantly inspire me: Eric Ryan Anderson, Paul Wilkes, Kelsey Foster, Andrew Shepherd and Austin Mann.

What is the ONE lasting impression you want to leave in your photos?

I want people to be moved to action. If you can photograph anyone living or dead who would you photograph? Man, that’s a hard one. Johnny Cash. Because I love his music. And Jesus.

Do you think that society would be different if photography was never invented?

Absolutely. Events in the world would have never been documented. I truly believe that images have the power to shift things and initiate change in the world. It’s happened in the past.

So you have traveled and invested your heart into over 40 countries and a vast number of people groups, how has this affected your worldview and down time when not on assignment?

Wow. Your questions are good. I think my worldview has definitely shifted. I see the globe as one neighborhood. To me, there is no separation of cultures, time zones or countries. I just jump from one backyard to the next. The hardest part is coming home because I don’t know how to have ‘down time.’ I come home from constantly being on the go, and find myself sitting alone on a Friday night because nobody knows i’m back in town. I’m still learning how to transition myself in and out of community when I return back to the States. Community is the most important thing that gives you stability.

You recently had the privilege to be a part of the Summit Series as Summit at Sea with some of the worlds brightest minds and entrepreneurs, how was your first experience amongst these individuals?

I was so honored to be included in such a selective group of global world changers and leaders. I was really encouraged by Sean Stephenson’s talk about conquering your insecurity and being confident in who you are. It’s so easy to look at other people doing great things and to feel small and intimidated. What I loved about Summit was that everyone was genuinely interested in each other’s stories. I came away with ideas for collaboration with so many individuals I wouldn’t normally meet. Since Summit, the word “epic” has been integrated into my vocabulary.

I know personally as a known artist I get the question all of the time, “How do I get started?” a question I know you get a lot as well. Could you give one important bit of advice for a young photographer as they begin their journey?

Quit watching other people and start looking inside. I believe that true creativity comes from within. When we stop looking at people on our left and right, we can move forward. We become leaders instead of followers. Be who you are!

I believe it is our job as Artists to observe our world and our communities around us to create a sense of emotion, experience and action through our gifts for the world to view, (a thought I adopted from Madeline L’Engle) What do you think about this?

I agree. My challenge to myself has always been to bring people on a journey with me…

If you are interested in following Esther on her journey please visit her website at:
www.estherhavens.com. If you are interested in connecting to any of the organizations that Esther is involved in you can contact Esther on her website or contact me at info@liveveritas.com.

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