“You just need 20 seconds of insane courage.”

Leslye Davis is a name you’ll want to remember. At only 23, she is already a visual journalist at The New York Times, where she began working as an intern and was quickly hired to work as a multimedia producer for projects across multiple desks at The Times. Davis spoke to us about how she started, her approach to stories and her experience at the paper. 

employeesquareCV: How did you get started?

Leslye Davis: I always loved photography; I’ve always had an intense irrational fear of student loan debt. I watched people in my family struggle with not utilizing their education, so I took it really seriously when I was looking at colleges. For a long time I thought I was going to be an architectural engineer or an airplane pilot.

Before my junior year of college my grandfather fell ill. He was the most important person to me; he was like my best friend, and when he got sick I started taking photos because I didn’t think we had enough. By the time of his funeral, which was right before I went back to college, I had pretty much decided that I was going to go to school for photojournalism.

 I was not a natural photographer, but I had done a little in high school, so I knew how to use a camera on manual, and I’d shot film. It was hard work for me. I saw a lot of my peers at Western Kentucky come in with a very natural skill. I had to work really hard at it. I would go out and shoot so many pictures, way more than your teacher ever wants you to turn in. It was a very learned thing for me. I started shooting video during my junior year in college.

CV: What experience did you have before going to the New York Times?

LD: I did a semester of study abroad in Spain that was like a crash course in playing with the camera and traveling. I interned at the Minneapolis Star Tribune my junior summer, and then my senior summer I interned at the New York Times.

CV: What’s your typical day at The New York Times like?

LD: A project typically starts with a rough draft of a pitch from a journalist that they want to do multimedia with.

I spend some time with the pitch and I do a lot of research. One of the worst feelings I’ve ever had is when I show up to an interview and I ask a really obvious question that I should already know the answer to. So I like to spend time doing research on whatever I’m about to start on, and then reach out to the reporter.

We spend maybe a day talking and brainstorming about what our process will be. Then I’ll do more research, I’ll map out the logistics, get a budget ready, and say, “Here’s what it’s going to cost, here’s how long I’m going to be there,” and ask if that sounds okay. I’ll hop on a plane or I’ll rent a car, and go.

1CV: What’s your workflow in the field?

LD: When I go to someone’s house,  I’ll talk to them for a while. I’ll try to make them feel comfortable because I know how uncomfortable it is to have someone in your house with a bunch of equipment. I’ll do an interview whenever it feels like the right time. Sometimes it’s at the beginning, sometimes it’s at the end. Sometimes it’s both.

I shoot a lot because you don’t always know exactly what you need. I never regret shooting a lot. I know some editors disagree and that’s why I kind of like to handle my own editing.

CV: How do you approach shooting both photo and video?

LD: Lately I’ve been trying to shoot a lot with a Mamiya 645, to shoot film. The medium format forces you to slow down. It forces you to think about the exposure, it forces you to focus on purpose. It forces you to breathe and so it allows your subject to breathe too and let their guard down.

It’s also complicated in its whole own set of ways, which I think is good because its slows you down, it gets you out of that mind set of shooting video. It gives you a moment to think about how you’re going to frame the photo instead of just boom-boom-boom, knocking everything out. That’s one thing I’ve walked away with on other projects and just shook my head; when I have the exact same stills as I do video and it’s boring.

2CV: What gear do you use?

LD: When I started, I was using one camera, one lens, a Rode mic, an audio recorder, and one shitty tripod. It was very minimal, and I thought that was a wonderful approach. I know it makes people more comfortable when you have less stuff. But I feel like I’m able to establish that same connection with people now. I feel more confident to take in the amount of gear that I think I need to make it look better, so I’ll take in two tripods, a light for the interview. I’ll work with one tripod and one camera and I’ll pretty much always have it out, just so that they’re comfortable when I do start shooting and they’re ready for it.

For video I have two Canon 5D Mark IIIs, a Rode mic, a Zoom [recorder], a shotgun mic, a set of wireless lavs, a pair of headphones, a light with a soft box so that the interviews are consistently lit, 2 tripods, a 70mm to 200mm, 24mm to 70mm  2.8, 50mm 1.2 , and a 35mm 1.4. I also take a 100mm macro,  and an 85mm if I can get them. I carry  a lot of 5D batteries.

For photos, if I have the option of using film, I carry the Mamiya 645, and a couple packs of film of three different speeds. I just carry one lens with my film camera.

CV: How do you approach characters and stories?

LD: There’s a Matt Damon movie where he says something like, ‘You just need 20 seconds of insane courage.’ And you need to take advantage of that when you have it. Everybody has it, that adrenaline rush when you see someone walking down the street and you’re like ‘Oh my God, I’m interested. I should really go ask them if I can take their picture.’

But it’s so brief, and you regret it if you don’t give into it. Chasing those moments of impulse is really important. It can also get you in trouble, but I think it’s really helpful.

CV: In 2011 you won the best Multimedia Portfolio of the Year by Pictures of the Year International. What advice do you have on creating a portfolio?

LD: I really think that there’s no secret formula. At portfolio reviews a lot of the time they say you need a certain number of sports photos, portraits, features, and spot news, and it could be formulaic, and felt boring.

It’s a matter of finding characters and finding stories that you’re interested in, period. If somebody is passionate about something, they’re going to have a great story. If you find someone that inspires you, that’s going to make the best work.  Find three stories that you are passionate about and then just  knock it out of the park. Pour your heart into them and you’re going to have a killer portfolio.

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