Hey, You’re Cool! Photographer Doug Segars
Capturing New York's timeless streets
If you crane your neck towards the vast canyon of billboards above the tourists in Times Square, you’ll catch the work of photographer Doug Segars. His most recent campaign, “Bridging The GAP,” is by far his most visible. However, it’s his black and white images of downtown pedestrians that hold the most power.
In one, three sailors laugh outside a storefront, their crisp white uniforms contrasting with the darkness of their skin. In another, a middle-aged black man meditates on his next chess move, his checkered suit jacket foregrounding the board in front of him.
Photography runs in Segars’ bloodline (his mother, grandfather, and uncle are all hobbyists), but he was the first to pursue a professional career after training at Milk Studios. The 28-year-old went on to shoot for MADE Fashion Week and Opening Ceremony, among others. Now he glides between portrait, editorial and documentary styles, with his earnest depictions of people of color as the throughline. MASS APPEAL trains a light on the man behind the lens today, and he discusses cameras, influences, and photography as social responsibility.
How long have you been practicing photography for?
I guess it’s been a hobby for as long as I remember really. My mom had a camera in the house—a Diana camera and my grandfather had a little Canonet he kept around.
So it runs in your family?
Yeah, my grandfather had a darkroom at some point. My uncle is an enthusiast, not a professional, but a hobbyist. He’ll come over and we’ll geek out over photo stuff. I didn’t study in school, but in 2013, a couple years after I graduated, I started taking it more seriously. It was the one thing I could do for the rest of my life.
Do you have a camera you always bring with you as you’re running out the door?
Yeah, that camera is usually a Leica M7.
Why this specific one?
There aren’t too many bells and whistles going on with that camera. I can just act quickly with it. It’s just compact in design. It’s a rangefinder, so it’s just really lightweight and great, an amazing quality camera. It’s used for a lot of—it’s the street photography camera system. That’s kind of my favorite work. I bought it for the practicality of taking it on the street and just swinging it over my shoulder and walking out the door. If I see something, I’ll snap a photo of it. It’s easy.
What photographers are you influenced by?
Just looking at a stack of books right now, Gordon Parks is a huge inspiration—he’s more documentary style, documentaries for Life Magazine. Danny Lyon, documentary as well, is also a huge inspiration. Robert Frank, crushed it with The Americans. That book is amazing; I’ve thumbed through it a million times. Roy Decarava. He was the first African American to receive a Guggenheim Fellowship. His greys and his tones and his subject matter were really pivotal for the time he was shooting. He was one of the founding guys in the Kamoinge group, which is a group of black photographers that sort of linked up and inspired and talked with each other. I’m cool with a photographer now, his name is Andre Wagner—one of the dopest photographers right now. He’s a homie, wanna shout him out.
I noticed a lot of your photos focus on people of color. Why do you feel drawn to documenting these subjects?
I am drawn to photographing people of color because I feel like people of color—we aren’t in the mainstream media and the masses. We’re stereotyped or aren’t portrayed in the best light. I want to shed that positive light or show the beauty I see within us. I am compelled to because I relate.
Do you think photographers now have a social responsibility to capture people of color?
I think it’s always been. Even back to Roy Decarava, the first person of color to receive a Guggenheim Fellowship, or Gordon Parks. Gordon Parks would always say he was ‘an objective reporter, but one with a subjective heart.’ Roy Decarava knew the importance of documenting Harlem. I think it’s just as relevant. I think the times have changed, but not much has changed in terms of circumstances.
Photography requires an exchange of trust. How do you get your subjects comfortable when you shoot them?
I think a lot of time it depends on the type of camera I’m using. I think I shoot more discreetly and more candidly on a Leica. When I see a subject I want to approach, I will state my intentions earnestly and ask to take the photo or take the photo first and then explain the mood was so good I didn’t want to interrupt it. Sometimes some people want to be photographed. I’ll see a couple and I’ll diffuse it by saying – ‘wow you guys look really good’—give them some sort of compliment. I’m trying to interact with people, trying to make them respond to me. I’m capturing our engagement.
Are you comfortable when people try to turn the lens on you?
I’ll get pretty self-conscious. It depends on who is taking the photo, but a lot of the time I get camera shy. I freeze up. What do I do with my hands? Put them in my pocket? What do I do? I also work in the fashion industry, and photographers I work with always take test photos of you and I just embrace it after a little while.
What makes a great photo?
I think great photos are close, close in distance and close to the subject. My favorite photo typically interjects itself into a certain situation. Danny Lyons took photographs of prison inmates. Probably one of the best photo series I’ve ever seen because I felt like I was there. I looked at it for hours. Bruce Davidson’s Brooklyn gangs, you feel like you were riding in the car with the kids. It was intimacy, you felt close to them. That’s what great photographs do. They lend themselves to you in a certain way so you feel close to it.