Meet Washington, DC–based photographer Elliott O’Donovan. From the early days of his career driving cross country in his classic 1968 VW Beatle to his self-funded humanitarian trip to Malawi in 2012, Elliott has carried a positive energy that enables him to capture photographs that wouldn’t be possible without talent, charm, and tenacity.
Can you tell us a little about yourself?
Sure! My name is Elliott O’Donovan, and I’m a professional portrait photographer based in Washington, DC. My early adult years were spent living abroad in London, followed by a year-long stint of cross-country travels in my classic, green ’68 VW Bug. I am drawn to new experiences, new challenges, and I love to meet other people to discover their journeys and passions. My style as a photographer has been formed by my extensive travels, which have provided me so with many opportunities.
Do you remember the first time you picked up a camera? Did it give you a certain feeling of affinity?
I’d like to think that I was always drawn to photography. Growing up, my oldest brother had a best friend that was a photographer. He would always encourage me to be creative and to take photos of anything that sparked my interest. I was probably between nine and ten years old when I picked up my first camera. It was one of those cheap disposable ones from the local grocery store. I used to take pictures of my action figures in ways that I thought would look cool. I’d like to think that this was the initial introduction to photography for me.
Your portraiture is beautiful. Were you ever shy about asking strangers for their portrait? Any advice for those that are?
Thank you! Absolutely, I consider myself to be an introverted person at heart, so initially it was extremely difficult for me to approach people to take their photograph. I’ve missed a lot of key photo opportunities because of it, but over time, I’ve found that pushing myself out of my comfort zone really pays off in the end. The portraits that I take when I’m traveling completely encapsulate the entire experience for me. My strongest suggestion would be to open a dialogue with your subject before asking to take the photo. A smile and a handshake go a long way.
How do you make sure you get the best out of people when shooting portraits, especially if they are not professional models?
I honestly believe that having a warm demeanor goes a long way in any situation. Simply being friendly, funny, and complimentary has worked the best for me. I truly believe that every person can create an expression that is extremely photogenic. It comes out when you can catch a split second of authenticity within them. That’s when I know I’ve captured a good image.
How has your work changed/progressed since your career started?
I think that like a lot of other new photographers, I initially tried to compare myself to other people. A lot of my initial work didn’t reflect me, because I was simply trying to replicate something that I’d seen somewhere else. Over the years I’ve come closer to figuring out who I am as an individual, and that’s helped create a style that I believe is unique to me.
Who and what are your influences?
There are some key people in my life that have played major roles in my progression. On a professional level, a commercial photographer by the name of Douglas Sonders has acted as a mentor for me since day one. There have been so many questions about the industry that would have gone unanswered had it not been for him. It’s great to think that over the years, he’s become not only a mentor, but a close friend. On a personal level, my parents. I made the decision to pursue photography professionally at a point where most parents would push for their children to follow a traditionally ‘safer bet.’ My parents have always believed in what I wanted to do with my life, and that’s been crucial for me.
Do you notice a division between your commercial work and your personal photography?
When it comes to photographing people, my core goal is the same. I’m always trying to create authentic images, and in order to do that, I use the same techniques to create a comfortable and relaxed environment for my subject. I think that doing personal work is critical to creating good commercial work. I just returned from a two-week stint in Europe that gave me a full reset. A lot of photographers get to a point where they don’t leave the house with the camera unless they’re getting paid, and at times, I’ve been the same way. It’s easy to get stuck in what feels like the mundane routine of life at times, so forcing myself to step outside just to take photos helped a lot.
Has Instagram changed the way you photograph? Has it changed what you share, or how you share your work?
I was pretty late to hop on the Instagram bandwagon. I remember when there was a lot of controversy surrounding the idea of photographers posting iPhone photos vs ‘non-iPhone’ DSLR images. Now, I simply see it as a great platform to show my portfolio. For me, I think that Instagram’s most powerful tool is the ability to collaborate. My goal for this year is to use the platform to find other creative people to work with.
What motivates you to take photographs?
Photography has become a form of therapy for me. Whenever I feel like my life has come to a standstill, I can look back on the photos that I’ve taken and understand that I’m still changing and evolving in different ways. I’m starting to realize that photography acts as a visual diary for me, as well. My photos tend to be a reflection of how I’m feeling at that particular time. I’m also motivated by the idea that I’m documenting special experiences in my life that I can always look back on and remember.
What message do you want to convey with your work?
I simply want people to feel something when they look at my images. It could be as simple as putting a smile on someone’s face when they look at a commercial headshot, or perhaps it could be a feeling of inspiration when they see one of my street portraits. I want my images to resonate with the viewer.
Do you have a favorite project that you’ve worked on, or a series that you’re most proud of?
In 2012, I saved up and funded myself to take part in a humanitarian trip to Malawi in southeast Africa. I completed a series of portraits called Faces of Malawi. These portraits were the basis of an art exhibit that raised over $5,000 in purchases and donations. 100% of all print sales, donations, and proceeds went directly to the schools and villages that I had just visited and documented. My proudest achievement as a photographer was giving back to the children I met and making a difference in their education and day-to-day life. This was the first time I felt that my photography could have a real impact and benefit others.
Are there any photographs that stand out to you as your best ever?
A typical canned response would be, “The best photo I’ve taken is the one I’m going to take tomorrow.” But realistically, as a whole, the series I created in Malawi is still my favorite because of the impact it made.
What is in the cards for the future?
I’m in the process of doing a big push to shoot more work for non-profits that are based in my hometown of Washington, DC. Ideally, my plan is to travel around the world photographing imagery that will draw attention to organizations that are especially meaningful to me. Hopefully one day my name will become synonymous with ‘globetrotting photographer.’