Greg Davis: Connection through Photographs
by Mitchell Clute
Today, Greg Davis is a celebrated photographer whose images have appeared in galleries and museums across America. His short film Cloth Paper Dreams, documenting India’s Kumbh Mela spiritual pilgrimage, recently premiered at Austin’s Blanton Museum of Art, and his work is represented by National Geographic Creative. Yet none of those accolades convey the immediacy and power of his photographs; Davis has a gift for capturing ordinary people at extraordinary moments.
A New Path Opens
Perhaps the most amazing fact about Davis’s photographic journey is that it began just ten years ago, after a decade of working in the technology sector. His new path didn’t come easily; it required struggle and heartbreak and, finally, surrender. But Davis trusted those moments he calls “God winks”—coinci- dences that led him to his new vocation. “In 2004 I left my whole life behind,” Davis tells Calmful Living. “I had gone through the valley of darkness. I’d lost seven family members in the previous eight years; I’d been attacked by a gang; I’d had a girlfriend break my heart to pieces. One night, in a bad emotional state, I got on my knees and submitted. I begged to be shown the way, and lo and behold, that’s when these coincidences started showing up in my life.” The “God winks” led him to sell everything, give away his dog and set off on a one-year trip around the world. He took along an Olympus point-and-shoot camera to document his journey and captured hundreds of images—including one image, entitled Blanket Weaver, that would change his life and serve as a touchstone for all that followed. On a mountain path in northern Vietnam, Davis encountered a woman of the Black Hmong tribe who showed him the palms of her hands, stained blue and green by dyes. “At that moment, nine months into my year-long trip, I believe my life as a photographer was born,” Davis reflects. “With that simple gesture, she changed my life. It’s like the butterfly effect—you never know how your own gesture might change the lives of others.”
Finding His Way
Before his decade in the tech sector, Davis graduated from Baylor—the fourth generation of his family to do so—with a degree in marketing. His family had founded a dry-goods store in Livingston, Texas, in 1904, and generations on his father’s side were involved in the business. But there was also a deep current of creativity in the family: on his mother’s side, his grandfather played piano and created stained glass; on his father’s side, his grandfather played in a local band. “I think I was blessed with some good stock,” Davis muses. “Whether you pursue music, visual arts or writing, it’s still something that comes from within, and you have to be a conduit for what you’re creating.” When Davis returned home to Austin after his journey, he was changed by his experience but still not sure how he could make a living with photography. He took a job as a bartender, then another as a sales manager for a snowsport apparel company; however, the photos he’d taken stayed with him. One friend in particular encouraged him, saying the images were fantastic and he must share them with the world. Finally, in 2006, he began selling prints at an art market in Austin. “I set up a little booth, and it took off. I was amazed at the inspiration that my work and stories were giving people,” Davis remarks. “It opened my eyes to the possibility of making this my career, and since then things have grown organically.” Davis’s biggest inspiration is photographer Steve McCurry, most famous for his iconic shot of a wide-eyed Afghan girl that graced the cover of National Geographic. In 2007, Davis attended a talk McCurry gave in Waco. “People were asking him the same questions I answered at the art market, and he was answering with the same sensibility,” Davis marvels. “I’m not him, but I am a huge fan—and I realized that night that I was already doing what he was doing. I knew then that if I stayed focused and devoted, anything could happen.” Since then, Davis has traveled the world, shooting in India, Papua New Guinea, Cuba, Vietnam, Ethiopia, China, Burma and Morocco. Wherever he shoots, his photos share a certain sensitivity—a deep connection to and respect for his subjects, no matter their circumstance.
The Spirit of Connection
Davis is drawn to photos with a human element. “To me, portraits are more challenging,” he admits. “Approaching a complete stranger and connecting is not an easy thing to do sometimes. Yet it seems very natural to be kind to a stranger, to share a laugh. What it comes down to is trustApproaching a complete stranger and connecting is not an easy thing to do sometimes. Yet it seems very natural to be kind to a stranger, to share a laugh. What it comes down to is trust.” On his recent trip to Allahabad, India, to document Kumbh Mela—a Hindu religious pilgrimage of fifty million to a hundred million people, held every third year in one of four sacred locations—Davis had one particular encounter that typifies this connection. “I call the photo Nectar of Immortality,” Davis explains. “It’s a striking image of an Indian man whom I connected with at the banks of the river during the pilgrimage, where he’d come to drink and bathe at the confluence of the holy rivers. Drinking from the river is the quintessential moment, because it’s believed to break the cycle of reincarnation and allow access to heaven. I caught this man at the moment of salvation. People who see this image don’t know why they’re so drawn to it, but they see the connection in his eyes.” Sometimes the power of an image is immediately apparent, and Davis can sense it as he shoots. “It’s a feeling that’s hard to put into words, as if I’m a conduit for inspiration,” he describes. “I’m being spoken to through my heart—not a voice, just an energy. It makes me look at things in a certain way, points out aspects I wouldn’t otherwise have seen, slows down time and allows me to capture things that surprise me.” Near the end of Kumbh Mela, Davis captured an image—one of his few without a human subject—that offered that sense of surprise. Each day for almost three weeks, he had walked past two ancient doors. “They were talking to me energetically, so I took a shot but didn’t give it another thought until I got home,” he relates. It was only back in Texas, looking over the images he’d captured, that Davis saw the two doors as a representation of the pilgrimage. “I named the image The Metaphor before Us,” he says. “The brown door on the right represents the pilgrims’ plight; the blue door, the water for which they came. The break in the concrete is the break in the cycle of reincarnation, and the staircase, access to heaven. It’s truly a metaphor for the whole event, and it spoke to me because I was connected to something larger than myself.”
The Eye of the Heart
What is it about Davis’s photographs that have such an impact? Can an image change the viewer? Can an image change the world? “Those are tough questions,” Davis responds. “I’ve had tears, I’ve had speechlessness, inspiration and gratitude, come back to me from people who’ve seen my work. I’ve had children say I’m their favorite artist, and who knows what effect that will have? Perhaps it will make them more respectful of others, more interested in other cultures, more of a philanthropist. I know when I come at it with a pure heart, that intention is what matters most. Then the images can convey an empathy—a sense that we’re all one. “We are all connected to the divine, whether we know it or not. In my life I’ve had a huge gift given to me, because I know I’m tapped into something bigger whether we call it God or inspiration or divine guidance.” Davis’s work is now in demand, and he continues to travel to far-flung locations on behalf of clients. He says he’s humbled to be part of National Geographic Creative, an agency that represents some of the world’s finest photographers. But his journey is far from over. In fact, he says it’s leading him where all good journeys go—back to the beginning. His dream is to return to Vietnam someday and find the woman whose dye-stained hands launched him on his path and changed his life. “Steve McCurry returned to Afghanistan and found the Afghan girl,” Davis concludes. “I intend to find the blanket weaver, and tell the story of how all of us are woven together.” resources Find out more about Greg Davis and his work at www.gregdavisphotography.com.