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Best of 2010 - Matt Dayka


Since February 2009, Matt Dayka has donated his time and creative talent to Vitamin Angels, a nongovernmental organization (NGO) that supplies life-enhancing vitamin A supplements to local partner organizations for distribution in remote global locations. Traveling in a team, and with expenses covered by the NGO, he has made six volunteer treks to underdeveloped villages in India, Haiti, Kenya and Bolivia, among other nations. In every new village, Dayka’s playful interactions with children and the sincerity in his eyes set the tone for joyful images.

Matt Dayka, Santa Barbara, CA

Web site: www.mattdayka.com

Project: Work with Vitamin Angels to document the fight against malnutrition in remote communities around the world.

© Matt Dayka
All images in this article © Matt Dayka.

ASMP: How long have you been in business?
MD:
I began freelancing in 2006, shortly after graduation from Brooks Institute of Photography.

ASMP: How long have you been an ASMP member?
MD:
I joined in my final year as a student in 2005.

ASMP: What are your photographic specialties?
MD:
I shoot travel and lifestyle images with minimal set-up to create a sincere and authentic feel.

© Matt Dayka

ASMP: What do you consider your most valuable piece of equipment?
MD:
My smile. You can have all the gear in the world, but if nobody lets you in, you can’t get very far.

ASMP: What is unique about your style and approach or what sets you and your work apart from other photographers?
MD:
I try my best to be present at all moments. I am always human first, photographer second. My interaction with the subjects before the photo is often a key element in creating an image. I am driven by simplicity and efficiency and work to capture that essence in my photos.

© Matt Dayka

ASMP: Please describe the processes and techniques central to the making of this work.
MD:
I usually use available light, so I pay attention to my surroundings and try to pick the best angles based on what is going on with the light and the people. Moments pass fast and I shoot a lot. Every night, I download my cards and back up to two drives that I carry separately. The images are then processed with basic adjustments in Adobe Lightroom.

ASMP: How did you initially connect with the organization Vitamin Angels? What are the terms of your relationship?
MD:
Deja Hsu, an art director I had worked with in the past, recommended me to Vitamin Angels. After a meeting to discuss their goals and the difficult travel conditions faced, we seemed like a good fit for each other. The organization covers all travel related expenses and specialty gear. I donate my time and equipment.

© Matt Dayka

ASMP: Please describe how Vitamin Angels works with organizations around the world to fight malnutrition.
MD:
The main campaign Vitamin Angels promotes is Vitamin A supplementation. It is one of the easiest, most cost-effective and simple interventions, which has proven effective to not only save lives, but it can improve the quality of life as well. Vitamin Angles generates donations of, or purchases, supplements and distributes them to partner organizations around the globe. The local agencies already have a strong knowledge of the area and established relationships with the communities they work in. With the supplements and education materials from Vitamin Angels, they are able to implement or continue a dosage schedule of one dose of vitamin A once every six months for children under five, the group at most risk.

© Matt Dayka

ASMP: Tell us about the circumstances of your first Vitamin Angels assignment. Where did you go and how long were you there? How many trips have you taken with them since, and to which countries?
MD:
My first trip was two weeks in India (in February 2009), spent visiting much of the north and central parts of the country. We kept a grueling pace, as the trips are multi-purposed and allow time to meet new partners, host contributors, oversee distributions and verify program implementation. Since then, we have been to five other countries: Haiti, Dominican Republic, Kenya, Guatemala, Bolivia, and a second trip to India.

© Matt Dayka

ASMP: You mention that you work with local organizations that help you gain access to more remote villages. Does this mean that your trips are split between larger cities and remote areas? If so, please describe the percentage of time you spend in various locations.
MD:
In many countries government and non-government organizations already have Vitamin A programs in place. Unfortunately, they don’t always get everybody in need. It is Vitamin Angels objective to reach those that other programs fail to reach. Although some large cities have slums that get overlooked, the people that usually miss out simply live in harder-to-reach areas. As a result, a good majority of our time goes into getting to those harder to reach areas, spending the night in the nearest town that has adequate facilities.

© Matt Dayka

ASMP: What are the conditions like in the remote regions you visit? Do you travel alone or are you accompanied by other staff members and/or local guides or translator?
MD:
The locations we work in are often very primitive and lack sanitary conditions. The president and founder, Howard Schiffer, and I always travel together and are often joined by another staff member or donor for at least part of the trip. The local team works to set up our accommodations and acts as our interpreters. All together, on average, I would say we travel as a group of five to seven. Occasionally, we end up with more. Almost always, we end up crammed together in a vehicle. It’s a bonding experience.

© Matt Dayka

ASMP: What types of images are you producing for Vitamin Angels, and how much freedom does the organization allow you in covering relevant activities and events?
MD:
The pictures are being used for a wide variety of purposes and as a result, I have a pretty wide range of subject matter on my shot list. They allow me near complete freedom to cover the events as they unfold. With this kind of travel, you can never guarantee anything will happen, so I work with what I get. Some images are used for documentation, others for promotion. The vast majority of photos on Vitamin Angels’ newly redesigned Web site (www.VitaminAngels.org) are mine . We also profile some of the locals and staff, and I am encouraged to participate in the interviewing process.

© Matt Dayka

ASMP: What methods have you developed to deal with language or cultural barriers in your travels? Do you have any suggestions for how others might best address these kinds of issues in their work?
MD:
This is where the smile comes in. I always look people in the eye and look for subtle cues; a lot can be said visually. Of course, this doesn’t cover everything and there is no substitute for a good translator. Unfortunately, I don’t always end up with one. I just work with what I’ve got. Showing respect is important and helps bridge cultural gaps. “Please,” “Thank you,” and “Sorry” in the local language are the most important phrases you can learn. Use them liberally.

© Matt Dayka

ASMP: Do you take notes, keep a journal, or gather audio or video while you are in the field? What are your procedures for gathering supplemental content during your trips and what role does this play in your overall coverage?
MD:
I would like to publish some of my thoughts or stories in the future, so I do my best to keep some form of journal, whether it be notes in my Moleskin or recounts on the laptop. We also shoot video podcasts and conduct interviews with the locals, so we have multiple media options. If a connection is available, I try to send out “Notes from the Field” written by Howard with my images and/or video while on location. Vitamin Angels uses these to communicate with their supporters. Being the techie on these trips, this ends up putting a lot of work on my plate and many nights I simply don’t have enough time to write personal thoughts.

© Matt Dayka

ASMP: What kinds of technical issues have you faced when you’re in remote locations?
MD:
Before a trip, I try to run through as many scenarios in my head as possible, and do my best to be prepared. I bring a back up of anything essential that I have space for, and try to keep duplicates packed separately. As with anything digital, I find redundancy is not an option. Luckily I haven’t had any crippling hardware problems and have been able to find solutions to minor software issues. I always carry extra cards and extra freshly charged batteries — the two most important things.

© Matt Dayka

ASMP: How long do you spend with the people after your arrival in a community before you begin photographing? Are there any particular behaviors or actions you employ to put people at ease and gain their trust?
MD:
Each situation is different, but I always try to feel the crowd out before even taking the camera out of the bag. I always play with the kids. I am kind of a big kid myself, so it isn’t hard. They are often shy at first, but after acting like a monster, showing them the “magic sliding thumb” trick or making silly faces, they open up in no time. The adults see we are having fun and usually are quick to loosen up as well.

© Matt Dayka

ASMP: Have you been in any locations where you’ve had concerns about your personal safety, and if so, how have you dealt with this?
MD:
I can’t say I have. Call me naïve, but I have faith in humanity and the good hearts of individuals to have no desire to harm me. That being said, I listen closely to the advice I get from locals and try to avoid being an easy target. The staff and partners of Vitamin Angels go to great lengths to make sure we are safe.

One little side story: In Kenya, we spent most of our time near the Uganda border and stopped for dinner one night in Malaba. It is about as busy and questionable of a border town as you can imagine. Betsy, the community worker, showing us around, stopped in to talk to the immigration office to make sure it was ok for us to cross into Uganda. They just sort of waived her on, so we walked across the bridge that joins the two countries. After doing our little dance in Uganda and seeing the same craziness on the other side, we turned back to Kenya. Just as we set foot in the country, an official stopped us. He pointed out that we didn’t even acknowledge him when we walked out. We were now technically entering the country illegally, he said, and he wasn’t so sure he should let it slide. Howard and I couldn’t quite tell if he was seriously upset or if it was sarcasm — it seemed that it could go either way, and if we wanted to show some attitude, he would make things as difficult as possible. Luckily, Betsy and Melody, a corporate donor’s employee, stroked his ego a little and apologized profusely. He insisted on one thing: a photo with him. He was thrilled to see a giant camera pointed at him and lit up with an ear-to-ear grin. After that, he warned us not to do it again and sent us on our way.

© Matt Dayka

ASMP: Children are a main focus of much of your work for this organization. Do you find that children respond to the camera differently than adults?
MD:
Kids are the easiest and the quickest to open up. Curiosity and fearlessness seem to be a universal trait of children worldwide. They are not afraid to present themselves. Adults can be more difficult and are often more reluctant to allow me to shoot them. I simply try to present sincerity through my eyes and see how they respond. Maintaining respect is always my priority and I try to allow them to make the decision. Ultimately, many people end up just as giddy and as excited to be photographed as the kids.

© Matt Dayka

ASMP: When you photograph, are your subjects always aware of your connection to Vitamin Angels? What impact does this have on their reaction to you and on the pictures you make?
MD:
In small villages, word travels fast. Just about everybody knows the organization I am with and what I am doing there. If they don’t, they can be very protective. Generally speaking, people are very happy to see us. Once they realize that we are there simply because we care about their well being, people are usually very welcoming and thankful. Outsiders don’t often show up, so it generates something of an electric atmosphere. There are lots of warm smiles and energy. All the attention sometimes does make it difficult to get candid actions. This is when being able to spend enough time to allow the novelty to wear off and a long lens come in handy. Life’s chores don’t let up and villagers usually get back to what they are doing and don’t mind me.

© Matt Dayka

ASMP: Please describe the arrangements regarding image rights. What is your usage agreement with Vitamin Angels? In what vehicles and forms of media have your images been used?
MD:
While I retain the copyright, Vitamin Angels has exclusive use of the images that pertain to the program. I am still able to use the images for self-promotion and contests, and am free to use non-related images elsewhere. The photos are being used in just about all media types. They are printed for banners, used in reports, their Web site, presentations and so on.

ASMP: Are model releases obtained from your subjects? Do the subjects get to see images or receive prints?
MD:
I do not gather model releases. I have attempted it, but it isn’t realistic to do so. With the number of people and the situations in which I shoot, I would need an assistant dealing with that alone. Vitamin Angels has a strict usage policy and considers all photos documentary in nature, monitoring any use to ensure it is appropriate. Occasionally, I will promise a print to a subject and do everything I can to make sure it happens. Ultimately, the partners will receive copies and I rely on them to share images with the people.

© Matt Dayka

ASMP: Do you have the ability to license any of the pictures you make during these trips for future commercial purposes (i.e: stock licensing or other commercial applications)?
MD:
The most important thing for me is to not devalue the images and brand we are creating for Vitamin Angels. My collection includes everything from action to still life, nature to portraits, and everything in between. Because of the broad scope of subject matter, I am still looking into ways of making the most out of the imagery and stock may be part of it. Due to the sensitive nature and personal involvement of the work, I would prefer to handle any sales myself to ensure all parties are comfortable.

© Matt Dayka

ASMP: Have your experiences in working on this project spilled over to your other projects or image making?
MD:
Absolutely. My entire view of the world has shifted and my imagery has come along with it. The work I have done with Vitamin Angels feels very real and grounded to me, and I strive to bring that emotion to everything else I do.

© Matt Dayka

ASMP: How has your work with Vitamin Angels positively affected your subjects and the communities depicted? What level of interest or curiosity, if any, do they show in the world outside their immediate surroundings?
MD:
By exposing the issues associated with poverty, more and continued help can reach these communities. Anything beyond the most basic education is usually limited in these areas and although they are aware of some of what exists, the interest seems to be more in personal interaction. I’m not sure anybody can truly grasp the outside world without experiencing it, just as I don’t think anyone having never traveled away from developed nations can really understand the level of poverty there is. Citizens of developed nations need to be reminded that the majority of the world does not live as fortunately as themselves. Most people will never get a chance to experience a privileged lifestyle, but everybody at least deserves a chance to be healthy. We all need to help for that to happen, and the more people that get this message, the more likely the help will be.

© Matt Dayka

ASMP: Do you have any upcoming trips scheduled on the part of Vitamin Angels and where will you be going next?
MD:
I usually get about a month’s notice once Vitamin Angels has established their budget and timeline. Although it is still tentative, we are looking at a trip to Nicaragua at the end of September.