An Interview with photographer Dana Distortion !
Dana Distortion has become quite popular among fans of BABYMETAL due to her stellar images of BABYMETAL and her association with the band. Dana has a wonderful portfolio of her work on her website http://www.distortionpix.com/ as well as on her Facebook page, and she has photographed the who’s who of music. BABYMETAL are fortunate to have a person of her caliber on board. I’m a huge fan of her work!
The following in depth interview profiles this talented individual.
Interview courtesy of Beth Austin.
All Photos Dana Distortion unless otherwise noted.
A couple of weeks ago, I was thrilled to be able to do a phone interview with one of my very favorite music photographers, Dana (distortion) Yavin. Known around the industry as Dana Distortion, she’s been just killing it with her photography for quite a few years now. I was lucky enough to discover her through a friend around five years ago, and have been following her career ever since. She’s been a huge influence to me with my work, and it was great to be able to dig in and ask her everything that’s been rolling around in my head, including the “quick eight.”
Yeah, the six turned into eight because she’s friggin Dana Distortion!
Beth Austin: So you’re from Tel Aviv, Israel. Give me a little background. You went to film school there, right?
Dana (distortion) Yavin: I’m from Tel Aviv, I did one year of film school there and three years at SVA in New York. Growing up in Israel was magical for me. You get to be independent from a very young age. A lot of my personality and who I am has a lot to do with growing up over there. As much as I consider myself as a true New Yorker, after 15 years here, I’m still very much an Israeli and will always be. I can’t be more proud of that.
Beth: So when did your passion for film turn into a passion for concert photography?
Dana: I went on tour with Gogol Bordello shooting video, and at one of the festivals I wasn’t allowed to shoot. So I grabbed a point-and-shoot camera that I had with me, and the rest is history. I discovered a whole new passion, and it pretty much became the center of my whole being. I fell in love with concert photography right then and there, and haven’t put the camera down since.
Beth: You still do films though right? And some music videos?
Dana: I do indeed still make videos, and do video editing. I have many plans and ideas for making more films in the future. I’ve neglected film a little in favor of photography, but it will always be a part of my life and something I’ll always do. I’ve always been a very cinematic person, and I think being a filmmaker really adds to my photography. Shooting film and video first, really contributed to my ability to capture the right moment.
Beth: I’ve been following your work for around five years now, and it’s been a real kick watching your career take off. How long have you been shooting professionally? Where did you get your start, and who are you shooting for now?
Dana: I started shooting about six years ago, and professionally, I’d say five years ago. The first year was a lot of practicing and learning how to use the camera. I just took the camera to every show, and slowly built a portfolio. Back then, I didn’t even plan on making it my full time gig. It kind of naturally turned out that way.
After I felt I was ready, I started shooting for BrooklynVegan. Then bigger blogs and magazines like Rolling Stone and SPIN. I still shoot for all of them. I shoot for whoever I can, like Live Nation, Bowery Presents, directly for the bands, and for other magazines too. Whoever gets me that golden photo pass, I shoot for!
Beth: You’ve been a huge influence to me. To the point that I refer to you as my sensei. Many times at a show I’ve thought, ”What would Dana do?” So thanks for all the advice. Who’s influenced you?
Dana: You’re welcome! It means the world to me to hear that I influence and inspire people. There’s really nothing that compares to that feeling. I spend a lot of time answering questions and helping other photographers. I never had that when I started, and I wish I did sometimes.
Since I got into music photography pretty much by chance, I wasn’t really influenced by anyone. I always just did my thing, and I think that’s what really added to my personal style.
My inspiration comes mostly from film and filmmaking. Filmmakers really influenced my style. I’m inspired by New York, by life, and mostly by music.
Beth: The first time I got a photo pass, I messaged you freaking out. I was happy, but nervous as hell. You told me it would get better and just to breathe. I did, and it has.
Do you remember any times that you had an internal freak out? What advice can you give to someone starting out, like when they get that first photo pass?
Dana: The first “real” photo pass I got was Sonic Youth, I ran into Thurston Moore at a local bar, and went straight to him and said, “Thurston, I’m a huge Sonic Youth fan and I really want to shoot Sonic Youth next month.” Not only did he give me a photo pass, but it was an “all songs” pass, so I ended up shooting the whole show. That was a really amazing experience for me and real beginner’s luck. It really taught me that if you have balls and go for what you want, good things will happen. That’s really the best advice I can give anyone, not just music photographers. If you know what you want, and you want it bad—just go for it! Don’t take no for an answer. Work hard and become who you want to be. Many people don’t really know what they want, so if you do, you’re halfway there.
For many years, I used to freak out about every show, and nearly have a heart attack before every shoot. With time, comes confidence. I still get very excited, but there’s something comforting knowing that you know what you’re doing. I remember noticing the progress. I was like, “Wow, I don’t wanna vomit before every shoot!” That’s when I knew I was ready for a real professional camera, and as a reward, went and bought myself one.
It’s important to realize your progress, but never jump the gun. These things take time and a whole lot of practice. I think it’s great to be ambitious, but being patient is a must. Push yourself, but give yourself time to learn and become great. Nothing happens over night. Enjoy the ride.
Beth: What would you say has been the most incredible shoot so far? And who’s on your bucket list?
Dana: Well, my favorite was Paul McCartney. He was seriously my number one. It happened pretty early in my career, and I never really thought I’d get to do that. So, that was kind of my top moment. I also got to shoot the end of the Olympic ceremony in London. That was really big. Very exciting
Beth: And your bucket list?
Dana: U2 definitely, and AC/DC. They’re probably the main two bands I’ve always wanted to shoot, but never have. Both of them are touring this year so, hopefully…
Beth: I’ve got my fingers crossed for you. So what’s been your most difficult shoot? Have any rough or crazy experiences?
Dana: [ Chuckle ] There’s always rough and crazy experiences. The hardest for me is when there’s no photo pit. So, I go early and wait outside with the crowd for hours and hours. Some photographers think they have privileges over people, and I don’t believe in that. It’s not fair. In my whole six years of shooting shows, you’ve never see me push myself to the front. The fans are very very important to me. People pay a lot of money to see a show, so I will never come late and push my way up front just because I’m a photographer. Sometimes they do let me in before doors, which is nice, but I still end up waiting for hours. So that’s hard.
And of course, there’s my height.
Beth: And we’re going to get to that in a minute.
Dana: [ Laugh ] Ok. And there’s battling for that photo pass. There’s never really an end to it. The happiest day of my life would be when I could shoot whoever I want, whenever I want, however I want. I think in this particular genre, it’s hard to get that. Even if you’re a very well known photographer, or are really well connected. There’s so many people, PR companies, and management involved. Every show is different.
There’s also those times when they want you to shoot from ridiculous places in the venue, where you really can’t get much. For instance— only being able to shoot from the side, for one song, in the dark. You want to get good photos, and know you’re not going to get what you could have. That’s frustrating, especially if the artist is important to me.
But as I always say, the show is for the fans not the photographers. If they don’t want people up front disturbing them, then so be it. Some photographers will bitch about things like, “Why do you always use so many blue lights?” Well, it’s because the band likes it. You work it, you do the best you can, but the show isn’t for us. And frankly, they could give a f*ck about us. They care about the audience, and that’s exactly how it should be. Because I’m a number one fan, not number one photographer, I always look at it that way. I mean, how great is it that I get to go to all these shows? That’s why I do it in the first place. It’s the music that matters to me most.
Beth: Okay, now getting back to that height situation. I’m 5’ 4” on a good day and I have problems with that. You’re like what? 5 feet tall?
Dana: Actually, I like to say 5 feet short. Because tall has nothing to do with me.
Beth: And you’ve worked around that by using a stool?
Dana: Yeah, the stool goes everywhere with me.
Beth: I really need to get one of those. Something that people don’t realize about shooting shows, is that it’s really physically demanding. On that note, you’ve been bounced around a bit haven’t you? Have you ever been seriously hurt?
Dana: [ Laugh ] Well, not enough to stop me, but yeah. I’ve gotten punched in the face a few times until I’ve bled. I always seem to have bruises all over my body from my cameras. At festivals, there’s a lot of shooting for many hours in the heat without drinking or eating much, so I’ve fainted a few times.
People often say to me, “What’s so hard about being a photographer? You just push a button.” Well, there’s more to it. For sure.
Beth: Along those lines, what’s your most physically demanding thing to shoot? The first thing that came to my mind would be festivals.
Dana: Absolutely. Festivals can be very physically and emotionally intense. Usually my breakdown point is at festivals. I mean, it’s a very beautiful thing being able to hear so much music and to shoot so many bands in one place. But on the other hand, you’ve got a hundred photographers in the pit with you. The heat and frustration gets to everybody. People can get very violent, very rude, very angry.
There’s also the challenge of running to get to the different stages on time, The distance between stages is huge. I also don’t think we’re always treated like we should be. Like a lot of the time, they don’t offer us water or they run out of water. And with the time issue, there’s no time to go buy water, or food for that matter. And of course, there’s also the crazy deadlines. You shoot all day, edit all night, for days at a time.
But it’s a lot of fun too. There’s always something that brings all the photographers together. You go through it and its very challenging, so it’s kind of like boot camp in a way. Also, the best photos are usually from festivals. You get to shoot the bands outside in the light. So even though it’s a struggle, it’s all worth it. I shoot around 13 to15 a year, so when the season starts, there isn’t any down time. You go from one to the other. It’s my passion, and I feel very lucky to be there in the first place. When it’s hard, I remember that. It carries me through.
Beth: So when you’re off, what do you look forward to? I would imagine sleep is high on the list.
Dana: [ Chuckle ] Off? What’s that?
Beth: You never ever have a day off? How about after festival season?
Dana: Well, I do a lot of things. I shoot shows here in New York, and do portrait photography. I’m also involved with friends projects. So, I haven’t really taken a vacation in like seven years.
Beth: So you never have a day off to just stay in your pajamas and watch some movies or something?
Dana: Oh yeah. Hells yeah. That’s a must. If you don’t take a day off, your body takes it off for you. I have to be sick for that to happen sometimes. But I do it. You need it to recharge your batteries. I exercise a lot as well. Believe it or not, it relaxes me. It’s my time to do something nice for myself. And I meet with friends and go out sometimes. I think its important to take advantage of life and do things all the time, but you can get to the point where it just wears you out. So it’s important to take a day off or two.
Beth: Okay let’s talk about gear. I know you’ve gotten this question a million times, so I’m going make it short and sweet. If you could take only one body and one lens with you on a shoot, what would they be?
Dana: Definitely my Nikon D4 or D4s. I personally don’t see much different between the two, but lets say the D4s because it’s my newest. And the lens would be my 24-70. That’s the lens I use the most.
Beth: What other things are in your bag other than the obvious?
Dana: Hmmm, I should have earplugs in my bag more often than I do, but I usually forget them at home. They’re a must for every music photographer. Hmm, I don’t know, let me look…Okay, business cards are a good thing. Always seem to have sharpies for some reason, And my stool and the clip to clip it to my bag…
Beth: No comfort items? Like gum or snacks or…
Dana: I always have gum, but never have snacks, unfortunately. My friend, who always goes to Bonnaroo with me, is always running up to me with granola bars. She’s like, “Put this in your bag!”
Beth: Okay, nerd alert. Lets talk about editing for a minute. What’s your process? I know you aren’t a fan of cropping.
Dana: I can crop. Over time, I learned to like cropping especially when it’s a soundboard shoot. I’m not as against it as I use to be. I use to not crop at all. That said, I don’t think cropping makes up for composition. So I won’t crop in weird ways, or to make the photo more “interesting.” That’s something I’m very much against. So sure, use it to make it tighter, but not to make up for composition.
I think the number one enemy of photographers is the overuse of filters. Filters don’t make photos look better. All those plug-ins or presets won’t make your photos more interesting. A lot of photographers I debate with say, “It’s artistic. It’s my style.” It’s not your f*cking style. It’s the person who invented that plug-ins style. Why are you going to put something on your photo that somebody else created? I mean, you can use it and tweak it, but always do more. Never use presets and say, “Here, now my photo has an artistic look to it.”
When I edit, it’s usually about color correction. And there’s things I regularly do, so I make my own settings—my own presets. Now, if you shooting your cousin’s wedding and want to put an antique filter on one of the photos, okay, fine. The point is, don’t take filters and adopt them as your style. You should always challenge yourself. Build your own presets.
The clarity button can also be a real issue. I can see right away when people push the clarity button too much, and to me, it makes the people look kind of old or ugly. Especially the Lightroom clarity, it’s really terrible to me. People will say, “I really like it. It’s a style choice.” It’s not a style choice, it’s terrible. Look, learn to shoot sharp. Don’t push the clarity button to compensate for out of focus shots. I call people out on that all the time, because I think they should learn to shoot better.
I mean, there are great tools in the software that can help you. But if you shoot out of focus, your shot is out of focus. There’s no sharpening tool that will ever make your shot in focus. So learn to f*cking focus. It’s as simple as that.
Beth: Well, thanks for what you said in the old days about cropping. Because of that, I stopped cropping a couple of years ago, for the most part.
Dana: And didn’t it make you compose better?
Beth: Oh, yeah! And it made me have to move and get up front. I use to hang back more.
Dana: People will try to compensate with cropping. Like they’ll take a shot from really far away and crop it later. Never think that way. Shoot like you can’t crop later. There will be certain situations where you might have to, like soundboard shoots. But don’t go into it with that frame of mind. It’s about composition, the way you train your eye, and the way you stand. All of that is very important. Never say, “I’ll fix it in post.” Of course, you might end up doing that, but don’t go into a shoot thinking that.
Beth: Great advice. So what about computer and software choices?
Dana: I have the latest Mac, which I love. I also just got a Wacom Cintiq, which is a display that you can directly edit on. It’s basically like a huge iPad. When I’m editing, it’s like drawing, so its very calming. On the go, I use my Macbook Pro. Software wise, I use Lightroom and sometimes Photoshop.
Beth: So was there ever a photo that popped up on your screen while you were editing that just blew you away? Like, you knew it was the one? Almost like a surprise, and you were like, “Wow, that’s badass.”
Dana: Oh yeah, one of my favorites is from the second time I shot Coldplay. It’s the one with all the confetti. The first time I shot them, I got almost exactly that same shot, but it wasn’t perfect for me. So a year later, I shot them again and got nearly the same shot, but it was so much better. That was a wow, because it was exactly what I wanted. The color was better, the focus was better, I caught the moment better. When I took the first one, I was like “Wow that’s a great shot.“ But a year later, with nearly the same shot, I was like, “The first one is a crappy shot, THIS is a great shot.”
It was a year a later, it was the same tour, and it was basically same shot. The real difference was that I was a better photographer. And that’s why I talk about not using filters and all those things. Don’t let someone do the work for you, just strive to get better. When you see that happening, you’re the happiest. It’s like wow, I’ve actually gotten better.
Beth: Ok, let’s talk about music for a hot second. Take me back to when you were teenager. What was the first show you went to that really knocked your socks off? The one that got you hooked on shows.
Dana: I can’t really remember what my first show was. I went to a lot of shows from a very young age. I would go to this club in Tel Aviv called Roxen to watch local bands. That’s what I did for most of my teenage life. All of my friends would lie to their parents and say we were going to the movies, then we would go see a band. I didn’t do the stuff the rest of the people my age did. All I cared about was music.
My first big show “from America” was Michael Jackson. And until this day, I can’t believe I was lucky enough to see him live. It was just amazing to see this man on stage, and at such young age. I will never forget that day. At the time, big shows like that were kind of rare in Israel, so the whole thing was very exciting. After that, I saw Madonna, Bowie, U2, and REM, to name a few, but Michael Jackson was the first.
Shows are so addicting. The lights go down, you wait for the band to go on, and there’s that excitement. It’s such a drug.
Beth: So, what’s something that you can’t stop listening to?
Dana: The Beatles. The Beatles is something I always listen to. The Doors, Led Zeppelin, and Pink Floyd are also in my top, but sometimes, it’s like I have an overdose of those bands. But the Beatles is something I can always listen to. They always make me happy. There’s also Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Bowie, Pearl Jam, you know, the classics. I’m also a huge REM fan. Newer bands I like are The Arctic Monkeys, The Black keys, Foo Fighters, Blur, The Kills…
Beth: But if you had to listen to one collection for the rest of your life. Only one. It would be The Beatles?
Dana: Hands down, yes. If there’s one band I live for, it’s The Beatles. That band has made me not kill myself so many times. They’re my sunshine on a rainy day and my all time favorite.
Beth: Do you ever go to a show without your camera? And does it feel weird, if you do?
Dana: I do that a lot actually, especially when I see Bob Dylan, since he doesn’t allow photographers at all. But yeah, I love going to shows without shooting. There’s times I’ll say, “I don’t want to shoot this, I just want to go.” Or my friends will say, “Hey, can you just come to the show and NOT work?” And I’m like, “ Alright, alright.” [ Laugh ]
But when I first started, it was very hard because I was like “Oh my god, that would be a great shot. Oh my god, that would be a great shot.” But after I kind of covered every band that I wanted to shoot, it was easier to go and not shoot. I think I’ve gotten to a more comfortable place without regretting that I don’t have a camera on me. But, I’ll probably always have that, “Oh, that would be a great shot,” thing. It’s in my veins. And when I’m shooting, I put the camera down after the first few songs and just enjoy the rest of the show. That’s why I shoot shows in the first place, because I love them.
Beth: So we’ve hit upon some of your finest moments. But has there been anything that happened or was about to happen, when you woke up one morning and was like, “WOW, I can’t believe this is happening?”
Dana: Going to Japan and shooting those Stones shows was just amazing. But really, “Wow” happens to me all the time. I’m like,”I just cant believe I’m fucking doing this.” I never take it for granted. Every show I shoot to this very day is like, “Whoa!” It just doesn’t go away. I’m really a wow kind of person. I say wow and amazing a lot. People kind of get tired of it. But if you tell me, I’m shooting something or going on tour, I’m like, “Yeah, wow! That’s amazing!” My life is really a bunch of wows.
Beth: So speaking of tours and Japan and things, you toured with BABYMETAL, right?
Beth: I remember reading an interview of you around that time. The person interviewing said that during one of the shows, one of the girls took a tumble off the stage. And you were asked if you’d got a shot of it. And let me just say, I already thought the world of you, but your class meter shot to 11 when you said something like, “Even if I did, there’s no way anyone is going to see it.” Way to keep it classy, because someone else might have used it.
What do you think about that kind of thing?
Dana: Yeah, no way. A lot of people shoot shows just to shoot famous people, or whatever. It’s not my thing. I don’t believe in showing someone in pain just for the gossip or news of it.
I mean, are you so bored that you need to see someone falling off a stage? Really? What kind of pleasure could that possibly give you? I don’t get when people do that, and I never will. It’s physically painful for me to see things like that, so why would I want to document it? And add the gossip element to it— I just don’t like it. I think its disrespectful.
That’s why I’m not a news photographer. I don’t like seeing people in pain. You know you can go to a festival and see photographers shooting the drunk people or people bleeding. To me, it’s just terrible. Also, I’m a very private person, so I wouldn’t want someone to do that to me. I think that there’s boundaries and limits to what we do. And just because you’re holding a camera or have photos, it doesn’t mean other people need to see it. I’ll never do that. Now if murder was involved, I’d show the police if it could be helpful, but that’s different. I’m not a paparazzi . I’ve turned down every agency that’s asked me to shoot for them. I’m very very very against paparazzi . Very against the whole celebrity world that we are living in. I think it’s very out of proportion.
Beth: And thats why you’re a class act. Speaking of classy, you had some t-shirts made recently, didn’t you? They say, “Who the f*ck is Dana Distortion.” That’s hilarious. Who came up with those?
Dana: [ Laugh ] I did. The idea was to do a portrait series of people I’ve shot wearing them, as a joke really. It was kind of like joking myself. The initial idea was to get Keith Richards to wear one. It was never my intention to sell them. But when I posted a self portrait of me wearing one, people started commenting and wanting to buy them. That was so surprising. Believe it or not, I’m pretty modest, so I was like, “Wow, super weird!” It’s very flattering, and very shocking.
As a photographer, you’re always trying to promote yourself, which is always very cheesy for me. So this is a cool way to do it. If I’m going to self promote, I’ll do it in a kick ass way that people will like. So yeah, I never planned on selling them, but if people want them, who am I to say no? It’s really flattering and really cool. I guess I did something right.
Beth: Girl, please, you’ve done a lot of things right. Okay, so at the end of the interview, I do this thing called the quick six. Six silly questions, that aren’t super serious. Have fun with it. Oh, and you get eight not six, because you’re friggin Dana Distortion. Ready?
Dana: Whooooo! I get eight? That’s awesome. Go for it.
The Quick Six
Beth: Nikon or Canon?
Dana: Ahhhh, Nikon, but I’m not a Nikon snob by any means. I can tell you the benefits of shooting with both. I shoot Nikon because it works for me, but I’m not a Nikon snob. I do think Canon is great, in many ways.
Beth: Beatles or Stones?
Dana: [Whisper] Beatles, obviously. But damn, I hate that question. Both. Why do I have to choose one? Both!
Beth: You can have it all, girl.
Dana: I believe in having it all. Both!
Beth: Arena or small stage?
Dana: Definitely, small stage. Although, I do love shooting in arenas. But there’s nothing like a small stage.
Beth: Roller coaster or Ferris wheel?
Dana: Oh, roller coaster absolutely! Roller coaster, over and over again!
Beth: Big surprise. Okay, Pie or cake.
Dana: Oh, cake. Hells yeah, with lots and lots of chocolate in it! Pie is….blah. I want cake.
Beth: Duct tape or zip ties?
Dana: Zip what? What’s…
Beth: They’re these little plastic things that you can zip things together with. Um, they’re used for handcuffs sometimes…
Dana: Whooooo, that’s hot. Yeah, that one. Whatever that is, I’ll take it! Hell yeah, I’ll zip it up. Duct tape isn’t strong enough for me. [ Laugh ]
Beth: Whew, okay then. Lead singer or lead guitarist?
Dana: Lead guitarist, absolutely.
Beth: Sound guys or lighting guys?
Dana: I’ve dated a few sound guys, so I’ll go with sound guys. Sound is more important than lights, at least to me. Oh, and sound guys are usually cuter too.
Beth: Okay, cool. That was fun.
Dana: Wait, that’s it? Was that eight? I could play this game all day long. It’s fun.
Beth: One more but this ones for me, never mind the quick six. What sign are you?
Dana: I’m a very typical Aries.
Beth: Wow, okay. Fire and the first sign of the zodiac.
Dana: I’m not really a horoscope person, but I’m a true believer in the signs. Signs have proven to be accurate, at least with an Aries. I’m a typical, typical Aries. Anything you read about Aries, you’ll say— that’s Dana Distortion.
To get your mind blown even further by her incredible images, check out her website-
Dana Distortion Yavin Photography
And be sure to check out her latest adventures on her Facebook page.