In the Autumn issue of NC State, we talked with David Evans ’84, a Washington, D.C.-based photographer who travels the world looking to shoot the unseen, to document life in far-off cultures and to find the familiar in the foreign. Evans started in advertising but migrated to photography. Along the way, he helped to direct the creation of the National Geographic Channel. His work has appeared in National Geographic magazine, and he shoots often for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. We have posted a PDF of our photo feature to our Web site. You can see additional images in the slideshow above and read more from Evans below.
Did you feel in danger when you were documenting the possession cult in Venezuela? (Editor’s note: see photo 12 in the slideshow)
Yes and no. They don’t like journalists or photographs. When I first found the violent stuff going on in the mountains — it was a very remote, isolated place — I was chased away several times and threatened with my life. I just kept going back, trying to explain who I was until I was accepted into the inner circle. And then people were used to us and let us work. There were people very opposed to us being there, and because it’s Venezuela’s more poverty-prone population, there’s also a more violence-prone people involved. These are people who after throwing corn on the ground to make these symbols and thrashing around and bleeding and screaming and sweating and stepping all over this stuff were picking up the kernels of corn to cook for dinner. That’s how poor they were. Me walking around with $30,000 of camera equipment strapped to my back, it’s pitch dark in the middle of the jungle with thousands of people in various states of possession. It’s a little worrisome.
You directed the creation of the National Geographic Channel. What was the challenge of bringing a well-known brand to a new medium?
The biggest challenge at the time in my mind is that National Geographic Channel is 75 percent owned by Fox, which was a very odd fit. In the beginning days, it was just set up to be a battle between Fox trying to get ratings and National Geographic trying to preserve their brand in the medium. At the time, they didn’t know . . . this could go really bad for us if this was done wrong. I was kind of set up in a no-win situation of being between Fox and National Geographic. National Geographic had the right to deny Fox anything creatively, but Fox [had] the money and [carried] quite a bit of influence itself. I was just trying to make sure the message and the imagery and the way that the channel was presented spoke in a language that was consistent with National Geographic’s history and prestige and position but not holding it back from being successful in the marketplace, in this new medium. It was really, really a very stressful job. Probably the most stressful thing I’ve ever done. And more dangerous than anything I’ve ever done. No question. Being between Fox and National Geographic is a very dangerous place.
How have you moved so easily from project to project throughout your career?
I have never taken traditional paths. Frankly, I’ve never had a plan. That’s why I’ve just sort of looked for what it is I’m trying to do at the moment and do everything I can to try to achieve that. . . . Because of the program at NC State’s College of Design when I was there, I was exposed to filmmaking, animation, painting, drawing, photography, architecture, just about everything. I felt very comfortable doing just about anything in the creative world, and it’s directly tied to the fact that we were never taught to be afraid of other disciplines. We were never taught that you couldn’t have that as part of your professional equation. I never thought because you did one, it excluded you from the others. That attitude has really carried forward in my professional life. National Geographic would call me and say we need you to design an atlas called “Birds of America.” I’ve never designed a book in my life, and I’m going to be designing an atlas for National Geographic. But I don’t blink. I’m happy to do it. We’d like you to executive produce this film on fair trade coffee in Brazil. Executive produce a film? What does that even mean? Sure, I’ll do it. Then, I guess I do it well enough that people keep coming back to me for their particular niche.
(Photographs by David Evans ’84)