David Scott Holloway’s career in photography is enough to spark envy in anyone who has picked up a camera. He was kicking it in the darkroom with two-time Pulitzer winner Lucian Perkins while in college. He got his first assignment at The Post from Sharon Farmer. He has been the still photographer for Anthony Bourdain on Parts Unknown. He was Jane Goodall’s personal photographer for several years. He’s been a staff photographer at CNN, covering debates, town halls and the 2016 election. And his commitment to a project covering white nationalists for the past 28 years made him the guy everyone called to work with after the tragedy in Charlottesville. We spoke with David last week to dive into what it’s been like to have enough dream photo jobs for a few lifetimes.
This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. David was the winner of our call for proposals to present at Focus on the Story 2019 in Washington, D.C. He has many stories to tell. Don’t miss it.
Mike Jett: I was sitting with Joe Newman and we were going over the speaker proposals for this year’s festival, and when I got to yours I was pretty floored.
David Scott Holloway: He does so much! His range is from terrible to not terrible. [sarcastically]
JETT: Well obviously, Anthony Bourdain is a huge name. I pretty much spent my entire twenties living vicariously through that guy, and you worked together on Parts Unknown. But you have such a tremendously wide variety of other work in your portfolio. Do you bore easily?
HOLLOWAY: I’m not a spring chicken. That’s the thing, I’ve been doing this for a long time. You know, when I think about going to see editors, it’s a problem in the industry where people really want you to specialize and say, “Oh there’s one thing that I do.” But, photographers are curious, you know? They want to stick their nose in everything that they can. So personally, I’ve done that, but I had a lot of time where I was really trying to develop myself and I would present myself as one thing to one group of people and I would present myself as another thing to another group of people. And the Nazi work – probably only two people had seen it for the first 10 years.
JETT: We can start there, because you’ve been covering and documenting white nationalism in America since 1991. So that’s 28 years. What is driving your enduring interest in that group?
HOLLOWAY: I’m from the middle of the country and I grew up around this stuff in kind of a casual way. Like, in the south, especially when I was a kid, I’d go to someone’s family cookout and everyone had some cousin or some uncle who was the guy who’s in the Klan. Maybe the family didn’t like him, but he was always at the cookout, so you always knew that those guys were there.
And when I was in college there was a guy that I went to school with who was very vocal and very adamant about his his beliefs. His name is Billy Roper. We had school directories and so a friend of mine said “Look if you really want to do this, this guy’s the real deal. He’s going to do dark and terrible things and he’s right here.” So I wound up calling him one day and we had a meeting in our school library. It was a funny sort of clandestine meeting in the darkest corner of the basement of the school library. And when I looked back on it later, he had a bag on the table in between us. I shot some pictures of him from that. But then as I got to know him later I realized that he always has a gun in that bag. And so then I was like “What the fuck? You brought a gun to meet me?” And he is like “I say a lot of offensive things. I don’t always know what to expect from people, you know?”
I wound up photographing him for all of college, in my free time. Then, I had an incident where I was walking to campus and there were two guys sitting on that bed of a truck with a Confederate flag mounted on a pole in the back. They were drinking beer and hanging out, pretty common sight in Arkansas. I stop and talk to them. Taking some pictures, then our conversation turns into kind of a debate, which turns into me getting my ass beat. Smashed my camera. Knocked my tooth out. Tore my clothes. And then they drove off and I limped back to campus mumbling, “Screw this. I need to stay pretty. I don’t need any of these guys in my life.” And so I cut ties with all of them.
Fast forward to September 11th, 2001. I lived near the Pentagon. I covered that stuff in D.C. and then the next day all of the Associated Press articles ended with a quote from this guy, Billy Roper, the very same guy I went to school with. He’d said “I wish our members had the testicular fortitude to pursue their beliefs in this fashion. And I may not agree with their politics but anybody who’s willing to fly a plane into a building to kill Jews is all right by me.” It mentioned that he was deputy membership coordinator of National Alliance, which is a group that he was a member of before. But he had risen through the ranks and at the time they were the largest white power group in the country. So I called their hotline. I left a message, because they screen all the calls, and said “This is a message for Billy Roper. ‘Hey Billy, I saw you in the paper. Thought I’d reach out.’” And then he calls me back like five minutes later. “Holloway. Oh my God. So happy to hear from you. I’ve been looking for you.” And I go “Well I’m not going to lie, I’ve been dodging you. But I want to talk to you about getting back on the horse and finishing my project.”
So then I drove to see him in West Virginia at their organization’s headquarters and met a bunch of those guys and then just got back into it. It was a really good time to reinvest in the project because there was a lot of anti-Muslim sentiment at the time and so these groups had kind of evolved in this way, you know, your lovely wonderful aunt would wind up at some rally with these guys, because people were afraid of everything. So I doubled down and I spent another decade just kind of grinding away on that.
Halfway through in 2005 I won the Getty Grant for that stuff and one of the judges said to me, “We look through all this stuff. We can’t imagine that there is more for you to photograph. It’s so complete, it’s so comprehensive, and there’s so much of it.” And then I said, “That’s just the problem, because I’m just getting started. You guys don’t know what this is like.” I’m maybe the one person who’s not surprised by the rise now. I don’t even know if I would even call it the rise of white nationalism. I think it’s the same as it’s been, just occasionally there are more people who will be vocal, but they’ve been there. It’s not new or surprising.
JETT: Like Charlottesville?
HOLLOWAY: You know, when Charlottesville happened, I was going to Europe with my family. And I got calls from a ton of people, and they said, “Hey, I know you do all this work. Can I collaborate with you on something? Can you do something for our network?” And every time I had to go, “Look, I’m really glad that you guys are paying attention to this. It’s a really important subject, and I wish you guys the best. I hope you do a good job. But this isn’t new, and this isn’t surprising to me. And I’m not going to not take my son to Europe for this. So I’ll be back in three weeks, and if you guys are still interested, which I expect that you won’t be because the news cycle will change and you will be on to whatever the next thing is, I’ll still be doing this work.”
JETT: How do you toe the line between maintaining the relationships you’ve had over the course of working on this project versus protecting your own personal beliefs as a photojournalist?
HOLLOWAY: I had a big gap in there where I was doing a story for TIME about someone and I said, “Look, just a heads up. I want you to know you’re going to look like an asshole here and I don’t want you coming back to me and going ‘What the fuck? Why did you do that?’” And then he goes, “Yeah of course I’m gonna look like an asshole. It’s a Jewish-run, liberal media. I wouldn’t expect anything more from it.” I ask “Then why do you do it?” And he goes, “How many people read TIME magazine?” “I think subscription is about 4 million, and they estimate four people probably get their hands on every issue. So probably 16 million total viewers.” And he goes, “OK, so out of that 16 million people, if a thousand people can read it and decide the media has a liberal bias, and of that thousand people one hundred of them can go ‘I don’t know, this guy might be onto something,’ and out of that hundred people, if ten people can go ‘I need to be active. I need to be engaged.’ And then if just one person reaches out to me and goes ‘How can I help you?’ I don’t need numbers. I need people who are committed.” And so then I felt like I was validating something that I wasn’t prepared to validate. So I stopped publishing stuff. I didn’t stop shooting it. I just stopped publishing it. Because I was trying to wrap my head around what it is. What my goal is. What is the job of the work? And it’s still a struggle because I want to tell an honest story, not be the story.
JETT: You did some assignments for the Washington Post early in your career.
HOLLOWAY: Yeah. You know Sharon Farmer gave me my first assignment at The Post?
JETT: Who will be at our festival this year.
HOLLOWAY: Yeah! She was tough with me. I don’t even remember the assignment but what she said was “OK look, I’m sending you to this, but leave your 20mm lens at home.” And I said “That’s my favorite lens.” And she responded “I’m sure it is, but you’re a terrible wide angle photographer and I don’t want to dig through all of those terrible photographs.” I was really hurt at first.
JETT: So what lens did you take?
HOLLOWAY: I mean, whatever I had. I definitely shot tighter. Later, I wound up looking through my pictures and looking through some of my favorite photos. You look at Eugene Richards’ stuff. It was one of several epiphanies that I had. Like, “whoa…she is right.” I wouldn’t say “terrible” but I would say I definitely didn’t know how to use it. Not the way that I should. Now I think I’m much better. I also shoot a lot differently now. So it was kind of a painful, tough love learning experience, but a real gift to be given honest guidance.
JETT: We’ll have to follow up with Sharon at the festival and have her critique your later work.
HOLLOWAY: Oh no! That would be rough. [Laughing]
JETT: You also met Lucian Perkins back then.
HOLLOWAY: I was in school and did well in college photographer of the year, so I was invited to Mizzou to load slide trays and help during the judging. When I was there I met Joe Elbert. Joe was the DP at Washington Post at the time. And I told Joe that I was going to come to D.C. during spring break because I had a project about a homeless guy that I was trying to do. Joe was amazing. He told me, “Look, I think you should come to the newspaper and process your film so you can stay on top of what you’re getting and what you’re not getting.” And it’s not how I usually work.
At the time Lucian Perkins was in the darkroom printing his photos for his World Press exhibit. Joe takes me in and he’s like “Lucian’s here. If you need anything, he can answer it but it should be pretty self-explanatory.” So there I was standing in the dark watching Lucian print some amazing work I had ever seen. I was a little dumbfounded at the time because he would ask me questions about the prints. “What do you think about this? Does it need more contrast?” And I constantly remember thinking “Dude you’re really good at this, and I’m just some random kid stuck here in the dark room with you. I don’t know why you’re asking me at all.” You know it was amazing.
There’s a couple of times that were really influential to me, he was probably just making polite conversation but he’d ask me something and I’d go “Oh yeah. You know, I feel like that really should have an edge here. A little more contrast.” He’d go, “Yeah, you’re right. You’re totally right.” And he would reprint it. He gave me one of his work prints at the end of the week when he was done. I don’t think that he knew that I was living in Lafayette Park. So I was like “Okay, thanks, that’s awesome.” I rolled the print up and put it in my backpack, and I went back to the park. I still have the print. It’s got a tear in it and it’s like crinkled up and everything, but you know it’s a pretty amazing thing.
D.C. is the first place that I’ve ever lived where there are a lot of photographers. I was trying to teach myself how to be a photographer so when I would show up to something and there were a bunch of photographers, I would always try and figure out who I thought was the best photographer in the room, then I’d try and stand near them, paying attention to them. What lens is she using? And then you’re watching the scene. You put the same lens on it that they have. You’re watching the scene. You’re close to them, you’re listening for their shutter. You’re trying to figure out what are they shooting? What are the moments? I did that for years and had some amazing experiences, D.C. is full of exceptional photographers. Michael Williamson was one of the most amazing. I wound up with him at three events in a row. I told him at the second one, “Look I’m standing over by you because I’m trying to teach myself how to be a photographer and this is a theory that I have.” And he goes, “Yeah, that sounds smart. Good luck with it.” And then the third time we’re alone at this thing and we’re shooting, I would fire and he’d go “Nope.” And I’d fire again and he’d go “Nope.” And I’d fire again and finally he’d go, “That’s your shot.” And then when I processed the film I was like “Oh my God! He’s right! He’s so right!” I was at a march, following Carol Guzy around, and later when I saw her pictures, I was like “I was right there!” I was literally right beside her and I did not witness this. Then I realized some people are magical.
JETT: That happened to me recently during the Youth Climate Strike. All these kids are pulling out these parachutes they made, and I’m photographing that. And later that day David Butow posts just this incredible shot where he framed the capitol between the top of the parachute on the ground. He basically got underneath the thing.
HOLLOWAY: Right. Right. [laughing]
JETT: And it was humbling to say the least because I was there with the same lens, you know, and that’s what he saw.
HOLLOWAY: Yeah. I mean where does it come from? Some of it might be intuitive, but a lot of it I believe is just experience.
JETT: You were really lucky to learn from some amazing, Pulitzer Prize winning photographers so early in your career. Did Anthony Bourdain influence your photography in a different way than people like Sharon Farmer and Lucian Perkins?
HOLLOWAY: It was definitely in a different way, but my experience as a documentary photographer prepped me to succeed in his world. He hated rolling into a scene and seeing something lit. He wanted everything to be exactly whatever it is. He didn’t like makeup. He didn’t even like straightening his shirt. He’s like, “Look, it’s what it is. That’s what I want. You elevate this because you photograph something that’s real.” And I was like “Awesome, that’s what I can do.”
It was good. We had a lot of time to talk about photography and what was good about storytelling. You know, the crew is very small, but I think I learned so much from every single person on the crew, about how to be better as a storyteller and as a traveler.
JETT: He had a pretty tight knit cinematography team when you joined the crew, right? Was he protective of that?
HOLLOWAY: Yeah, definitely. He believed that every person that worked on the crew believed in and contributed to storytelling in the same way that he did. It was a natural sort of innate way for them to work. And he believed that they all brought something to the table. If you didn’t, you wouldn’t be around.
HOLLOWAY: There were so many funny memories. If it was a meal with someone, he didn’t like to do anything beforehand. He liked to roll into the scene and then just sit down and start work. He didn’t want to talk to them before the scene, because he wanted everything to be organic. He wanted this very real flow of conversation. He didn’t want to discuss something and then go back to re-discuss it. He just wanted it to be what it was and he would steer it in the moment.
I wanted to shoot these portraits of him in this Vietnamese restaurant one time, and I said “Can we get like 10 minutes before the scene that we can shoot this stuff?” And he’s like “No I don’t want to do that. Let’s shoot portraits after the scene.” Then at the end of the scene, each of them probably had 12 beers still on the table. And he’s obviously drunk and a little bit whatever, and he’s like “David, come on! Let’s shoot some pictures. Let’s do it!” And I was like “Oh my God…” I go over and I’m shooting the pictures and he looks a little crazy.
JETT: This wasn’t the Hanoi episode with Obama was it?
HOLLOWAY: No, this was the one right before then.
JETT: I was going to say you just broke that Obama had 12 beers.
HOLLOWAY: No no no. I wish. The next morning we get up and I said, “Man, you’ve got to work with me. This isn’t going to cut it.” And I showed him one of the pictures of him super drunk from the night before and he said “Oh shit. Ok. Look. Yeah. We’ll make time to shoot these things before the scene. We’ll figure it out.” So from then on he was more flexible. If you can make the right argument that this is going to be better for you, for everyone. I need you to bend a little bit in the wind. He was the best, man. Generous and kind. I always say that he felt like a cooler older cousin to me, in that way he knew that I wasn’t as cool but I was still part of his family, so he looked out for me.