It all started with a 5-megapixel digital camera I bought on Craigslist for $40 and a fencing tournament in Northwestern University in October 2011. Within a year, I hung up a shingle–figuratively speaking–and established K. Dao Photography, a photographic service outfit openly specialising in fencing photography, events, and portraiture, but in the shadows I was still figuring out a lot of things, practicing the art and craft of photography by roving around the streets of downtown Chicago. What I learned in photographing “decisive moments” around the Chicago Loop, I applied on the side of the fencing strip. It was symbiosis, and all was grand as I rose to become a rockstar of sorts within the motley fencing community in the midwest. But to everything, there is a cost.
I think the first sign of smoulder of my burnout in fencing photography began in December 2017 at a tournament called the Windy City Fencing Regional Youth Circuit. It was an annually recurring tournament that I had been hired to shoot for a few years, but budgetary constraints that year meant that I would not be receiving my usual commission. But Windy City was my home club where I fence and train, so I accepted to shoot for free as a courtesy, hoping that print sales would make up for the lack of commission. I felt a karmatic duty to serve the fencing community, anyways, for reasons I will discuss another time.
The shoot went horrible for many reasons. But it was an incident during one of the medals ceremony where I got into a verbal altercation with a fencing coach from a club in Michigan followed by physically falling onto my back due to parents crowding and shoving in with their iPhones to snap the most boring part of a tournament that started to make me detest covering fencing tournaments. And when I got home and looked at the photos I made that day, I hated them even more. Awful. Banal. Boring. The same composition, the same actions, the same flèches over and over and over again. Compounding the medals ceremony incident was the realisation that I have shot so many tournaments that I was hashing out the same set of photos. Nothing had changed for several years now. Mass production of these same photos to pander to parents and coaches to make a few bucks from prints and to elevate some quasi local fame. I was not producing art that stood out like my street scenes or making commentary like my protest photo essays. I was making pop music. Bugger.
Until last month, I had only shot four more tournaments after the Windy City Fencing RYC, two of which were by commission, and only three of which with photos I have released and published. The last photo set, again at Windy City in last May, have been sitting on my hard drive due to sheer disgust at how boring and banal those photographs were. Since the RYC in 2017, I have been wondering to myself what was the point of photographing fencing. Everyone has an smartphone now. I have seen DSLRs proliferate at tournaments in the hands of parents. I had once overheard a coach standing behind me say to someone else, “Oh, that’s how he’s able to get those action shots, he has a fast camera!” That line has always stuck to me. It seems I had gone from a praised artist to a mere button pusher. It was time to move on. Or so I thought.
The second weekend of October last month was the Remenyik Region Open Circuit tournament at Northwestern University. I had no intentions of going. But that Friday evening, I got a call from my friend and photographic colleague, Annamaria, telling me that she was in town to referee the two-day tournament and that we should meet up if possible. I already had plans on Saturday to do a 9-mile run with my running buddy followed by lunch. But there was no way I was not going to see Annamaria, and so on Sunday, I hopped on an L train to head up to Northwestern. Despite what I wrote above, and because this is who I am, I still had a camera with me. Instead of grabbing a Canon DSLR (i.e. my “fast camera” per the aforementioned fencing coach), I went for my street shooter–my Leica M2.
“You must unlearn what you have learned,” said Yoda. Letting go of the pressures of commissions and quasi fame, of satisfying the demands of coaches and parents, of getting shots of as many bouts a possible, I sent my mind back to 2011, when it all began, when I wanted to photograph fencing because I thought it was a cool thing to do. I had let go of the burden of fast autofocus and shooting at 10 frames per second on gigabytes of memory cards and instead embraced my street photography instincts, manual focus on a 60-year-old camera with a shooting rate of how ever fast my thumb can work the shutter recock lever and three rolls of Kodak black and white film.
The photos I made that day are far from the clinically clean and sterile digital photos I have been making at fencing tournaments for years. No. These grainy photos are better. These photos are tangible, organic, alive. The vast majority of fencers, parents, and coaches may not agree on that sentiment, and that is very much okay. I am the one who pushes the shutter button, after all. It is through my own eyes that I create, and create I did and shall. I do not know what my direction is right now in regards to fencing photography, but I can certainly say that the roads are not closed.
© Khoa Dao, K. Dao Photography, 80 Proof Photos