COVER STORY: In focus
Gordan Dumka’s photos showcase some of the more exotic and dangerous locales on earth. Young children draped in tattered clothes on a Tibetan street, machine gun-wielding soldiers standing guard at Angkor Wat or a deserted soccer pitch at a prison on the infamous Robben Island — all have been captured by Dumka’s lens.
But as he prepares to talk about his work, and his professional plans for the future, Dumka’s in the middle of decidedly more domestic tasks. He’s just moved into a new home in North Vancouver’s Edgemont Village neighbourhood and sanding floors is one of many projects he’s got on the go.
On the way to the backyard, where he’ll eventually sit to talk shop, he stops to grab designs of an extension he wants to build and discusses his plans for a soon-to-be stained kitchen.
He’s a gypsy at heart and by blood — his grandmother was a Russian gypsy, he says, with a smile — and although his carefree attitude isn’t immediately on display amidst the boxes and responsibilities of domesticity, it’s Dumka’s capricious nature that’s propelled him throughout his career, and to the spoils that have followed.
“It all started on a wing and a prayer,” says Dumka.
“I went to a swap meet with my dad and asked him to buy me a camera. I wanted to take photos.”
In the early days, Dumka learnt on the fly. Preferring the self-taught route, he says he read books and copied other photographs to learn techniques. In university, he dabbled in this and that, eventually graduating with an arts degree from Simon Fraser University.
Dumka took a job with a pharmaceutical company after school. While on a business trip in Montreal, he and a friend decided to drive to Boston for a Bruins and Canadiens game. While passing through Albany, N.Y., the duo drove past a horrific accident involving a bus where, he says, “a bunch of people died.”
He quickly stopped the car and grabbed his camera. He started snapping photos of the wreck and of the first responders who arrived soon after to clean up the mess. Being the only one on scene with photos, he decided to call the New York Times to tell them of what he had. The photos ended up running in the Times and were later picked up by the Associated Press.
Within a couple months, Dumka went back to the West Coast, quit the rat race and took off traveling, camera in tow. He landed in Central America — Guatemala, Belize and Honduras — before heading to Southeast Asia. Based primarily in Bangkok, Dumka traveled extensively in the region, shooting in Laos, Indonesia and Cambodia.
The work wasn’t for the faint of heart. For every jaw-dropping landscape, there were times of intense fear. For every inspirational sunset, there were thoughts of whether he would ever make it home alive.
“It was very exciting, sure. During a storm, I was stung by a scorpion in Laos. It was a big storm, the trees were down. It was like a mini-typhoon, there was no power,” says Dumka.
“I was with a bunch of westerners, hanging out and playing guitar. And there’s this scorpion on my leg. We caught him in a jar and went to the hospital, riding on the back of this bike. The guy I’m with says something to the doctor and shows him the scorpion. I figured I would die. I told the others they could have my stuff and to tell my parents what happened. But, there was no poison.”
Since returning home and settling down, Dumka, now 46, has turned his attention to establishing a new creative agency, one where those involved can “call their own shots.” He approached video producer Dave Angelski with the idea, as well as DJ Mike Bleakley and designers Darryl and Keith Christensen of the upscale Ocean Drive Leather brand.
The parties jumped at the opportunity to work together and The Artists Collective Group was born. Based in an open-concept, exposed brick-walled space in East Vancouver, the agency is hoping to become a one-stop-shop for clients looking for a range of multimedia work. Once established, Dumka says he also plans to launch an in-house magazine, further promoting his work and that of his cohorts.
“The agency is the big thing these days,” says Dumka.
“Everyone involved had done bigger work, but this is a way of organizing all the forces and realizing that we are all good and capable internationally.”
Obtaining widespread recognition for the group, with the resumé Dumka’s cobbled together since his work landed in the world’s most famous newspaper, shouldn’t be too difficult. He recently shot some stills for the new Hedley music video and is hard at work planning a new video with Angelski for Victoria-native Kuba Oms’s next single.
It’s a bit of a juggling act, to be sure, but Dumka shrugs off the tightrope walk with ease. He loves his gig. And he knows that what he’s had the chance to do is the dream, and envy, of countless kids with their first cameras.
“When I take a step back and think of the memories and take the time to see what I’ve done sometimes I say ‘wow that’s cool,’” he says.
“Even the ones done by accident.”