Billy Name speaks with photographer David Shankbone about hacktavism, Wikileaks, and the cultural revolution of new media.
Wikipedia has amassed what is arguably the largest collection of knowledge out there, and a group of artists and graphic designers have grown up on that website. The most well-known is David Shankbone, whom I met in 2006 when he was first starting out with what is now a massive photography collection licensed so that anyone can use the images. There’s a lot he doesn’t like about copyright. When he said he was photographing for Wikipedia, I thought that was big time and I expected a circus to show up in my home—umbrella lights, tripods, flash meters, assistants. Instead, a tall, thin handsome guy walked through my door alone with a two megapixel point and shoot. He apologized for his cheap camera and said that it was all he could afford, and I told him to get over himself. Necessity breeds creativity. Since then I’ve watched him grow, buy better equipment, learn the skill and confidence that it takes to photograph publicly, and spend years on something that makes him no money.
He’s been controversial, with some of his work banned in Australia as obscene, and yet he was invited by the president of Israel to discuss Middle Eastern politics and photograph the country. He asked Al Sharpton how he wanted to die, and Billy West called him the Barbara Walters of his generation. His images are everywhere, on hundreds of thousands of websites and in every language. He is possibly the most viewed photographer in the world, and chances are you’ve seen his work. From urban landscapes to A-list celebrities David captures reality how it is, not necessarily how people wish it to be, in a way that reminds me of Diego Velázquez. We live in an age of over-stylized everything, and what David reveals is the natural beauty and humanity of his subjects and the world around us. I watched that guy with the point-and-shoot morph into the people’s photographer, everyone did, because it all happened on the most public of venues.