When Dotan Saguy made the leap from business developer to street photographer, he immersed himself in California's world-famous tourist attraction: a real-life circus on the verge of being gentrified.
A few years ago, Dotan Saguy tied to hone his street photography skills by spreading out across Los Angeles, always asking himself, ‘Where should I shoot today?’
More of than not, he’d end up in Venice Beach. “It’s a bit ironic because Venice is in many ways the antithesis of LA but it’s the place I empathise with most,” he says. “I love its diversity, its anti-materialism, its rebellious nature.
“Once I stepped back and considered it as a serious project, I also realised the potential it had. It’s such an iconic place and gentrification is threatening to change it beyond recognition. In other words, it was becoming urgent to document this endangered culture.”
That decision coincided with a significant shift in Dotan’s life. Born in a small kibbutz just south of Israel’s Lebanese border, he grew-up in a modest Parisian suburb, lived in Manhattan during 9/11 and moved to Los Angeles in 2003, where he now lives with his wife and two teenage kids.
As they were getting married 25 years ago, the couple asked a few friends to buy them a Nikon SLR for their wedding present, thinking it would be a fun way to learn something creative together.
Dotan has spent most his career in high-tech business, having trained as a computer engineer before becoming a mobile app entrepreneur.
Over time, the 47-year-old – a bit shy and introverted by nature – realised that photography could connect him with people and worlds he wouldn’t encounter otherwise. “It felt like gaining a superpower,” he says.
So in 2015, Dotan decided to delegate more of his business work and immerse himself in street photography – attending a class at the local community college, taking photojournalism workshops and picking up bylines for the likes of National Geographic and ABC News.
“But in today’s ultra competitive photojournalism world, the sad truth is that even with all this early success no one was going to give me paid assignments yet – so I assigned myself some long term personal projects that were dear to me,” he says. “One of them was the Venice Beach project.”
At first, Dotan would try to approach interesting scenes as inconspicuously as possible, blending into the swarms of tourists with their own cameras. Aiming for “hard-to-shoot chance encounters”, he realised that it would take hundreds of visits to successfully capture enough of them.
Clocking up 500 hours, Dotan lost count of the number of times he came back empty handed… but it was so much fun that it never felt like a grind.
Instead he found himself trying to layer complex elements, often in motion, so that everything would fall into place at one precise moment.
“It’s like solving a 4-dimensional visual puzzle, time being one of the dimensions,” he says. “Looking for these shots is immensely satisfying. It puts me in a meditative state to chase them.”
One day early on in the project, Dotan arrived on the boardwalk and almost immediately found a local mom and her five-year-old son playing with two giant boas in a sand pit behind the Muscle Beach Gym.
He introduced himself, found out what they were doing (minding the snakes while a street performer took a break) and spent time soaking up their stories.
That generosity of sprit, that sense of people looking out for each other, was something that surprised Dotan again and again.
“There’s a lot beneath the surface that most tourists don’t see,” he says. “Tourists walk through the Venice boardwalk and all they see are homeless people, freaks, wild kids and buff bodybuilders.
“They go to Venice because on the surface it looks like a circus. But If you spend enough time there you find out that they’re all people with a story to tell.
“The vast majority of them are good, kind, generous people. Some of them have suffered a lot and definitely have their quirks. But that only makes them more interesting in my eyes.”
Now that Dotan has distilled the project into a photo book, Venice Beach: The Last Days of a Bohemian Paradise, he can look back at his business background and see how it informed his path into photography.
One standout piece of advice came from a book called Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap… and Others Don’t by Jim C. Collins.
It explained how successful businesses pick the right projects to work on through the ‘Hedgehog Concept’. It’s about putting yourself at the intersection of three overlapping circles: what you’re passionate about doing, what you’re ideally positioned to pursue and what can advance your career.
“Time is such a precious resource and it’s so easy to get sidetracked that having this advice as a compass is invaluable,” says Dotan.
“By deliberately and consistently focusing on work that I’m passionate about, that I am ideally positioned to shoot and that is publishable has led me to projects such as this one.
“And I think that once you find the right projects for you, developing your style is no longer a concern because your style finds you.”