I’ve been a Claire Dam stan for the better part of year now, and I’m so thrilled she was willing to take the time to chat with me. I discovered her work shortly after launching The Film Sorority, and I was immediately blown away by the tender yet very real portraits she captures of families and mothers. There is nothing forced or overtly posed in her work. Every photo looks like a raw, beautiful moment that she just happened upon.
A truly one of a kind artist, Claire has been working in the photography industry for years, from shooting weddings to capturing newborns. If you’re a fan of authentic and tender moments captured and preserved forever on film, then sit back and enjoy our conversation throughout her career and artistic journey.
Can you start off by introducing yourself?
A little bit about myself. Well first, I’m a mom. I have two little kids. We live on a small farm in Ontario. I’ve been shooting since high school, for like, 20 years. I started on film because my parents still had a film camera. They gave it to me and I took a film class. I loved it because back then we still had teachers that would do darkroom stuff with us. And that’s the most thrilling part! Then I went to school to become a midwife, and I did that for a little while but then it just was not for me. I ended up switching completely over to photography and taking on clients, and that’s when I started my business. I would say I’m still polishing my voice. Finessing it. But I would say it took a good 6-7 years to speak in my voice in my job with my clients. That really helped give me a niche market. I took all those people that liked what I did and took them into film with me. So now I only do film photography with my clients; families and weddings and all that kind of stuff. On the other side I have my conceptual artwork which can be both digital and film.
What do your clients think of you being film only? Do they understand the limitations of working with film?
Yes, they are pretty educated these days which is really nice. The ones who’ve known me, I’ve been bringing different film cameras to different shoots for decades. So those who have shot with me know that about me. And I would often share those film images with them even if it was just a handful. I’ve certainly lost some along the way but I knew I was going to lose them and that’s okay. Because I wasn’t gonna give them what they wanted anyway, so that’s good. I would say for the most part they are very well educated and because people are so quick on trends on Instagram people want film because they want the grainy look, which drives me a little bonkers, but anyways. So they often specifically want film to achieve that texture. And then shooting in film is a whole different pace. I’m definitely a different shooter, like the content is different. The pace, the vibe, it’s all different. So that’s attractive to some people too.
Do you have one main film camera with which you shoot your client work, or do you have a buffet of cameras you like to choose from?
At the moment, I have two. I have the Pentax 67 [our review of this camera can be seen here]. Man, it’s a tank but I love it so much. I’ve played around with other ones, like the Mamiya C330. That was beautiful too. That’s a twin lens though, and it was just slowing me down a bit. But it was beautiful. I am happy with the Pentax.
I’m not a big gear head. So I tend to stick with a camera for a few years until I meet a bunch of people and use their cameras and realize they work better. I rarely go research cameras. I forget who said it, but “the best camera is the camera you have.” I do try to make my cameras work that way.
The 35mm I use is the Nikon F100 [our review of this camera can be seen here]. It’s a really nice camera. I like it a lot. I also got the Canon EOS3 because someone I admire was using it, but I kind of had nothing but trouble with it. I need to play with it more but I haven’t had the time. I hate wasting film trying to figure out problems. So those are my two main film cameras I use. If I’m doing my conceptual work I just use the Pentax.
And what digital camera do you use?
I am going to ride my Nikon D700 until it dies [our review of this camera can be seen here]. It’s funny because I’m so old. When I shot a lot of weddings I had two. So when I stopped doing those, I sold the second body and just kept one for this and that. And now with mirrorless it’s like I’m an elderly person now with my digital gear. It happened so quickly. Now there’s no point in selling this. So I’m just going to run it into the ground. But I do love it. I’m used to it. It’s like an extension of my body. This is the second shutter on it. And I have a bunch of other cameras, too. Like personally I like using the Canon AE-1 Program [our review of this camera can be seen here] when I’m just out and about, it’s low profile and does a nice job. And then I have a bunch of fun cameras like Lomo cameras and different instant cameras, just to play with.
Do you remember your first film camera?
You know? I don’t. It was a Minolta. I know, and it had a mickey mouse neck strap from my dad, which I still have! I’ve asked him but we can’t remember what camera it was. We just didn’t think that way back then. It just was like, here is a camera. Perfect. I ended up giving it to a friend, so I don’t know where it is anymore. But I do have a soft spot for it. It did a good job.
You don’t shoot weddings anymore. Why is that?
Yeah, I don’t do the same kind of weddings. Like I used to do the BIG weddings and I like Love, I’m all in support of Love. But I’m so jaded by weddings. They’re horrible. I’ve shot many, many, many weddings for a decade and the last couple years I was running my business I only took on micro-weddings, which are now a big thing but five years ago weren’t. But I love those, those are totally up my alley. They’re slower, they’re smaller. So I’ll still do those. I even did a few last year actually. But I don’t advertise it.
You just got burnt out on the big wedding structure?
Yeah, all the hype. I”m all about authenticity. And I’m not saying a wedding isn’t authentic. But people can often lose sight of what is actually happening on a wedding day which is Love and a celebration of Love, and it just turns into this big Instagramable event and I don’t like that. I have friends who are still wedding photographers and they’re just made to do it. They’re pumped, they’re always super excited, they love Love, they cry at every wedding. So they’re great, some people are just built for it. But it was a stretch for me. I’m glad I did it though, it was fun. But I’m happy that chapter is closed.
Beyond your clients, what keeps you shooting film?
I like the pace. I like how it slows me down. I like the challenge. The technical challenge, and the artistic challenge of capturing in the fraction of the frames you would on digital. I really enjoy that challenge. I also love that you really have to surrender with film. You can’t check the back of the camera to see if you got it. So it’s very freeing.
A photographer whom I saw at a workshop said “Film will set you free.” I didn’t understand her for a long time, until I just exclusively shot film and I realized it really does set you free. It’s super risky shooting film, so you wouldn’t think it would set you free but it does. It frees you to think more creatively and just trust your skills and the process. And when you are being creative it’s more of a challenge. Like if you’re going to do a double exposure you really have to think very clearly of how you’re doing it, framing everything, and if it’s going to work. As opposed to if you’re doing a double exposure on digital you can just check right away and that’s no fun.
It’s thrilling, you get your scans back and you don’t know what they’re going to be like. The whole process is very exciting. And clients really love it. Even my clients who didn’t grow up with film. Now there’s more clients who have never experienced film, they just enjoy how special each image is. People cherish their images more. It’s beautiful.
One of the things that first really pulled me into your art was your work with mothers and children. What draws you toward mothers and why are they one of your focuses?
Oh, man. That’s a good question. I’ve never been asked anything like that before. Why mothers? I think there are a couple of reasons. The first reason, that’s the time of life I’m in right now. So that’s my demographic for starters. But I’ve thought about it and I’ve never come to a good conclusion about it. I’ve wondered if it’s because I can’t physically have kids myself. I wonder if there is some fascination or examination I’m doing. Because I can’t have kids and I haven’t been through it. I see pregnancy and the early days of motherhood through a different lens, of more curiosity maybe. Because it’s not normal to me and it’s not commonplace, so it’s exciting. I think that’s the first thing that comes to mind. That could be it. Also just moms and babies are just such a unique relationship to begin with. It’s really an endless topic you could study. The shapes and the colors are so beautiful, and the textures. And the earthiness of it. It’s so feminine and it’s so gritty at the same time. I really like it.
Is there anything in particular you are hoping to capture about motherhood?
Nope, just the reality of it. All I really ask of my clients is they try to be themselves as much as possible. So the shoots are always different. But I just want to capture them authentically as who they are. I don’t think you can see it in the images but I can, like some shoots I did last year I can see a lot of gladness in them because I know what was going on with that mom at the time. And I tell them, that’s just where you were at. This is a time capsule. Shoots can be really silly or intimate or sad and intimate. But they’re always very tender. I love tenderness.
I love that there’s nothing posed or overtly forced in your photos. They feel very lived in. As if you’re capturing these moments as these families are just living their lives and going about their days whether it’s getting dressed for the day or having bath time. How did you develop that style?
It evolved but it came from a place of really valuing authenticity. What’s more authentic than being in a state of undress and moving, undressing, dressing, rocking your baby. You don’t get more authentic than that. A lot of the images are posed in a sense, they’re initially posed but then I let them fall apart. It’s just really that desire for something authentic. The nudity part of it, I’m personally not much of a nudist. It doesn’t make me uncomfortable, though. I think having been a midwife helps a lot and helps my clients a lot because they can get nervous and I can say, “Remember, I was a midwife, I’ve seen it all.” And that has really helped everyone to relax and let me take pictures. It was a few years of asking people to be vulnerable by taking clothes off and now it’s people coming to me wanting to take their clothes off. Not in a weird way of course!
When you mentioned nudity just now it took me by surprise because I’ve never thought of your photos as being nude photos. It doesn’t stick out at all. You do it in such a beautiful, subtle way that I never thought about it until you brought it up.
I have always been really, really clear I don’t want to create sexual images. I want to create intimate images, or even sensual images. That’s totally fine with me. I have a lot of pictures of couples kissing and nudity there, but they don’t feel sexual. So yeah, there’s a line that I don’t think you could define until you saw it.
The last thing I want to do is sexualize anybody, because it’s kind of a cheap trick.
As you’ve mentioned, you are a mother. How do you feel being a mom has affected your artistic vision and output?
When we adopted my daughter I had to do art to, like, breath. That was a really cool time with her, because when we adopted her a lot of things went really badly in our lives just after we adopted her. Nothing to do with her, of course! Just life things. It was a way to process and spend time with her. I created a ton of images with her when she was 18 months to about 3 [years old]. They’re really hard and heavy but I love that I have them. I think with parenting and having two kids now, there’s a level of, I have so few fucks to give. Like, I just don’t have the time. I don’t have the energy to invest in things I don’t believe in, like art projects I don’t think have legs. Not to say I won’t experiment. But it’s made me more focused and it’s made me more relaxed in one sense but it’s also made me more tunnel visioned in what I want. It’s been really awesome. Really tiring, but awesome because I know what’s me and what I want to do. I guess I would say I’ve gotten much more efficient.
Do you ever feel like there’s times where motherhood and art are in conflict?
Oh yes, every day. When we first adopted our daughter she would take three-hour naps in the afternoon, so I would once a week have someone come to the house and we would do “nap sessions” and shoot during her naps. I created a ton of images I loved during that time. Just finding myself and what I like. I got to work with a lot of great people who still model for me from time to time to this day. That was so life giving.
But now I don’t have the time for nap sessions, because nap time now is “clean the house, shower, make dinner, etc.” Things are different now, it’s just so busy. And less energy, but I still have so many ideas. Even today I was driving my daughter to school and I got sad because I have so many ideas I want to follow through on. And Claire Without Kids and Claire With One Kid could find time to do them, but now I can’t and I have to keep letting them go, but I know more will come. That’s something I’ve learned with ideas and projects. Sometimes they come and they go, and you don’t have time to work them out. But there’s always more coming. There’s no scarcity of ideas that come up, so I have to remind myself to let them go and it’ll come back to me if I really want.
I wanted to talk a little about a project you are working on called Fed is Best. Could you tell us about that photo project?
Yes! I renamed it, it’s just called Fed now. I was seeing that Instagram has just been flooded with images of moms breastfeeding. And there’s this really big movement in the last year or two where women are showing more and more skin while nursing and breastfeeding. And while it’s super beautiful and super awesome, it is unrelatable for someone like me who can’t nurse. And also for other types of caretakers like men who don’t produce milk, or grandparents taking care of kids, or foster parents serving as primary caregivers. There’s all these different people who have these beautiful bonding moments multiple times a day, and it just felt like “Well, where are our beautiful images?” Because I know that we’re having these moments too.
So that was the impetus, feeling underrepresented and jealous, too, of these beautiful pictures. And then I’ve just been reaching out to the community. Even though it’s just been very preliminary, and I’m still building it and establishing what the whole project will look like. Also as a midwife, I’ve been so surprised by all the different ways people are feeding their children. I was just thinking we’d have a bunch of different bottle feeding caregivers, but no! There’s so many different things between full on breastfeeding and full on bottle feeding. There’s a plethora of different methods which I didn’t even know about.
It’s very exciting! It’s been fun to explore. Something that’s never happened to me before. And I don’t know what to call it besides stagefright. I got frozen with this project and I lost a lot of momentum from last summer to now. So unfortunately I’ve lost several volunteers I had lined up because they’re no longer feeding their babies, because they’re babies are growing up and not taking milk anymore. But that was really weird. I’ve never had that happen with a project before. I just felt immobilized. I couldn’t make a decision on the project.
I will be seeing it through. But again, there’s no rush, because women, men, and caregivers will always be having to feed their kids. It could be a long project, we’ll see. Also, it’ll be all film. That was one of the things making me freeze, because of the costs. I’m shooting medium format and just committing to that.
That’s such a beautiful idea, because you’re right. There’s so many different types of parenthood outside the traditional biological aesthetic of motherhood that don’t get celebrated or recognized in our society.
And don’t get beautified or romanticized. For adoptive parents or moms who can’t produce milk or just all the different scenarios, pregnancy and having babies is so romanticized. Then people like me feel like this isn’t romantic at all, this is really hard! So yeah I just want to romanticize what we do, too.
Most of the people I interview either don’t rely on film photography for their income, or they shoot digital as their main job and film on the side as a personal passion. I think you’re one of the first people I’ve interviewed who shoot solely film with all their paid work. So how are the rising costs of film affecting your business and is that of concern for you?
Yeah, yup! I actually just sent out some quotes this evening where my prices had been raised. And I sat there for a while reading it over, not sure. If I was a potential new client receiving an email like that, I would be thinking “Are you kidding me?!” But I always have a formula, and it was the formula I used ten years ago and it’s the same formula I use now to make sure I’m earning money. I guess the one thing that you might not want to hear, I’ve always had it in the back of my head is that what I offer is luxury. And when things get difficult in the world luxury items are the first things to get nixxed. And I’ve always thought of myself that way.
I mean, you could argue that photos are art and art is essential. But it’s not a daily living essential. It’s really low. But it’s helped me. I’m totally prepared to fade out, if the world is going to collapse for a while. That’s been in the back of my head. And also, I’m just aware because of the price increases I will have limited clients. Fortunately because I am a stay at home mom and my husband works full time, we are not reliant on my income anymore. We were when I was running a business full time without kids but that ended a few years ago. So I don’t have to think that way. But I do have to think when I do shoot film, it costs me financially to pay for it but also in finding babysitting for my family. So it has to be worth it. So, I don’t know, I don’t have an answer. I just know I’m very aware my job is a luxury item.
Does that ever cause you any anxiety?
No. Because I feel like I can fall back on my other artwork as an outlet. I’ll just figure out how to make art no matter what. If the world totally collapses and we can’t even get film developed, it’ll be heartbreaking yes, but there will always be other outlets. And that’s the main thing for me, this is an outlet.
Also something very unique you’ve been doing to keep your client work alive during the pandemic is Zoom photoshoots. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
Yeah, during the pandemic I was trying to find a way to keep shooting film, but, of course, it wasn’t possible to shoot indoors. At the time, I was in an online class with Yan Palmer and Bec Griffiths and I was captivated with one of my classmates. I asked her if I could try shooting her and her baby through Zoom, but on film, and that started a whole new genre for me which has virtually taken me from Connecticut, to Washington state, back to Ontario, then to Germany. Soon I’ll be working with people in Qatar, the UK and the East Coast of Canada. It’s so thrilling being able to virtually travel into clients’ homes across North America and Europe!
I don’t want to forget to ask you! One of my favorite images of yours is the burning Christmas tree image. It is just iconic. I’d love for you to tell us a little bit about that image and how it came about.
Yeah it was our first Christmas with two little kids and my parents were living with us at the time, in an attached part of the house. And life was just heavy, and hard, and tiring, but magical because they were really excited about Christmas. But we forgot to do the Christmas morning picture in front of the tree, or really any picture in front of the tree which I wanted to be our little tradition. And we forgot.
And then it was New Year’s Eve and we had plans to go out and everyone we were supposed to meet up with had Covid. So the party was canceled, and we thought let’s take down the Christmas tree instead. And then I realized we hadn’t taken a picture. And I was just in a MOOD and our daughter wanted to roast marshmallows earlier so I told her, “We’re going to burn the tree and you can roast your marshmallows over it!” She got so excited and was jumping on the couch shouting “Burn the tree!”
So we took it outside, and I could just see it in my head. I knew we had to pick up outfits. We had to do this right. This is going to be our Christmas tree picture, because this is what Christmas was this year. It was chaos, a big dumpster fire. And it felt fitting to burn it. It felt good to not passively take the Christmas tree out and be sad I missed the opportunity to get the picture in front of the tree. I wanted to be really defiant about the whole thing. So when we started off we did some sample shots before I lit it on fire.
And then we don’t know what happened, why my daughter started crying. There are two theories. One, I maybe stepped on her finger but she says I didn’t. And then the other, I think is in her 4-year-old head she hadn’t fully processed we were going to actually burn the Christmas tree and then when she saw what we actually were doing she started crying. So we don’t know. But she did start balling and wailing uncontrollably as soon as we started taking pictures. And I was like, “Yeah, this is appropriate.” It’s in theme. And then I stood up and I just put my arms out like a defiant surrendering thing. It just felt so good to do it in the moment. It was super cathartic. It was awesome.
I always like to ask each of my subjects what female photographers, past or present, do you consider favorites or find inspirational?
Oh, it changes all the time! There’s just so many good ones. First and foremost, and I feel embarrassed to say this because it’s so typical, but Annie Leibovitz. And I’m not talking about her big commercial stuff as gorgeous as it is, but it’s all her personal work beforehand with her parents. If you don’t know any of her earlier work with Rolling Stone and stuff, man she speaks my language. She’s looking for the moment. She’s looking for authenticity. She was following the Rolling Stones for a while before Rolling Stone magazine, and there’s a picture of Mick Jagger getting into the elevator and he’s exhausted and his makeup is all running off after a show. He looks terrible, but he looks like a total rockstar. Just the way she captured it is so vulnerable and tired. She’s really talented. And then with her elderly parents she asked to photograph them. And they let her. And just the vulnerable, intimate pictures she has of her elderly parents is just beautiful. Her early work has been a huge inspiration. So yeah, early Annie. Rolling Stones Annie.
And she has a super cool life. I can’t remember if they were married, but she lost her partner to cancer a few years ago. And she took pictures of it. And that’s me. That’s me. That’s how I process things. I lost my best friend a couple years ago to cancer, and I took a lot of film pictures of it with her permission. I don’t think I’ll ever share them but man are they important to me. And that time in my life and those images helped shape who I am today. And I recognize that in Annie. And beyond Annie, I also really love Vivian Maier, Yan Palmer, and Amy Woodward.
As we wrap up, is there anything this year photographically that you’re looking forward to?
I’m looking forward to getting started back on the Fed project. I’ve psyched myself out, but I know it has value so I’m excited to see what comes out of it this year. And if I get some clients along the way that would be great, but that’s not really the goal these days. I guess the biggest thing, even if Fed totally flops, I just feel like no matter what, I’m really enjoying this process of not caring so much. But also at the same time having a laser vision of knowing what I want to do and not worrying about pleasing other people. And just doing what I want to do. I’m excited to see where it will take me.
Where can people find your work and is there anything you’d like to add?
On Instagram my client work can be found on @dam.its.claire. And my artwork can be found on @claire.dam. So those are the two!
And just one thing I want to add about women in the industry, and in women being talented. I think as women we often don’t present ourselves like we’re talented. Almost like we’re apologetic that we’re talented, and that’s comfortable to do. But it’s so backwards, so I’m pushing myself and encouraging other women in the industry to be proud of our accomplishments. And walk around like we have accomplished stuff. We’re artists and we’re talented, and we’ve earned it through the many hours we have put into our craft. I want to change things because like at weddings and stuff people would always call me “bossy.” And it’s driven me up the wall. Whereas a guy would never be called bossy. And I’ve worked with men who were bossy and didn’t get called bossy. I just hope that we can start carrying ourselves unapologetically that we are talented.
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Very interesting article of an interview of a talented photographer by a talented photographer.