Pointe and Shoot: Discussing Dance Photography with Kike Calvo

Pointe and Shoot: Discussing Dance Photography with Kike Calvo

For National Geographic photographer, author and visual anthropologist Kike Calvo, combining photography and his love of dance has been a lifelong project. He notes that photographing dancers around the world has been a passion of his since “way before photographers started photographing dancers for Instagram.”

As the story goes, it all started with an advertising assignment for the National Ballet of Panama. They’d asked for images of dancers on stage to attract a younger audience, but he rejected the offer unless they gave him full creative control. As luck would have it, they said yes and the rest is history.

Kike’s ability to spin images of dancers into something much more whimsical peaks the interest of even those of us who have two left feet. In addition to capturing the subtleties of the dancers, he’s also been known to have them beautifully posed in ordinary locations like the woods or culturally significant landmarks. We connected with him to learn more about some of his stunning dance photos and share more about his unique approach to storytelling.  

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity. All images by Kike Calvo.

Connecticut Ballet dancers dancing as forest fairies.

What drives you? What motivates you as a photographer to get up each day, travel and do the work that you do?

Passion. Photography is my way to express myself; it’s my way to discover the world; my way to empower others to dream; and it was my way to cope with my dad’s death when I was in my early 20s; and probably by now, there is no separation between my work and my life; it is a lifestyle that I embrace with love, hard work and gratitude. I have also started journaling and sketching, keeping a diary of expeditions, so when my daughter grows up, will have a recollection of her dad’s adventures around the world.

Ballerinas from the National Ballet of Cuba in an old house in Havana.

What sets you apart as an artist? In what ways would you say these photos express who you are as a photographer?

What life has taught me is that there are many talented people out there, but only some are really willing to do what it takes. Behind the glamorous and adventurous lifestyle of being a photographer, there are hundreds of hours waiting at airports, lonely moments away from loved ones, research times and much more. Many people can take beautiful images, but not all can come with an idea, write about it, sell it, execute it, and deliver it.

Classic ballerina inside a classroom at Yale University.

How did this project change you? What’s something you’ve learned from these shots and from these dancers that you didn’t know before?

We are all in constant evolution. Every expedition, every project we embark on, has an impact on us, even when we don’t realize it does. This is a project of love, so it’s driven by a keen interest in creating images with no other purpose than to produce beauty using spaces and moments that have a story behind them. In a way, dancers are like photographers: we spend a lifetime perfecting techniques and skills, that in general, the world only appreciates in short periods of time.  

As in ballet, photography sometimes is all about purity, precision, discipline and beauty.

Cuban National Ballet dancer at the studio of Cuban artist Jose Fuster.

Who inspires you? We’d love to hear about some of the creatives who helped make you who you are today.

I went into this craft with no formal training in photography, using a trial and error method. I developed a style before knowing who was who. I’ve always regretted not having a mentor in the photo world. I wish I had one.

Over the years, I crossed paths with dozens of photographers. Some of them inspired me to move forward and dream big. While others disappointed me as people, which made me dislike their work. I worked my way up, arriving in New York in my early 20s, where I rented a small room in Queens while I started an unpaid internship at the Photography Unit at the United Nations for three months.

There are too many names to mention here, but to name a few individuals who were essential in my career development include:

  • John Isaac, former Chief of Photography at the United Nations
  • Gina Martin, Rob Henry, Sylvia Bors, and everyone from the National Geographic Image Collection
  • Ford Cochran, from National Geographic Expeditions
  • Greg Payan, from the Associated Press
  • Karen Cetinkaya from the New York Times
  • Carl Safina, Endowed Professor for Nature and Humanity, Stony Brook University
  • Tom Lovejoy, Senior Fellow at the United Nations Foundation
  • Bob Krist, National Geographic Photographer, for sharing their insights about the planet, and making me understand the power of using our careers to raise awareness, and writing beautiful forewords for my books.

I should also mention some photo brands that supported me since my early beginnings along the way, including Wacom, DJI, Lumiquest, Sandisk, LaCie and of course, PhotoShelter.

Ballerina at the Griswold Inn. The Griswold is one of the oldest continuously operated inns in the United States. It opened its doors for business in 1776.

It’s fair to say that I have come across people – and not only photographers – that without knowing it, pushed me to work and become a better professional. And most importantly, a better human. To those people, whose wise advice touched my soul, I would like to publicly thank. And those who gave me opportunities along the way, those who supported a young Spanish photographer with a strong accent and no references, other than the desire to work and learn, and use photography as his mean to tell the story of our planet and the struggles and beauty of the people of the world.

Kike has been sharing images and insights on our Instagram this week. Follow along for behind the scenes stories and check out more of his work by visiting his PhotoShelter website.

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