Behind the Lens: Capturing the Art of Dorian Warneck

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Charleston has a certain self-promoting image, of Rainbow Row and horse drawn carriages, of winning award after award, of being the “Friendliest City in the U.S.,” “Best Destination in the U.S.” and even “Best Post- College Town.”

But there is more to this city than a list of accolades: there are people. Charlestonians lay claim to every corner of the peninsula – not just South of Broad. People are born here. People raise families here. People work here. People hate and love it and live and die here.

And Dorian Warneck sees and photographs them all.

Photo courtesy of Dorian Warneck
Photo courtesy of Dorian Warneck

Warneck believes “a lot of people end up missing out on observing the world around them because they’re worried about it being impolite to stare.” For Warneck, photography aids in solving the problem of rudeness that’s associated with staring. “One of the powerful things about a photograph is that it can give the person the opportunity to stare,” he said. “It gives people an opportunity to learn about the world and by shooting I get that same opportunity.”

If you find yourself walking around downtown and happen to notice someone on a bike taking a photo of you, not to worry, it might just be Warneck, an avid Charleston street photographer. In the past year, Warneck, a self described “obsessive documenter,” has taken over 10,000 photographs with his 35 millimeter film camera of the people and places he sees everyday in Charleston. A mix between the style of Dorothea Lange and Brandon Stanton, (the eyes behind Humans of New York), Warneck takes to documenting the streets from Broad to Line.

After spending the first two years of his life in Berlin, Warneck moved with his parents to Columbia S.C., where he spent most of his childhood. He made the move to Charleston about five years ago, following the relocation of film production company Lunch and Recess, where he is a producer and editor. With a dad who was enamoured with photography, Warneck quickly picked up the habit and by the time he was a teenager he took a camera with him every time he would go out skateboarding and eventually began taking pictures of friends. His habit quickly turned into a passion. Warneck dropped out of high school and didn’t attend college; he “was already always doing what [he] wanted.’’ But his obsession of taking portraits didn’t really start until last year.

One day Warneck saw “this dude pushing a car across a flood after a storm wearing a bright yellow rain jacket.” Warneck asked to take the man’s portrait, and the rest is history. “I didn’t really think much of it but then when I got the scans back I felt like something spoke to me about it and then I just got obsessed and started taking portraits of everybody.”

Photo courtesy of Dorian Warneck
Photo courtesy of Dorian Warneck

Warneck isn’t aspiring to be the next Humans of New York, though. “I don’t strive too hard to categorize myself as doing anything new or different,” he said. “I just enjoy it and I think there’s infinite interest in the world and in the things that happen every day.” For Warneck, it’s all about documenting a place and those who inhabit it. Street photography allows him to capture a single moment as it’s happening. “There’s always going to be a new moment, even if somebody walked down the same block as you five minutes before, something’s going to happen that didn’t happen before.”

That is not to say taking pictures of everyone who Warneck passes is an easy feat. “The hardest thing about it is just feeling confident enough,” he said. “In a way approaching people for portraits requires less confidence than it does to shoot people without permission.” For Warneck, there is a level of privacy he tries to respect and maintain between himself and his subject. While it is legal for him to sell any of his photographs as an art medium, Warneck recognizes that for some people having their photo taken by a complete stranger can feel like a bit of an invasion. He is constantly challenged “to make sure what [he’s] doing is a good thing, especially when people get bothered by it.” When this happens Warneck has to take a step back. “I hate the idea of being out here and making other people’s day worse and that’s not my intention.” Warnek has also received responses from people after he has taken their photograph who want him to send copies of the image, a request with which he happily complies. “You can tell that sometimes it just makes people’s day better, just being noticed.”

Photo courtesy of Dorian Warneck
Photo courtesy of Dorian Warneck

Warneck sees a certain intrinsic value to documenting life – a value that he has to keep in mind when faced with his own doubts about the nature of his photography. Although he aims to be as objective as possible, he hopes that his good intentions translate to his viewers and subjects. “Sometimes you shoot someone who seems to be living in a state of poverty and you can’t help to feel like you’re just exploiting someone in in a less fortunate situation,” he said. “And I think it’s important to always be considerate of that.”

“I don’t live South of Broad. I live north of the Crosstown in neighborhoods where the people next to me are 25-year-old white people who just had their first three babies and then the people on the other side of me are an African American family who have lived in Charleston their whole life, who was born in the hospital, came home and never left.” The amount of diversity in such a small space intrigues and interests Warneck. He wants to “hold on to what culture there is,” and not just the culture of people similar to him.

That’s not to say Warneck doesn’t also enjoy capturing the lives of those who live and visit areas South of Broad. “I work on Broad Street right near the four corners of law, so I see a lot of the tourists, I see a lot of the people who live South of Broad and drive Jaguars two blocks to get from their house to their office.” Warneck loves to document it all. Though he will never ask anyone he photographs specific questions, “creating a portrait without adding all the personal info Humans of New York style leaves their story up for interpretation.” If someone wants to talk to Warneck, he will gladly spend as much with them as they want to give him, but he doesn’t ask. “I like the photo to speak for itself.”

Warneck does not usually go out with the intention of only taking photos, though he enjoys it when he has
the time, most of his images come from his daily bike commute to work. “There will be times when I pass somebody on my bike and I go three blocks and then I turn around and I’m like I gotta do it and go back.” When Warneck does find a free Saturday in his schedule, one of his favorite routines consists of grabbing a coffee at Kudu and just walking around town. “The intersection here on Calhoun and Meeting is really interesting just because there are so many people; it’s the busiest intersection of Charleston.”

Photo courtesy of Dorian Warneck
Photo courtesy of Dorian Warneck

Once Warneck realized he had accumulated thousands of film photos, a medium which appeals to him immensely, with its realness both in the “look of the photos and the fact that [film] has been around for so long,” he was inspired to share them with the rest of the Charleston community – and not just on Instagram. To do so he compiled his favorite shots into a self-produced and self-funded zine called “Neighbors.” So far, he has created three issues and printed about 150 copies of each.

“The Neighbors title came when I first started taking photos,” he said. “It was literally just of my neighbors like in my neighborhood and I would post them on Instagram and hashtag ‘neighbors’ just to see what happens.” He distributes the zines to shops downtown including Blue Bicycle Books, City Lights Coffee and Art & Craftsman Supply. He plans to publish his fourth issue in mid-December.

Dorian Warneck hanging out at his favorite coffee shop, Kudu. (Photo by Michael Wiser)
Dorian Warneck hanging out at his favorite coffee shop, Kudu. (Photo by Michael Wiser)

Although Warneck never went to college, he has some advice for College of Charleston students: “Whether it’s with photography or art or music or journalism or business whatever you’re interested in, I think there’s no way that not just being observant and curious about the world couldn’t make you a better person…Always consider the alternatives to your beliefs and what you think and what your little reality is. You know it’s easy for all of us to be isolated in our little bubble and I think it’s important to come out of that.”

*This article first appeared in the November 2015 issue of The Yard.

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