David Whitcomb: Professional Photographer and Resident Best Friend

Clare Sausen June 8, 2021
David Whitcomb

When I reached out to David for this interview, I sent along a few questions to give him an idea of what we might discuss. He agreed to chat, but warned me he tended to “ramble, be creative, or make things up.” I agreed to take his tales with a grain of salt. Soon after, he sent a series of questions directed back at me — what do I like to read? How do I find inspiration? Have I ever written an obituary?

I soon found this level of care to be typical of David. Just as much as he’s known for his artistic eye on site, he’s also known for his kindness, interest and willingness to help however he can. His often-busy travel schedule offers more than just an opportunity for adventure, but for making friends across the globe. By the end of our conversation, I considered myself lucky to be among them.

How did you get started at CRTKL?

David Whitcomb: Really, it was pretty straightforward. After high school, I went to Loyola University in Baltimore to study photography. I spent some time doing freelance work, and a friend at [formerly] RTKL needed some help with shooting their projects. It started just part-time or as needed, but, after several months, they hired me. I’ve been here ever since.

photography: David Whitcomb

Out of all the cities you have photographed, which has your favorite architecture?

DW: More than the architecture, what strikes me about a city is its vibe. I’ve never been anywhere I didn’t feel welcome. In particular, though, one of my favorite places I’ve ever been to shoot was Japan. The culture in Japan is so different from our own, and it taught me a lesson in how there is no “right” way to do things. They do some things differently from how I’m used to doing them, but they work just as well — if not better!

The people there were so welcoming and kind, but honestly, I have never been anywhere that doesn’t have nice people, either. I welcome the opportunity to be a visitor in someone else’s country. It kind of gives people an opportunity to be kind, and they almost always have been.

Schedules are tight on a work trip, so there’s not necessarily time to really explore the city like a tourist, but the fun is in the people you work with and the accomplishments you enjoy together. Architects don’t always get to see the spaces they create, and some projects can take several years of work, so it’s kind of incredible to be able to capture that moment.

I also enjoy the challenge of being somewhere you don’t speak the language and seeing what you pick up.

photography: David Whitcomb

How has the pandemic affected your photography practice?

DW: Every day you go on a job, there are one hundred challenges. Now, there’s 110. There are a lot of protocols to adhere to in order to keep everyone safe, and, for a few months, there were barely any travel at all. That can have a serious financial impact on many people.

But, there are ways to work with it. Even in the face of all this loss, I hope this pandemic will be something that we can just kind of “remember when?” in the big picture.

I miss seeing people smile. I miss seeing people’s faces without a mask across them. It’s hard to have that same human connection with strangers when you can’t see each other’s faces. Now, we can figure out new ways to be friendly — and it’s important to remember there’s still so much to be grateful for.

I’ve gotten to spend more time with my family than ever before, I can still connect with friends all over the world, I trust the people I work with and work for. So, when they say they care about things like keeping people safe and creating a healthier planet, I believe them.

Health and safety have always been a big part of our practice—even before we had an HR department [laughs]. I truly think it is in our company’s DNA to care for each other. R, T, K, and L [RTKL founding members Rogers, Taliaferro, Kostritsky and Lamb]’s friendships define who we are more than their professional credentials. They founded this company because they were friends, but they were friends until the day they died.

The secret sauce wasn’t just the friendship among themselves, but with everyone they worked with. Whether a client or employee, it’s a business about friendship. It’s truly hard to undersell the importance of humanity in what we do.

photography: David Whitcomb

What has been your favorite project to photograph over your time here?

DW: Healthcare transitioning projects have touched me so deeply. It’s one area of the practice in which we, quite literally, touch people’s lives. Every time I’ve photographed one of those projects, I’m capturing part of what could be a life-or-death scenario. And I’m not just saying this for the article, but they live. They always live — because the people I work with are focusing on keeping them safe. If someone drops something, somebody else will automatically reach out to catch it. When somebody’s life depends on it, teamwork matters—and they really know what it means to be a team. When we’re done, clients will thank them and cry. I’ve seen the tears of joy flow. It’s more than just creating a building — though that’s pretty amazing, too.

Though healthcare is the most emotionally effective, I think you can find your “favorite” anywhere you look for it. If I go to a project, I’m not there to be a critic — I’m there to be a connoisseur. That’s kind of affected how I look at life. If you are looking for things to be upset about, you are certain to find them. But if you look for the beauty, there is plenty of that, too. I get to practice that every day with my work –looking for the beauty in my photography has made me more optimistic in life.

photography: David Whitcomb

What are you most looking forward to in the future?

DW: I just got my first dose of the vaccine this morning, so I must say I’m looking forward to a long life! There are so many things to still be excited about — our business, my kids, my wife, the depth of my friendships. All that stuff makes it worth it.

I have mostly always been a can-do, optimistic person. It’s natural to sometimes get discouraged, but it’s all about how you measure it. If one measure doesn’t work for you, you can find a different one. If I go to a project and there’s a construction crane in the way, that doesn’t stop me from taking the picture altogether. I just need to take a new picture. That’s the challenge at my job, but it’s shown me I can still do what I can to be effective — even when the world’s not perfect. It’s something we do together, too. I really rely on the people I work with. It’s exciting to know people doing such amazing things. It’s a real gift to have such a wide circle of people that influence you in so many great ways. I realized I know so many people around the world I can call friends or call on for advice. I have Jorge Beroiz in London, for example, who’s an architect, but he thinks like a poet. If I need something in London, I can call him. How cool is that? And long-term friends, too—not just coworkers or colleagues. I’m still in touch with someone who worked as our model builder when I first started at [formerly] RTKL — and he left only 3 years after I started! People don’t stop being your friend even if they walk into a new opportunity.

I also love that now, being among the people who have been here the longest, I’m not stuck with just the people in my own generation. I love the new people I work with. You never know when you might shape somebody’s life, or they yours. A small kindness can always be a blessing. It is almost always worth the effort, but if not, at least you get some practice for next time.

Friendship is a gift; it should be treated as such.


Author Spotlight

Clare Sausen
Clare Sausen is a Content Writer for CallisonRTKL. Based in Washington, D.C., she leverages her personal and professional experience in journalism, radio, and nonprofit communication to serve as a valuable member of the global firmwide team. Since attaining her Bachelor of Arts degree from George Washington University in Communication and American Studies, she has honed her craft of architectural storytelling across multiple platforms.