Hello! My name is Mat Chacon, and I’m a recovering CEO turned freelance photojournalist based in Seattle, Washington.
I picked up my first camera, a gently used Leica M6, in early 2016 and used it to document my business journey, contrasting a high-tech company with a low-tech medium.
That all changed during the 2020 protests over racial injustice and economic inequality. I was literally pulled into the civil unrest when my condo building was surrounded by the National Guard after being nearly destroyed in the city’s riots.
Growing up in poverty as a Hispanic in Phoenix, Arizona, and with family and friends who are former police officers, I found myself in a unique position to identify with the protesters and the police. I empathized with the struggle from both sides and used my cameras to document the fight for unalienable rights.
As an entrepreneur, I was able to pull myself out of poverty. As a photographer, I’m now able to use my background and experience to give others a voice and visually tell their stories to help them rise above their circumstance and into a more equitable society.
I am now a full-time, independent photojournalist, mostly documenting people around the world taking to the streets to have their voices heard in hopes of bridging the equality gap. Some of my photos have been featured in Leica Fotografie International, and shown at multiple gallery events, selling out every time. I’ve also completed studies in Photojournalism with the New York Institute of Photography.
Photography brings me an artistic joy that is enabled by the technical elements of cameras and gear. I believe it to be the perfect marriage of art and science.
Main Gear Talk
My photography is done almost exclusively outdoors and typically starts well before sunrise and ends long after sunset, sometimes even going into the next day, with widely varying light conditions. I need solid gear I can trust to always perform and produce high quality images. Over the years, I’ve used multiple camera systems, but there’s only one brand that I implicitly trust – Leica.
In my experience, Leica cameras are extremely high quality and built like tanks. Every time I’ve photographed a riot or protest, my Leicas get banged on bodies, hit with projectiles and slammed to the pavement, yet they never let me down. Though my Leicas might look a little rough now, that just adds to their character. Every mark tells a story.
I always travel with three camera bodies and one dedicated video camera.
Leica Q (Type 116) – This is my primary camera. It’s a compact, mirrorless camera with a 24-megapixel full-frame CMOS sensor and a fixed 28mm f/1.7 lens that produces stunning, wide angle images. I love this camera and use it for over 90% of my shots.
It’s small enough to take anywhere, totally unobtrusive and can shoot silently between 100-50,000 ISO, making it ideal for capturing any situation in every lighting condition.
Though this model isn’t weather sealed and has only one SD card slot, I’ve never had an issue. I’ve shot this camera in the rain, at freezing temperatures in the snow and even in a ridiculously humid Florida swamp and it’s always performed like a champ!
Leica SL (Type 601) – This is my secondary camera. Though a bit heavy at almost 2lbs without a lens, it’s a full weather sealed body made from two beefy hunks of milled aluminum with a 24-megapixel full-frame sensor in 35mm format, and two SD card slots.
It can also shoot ISO 50-50,000, making it great for challenging light conditions. I’m in love with the crystal clear 4.4-megapixel viewfinder. But the best part is the L-mount system, making it easy to switch between a variety of L-mount lenses from Leica, Panasonic and Sigma.
Leica M6 TTL (Through The Lens) – This is my backup body. Built in the late 1990’s, it’s an old school 35mm film camera with a very silent mechanical shutter and a built-in light meter. I carry this camera with three to four rolls of HP ILFORD 35mm black and white film because batteries die and this camera just goes and goes. I also love the look of black and white film – so much emotion.
GoPro Hero 8 Black – I chose this model specifically because it has an unlit LCD screen on the front and not a full color screen on the front like the Hero 9. This helps it to be a bit more inconspicuous. I only start recording from this camera when I need to capture about 15 minutes of video during high-risk situations. Basically, it’s my evidence collector.
Leica 28mm Summilux f/1.7 – This is fixed on my Leica Q. It’s a very fast lens that produces incredible bokeh and razor-sharp images every time. It’s also got a built-in macro focus that can shoot anywhere between 0.17-0.3 meters, making it perfect for extreme close-ups.
Panasonic Lumix 24-105mm f/4.0 – I typically shoot this lens on my Leica SL. It’s a full weather sealed lens with optical image stabilization that can shoot in auto-focus or manual mode. I also like that I can lock it at 24mm so that the focal length doesn’t change when it gets knocked around while I’m out ‘running and gunning’ to get the shot.
While it doesn’t have the super sharp image quality of my Leica 24-90mm f/2.8-f/4 lens (not pictured), it does the job just fine and gets me that little extra reach at 105mm. I also prefer not to photograph a riot with a $5.5k lens. If my Lumix gets cracked by a non-lethal projectile, I can always get another one and not sob crocodile tears because of it.
Voigtlander Ultron 28mm f/2-f/22 – This is almost always mounted to my Leica M6 TTL. I love the 28mm format as it provides a nice wide angle to capture an entire scene in great detail, and this lens produces beautifully clear images.
Leica 75mm f/2.5-f/16 Prime Lens – I carry this with a Leica L-mount adapter snapped on. It makes it quick to pop it onto my Leica SL when needed or pop off the L-mount adapter and mount it to my M6 for a unique perspective.
Leitz 28mm Elmarit f/2.8-f/22 Fixed Prime ASPH Lens – Though it’s not pictured, I sometimes carry this lens because I just love the emotion that it provides.
Standard B+W UV Filter – I have one of these attached to every lens I own, mainly for protection against scratches and projectiles.
I also tape over the Leica logos on my cameras with black duct tape. I don’t like people knowing that I’m out shooting with expensive equipment.
Personal Protective Equipment
I typically photograph in high-risk urban environments, where the threat of tear gas, high-impact non-lethal projectiles, Molotov cocktails and even pistol rounds and high-caliber rifle rounds are very real threats.
When I was photographing the Capitol Hill Occupied Protest Zone (CHOP) in downtown Seattle, (also known as the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone or CHAZ), I witnessed multiple firearms being drawn on people and I was even in the area when two people were shot to death. So, safety is of paramount concern to me.
Eagle Industries Unlimited Low-Vis Armor Plate Carrier – I wear this with Level III steel armor plates inside, rated to stop 6 rounds of .308 caliber rifle bullets. Attached to it are pens, pencils, and my Coast penlight.
I’ve also got my personally curated immediate action medical kit secured to the front. It’s got everything I need to plug a hole and save a limb – latex medical gloves, QuickClot blood clotting sponge, compressed gauze, medical tape, CAT tourniquets, medical shears and chem lights.
Press Pass – I attach this to my armor plate carrier for identification.
Legacy MICH Level IIIA Ballistic Helmet – On my head, I typically wear a baseball cap, but I always carry my ballistic helmet attached to my belt and throw it on my noggin whenever things get spicy… which they always do.
It’s got a rail system that holds my GoPro Hero 8 video camera, a helmet light and my emergency strobe light with IR beacon. It also sports my velcro press patches that each hide spare earplugs underneath them.
Magid Safety Glasses – I wear these to protect my eyes from all of the things flying around that might damage them. They have an ANSI Z87+ safety rating to provide protection against high impact, high velocity projectiles as well as chemicals and dust.
N95 Medical Mask – I wear this because of COVID.
Howard Leight Ear Plugs – These are the in-ear type of plugs that you can buy at any drug store.
Mechanix Gloves – My hands are always covered in these. They’re tough and grippy. I cut the index finger out of each for a little extra dexterity.
Gas Mask – To ensure that I can keep shooting when the inevitable volley of tear gas hits the crowd, I carry a paint respirator and an old pair of diving goggles with me in a drop leg rig. Both provide an airtight seal that keeps chemical gases from entering my lungs and eyes. But, I’ve recently ordered an Israeli surplus gas mask with a 40mm NBC filter.
Knee and Elbow Pads – I always wear these because the ground is hard and it’s usually covered with glass and rocks.
Red Wing Iron Ranger leather boots – I’ve worn every imaginable pair of boots in the field and these are the only boots I trust. They’re comfortable and tough. I’ve had this pair for a couple of years and slipping them on is like shaking hands with an old friend that you trust with your life.
Vehicle Press Pass – I carry this for those instances where I might need to display it in the window of my truck or whatever vehicle I’m using to travel into my area of photography.
SPOT Tracker – This is a small satellite communication device that tracks my location almost anywhere on earth. I wear this even when I’m photographing in heavily populated metropolitan areas.
You never know when cell phone reception will be jammed. Because this uses satellite technology, I’m able to let people know my status with pre-programmed messages, notify first responders of my exact location and even allow family and friends to track me online. It’s a must for photographing in high-risk environments.
DUER Jeans – These jeans are not only stylish and tough, but they also’re super comfy and made from a performance denim fabric that’s easy to wash and quick to dry.
I live in these jeans and often wear the same pair for 72-straight hours in the field, tracking through the bush, dust, mud, water and sand and they’ve never let me down. They’ve become an essential piece of my kit. I can wear my DUER jeans whenever my photography takes me from downtown to downrange and back again.
Storage and Power
SD Cards – I carry a stash of extra 128Mb SD cards and micro-SD cards in a small Pelican case to hold my photos.
Camera Batteries – I carry at least two extra, freshly charged batteries per camera for a minimum of three batteries per camera. I’ve found that two batteries per camera will last me an entire day, but having at least one or two more batteries beyond that is a good backup.
External battery – I bring a small external power source with cables to charge my phones and cameras.
Cell Phones – I always carry two because I haven’t owned a cell phone yet that hasn’t broken.
Never forget that whatever you’re carrying, two is one and one is none. So bring a backup.
Blackhawk CQB Riggers Belt – I wear this belt because it’s got parachute-grade buckles and can handle 7,000 pounds of tensile strength. Attached to the belt are some of the quick access items I may need when photographing in a high-risk environment.
Tactical Tailor Roll Up Dump Pouch – This is the drop leg rig that contains my gas mask and hangs off the belt along my left leg.
Original Special Operations Equipment (OSOE) Full Trauma Kit – This is on the front, right side of my belt and loaded with HyFin chest seals, compression gauze, CAT tourniquets, soft PVC nasopharyngeal airway tubes, 14-gauge chest decompression needles, and even a small seat belt cutter that can also be used to rip through clothing.
It’s attached to the front right where I can reach it with either hand, just in case one of my hands is non-functional and needs medical attention. I’m trained to use everything in this med kit, and I recommend that anyone wishing to photograph in a high-risk area also get immediate action medical training.
OSOE Admin Pouch – On the front left side of my belt is my admin pouch where I keep a Surefire flashlight, extra pen, notepad and my extra batteries and SD cards.
Tactical Tailor Dump Pouch (non-roll up) – This hangs on the right at my 4 o’clock position, where I keep a small microfiber towel and a couple of protein bars. Attached to the sides of the dump pouch via MOLLE webbing are my Gerber multi-tool and stainless steel, double-walled 12oz flask that’s filled with either hot coffee or some sort of electrolyte mix, depending on the day.
The dump pouch is an indispensable piece of gear. Even with some small items inside, it’s still got loads of room available. I’ve used it as a camera bag, lens holder, and water bottle pouch. I’ve even stuffed a packable jacket into it. It’s easily the most versatile piece of gear I own.
Lowepro ProTactic BP 350 AW II – This is my preferred camera bag. It’s tougher than nails and has plenty of room for my cameras, lenses and all the other bits and bobs I need to carry. MOLLE webbing lines the outside, and I can strap everything that’s normally on my belt to the bag when I travel. I also carry a full water bottle strapped to the side to keep me hydrated.
It’s got a built-in rain cover that slips over the bag and anything that I’ve strapped to the outside, keeping it all covered from prying eyes… and rain, of course. It also comes with a detachable hip belt that doubles as a belt bag when I want to run a little lighter and not have the bag on my back or a bunch of items hanging from my belt.
Hardware and Software
Windows Surface Book – Though I never carry this into the field, I do use it as my primary laptop for email and photo editing.
12.9-inch iPad Pro – This is the backup computer that I have also loaded with movies to pass the time when travelling.
Adobe Lightroom – I use this to make very small adjustments to my photos and will occasionally use Adobe Photoshop to resize them.
I take the ethical responsibility of a photojournalist quite seriously and never make more than minor adjustments to my photos, and I never digitally add or remove anything from them. These stay in my truck, at my home or in my hotel room. If I need to edit or submit from the field, I’ve found that my cell phones are more than enough for that.
500Gb Sandisk Extreme Solid State Drives – I also backup everything nightly on these and upload copies to my Google Cloud Drive.
In the top of my backpack or spread throughout the pockets of my clothing are all the little things that you never think about until you need them. These are the items that make life bearable when you’re out in the field and can only rely on yourself.
Waterproof Pill Tube – This is filled with Claritin and Advil, because flashbangs are loud, and allergies won’t keep me from getting the shot.
Hand Sanitizer – I use this for obvious reasons.
Small Headlamp – This is a good backup light source.
Cash – I keep a little cash on hand because I’ve found that no matter where I am in the world, American greenbacks are always accepted.
Cigarettes and Lighter – I’ve learned that offering someone a free cigarette opens a lot of doors, so I always carry a fresh pack of cigarettes and a good lighter on me.
My favorite book – I always carry The Log from the Sea of Cortez, by John Steinbeck with me. High-risk conflict zones are usually filled with long periods of boredom and punctuated by very short bursts of adrenaline-fueled action, so a paperback book helps me fill the tedium until something interesting happens. When the action starts, I just stuff the book into my dump pouch and get shooting.
If I could choose only two things to carry with me in my bits and bobs kit, those two things would be duct tape and paracord. Because, if duct tape and paracord aren’t the answer, then you’re asking the wrong question.
After spending most of my adult life in white collar roles, I’ve come to learn that my collar is actually quite blue. Though I projected the very image of success as a CEO for many years, I was far from happy. Photography saved my soul and I’m most content embracing my blue collar, navigating high-risk conflict zones outdoors, and chasing that one, perfect shot.
My life’s been filled with adventures and experiences that I’m sure will send me to Hell on a full scholarship. But, for now… for me, this is as close as it gets to Heaven.