Chris Steele-Perkins on Magnum group projects

Chris Steele-Perkins on Magnum group projects

By Julia Horbaschk 15/11/13

Magnum member Chris Steele-Perkins has worked all over the world – from Britain to Africa, Central America and Lebanon. Chris tells Julia Horbaschk his advice for young photographers and talks us through a Magnum exhibition on HIV...

What impact did joining Magnum have? Did the competition challenge you? 

I joined Magnum around 1982. I'd been working as a photographer, mainly UK-based, and I was beginning to get interested in travelling and global work. It became obvious to me that I need an agent. The best one around was Magnum.

It’s always good to have a bit of competition but at the same time you can sit down and go through a bunch of pictures that you've done or they've done and discuss them and it's great – it's the way you learn. 

How do you fund your work? 

Some work is self-funded, from archive sales or from a job that pays well. Sometimes you can persuade an NGO, magazine or newspaper to go along with your story. A lot of projects I get involved in take years and it's very hard to get that kind of funding. I’ve had various Arts Council grants and then you get some more money when you finish the project or you publish a book. 

What’s the toughest situation you face as a photographer and how do you deal with it? 

When you're dealing with people who are suffering, it’s important to consider how you behave. You have to draw a line between a job that has to be done and the position you take towards the people you’re interacting with. I’d like to feel that the priority comes down to the latter: the people matter more than the photographs. 

What’s your advice for photographers starting out? 

Do what you think is the most important thing to do. There are two types of photographers: there’s a service photographer – they do very well technically but are told what to do. If that's what you want to do, you could probably earn a better living out of that. Then there’s the author photographer who photographs what they believe is important and what they believe is the right way. That’s the personal way of doing it. Don't fall in the middle! 


In Focus: Magnum group project Access to Life 

We did Access to Life in partnership with the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. It was about HIV around the world and involved nine photographers – I did a special piece on Papua New Guinea. It was published as a book and ran as a travelling exhibition, which ended in Sydney. 

I had a very open brief: to document a family affected by HIV. I worked with Lucy Palmer, an Australian journalist, who’d lived in Papua New Guinea for six years. 

Before travelling, you get anti-malaria [medication], get your visa, make sure your equipment’s working. I took three cameras with me just in case: two Canon 5D mark 2s and a Canon EOS Kiss, a 24-105mm lens, a tripod and a flash. 

We spent two weeks travelling and found six or seven people who were willing to be photographed. The exhibition was about antiretroviral treatment but in terms of dealing with the subject, you want to go wider than that. I photographed a woman who had lost a very close friend to HIV and she took us to her grave. She probably never got the treatment.


Read more insights and advice from Chris Steele-Perkins and other Magnum photographers in our special zine. 


For more articles, jobs and opportunities, visit our Photography hub. 

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