How has photojournalism changed since you set up Foto8 in 1998?
Practically speaking, the change from film to digital brought about new equipment, skills and ways of working, mainly for people in news. Everyone’s always talking about the lack of assignments – I guess that’s the case but it’s not something that started all of a sudden. I don’t think there was a massive heyday. If there was, it was at a time when there were fewer photographers. It’s hard to judge whether there was more work then or too many photographers now.
Do you think it’s worth compromising in order to earn a living through photography or is it better to find another primary source of income?
Some of the most valid projects I’ve seen are by people who wouldn’t call themselves photographers. They’ve got day jobs doing something else; they do photography in their spare time and really put everything of themselves into it.
There’s a misconception that photography is hard done by; that the right to earn a living from it is being taken away. But in documentary and photojournalism, if you’re a professional offering a service people aren’t paying for, you’ve got to ask yourself if you’re offering as good a service as the person who is getting paid.
Over the years traditional social documentary photography has given way to more art-led approaches. Do you see this as a problem?
I do. There are fundamental questions you answer when you do a story and choose to call it documentary. Who is the story for? How are you going to reach them? How is taking pictures of your subjects conducive to telling their story?
I don’t think that the art route answers those questions very well because it seems to be less about the subject and more about the practitioner; less about reaching as wide an audience as possible and more about raising the value of your work.
You’re an active and often outspoken tweeter. How do you see the role of social media in photography?
I’m not sure that social media has a role in photography. It’s like saying people talking around the bus stop or the water fountain has a role in documenting our time. It’s chatter. It’s interesting and you need to know about it if you want to be in the conversation, but it’s not actually photography. If people didn’t have the numbers of followers listed on their sites, I think it would lose its attraction.
You’ve been quite critical about photography degrees in the past. What would you say to people who are studying photography?
There’s pressure put on [photography graduates]. Having got their BA and MA, they feel they should be able to do it. But you should see your BA or MA as an academic course, and then decide your practice based on your interests.
If the course is useful – great. But some of the photographers I’ve met have found doing Anthropology, Politics or Law – or being a banker like Marcus Bleasdale did – is a better preparation. They haven’t been worried about other people in their industry; they’ve just found a route for what they want to do.
No-one has a monopoly on good ideas. No amount of money or equipment or networking or industry knowledge is the determinant of making good work. Most of the people you study in uni haven’t gone through the system you have. Those people got there through personal choice and hard graft, trial and error, and a personality that put them in the right places and made them determined to meet the right people. It wasn’t by sitting in a classroom drawing up a list of contacts because their tutors told them to.
Do you have any other advice for young photographers?
There’s a huge amount of freedom and choice that you can exercise in how you do your photography. Just ignore the industry – which is really quite introspective. Reach out to people who aren’t in the bubble. That’s the goal.
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