Photographic motivation – an essay

For a college interview approximately twentysomething years ago I was asked what my photographic ethos was. I was stumped by the question, and to this day I’m still not sure what the interviewer meant, but the question did the trick; I failed the interview and didn’t get a place on the course.

Strangely though I’ve found myself considering not my ethos, but my motivation and a conversation I had with someone I was photographing today brought the subject back to the foreground of my mind.

He was telling me about an incident in Bangladesh which confronted him with the dilemma of whether or not to take a photo of a scene of a child living on a rubbish dump. As it happens he didn’t because he worried that his taking of the photo wouldn’t go down well with the Bangladeshi host accompanying him. His motivation to take a photo wasn’t strong enough to overcome his misgivings.

This conversation brought a number of thoughts back to the fore for me, including whether I would have done the same, and one of the conclusions I came to was that it would have to depend on why I was there. The man who told me this story was there just as a visitor and would probably only have shown the photo to friends and family. Had it been me, I would have wanted to show the world, but it’s actually far more complex than that.

One of the issues I’ve been working on of late is why I ever wanted to be the photographer I turned out to be. That is even if I have turned out to be the photographer I wanted to be. In the early years of my career (and even before I became a photographer) I wanted to document the world. I wanted my photography to be a mirror to be held up to society to say “this is who we are and this is the world we live in, warts and all.”

Ok, so I didn’t end up doing exactly what I’d envisaged – covering conflict, famine, disaster and so on. My career took me in other directions and perhaps for the best, if the mental state of your average war photographer is anything to go by. And besides the lucky coincidence of self-preservation which comes with not putting yourself into conflict zones in order to take photos, there are other reasons why I would feel uneasy now if I were to find myself in a position to take pictures in some of the more troubled areas of the planet.

For one thing, I’ve always wanted to take pictures because someone else asked me to. I’ve never been particularly good at pushing myself to take photos in difficult circumstances if I didn’t have a client commissioning me. A commission serves two purposes; firstly that I know someone already wants the photos I haven’t yet taken and secondly that they’re paying me means I’d better damn well get the photos or I’ll break the trust of my client.

These motivations are powerful and to me they’ve always justified my existence as a photographer.

There is also another reason I don’t think I could cover the suffering of others so easily now. Back in the early days of photojournalism while cameras, film and processing chemicals were never cheap, basic kit didn’t have to be insanely expensive and the good you could do by taking a set of photos and getting them published in a national or international magazine would be palpable. Governments could be forced to change policy (or brought down) on the strength of a photo essay in The Sunday Times or Observer magazine.

Now things seem to have got rather out of kilter. Even the biggest magazines have dwindling readerships and diminishing influence, while the kit required to cover the stories which need to be covered has become ever more bling.

Many of the photojournalists of the 1950s and 60s used Leica and Contax cameras. These were never bargain-basement makes, but Contax no longer exist and Leica really only make cameras for the collector now. Indeed it would be obscene to go into a famine-ravaged country holding a camera which costs £6,000 (plus lens for another £1,000 or so) to take photos which too few people to make a difference would see. And if I were asked to go into such a situation, I’d need a main camera plus a backup.

Even a modest SLR set-up is a few thousand Pounds Sterling. Could I shoot poverty and not be pricked with irony? I’d sooner shoot film with a cheaper camera, but few film cameras are manufactured now and reliability is becoming an issue for those which ceased production many years ago. Mostly they’re either junk, or they’re expensive collectibles, again notably Leica.

It seems the tools we used to use in order to penetrate the more poorly-illuminated corners of humanity have become fashion accessories in the form of our mobile phones or the retro-cool cameras which beguile use with their promises of classic styling enabling us to take classic photos. I own a Fuji X20 so can’t throw stones here.

And the more photos we take, the fewer we take of the things that truly matter to society. This isn’t to say I don’t believe in what I do, and I work hard to make my pictures the best they can be, but I’m under no illusions that the work I produce is going to change society.

My motivation now is to give my clients  the very best images I can, and provided I can stay fit and healthy I’m really only about half-way through my career, so plenty of motivation to keep doing that. What I can’t quite shake off is the regret I feel when I see how photojournalism is caught between a lack of commissions for the best photographers (of which I do not count myself), the hopelessly low fees paid by publications (another reason I’m no longer in newspapers) and the eye-wateringly expensive kit required to do the job as demanded by the industry. It doesn’t seem healthy to me, but neither is a solution forthcoming.

All I can say is that my motivations now are different from when I first started, but at least now I have a better idea what those motivations are even if I’m still not sure what my ethos is.



Coke, girls and cameras!

Twice a year, Frome Wessex Camera Club hold a camera and photographic fair at The Cheese and Grain in Frome. Twice a year I miss it. In fact I must have missed it about 14 times by now, but I was determined to take a look this time.

Frome Wessex Camera Fair a table of Nikon cameras

Classics from Nikon and Leica to tempt the collector

I’ll confess I expected to find The Cheese and Grain stuffed to the gunwales with old guys in multi-pocketed photographers’ vests nerding over Leica MIIIs and Summicron lenses, or Nikkorflexollamas or whatever. Let’s just say, the gunwales were stuffed, the men were numerous and old and there was the buzz of nerding in the air. I even spotted one or two men wearing multi-pocketed vests, but they may have been anglers who’d wandered in by mistake.

To be fair, my age, gender and nerding tendencies mean I was in excellent company. I took the precaution of bringing my son who was going to have “none of that”. He stayed close and pulled me back from the abyss whenever my eyes glazed at the sight of a classic rangefinder camera. A tough task for any 12-year-old boy, but he did a super job and a coke in the cafe soon revived his superpowers.

Camera fair at The Cheese and Grain, Frome

Dive in, geek out and have fun

Brian Sawyer and Bill Collett try out a camera and lens

Bill Collett of Priston (right) tries his new lens on a camera Brian Sawyer of Melksham considers buying.

The fair itself is a broad mixture of ancient oddities (by which I mean the cameras, not the visitors… mostly) and present-day technology, but the emphasis is geared more to collectibles than modern equipment. I did speak to one chap who’d just acquired a very current and expensive lens at an excellent price. I was a little jealous, I must admit, but my son detected an evil glint in my eye and tugged my arm as he saw me starting to follow the man with the lens. It could have turned nasty.

There were one or two actual women there too and they didn’t appear to be there under duress. They were enjoying the fair too, and I spoke to a young woman from New Zealand who was there to enquire about adapting older lenses to fit her modern digital camera. She was impressed with the level of knowledge available from stallholders and seemed to be having a great time. She hadn’t come all the way from New Zealand just for the fair, but it would be nice to pretend she had.

For me the fair was an opportunity to find something fun to write about this week and to test a (nerd alert) Canon 16-35mm f/2.8L USM MKII lens which I’m reviewing for Wex Photographic. I know you’ll all be dying to read that review when it’s published, so I’ll be sure to let you know when it’s up.

Vicky Long studies a 500mm mirror lens

Vicky Long came all the way from New Zealand just for the fair! (I’d like to think)

The next fair is in November and I’ll probably pop along if my son will be my nerdguard. It might require two cokes next time.

Leica good essay? You might Leica this one…

There’s been a lot of on-line chatter this past week about Leica, from the surprise announcement of a black-and-white only digital camera to the record-breaking sale price of another, much older Leica which in its day would only have been capable of shooting black and white, there not being any colour film in 1923 when the camera was made. It’s like the circle of life.

What is it about Leica cameras that seems to get photographers wriggling in their seats like school boys with full bladders and frogs in their pockets? And why are they so excruciatingly expensive (the cameras, not the frogs, bladders or pockets)?

In case you’re not aware, Leica, a German brand, are famous for their compact 35mm cameras of the kind used, perhaps most famously, by Henri Cartier-Bresson. They pioneered the 35mm film format and make cameras and lenses to an extremely high standard of manufacture. Many older Leicas (like the one sold at auction last week) have become highly collectible and even fairly common models will fetch eye-watering sums on the secondhand market.

It wasn’t so many years ago Leica appeared to be on the verge of extinction. I don’t know what the state of their finances was, but ‘people who know about these things’ were starting to write Leica off as a brand because they seemed to be slow to respond to the digital era, but by striking deals with the likes of Panasonic, developing their first digital M-series camera and a bit of clever marketing, they look like they’ve pulled back from the brink.

The problem for Leica (if it can be said to be a real problem) is that among many professional photographers, the brand is being harmed by the perception that only rich boys with little or no real photographic talent can afford to buy them.

The Amazon price of the current M9 camera is as close to £5,000 as makes no difference, and that doesn’t even include a lens, for which you’ll need to scrape together another £3,500 for a new one. The newly-released M9 Monochrome, which only takes black and white digital images, is priced at over £6,000 without a lens.

A camera make which used to be aimed mainly at the professional appears to be shifting its (pun alert!) focus towards the wealthy amateur, which may not matter much to Leica but may dent its professional reputation in the longer term.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve seen pictures of and from the M9 Monochrome and it is a very desirable camera indeed, and I think I understand the point of a black-and-white-only digital camera. But scanning the various professional photographers forums and you get a sense of rising indignation that those who might be able to make best use of such cameras can ill afford them. On the flip-side, if Leica priced the new camera at a level pro’s might be able to afford, everyone would rush out and buy one and Leica would lose an important ingredient of their reputation – their exclusivity.

By now you’re probably wondering what my actual point is, and my point is… I’m not sure. I’m conflicted. It would be a sadder world without at least one camera manufacturer making products that set the heart racing. Maybe it’s good to have such things to aspire to, but cameras are just things after all.

I’m not a huge fan of the current trend towards retro-styled cameras, some of which are better to look at than to take pictures with, but to be fair to Leica they have, like Porche, stuck to a design principle since the year dot. Manufacturers like Fuji with their X100 are starting to prove a camera doesn’t have to cost the price of a small continent to function well, but you won’t find too many Fuji cameras becoming collectible in years to come which brings us back to the brand-conscious collectors.

Call it my working class chip if you like, but I do have a problem with the idea of someone spending £9,000 on a camera they’ll use to take pictures of parties, kittens and tourist attractions, or perhaps even worse they’ll keep it in the presentation case never to be used at all in the hope of selling for a profit later. On the other hand, give the camera to a professional and you have to ask if it’s in poor taste take pictures of starving Africans with a camera that costs enough to buy them an irrigation system and a lifetime supply of seed and livestock.

If a camera which cries out to be used to take pictures of the human condition is so expensive that its self-selecting market is largely the untalented rich, is that a problem?

You could link this argument to one about people who buy Ferraris and Lamborghinis, but people who buy for the purpose of ostentation might be lousy drivers and photographers, or they may be brilliant photographers who like to arrive in style. Perhaps it’s the ostentation that professional photographers dislike, maybe it’s jealousy.

Perhaps in my case there is an underlying, uneasy insecurity that while I point and snipe at rich kids with all the gear and no idea, would a £9,000 camera in my hands result in some great, Pulitzer Prize-winning photo essays on the Mexican drugs war or child sex trafficking in the UK? I’m starting to think my point today is this; could someone please buy me a Leica M9 Monochrome with a 35mm f2 Summicron so I can at least find out?