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Human, mother, wife, home educator, learner, photographer, writer, reader, mind reader, critic, defender, champion.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

An Interview

I was recently flattered to find out from a young, and rather good, photographer that I have been an inspiration to her. When asked by her photography tutor at college to find out about a documentary photographer, she chose to interview little me. I've never been a good influence before, so here it is:

How did you first get into photography?

I got my first camera, a Miranda point and shoot, when I was 10 years old. My Dad was hooked on photography and taught me the basics, but I ended up using his old Nikon and Olympus SLRs more than I used my own camera. I read the manuals from cover to cover, but nothing prepares you better for using a camera than throwing yourself in at the deep end. My Dad was a rule-breaker; the most important thing he taught me was that a manual was a technical aid that would NOT help me to take a good photo. I thought he was mad, but he was right. We should expect to master the machine, after all, man made the machine. But what a camera doesn't have is an eye for a picture. It cannot decide for itself what is worthy of photographing. Only we can do that. That's what makes photography a human endeavour rather than a scientific one.

Have you always been interested in documentary photography?

Yes, since childhood. Documentary photography has always moved me. One of the first, and most potent, documentary shots I saw was Vietnam Napalm by Nick Ut; a photo of a naked girl, about the same age as I was at the time, running from a napalm attack during the Vietnam war. It remains the most powerful image I have ever seen and still makes me cry.

I find people infinitely more fascinating than landscapes or flower macros, but engaging with people is becoming increasingly difficult. I find that, in general, they are deeply suspicious of my motives. They are captured on CCTV cameras possibly several times a day, but mine is the camera they want to avoid. It is difficult to capture this avoidance and suspicion in a still shot. But I am grateful that the opportunity to take a shot like Nick Ut's has never arisen for me. I don't know whether I'd have the guts to take it.

What is it that inspires you to do documentary photography?

I find the human condition inspiring; the way we live, how we cope with horrors and joys, our awareness of our own mortality. For me, living in Medway is very much a part of who I am; it's impossible to pound the streets for years looking for a picture without growing to love a place. I belong to Medway and Medway belongs to me. I guess I want to document that, celebrate my time here; no big wars, no era-defining shots, just everyday life for the people that make Medway what it is. Combining photography with my passion for local music has enabled me to document the artistic side of Medway; a vibrant creative uprising in a town damaged by industrial decline.

Was there ever a specific photographer you looked up to?

I love the work of Bill Brandt. It's so varied; some shots candid and others set up, some sharp and others soft, some misty and some high contrast. He had compassion for his subjects, many of whom were working class or living in poverty; the captions to his photographs are not those of an objective observer, but from a man who felt deeply the pain and suffering of others, and who felt almost responsible for their condition; a sense of social responsibility for the failings of the government.

I love the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson too, and he is the author of one of my favourite quotes, "We photographers deal in things which are continually vanishing, and when they have vanished there is no contrivance on earth can make them come back again. We cannot develop and print a memory." I've always felt there's something very special about a photograph; it can show the passage of time, the ebb and flow of life, the changing of the seasons, and it can capture continuity and change in a way that other art forms cannot.

In real life, I greatly admire a photographer called Eric Hands. He has inspired and encouraged me and been a good friend. His work spans several decades and includes a series of photos from his time working for Private Eye, many years ago when Peter Cook was the editor. Finally, I can't under-estimate the influence of my husband, Phil Dillon, on my photography. When I rediscovered my passion for photography a few years ago, I learned quickly. This steep learning curve was due, in part, to watching his mistakes and his progress. He is a rule breaker too. I'm not sure whether that's what drew me to him or whether it's my own bad influence; my Dad's legacy rubbing off from me to him. Either way, I'm grateful to all the photographers in my life, young and old, who have the capacity to change my view of the world. Learning to see things differently is what being a photographer is all about.

Is documentary photography your favourite type of photography?

I think it probably is. I enjoy the freedom of it. I'm not a fan of striving for the perfectly sharp shot. Sometimes the ambiguity is what makes an image; gives it its own life. I would sooner set a long exposure and have blur than use flash and get a blown-out shot with the atmosphere sucked out of it. Documentary photography allows for blur and other perceived imperfections because it is supposed to be a reflection of the movement of real life and, of course, real life happens everywhere and it doesn't slow down just because I'm holding a camera. And that is the real freedom it holds for me.

Acutely aware as I am of time passing and my own mortality, it is in documentary photography that I seek a sense of nostalgia and security. I think we all do. In the words of Ray Davies (The Kinks), "People take pictures of each other, to prove that they really existed". Deep down, I'm terrified I'll be forgotten unless I can prove that I was here. It's sheer vanity to think in this way. Who am I to demand that others remember me? I am nobody. And I am everybody. I am the elusive human condition that I seek to capture.

Thanks to Isabelle White.

Originally posted on www.sweetfanny.co.uk 10/06/09

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