I was out one day with Ariane Schrack and she told me when you went to visit her in Paris, you asked her for the “gloomiest places around”. You seem to be travelling extremely often. What do you look for in a place, and ultimately, in a photograph? Do you walk around mostly, or plan your photographs in advance ?
I’m looking for regions that may be in the process of transition, places which have a bit of chaos and disorganisation to them and are thus more unpredictable and visually cluttered when compared to well-manicured suburbs or the raw countryside. The key, in terms of both geography and photography, is to give myself a chance to be truly surprised from both an aesthetic and conceptual perspective.
Because I usually have a limited amount of time, I use satellite images to identify areas that may harbour a high density of locations that I’m after. I’ll try to identify promising landmarks and using hand-made maps, try to reach as many of them as possible. None of this research guarantees any degree of success of course: everything is pretty much out of my control once I am on the ground, with disappointment and frustration never far away.
Robert Adams explained it best in ‘Why People Photograph’:
When photographers get beyond copying the achievements of others, or just repeating their own accidental first successes, they learn that they do not know where in the world they will find pictures. Nobody does. Each photograph that works is a revelation to its supposed creator. Yes, photographers do position themselves to take advantage of good fortune, sensing for instance when to stop the car and walk, but this is only the beginning. As William Stafford wrote, calculation gets you just so far – ‘Smart is okay, but lucky is better.’
How has the internet helped you in any way, photographically speaking?
Being a self-taught photographer, I found the Internet to be immensely beneficial in my development. When you don’t have the tight knit community provided by your classmates or professional peers, you need other avenues to learn and meet like-minded individuals. I was lucky enough to meet a few such people online, they introduced me to a few more people (both online and in the flesh) and gradually I found a way to carve a small space for myself within the photographic community. While nothing beats sitting around a table talking to a bunch of photographers, many of the opportunities that have come my way would have been much harder to grasp if I had to make all my connections purely in the physical world.
The Internet has also served as a great source of reference: not only via the traditional approach of discovering photographers online but in terms of books. Because I had to teach myself, I felt that it was very important to build up my own collection of photography books. While it may have cost me thousands of pounds, the vast selection and attendant cost savings offered by online resellers has probably saved me thousands more when compared to using solely ‘brick-and-mortar’ retailers.
You studied computer science. In what field are you working today? And how do you conciliate your daily job with photography?
I’ve worked in high-pressure office environments for most of my life. I’m still in the technology game: I write software for mobile phones while also looking after a group of programmers. Balancing this aspect of my life with photography has always been both interesting and challenging.
From an intellectual perspective, there are times when I appreciate being able to use the logic and detail-focused left hemisphere of my brain. At one level, photography is very easy for me: it’s quite an intuitive process and success or failure is completely in my hands. Yet at another level, to borrow a term from computer science, it’s also fundamentally non-deterministic: you can’t solve it or ‘win’ in any shape or form. One of the things I appreciate about my job is the near certainty that a complex problem can be decomposed and resolved, given sufficient resources and collective brainpower. There’s just something innately satisfying about figuring out proofs and equations, it’s just like an episode of the ‘A Team’ where everything is nicely resolved in a neat, self-contained one hour package.
One thing I’ve had to get good at is time management. Having to juggle multiple careers, I’ve had to maximise my efficiency and time spent with a camera in my hands. I’ve learned to work in short intense bursts: walking up to a dozen miles while shooting up to twelve hours a day. After a week of this, I’m usually so exhausted that I’ll need a rest (a return to work). Somehow I’ve managed to convey the impression to quite a few people that I’m living some kind of exotic, jet-set lifestyle, which is hardly the case at all!
Until I find another source of income, I’m relatively satisfied with my current situation. Just like everyone else though, I’d love more time to make personal work: it’d be great to focus on my projects continuously for months on end.
On your website you write that you first picked up a camera in order to get over a girl. What would you say is the main reason you pick a camera these days?
I didn’t realise it at the time, but what I was searching for when I first picked up a camera was something for myself, a passion that was mine alone, one dependent upon nobody else. And I managed to find it with photography. Above more noble pursuits such as completing long-term projects or making books, being out in the world with a camera simply makes me happy. When I’m in a strange location with the sun on my back and a half-explored map, a couple of rolls of film and a copy of the ‘New Yorker’, there’s not much else I feel I need from life.