Sharing my experience of Photojournalism and Documentary Photography
“The best thing about this job is spending time in the worlds of other people so you can understand them and tell their stories.” My teacher was talking to graphic design students about commercial clients but his words have stayed with me through my career as an art director, photographer and film-maker.
In my mid-20s I commissioned photographers as an advertising agency art director and asked one of them to shoot a colleague’s wedding as a gift from me. I spat out my tea when, just before the big day, he rang to say something had come up and he couldn’t do it but would lend me two cameras so I could take the pictures instead. It was a life-changing experience (in a good way) and I went out the week after and bought my own cameras to document my punk band’s imminent and final tour of Europe. I’d been increasingly inspired by the kind of striking, sensitive and intelligent work photographers like Brian Harris and David Ashdown were doing for The Independent newspaper and it felt like my life was changing direction.
I handed in my notice when I got back to work and, after building a darkroom to process film and make prints, got my first job to document the creative lives of older people for Age Concern. After a busy couple of years, I set up a photo agency with a sports photographer and teacher and we covered northern football for national newspapers, often wiring pictures from the telephone lines of houses next to the stadium after developing the film in the kitchen sink. We forged strong, mutually beneficial relationships with photographers and picture editors during this time that continue to this day. I got an agent in London to find advertising commissions and did an increasing amount of work for the Football Association.
The FA asked us to set up an official photo library which meant we needed more staff to build an online archive, photograph more events and run a picture desk. I’d been lecturing informally at local art colleges and some of the more dynamic students came to us on work experience so we offered the outstanding ones jobs. Encouraging young talent has been an important part of our success in terms of photography and the full service we provided in competition with much bigger, more established agencies.
We ran the library for seven years and contributed over 250,000 pictures until the contract went to Reuters, They lost it to Getty and now Shutterstock is the FA’s official photography partner. I personally enjoyed competing with such huge corporations and learned there are real advantages to being small and agile. I developed unprecedented behind-the-scenes access to the senior men’s England team and covered 67 games from inside the England team. It was a project that continued for five years (even after we lost the FA contract) and produced a separate archive of around 100,000 pictures that we continue to manage.
Alongside our work for the FA, we set up libraries, published books and made films for Premier League football clubs while producing award-winning advertising campaigns for clients like Audi, Umbro, Sony, Fiat and McDonald's. The documentary work I do continues to influence my commercial photography and we’ve built a reputation for realism and credibility with advertising agencies as we often work with real people in the real world and welcome the lack of control and spontaneity that can bring.
One of my earliest influences was Ernst Haas, not just because of his stunning photographs and strong philosophical approach, but for how he combined personal, editorial and advertising work through his career. I know how important commercial income can be in subsidising projects of a more social or personal nature. I still shoot weddings for friends, stories for recently and commercial work that recently made the BBC news. I find the mix to be both stimulating and complementary.
I’m interested in the opportunities and threats facing photographers today in a world which has seen our work devalued by stock agencies and newspapers and our copyright infringed on an industrial scale. I play an active part in conversations with my peers on how we can best protect our interests while continuing to evolve and stay relevant as professionals.
This year, I’ve designed a project for students at a northern university in the build-up to the 2020 Olympics. They’ll be documenting the lives of people in their communities and the contribution they make grassroots sport. The work will cover research and planning, sport and documentary photography and the editing and processing of images, including an online photo library for local sports clubs to use. From my perspective it’s a big opportunity to develop my teaching experience and I hope there’s a chance to do the same at UAL.