As I get older, I find I have more and more respect for photography, but I’ve also learnt to understand its limitations. I’m still looking to tell stories through my images, but I’m no longer trying to merely document, or offer evidence of, what the world looks like. I now know that truth is relative to the person taking the photograph, but the camera is a good tool for showing your honest vision of what life is about. When we have seen the same images, the same stories, shown so many times in images, television and film, what excites us is not how things look, but how differently we are able to show them.
My most recent images were taken on a trip to Kenya, in an area that is largely untouched by tourism and modern western life. I wanted to see people that are trying to survive without mobile phones or medicine or anything that was invented in the last 50 years. The images aren’t a story, but a collection of images. As always, my hope is that one or two images will surprise people; a photo that does not resonate or provoke a reflection is just an empty frame.
Looking at my images from Kenya, I was taking pictures of real people doing real things, so I wanted to create images that were as close as possible to what I experienced in the moment. My aim, through focal length and colour, is to get as close as possible to that vision. For example, black and white photography has an abstract quality. It has an incredible emotional power, and, for me, it is more elegant. Colour, on the other hand, is extremely difficult to use expressively in most cases, so instead many photographers resort to styling their images to excite people.
To realise my vision when I am shooting, I try and keep things as simple as possible. I mainly shoot with a Sony α7R III and the FE 24-70mm f/2.8 GM lens, a combination that allows me to focus extremely quickly to capture the moment I want. For most of my work I want to shoot at a very short distance from the subject. I actually have a special dot on my lens that marks roughly the 35mm focal length, and as much as possible I shoot at around that distance.
When you look back through the history of photography it’s surprising how many images have been taken with just two focal length lenses. There is the 50mm focal length, which is perhaps the most beautiful but it can be difficult to use, and then there is 35mm. Longer focal lengths give the viewer a feeling of voyeurism, which distances them from the subject; they are just an object, an actor playing on a stage.
So why do photographers love 35mm and 50mm so much? In my view, it’s because they’re close to the human field of view. With a 24mm or 28mm there could be a very boring situation in front of you, but when you look through the viewfinder you can see beyond what’s on the surface; your brain is seeing something different to what it was seeing before with your eye. With a 35mm or 50mm lens if the scene in front of you is mundane, it will still be boring though the viewfinder. So with a 50mm focal length especially you have to be mesmerised and see something stunning to make you press the shutter button.
Simplicity is Key
I always think extremely carefully about the shots I am going to take, so for this reason I don’t use continuous shooting. I think we should be more human about how we shoot, so I always shoot a single image at a time. Every time I press the shutter I have to know why; there has to be a reason. I have to be amazed or surprised.
For me, achieving perfection is the challenge of reducing – to reduce an image to the most basic elements and still convey meaning. This is in contrast to the commercial world where images are styled and objects moved around within a frame, colours enhanced beyond what is real. I want to achieve a state in my images in which nothing can be removed from your photograph, and this also goes for colour. I want the colour to be so perfect and real that my mind is asleep and everything is obvious. I want to look at a photo and understand it in a fraction of a second.
Having said that, to have a great photograph you have to create something that contains a secret, a metaphor. If you create something with a secret it becomes more valuable, and the same goes for photography. The best pictures are those that touch our imagination and provoke questions, challenging us to find a conclusion. If everything is delivered to you in the palm of your hand, and you don’t have to move, then it won’t have any deep effect on you.
"What matters for me in photography is not what a picture is showing and presenting, but rather what kind of questions it provokes"