Today’s interview is with Michael Freeman!
Thank you for being here with us today Michael! Many of us are followers of your work and have read many of your books. We’d love to know, what made you pursue a career in photography?
It came a little late, which was no bad thing, but it was because British education in the days I suffered it had a very formal structure. I had always enjoyed both imagery and writing in general and in all forms, but hadn’t entertained photography as a career choice because the route went school-university-’real’ career. The school pushed for the top universities, so if you were bright enough, at age 15 you were taken off arts and made to study Latin (which was necessary then to get into Oxford or Cambridge). So that was it. Latin, then Oxford, which of course was fantastic, but didn’t lead to the arts. I went into advertising, enjoyed it, but the photography kept niggling away, and it took me some years to make the break. That’s another story in itself.
You’ve been in this business for many years and have seen quite the evolution of photography. How do you feel photography has changed for the better?
Yes, it’s important to see the positive changes always, and I’m glad you added those last three words to the question. The most important way is that it has become truly universal, and we now have democratic photography in a way that even Susan Sontag hadn’t envisaged when she coined the phrase. Photography used to be very hierarchical. There were the professionals, such as those who worked for Life and the other big magazines, and then there were camera clubs with members, mainly men, who were especially fixated on equipment and on competitions, and finally there was everyone else doing family snaps. Well, that’s possibly an exaggerated view painted in very broad strokes, but what digital and the internet have enabled is quite seriously motivated photography by millions. And because so many people do take it seriously, that has raised the level of awareness of photography in general, and importantly, what it can be and what it can add to everyone’s life and perception. Some professionals feel threatened by this. I think it’s perfect.
Your documentary work has created opportunities for extensive foreign traveling. How do you approach learning about an area’s people, customs, and landscape?
I studied Geography at Oxford, and had always had that curiosity about people and culture and diversity (that may even have been why I studied Geography in the first place). Part of the course included Anthropology, so that furthered my inquisitiveness about how people live. With this background, my approach is immersive — as much as is possible when you don’t live in a foreign country but just visit to shoot. That includes trying to learn something of the language, absorbing local customs, and generally digging in to understand the point of view of a culture different from my own. Food is important in this, by the way. I eat everything (don’t ask!), and one thing common to every culture everywhere is the importance of eating together. I’ve never been able to understand the idea of traveling and insisting on familiar food, but that’s very common, unfortunately. Just shows an unwillingness to enter into other people’s lives.
You’ve experienced the culture of many unique and memorable places around the globe. Is there an area of the world you have developed a special affinity for?
More than one, to be honest. My wife is from Colombia and we spend six weeks there each year, and I have an affinity for Latin culture, and speak Spanish. But professionally, for historical reasons, I’ve tended to concentrate on Asia. It began when Time-Life sent me on a three-month assignment to photograph an ethnic minority, the Akha, living on the Thai-Burmese border (we couldn’t enter southwest China at that time). I found an affinity with southeast Asia, and particularly Thailand, and it became a kind of second base, although I’ve always lived in England. I speak Thai moderately well (Mandarin would have been more useful), and going back to your earlier question about learning, the language thing is really important. Even if you make the effort to learn only a few phrases, the pay-off is huge. You will be liked for making that effort, no doubt about it. A publisher friend of mine says that I have the language gene, but anyone can get a few phrases of another language under their belt within a week.
Through your extensive traveling, are there any universal discoveries have you made about mankind while observing and experiencing the different cultures? How has your commissioned work shaped you or inspired you as an individual?
It’s no great observation and I’m hardly the first person to say it, but the more I travel, the more I see that hopes, fears and ambitions are the same the world over. The details may be different, but the underlying motives are identical. We talked a lot about this when I was doing the Sudan book with my old friend Tim Carney – the last US Ambassador to Sudan. We did the book partly to show how a nation that was on a political blacklist had a population that still wanted on a personal, family level safety, financial security, education for the children, and so on. However exotic a place may look — and photographers do usually try to enhance that — the current of life has more similarities than differences across the world. My opinion, anyway. If I’ve learned anything from the many foreign assignments I’ve had (many from the Smithsonian magazine, incidentally), I hope it’s a measure of understanding of people’s lives. And that’s ultimately more interesting than any mountain or desert landscape.
Your work portrays people in an up-close and personal way. Have you ever found yourself in a dangerous or compromising situation while on a shooting assignment?
Not often. The general idea is to be alert to the dynamics of any situation, and to anticipate how people will react. This works for street photography and for more involved, engaged kind of shooting. Of course, you occasionally run into the unexpected, but if you anticipate problems, such as when we were in Darfur (for US Vogue, strangely), or in Cambodia when the civil war was still on, then you do a kind of due diligence. You check things out first. Actually, it’s less easy to get into predictable trouble than you might imagine. No-one wants a photographer, writer, or any kind of foreign national, getting into trouble on their watch, so they (police, military) try and stop you from getting near that trouble. There were one or two iffy moments over the years, but due mainly to poor judgment on my part.
Do you have any dreams of where your travels will take you next? Is there a particular area of the world you would especially like to explore?
On balance, my most interesting assignments have been ones that I hadn’t thought of myself. Sudan was classic. Tim (mentioned above) and his wife Vicki, a journalist, suggested it one day when I was in DC. They wanted to show something more than the generally one-dimensional sound-bite picture of the country that most people had. In Tim’s words, ‘to complicate people’s minds’ about the country. I would never have thought of going myself, but the two years we spent traveling and shooting there were amazing. And we now have good Sudanese friends.
Please tell us about how you find inspiration for the photos you take. Similarly, do you find yourself mostly shooting for assignments or do you make time to shoot for your own personal projects?
That first question is really too big for me have any success at answering. Inspiration for anything is quite elusive and very personal. I wish it were available out of a tap, but it’s pretty uncontrollable. However, I should add that in assignment photography, including self-assignment, it’s more important to get out there and just tackle it. You have a shooting script, a kind of list of pictures you need, and that needs to be worked at. Inspiration in the sense of sitting dreamily waiting for something to land in your brain doesn’t have much place in my kind of photography! As for generating assignments, it’s always been a mixture between magazine or book clients suggesting and proposals coming from me. In either case, I always work out in advance that there will be a publisher. My last big book (not counting the ones written about photography) was Tea Horse Road, about an ancient trade route between China and Tibet. A publisher friend suggested we find a new subject for a book together, and she was interested in China close to southeast Asia. I did my research, found two or three possible stories, including this one. The route, carrying tea to Tibet and war horses in return, started in the 7th century and continued until the mid-20th. It was obviously perfect for a photography book – hardly anyone in the West knew about it, but every Chinese schoolchild does, and it had everything, a journey, cultures, ethno-botany, and more.
Between offering workshops and writing many popular books, you spend a lot of time teaching others. Why do you feel it’s important to educate others in photography? How did you first become involved with creating instructional materials? Is there a particular book that you think every new photographer should read?
But I spend very little time physically teaching. I travel too much to be able to lecture at a college, and in any case, I have nagging doubts about the balance between doing and teaching. Well, education in all areas is how people grow, so it’s crucial. I’m not sure how much I contribute to that, though I should mention that one thing I am proud of is my involvement with the British Open College of the Arts, which is the younger, arts-oriented sibling of the Open University. It’s distance learning, I’ve written all the courses, and they now accumulate to a BA degree. We have tutors from all the good photography colleges in the UK for students to correspond with. So that was something within the educational system that I was able to do. As for which books, of course I’m banned from mentioning my own, but I think I’ll sneak in a reference to The Photographer’s Eye, which isn’t about equipment. But possibly more important than that is simply looking at photographs, good ones, devouring them, absorbing them. Every good photographer I’ve ever known does that.
Speaking of teaching, you have a new book being released soon. Can you tell us a little bit about it?
Erm, more than one actually. But pretty well hot off the press is a small (meaning conveniently sized) book called the Black & White Photography Field Guide. It’s interesting that black and white is enjoying a revival, despite the fact that digital cameras produce color images. Technically, it’s because there is such an excellent choice in how you can render an image into black and white, with almost infinite control over the tones, but more than that, black and white has never lost its appeal as an expressive way of shooting. It starts at a slight distance from reality by rejecting color, and it allows the photographer to concentrate on such qualities as tonality, form and light.
Thank you Michael for spending some time with us today and sharing your insights with us!
Would you like to see even more of Michael’s wonderful photography? Make sure you visit his website, blog, and facebook to view his images. Don’t forget to also follow him on twitter! Also, make sure to check out his newest books Black & White Photography Field Guide and Digital Image Editing & Special Effects over on Amazon.