Peo­ple see so many pic­tures. They are only go­ing to be at­tracted to those that make them stop for a mo­ment

Michael Free­man, pho­tog­ra­pher and au­thor

NPhoto - - Front Page - • See more of Michael’s pic­tures and find out about his books, pho­tog­ra­phy work­shops and cour­ses at: www.michael­free­man­

The path from Ox­ford grad­u­ate to best-sell­ing pho­tog­ra­phy au­thor has taken Michael Free­man on a cir­cuitous route to most coun­tries.

But his di­ver­sity of ex­pe­ri­ence means he is more than an­other travel pho­tog­ra­pher. He moves between ad­ver­tis­ing, ed­i­to­rial, re­portage and doc­u­men­tary. Surely he had a clear idea from the start? Well, not ex­actly…

What got you in­ter­ested in pho­tog­ra­phy?

It wasn’t a par­tic­u­lar se­quence of events. Where and when I grew up in the 1960s you didn’t have gap years and there wasn’t the sense that you could do what you wanted. Pho­tog­ra­phy was not on the ca­reer hori­zon. You had to have Latin at O-level to get into Ox­ford and Cam­bridge be­cause the en­trance exam in­cluded a Latin pa­per. At high school, aged 14 or 15, you did arts or Latin. I was good at art but I was a bright kid so I was taken off art and that was it: I did Latin, went to Ox­ford Univer­sity.

You read geog­ra­phy at Ox­ford. What were your ca­reer am­bi­tions then?

I had no driv­ing am­bi­tion. At Ox­ford there was the sense that you weren’t study­ing for a ca­reer, you were just study­ing.

What was your first job?

It was full em­ploy­ment then. You could have any job you wanted. There weren’t as many grad­u­ates ei­ther. There was a book called DOG – Di­rec­tory of Op­por­tu­ni­ties for Grad­u­ates. It was full of ad­ver­tis­ing copy writ­ten by ev­ery­one imag­in­able: gov­ern­ment agen­cies, the BBC, man­u­fac­tur­ers, sell­ing them­selves to th­ese young kids com­ing out of univer­sity. The best copy was writ­ten by the ad­ver­tis­ing agen­cies and ad­ver­tis­ing at the time was cool. So I went to a cen­tral Lon­don ad­ver­tis­ing agency and had a good time.

Did work­ing in ad­ver­tis­ing lead to a deeper in­ter­est in pho­tog­ra­phy?

In ad­ver­tis­ing I was ex­posed to highly skilled, pro­fes­sional pho­tog­ra­phy of a very deliberate planned kind. I was not in the

cre­ative depart­ment. I was an ac­count man­ager, but that meant be­ing very closely in­volved in the cre­ative briefing and work­ing with the cre­ative teams so I used to see pho­tog­ra­phy done at the top level of pro­fes­sion­al­ism in cen­tral Lon­don in the 1970s. If any­thing, it con­firmed my de­sire to do this for a liv­ing.

Af­ter six years you went trav­el­ling. Why did you choose to go to the Ama­zon?

When we were kids, there were two dream ac­tiv­i­ties to do af­ter leav­ing school: to be a stock rider in Queens­land, and to go up the Ama­zon! So I re­gressed to child­hood and went to the Ama­zon. I was writ­ing as well. I wasn’t con­vinced that I just wanted to be a pho­tog­ra­pher. I had bought a sec­ond­hand Has­sel­blad from a guy in the agency me­dia depart­ment and an­other from a client. My ac­count su­per­vi­sor ne­go­ti­ated a paid sab­bat­i­cal and went off around the world, so I lob­bied for the same thing. The agency gave me a two-and-a-half month sab­bat­i­cal.

What did you do when you came back?

I had th­ese pic­tures and in a naïve way tried to do some­thing with them. I rang the Brazil­ian em­bassy, which as a pro­fes­sional you wouldn’t con­sider do­ing, and spoke to the cul­tural at­taché and said, ‘Can I show you th­ese pic­tures?’ Coin­ci­den­tally, they were look­ing for some­thing dif­fer­ent and de­cided to put on an ex­hi­bi­tion. The guest list in­cluded peo­ple like the pic­ture ed­i­tor of the Tele­graph mag­a­zine and the pic­ture ed­i­tor of Time-Life Books, who were just set­ting up an edit of a con­ti­nu­ity se­ries in Lon­don. They said, ‘Can we bor­row some of the trans­paren­cies?’ I said, ‘Of course’.

Did they ring back?

Months later I got a call from Time-Life, say­ing ‘Would you like to come round and see what we’ve done with your pic­tures?’

I popped round to their of­fices af­ter work and there was a cover and some dou­blepage spreads. I thought that was the best en­cour­age­ment I was ever go­ing to get, so I re­signed the next morn­ing. I was given as a leav­ing present two weeks’ pho­tog­ra­phy at Unigate, one of the agency’s top clients.

What sort of pho­tog­ra­pher do you de­scribe your­self as?

That’s the sort of ques­tion we all try to avoid un­less we have highly de­fined spe­cial­i­ties. Let me quote a friend of mine, Ro­mano Cagnoni, who pho­tographed Ho Chi Minh in Hanoi. He did a lot of con­flict pho­tog­ra­phy but didn’t do it as a con­flict pho­tog­ra­pher be­cause he saw it as some­thing else. He said, ‘Isn’t it enough

just to be a pho­tog­ra­pher?’ I see my­self first and fore­most as an ed­i­to­rial pho­tog­ra­pher, but I have noth­ing against do­ing com­mer­cial work and ad­ver­tis­ing work.

Do you have a pref­er­ence?

I pre­fer the idea of shoot­ing where the pho­to­graphs are their own prod­uct.

It’s got a ton of char­ac­ter. Street pho­tog­ra­phy in Carta­gena is the best in the world

Michael Free­man

Doc­u­men­tary re­portage pho­tog­ra­pher

In com­mer­cial pho­tog­ra­phy you’re pho­tograph­ing some­thing for the pur­pose of sell­ing it. With ed­i­to­rial pho­tog­ra­phy what you’re sell­ing is the pic­ture it­self.

How many coun­tries have you been to?

I don’t know, I haven’t counted. Just go­ing to a coun­try doesn’t count for any­thing. The more I travel, the more I ap­pre­ci­ate how much I don’t know.

Any favourites?

I keep go­ing back to Asia. Time-Life sent me to north­ern Thai­land for three months to do a book about the hill tribes and I en­joyed it a lot. If you’d asked me that ques­tion 20 years ago I would have said Thai­land with­out any hes­i­ta­tion. I have a lot of Thai friends and I speak Thai. But you move on. I’ve trav­elled in Cam­bo­dia, Burma and Ja­pan. For the last sev­eral years I’ve been go­ing a lot to China, but also South Amer­ica, be­cause my wife is from there.

Which part?

Colom­bia. In fact, I was given the keys to the city of Carta­gena. I def­i­nitely feel part Colom­bian. It’s a great, fas­ci­nat­ing coun­try.

It was also the home of Gabriel Gar­cia Mar­quez, the No­bel Prize-win­ning au­thor.

Yes, I’m in the mid­dle of do­ing a book on Carta­gena. Mar­quez was from the north­ern coast. In the West is he is re­garded as having in­vented and writ­ten about mag­i­cal real­ism. We in north­ern Colom­bia know

dif­fer­ent be­cause he wrote about what ac­tu­ally hap­pens! It is a very crazy place.

What is it like to pho­to­graph?

Carta­gena has been pho­tographed a lot, but it tends to be the colo­nial ar­chi­tec­ture. That’s not what in­ter­ests me, it’s the peo­ple. There’s quite a strange­ness to the coast of Colom­bia, a great sense of hu­mour, and it’s noisy, it’s colour­ful, it’s got a ton of char­ac­ter. Street pho­tog­ra­phy in Carta­gena is the best in the world.

What’s your ‘desert is­land lens’?

Oh dear! If it re­ally means that, I’d have to say – not be­cause it’s a favourite – the Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8, be­cause it cov­ers the bases. There are other lenses I en­joy more when the oc­ca­sion de­mands. The 14-24mm f/2.8 is great. I love that lens, it’s so well built. My three ba­sic lenses are the 14-24mm, 24-70mm and 70-200mm f/2.8.

An­other lens I like us­ing is the Nikon-fit Zeiss 85mm f/1.4 man­ual. Beau­ti­ful piece of glass. It’s a portrait lens but I use it as a close-up lens as well. I have a 105mm macro but I don’t take that any more. I take ex­ten­sion rings for the Zeiss in­stead.

Which pho­tog­ra­phers are ma­jor in­flu­ences for you?

I’ve been in­flu­enced by quite a num­ber: Ansel Adams, Eliot Porter, Irv­ing Penn, but the most in­flu­en­tial would be Henri Cartier-Bres­son, Robert Frank and Wil­liam Klein. To go back to the ear­lier ques­tion about what sort of pho­tog­ra­pher I’d like to de­fine my­self as, I’d say doc­u­men­tary re­portage. I do see that and street pho­tog­ra­phy as the ul­ti­mate pho­tog­ra­phy.

Which cam­era bod­ies do you own?

I use the Nikon D4.

Can you list in or­der for me the Nikon cam­eras you have owned?

The first was the F2. I started with th­ese

sec­ond­hand Has­sel­blads and the pic­ture ed­i­tor at Time-Life said, ‘You’ve got to use 35mm be­cause there is a lot of stuff you’re not do­ing that you ought to be.’ I pur­chased Nikon, be­cause it was the cam­era with the rep­u­ta­tion for pro­fes­sional work.

What fol­lowed the F2?

The F2AS, then the F3T, the ti­ta­ni­um­bod­ied one. Those are the two bod­ies I will

You have to stand out in or­der to be em­ployed

Michael Free­man

Doc­u­men­tary re­portage pho­tog­ra­pher

never part with. One ma­jor dis­ap­point­ment of the F3T, though, was the pen­taprism. It’s plas­tic! The front of the cam­era with the Nikon logo is plas­tic! Come on, the rest of the cam­era is made out of this won­der­ful metal, what would it have cost?

When did you de­cide it was the right time to switch from film to dig­i­tal?

I ac­tu­ally started in 2003. I was shoot­ing a book on Su­dan for two years and that was the time I thought I’d give it a try. The is­sue was for the file to be big enough to be able to re­pro­duce an im­age dou­ble truck (dou­ble-page spread). I’m very proud of that book be­cause we had a lot of dou­blepage spreads taken on the D1. It’s a big book. I shot side by side. When the light was good I used film and then when the light wasn’t good enough I used dig­i­tal.

Do you still shoot film?

Ef­fec­tively no, oc­ca­sion­ally yes. I still have my Si­nar 4x5. Af­ter I fol­lowed the pic­ture ed­i­tor’s ad­vice it meant I had to re­think what I was go­ing to do for cover shots and for still life, so I de­cided to in­vest in 4x5 and got an Arca, then a Si­nar P.

Which was the dig­i­tal cam­era that made you re­al­ize there was no point in shoot­ing 35mm film any more?

The D2. I have a big ar­chive of film and we still have a reg­u­lar sched­ule of scan­ning. I shot Ko­dachrome mainly and it is a beau­ti­ful film. We always used to

un­der­ex­pose Ko­dachrome and in the shad­ows you’d get this won­der­ful rich­ness. Ko­dachromes I have from 40 years ago, the colour hasn’t moved a mil­lime­tre.

How many ter­abytes of drive do you use to back up?

I’m not a very heavy shooter. If I’m in a sit­u­a­tion where I’m go­ing for one shot and it’s a mat­ter of ex­pres­sion, I’ll take about 50 shots. We ar­chive ev­ery­thing and we use a brand called Drobo. We have five three­ter­abyte drives for ar­chiv­ing. We also back up on a three-ter­abyte drive at­tached to the main com­puter and ev­ery­thing is copied into there. When it fills up it goes off site to a friend who has a safe base­ment and we will plug in an­other three-ter­abyte drive.

You’re renowned for your books. How many have you au­thored or shot so far?

135. They’re not all on pho­tog­ra­phy but they’re mainly on pho­tog­ra­phy.

Which are you par­tic­u­larly proud of?

I’m es­pe­cially proud of the books that are doc­u­men­tary re­portage and the ones I have had a bit of strug­gle to get off the ground! For in­stance, Su­dan: the Land

and the Peo­ple, and my lat­est, The Tea Horse Road, about the old trade route from south­ern China to Ti­bet; I do th­ese to have some­thing I can re­ally get my teeth into.

What’s the sig­nif­i­cance of the Su­dan one?

It was ini­ti­ated by two old friends, Ti­mothy Car­ney, who was the last Amer­i­can

am­bas­sador to Su­dan, and his wife Vicky But­ler, who is a writer and jour­nal­ist. Tim dis­agreed quite strongly with the State Depart­ment’s pol­icy re­gard­ing Su­dan and its list­ing as a state spon­sor of ter­ror­ism. They wanted to do some­thing that ac­tu­ally ex­plained this coun­try. They thought the best medium for this would be a book. How­ever, no pub­lisher wanted it, so Vicky was forced to raise money from cor­po­ra­tions in­volved in Su­dan, and at that point a pub­lisher be­came in­ter­ested in tak­ing it on: Thames & Hud­son. In the end we sold 18,000 copies. You have also writ­ten dozens of books on pho­to­graphic prac­tice. Is the need for pho­to­graphic ed­u­ca­tion as great now as when you first started? I think it’s even greater! There are mil­lions of peo­ple now who en­joy pho­tog­ra­phy, not just as a means of record­ing fam­ily and friends but for their own cre­ative sat­is­fac­tion. The ex­pan­sion of all this into the mar­ket­place is a source of dis­tress to a lot of pro­fes­sional pho­tog­ra­phers, who see, with some jus­ti­fi­ca­tion, their liveli­hood be­ing taken away. Well, I’m sorry about that but it wasn’t a busi­ness that came with any guar­an­tee that it wouldn’t change. We now have a huge au­di­ence of peo­ple re­ally in­ter­ested in pho­to­graphs, that’s good isn’t it? Surely, if you’re a pro­fes­sional you ought to be able to mon­e­tise that? If you were start­ing out to­day, would you do any­thing dif­fer­ently? Well, it’s a dif­fer­ent world. I don’t know. It’s hard to say. In some ways there were more op­por­tu­ni­ties then, but now there is greater free­dom in what peo­ple can do.

Plaza de los Coches (Top)

Nikon D4, Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8, 1/500 sec, f/7.1, ISO 400

Fash­ion show (mid­dle)

Nikon D3, Nikon 14-24mm, 1/80 sec, f/3.5, ISO 1400


Nikon D4, Nikon 24-70mm, 1/200 sec, f/9, ISO 640

Lud­ing bridge Nikon D3, Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8, 1/125 sec, f/14, ISO 200

Baoshan vi llage Nikon D4, Nikon 14-24mm, mul­ti­ple ex­po­sures (1/8000 sec, 1/640 sec, 1/500 sec, 1/60 sec) com­bined and stitched us­ing Pho­to­shop Pho­toMerge, f/8, ISO 100

Tirtha­puri (top left )

Nikon F3t, 180mm lens, 1/125 sec, f/11, Fuji Velvia film ISO 50

Cor­morant fi shing

(top rig ht)

Nikon D2, Nikon 12-24mm, 1/100 sec, f/9, ISO 200

Dar­fur Nikon D1, 180mm lens, 1/320 sec, f/9, ISO 200

wa­ter hole Nikon F3t, 20mm lens, 1/60 sec, f/8, Fuji Velvia film ISO 50

Azande chil­dren Nikon D1, 400mm lens, 1/400 sec, f/5.6, ISO 200

Hong kong

(far left )

Si­nar P cam­era, 6x12cm film Angk or wat Nikon F2as, 28mm PC shift lens, 1/30 sec, f/11, Fuji Velvia film ISO 50

machi tawara by the riv er Se­mois (Left )

Nikon F3T, 400mm lens, 1/125 sec, f/5.6, Fuji Velvia film ISO 50

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