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
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
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.
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.
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
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
(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