Head backwards and take advantage of this new viewpoint to use scale as an effective tool
Michael steps back this month to demonstrate why doing so will give you a new perspective on your photography
After last month’s suggestion for closing in on a subject to explore detail, what more obvious a successor than doing the opposite? Stepping back isn’t just a replay in reverse of moving forward, however. It calls for a different mindset – one that might not come naturally, but which has actually played a large part in the rise of photography as art since the 1970s. To be perfectly honest, I only shoot like this some of the time, because I’m normally interested in a more hard-working composition that calls for effort and skill. If you’re familiar with the Düsseldorf School of German photographers who studied under Bernd and Hiller Becher, notably Andreas Gursky, Thomas Ruff and Thomas Struth (these three sometimes unkindly referred to as Struffsky), you won’t be surprised that I’m not a fan. Nevertheless, I’m duty-bound to give it my best presentation, because the deadpan, cool, detached and physically distant style of shooting is undoubtedly majorly successful.
In the case of this assignment, the competition between two styles of shooting – close and immersive versus cool and detached – was a real one that I had to deal with quickly. The urgency was because I had much less time to shoot than I’d hoped for, forcing me to choose which approach would be the most effective for a very large-scale operation – the dismantling by hand of massive ships. The location was the coast of Gujarat, India, at Alang, which has become the world’s largest shipbreaking yard. 80 percent of the worldwide tonnage sold for scrap last year ended up on South Asia’s beaches, and most of these ships are intentionally run ashore in the controversial beaching method, to be taken apart by hand.
Into the heart of darkness
This is dangerous work, and there were eight fatalities last year, even with the new use of safety helmets. As you can see from the smaller photographs here, when I photographed the Alang beach in 2002, there were absolutely zero safety precautions, and that ended up being my problem. Getting permission was almost impossible. What shipbreaking yard would want this kind of publicity? Sebastiao Salgado had already exposed the dangers in the late 1980s in Bangladesh for his 1997 book Workers, and all the guys here knew that photographers were bad news. Somehow, by persistent cajoling, name-dropping and the promise to be there
and back in a flash, I got myself a short amount of time on the beach. The workers themselves were delighted. I started with them, 20mm lens from very close and involved, but nagging at me was a strong Salgado picture I recalled, also from very close, and I didn’t want to attempt to copy that. The alternative was the detached, distant view with a longer lens – this rapidly became the more attractive idea. I had time to concentrate on only one of the two approaches, and I settled on this.
But it depended on timing, because the key was to have some figures so dwarfed by the huge ships that they would not immediately be visible – yet because of their position and movement will be seen in large print. This was the best, because of the men stepping out onto the mud underneath a huge tilted vessel, but as I’ll explain in more detail on the following pages, it’s an image that needs to be seen large for it to work. As a thumbnail, it doesn’t work at all, because the figures just don’t register.
Shipbreaking, Alang, Gujarat, India
Our globetrotting Contributor at Large, renowned photographer and prolific author Michael Freeman, presents a month-by-month masterclass that’s exclusive toN-photo, in which he explores his tried-and-tested paths to more creative photography. Michael has published dozens of books on photography, including the bestselling Perfect Exposure.
If you enjoy this article and want to learn more, there are 50 more paths to be discovered in Michael’s new book Fifty Paths to Creative Photography (NB: all 50 are different from those that will be featured here in the magazine)
A more immersive approach, close to the workers and action