An interview with Nick Danziger

I first came across Nick Danziger through his book, Danziger’s Travels-Beyond Forbidden Frontiers. A personal account of his travels along the Old Silk Road, a trading route that goes through Asia. In the mid-1980s, Nick graduated from Chelsea Art School, applied successfully for a fellowship with the Winston Churchill foundation and made his way through Europe, to Iran, Afghanistan, Tibet and China. Along the way, he had some amazing adventures and took lots of great photographs as well. His diaries of the time became the best-selling book ( first published in 1987) and in his words, it became the first stepping-stone in his career. Today he is an acclaimed photojournalist and film-maker. In April he visited London on a flying visit and we talked about his work, his career and his thoughts on self-publishing, social media, research and the value of editing amongst other things.

Nick Danziger, April 2014

Nick Danziger, April 2014

Tom Broadbent: Well I’m sitting here with Nick Danziger, who hardly needs any form of introduction but for the record he’s a photographer, a filmmaker, a writer, a storyteller, a humanitarian. Is that about right Nick?

Nick Danziger: More or less, a bit more and a bit less.

T: I can’t promise Desert Island Discs levels of journalism (Nick was on in 2003) but I thought we could have a chat about your career and what you’re up to at the moment. You first contacted me through LinkedIn, saying that we knew a lot of the same people and that we should hook up. Which I thought was quite interesting. I was like, really?? Yeah we do, we do Nick!! You mentioned that you were working on a new book called Back to the USSR: Heroic Adventures in Transnistria which you’ve put together with the travel writer, Rory MacLean so tell me about that.

N: Well it’s become incredibly topical now because a lot of the people in Crimea and indeed international journalists are all using Transnistria as an example that Crimea is following so I went to Transnistria a couple of years ago and it was incredibly fascinating because here is a self declared breakaway republic within a breakaway republic. But they haven’t moved away from the times as it were of the USSR hence Heroic Adventures in the USSR because they still look to Lenin, Stalin. They went to be part of the Soviet Union, even though the Soviet Union is long gone.  But they’d like a re-attachment to Russia so it’s a small territory but none the less both agrarian and rural and urban and city-dwellers. It was a really fascinating journey because being able to see something of people’s lives. It’s difficult to get to Transnistria in terms of them allowing people, particularly foreigners to have access to the country and for them to travel around as well.  So all in all it was interesting then and it’s become a lot more interesting and topical now. We crowd-sourced the book, so I don’t know if you want to talk about that?

Ten days after Orthodox Christmas, starting at midnight, as many as one thousand Transnistrians, aged from 6 to 60, strip down to their underwear and plunge into the Nistru river at Tiraspol.  ‘I feel such warmth in my heart,’ said Dimitri Sheremet, leader of the Dixieland ‘Liberty’ band when he emerged from the freezing water. © Nick Danziger / nb* pictures

Ten days after Orthodox Christmas, starting at midnight, as many as one thousand Transnistrians, aged from 6 to 60, strip down to their underwear and plunge into the Nistru river at Tiraspol. ‘I feel such warmth in my heart,’ said Dimitri Sheremet, leader of the Dixieland ‘Liberty’ band when he emerged from the freezing water. © Nick Danziger / nb* pictures

T: Yes I do.

N:  It was a bit of a struggle in the beginning but now we’re fully financed, but there’s still time to sign up and get your name in the book.

T: So Transnistria, where is it?

N: It’s between Moldova and Ukraine so it’s Eastern Europe. It’s landlocked and it’s the other side of the Nistra river hence the name Transnistria. They had a war of secession, which resulted in several thousand deaths. But they’re not recognised by anywhere, anyone rather. They are as it were, heavily subsidised by Russia. They couldn’t continue to function without Russian assistance.

T: You’re obviously engaged with crowd funding to finance the book and you made a really brilliant launch video for it, which is a shining example of what all crowd funders should do. A funny, if that’s appropriate, video to launch a project. One thing that came out of that was how hospitable the people of Transnistria are.

N: A lot of drinking.

T: My question is how drunk did you get in the making of this project?

N: The funny thing about it all was that everyone we went had a kind of remedy so that we wouldn’t be drunk so one day we were told this fish soup you know, you’ve got to eat a lot of this fish soup so you wouldn’t have a hangover the following morning. The following day I’d spoke to my partner, my wife and I said, “Thank God we’re going to the monastery today because I really need a break from all this heavy drinking”. We got to the monastery, we met the Abbot, he was really nice, he said “Look why don’t you stay for lunch”. I thought great and as we were walking towards his house in the monastery complex. He said, “Oh I must show you our cellars”. Little did I realise you know what he meant by that, it was the wine cellars. He insisted that we have a little drink from each one of the barrels that was maturing so yet again there wasn’t a day off from the heavy drinking.

T: And when you went to Transnistria did you do it in blocks?

N: No, I often go back to places but that was done in one block. A lot of preparatory work, which I do increasingly. So I had a vague idea of where and who I should be meeting, where I should be traveling, what would be interesting, what would make it a complete project.

T: When you’re prepping for a big trip like that, do you use a fixer?

N: Yes, fixers or researchers or both. It’s very important because time is often limited and so the more you can do. I mean I used to go in the past and have no idea and just discover everything, but of course you can also miss out on a lot that way. It can be really good to go with quite a bit of knowledge, you always discover new things anyway and all the best-laid plans always change so it’s a real advantage to do the research. It’s also a real advantage to have people on the ground who are prepared to help you.

T: With Transnistria for example how much time did you spend prepping the job and how much time did you spend there?

N:  Well it’s interesting because working with Rory MacLean we both did prepping. He stayed longer than I did; he arrived before me and left after me, because he had lots of interviews to do and more research. That project we probably spent a year and half on before actually getting there but again a lot of the places I go to are very difficult to get to so it takes a lot of preparatory work to be able to make the contacts to get the access once you get there.

T: So it took you a year and a half of prep work, research etc. and then you were there for how long?

N: Three weeks.

T: Really? You got a lot out of three weeks I’d say.

N: Yeah, I probably stayed a few days less than that. But again the way that’d work is that I’m up before dawn and I’d work late into the night so they are really exhausting days and there’s no day off, you’re always looking, always seeing new things and always shooting.

T: With crowd funding for the book, do you use any form of social media like Twitter?

N: Not really, to be honest, I get so swamped. I never have a free moment. I have someone who comes in and helps me, not even once a week and then I’m in a fortunate position I guess because maybe there’s quite a bit of interest and traction already. But I’m not building on it or seeking it out. I suppose it depends what your needs are. For me it’s like yeah you could have hundreds of people who check into your website or Facebook or Twitter but sometimes what I often say to young aspiring photographers if you do need to have something seen it’s not necessarily the numbers of people, you might just have to have three or four people look at the work to actually get the result you need. Especially if it’s advocacy or whatever. So in my case I feel it’s very much hopefully it’s the right people who are seeing it, rather than posting something and saying I got 160 000 hits.

T: It’s a good point. With something like Twitter, a lot of people use it as a communication tool, a type of short-form journalism. If Twitter had existed when you did Danziger’s Travels, would you have used it?

N: No, for various reasons because I still don’t use it. I’m often doing very sensitive work so I can’t have people following what I’m doing because then the access would be denied and in the work I do which I hope stays the course I’m now not doing news and actualities which I’ve done. But now I’m doing work which is much more intimate. It’s also good to me to look back and see what I’ve done rather than feeding it out in a constant stream. I want the work to be seen in its entirety rather than in drips and drabs.

Danziger's Travels

The cover of Danziger’s Travels. © Nick Danziger / nb* pictures

T: Well in that case I thought we could take it back to the beginning in a sense, talking about Danziger’s Travels which is your first book (first published in 1987, my copy 1993) I came across it when I was at college and I was fascinated by your journey, which culminated in some unbelievable experiences in Afghanistan, China and Tibet.  Would it be fair to say that, that journey or journeys shaped your attitude to photojournalism? In that, without context photographs lose their ability to deliver the message intended?

N: Yeah I think so, I think I wasn’t aware of it then and I think that hopefully the photography has really moved on. But again it’s looking back and seeing the gaps and the holes and this is just the first step. From that I really really wanted to go on and refine what I’m doing and be more focused, yeah it’s taken a long time. But yes that was certainly the first step; I mean it changed my life as well in the sense that before that I was a painter. I think probably a lot of the reactions, although the book did very well and it’s still going strong, it was the first stepping-stone.

T:I’d say so, after that you did Danziger’s Adventures which was from Kabul to Miami I think.

N: Yes and then one about Britain which was important to me because after travelling to all these foreign places, a lot of comments were being made which I was critical of in terms of people looking elsewhere, I mean I could understand it, they were seeing what I was doing but I thought it would be really interesting to do what I had done elsewhere in the world in Britain.

T: That was one of my questions, with your project on Britain, which became two books, Danziger’s Britain and also The British: In Photographs. You’ve told me what inspired the project. It’s all very well saying I’m going to do a project on Britain but again that must have been a massive amount of prep work.

N: It was, I also got a fellowship from what’s now the National Media Museum, it was then the National Museum of Film, Photography and Television and I had a real idea of what I wanted to do.  Sort of a road trip around the UK, it was research, It was looking at the UK and wanting to go to different regions, cities, towns, rural areas so trying to find contacts in different places that would give me the access, the variety, the help Everything I do is really teamwork even though it was me doing the writing or taking the pictures, it was a lot of prep work. Again there was so much more than anything you see in the books, you know when you’re editing images. Equally for the text I went to many more places.

Dog chasing a Frisbee. Leiston, Suffolk. From the series and book: The British

Dog chasing a Frisbee. Leiston, Suffolk. From Danziger’s Britain © Nick Danziger / nb* pictures

T: We’re talking about mid-nineties aren’t we?

N: Yes

T: Before the Internet became really big, so you were before email?

N: Yes

T: So lots of phone calls then?

N: Phone calls, lots of fixed line phoning. In fact some of the neighbourhoods I had to visit before they would let me in so that was interesting, with no camera etc. etc. I subsequently went on to make a documentary film series, actually going back to some of those areas but shot in black and white. The documentary films were actually composed of 90% stills. I’m still really attached to doing stuff in Britain like that but there’s very few magazines willing to commission that kind of work now.

T: Moving on slightly, with your project 30 Days you managed to get behind the scenes with Tony Blair and his cabinet during 2003 (the run-up to the Iraq war). How did you get the access and what triggered the idea to do a project on him?

N: The access was completely out of my hands, The Times Magazine organised the access and in fact they asked if I was free to do two or three days a week for two or three weeks because it was coming up to his (Tony Blair’s) 50th birthday. No one was aware when all of that was put in place that it was going to be the lead-up to the launching of the war in Iraq and, in fact after the first day they kind of said ‘have you got everything you need?’ because I was already asking ‘Can I come back tomorrow?’.  I was asking what’s happening tomorrow? ‘Oh he’s going to launch the Middle East Peace Plan, he’s going to speak to Yasser Arafat.’ I said great. So I came back the next day, that was a Friday, so I said what about tomorrow, Saturday, it was a weekend.They said ‘Don’t you want to go home?’ 30 days later with the most extraordinary access but obviously they thought, you know, they were going to win the war then.

18/03/2003, 10:00am. Prime Minister's office, House of Commons. TB finalises the most important speech of his life in the Prime Minister’s in the Commons before MPs vote on war with Iraq. From the series 30 Days © Nick Danziger / nb* pictures

18/03/2003, 10:00am. Prime Minister’s office, House of Commons. Tony Blair finalises the most important speech of his life in the Prime Minister’s in the Commons before MPs vote on war with Iraq. From the series 30 Days © Nick Danziger / nb* pictures

T: You were a trained artist, trained at Chelsea Art School, you were going to become a painter but suddenly photography got in the way. At what point did you pick up a camera and think this is for me, this is an ideal way for me to communicate my ideas.

N: It was evolutionary I think, there wasn’t one moment. As a kid I had a camera, enjoyed watching football games and it was a way of getting into the grounds without having to pay to get in through the turnstiles. I suppose I realised then that being a press photographer gave you access to extraordinary places that you couldn’t otherwise get to, particularly then when you’re young and you haven’t got the money to do a lot of things.  I think after that, I did want to go back to painting after my first book.  With Danziger’s Britain in fact I didn’t take up photography as it were professionally then and it slowly evolved whereby I wanted to go back to places, in fact I was commissioned to go back to places, initially when Saddam Hussein was gassing the Kurdish population and bit by bit it became a tool to kind of go back to places I’d visited before and I realised you know, this is where I want to be, this is what I want to do.  And although I’ve written the books, made many many documentary films, I’m happiest behind the lens of the camera.

T: So with Adventures in Transnistria, Rory does the writing and you concentrate on what you love doing most.

N: Yeah it’s interesting. My first documentary film I was there doing everything, which is what you’re told and taught to do now, which is you know sound, the picture, the editing. You name it, there’s nothing left for anyone else because you have to do it all. And I’ve gone the other way because my first documentary film, which was a BBC video diary which was shot in Afghanistan, there was no one doing the sound or what have you. I did have someone helping me locally, occasionally if I need his help. But now I don’t want to do several different things at the same time, if you’re really concentrating on the imagery, it’s really difficult to hear what’s going on. You do but at times it disappears because you’re so focused. None of my images are cropped, none of the black and white images are cropped and if a colour image is cropped it’s because of a very specific reason and we’re taking one in every 300 images, if that.

T: You’ve won plenty of awards, World Press Photo for example .But what keeps you going, taking pictures and coming up with new projects?

N: Well I love what I do. I think it’s an incredible privilege. I love meeting people. I’d say I like going to new places but equally I like going back to the same places because the experience is richer and richer each time you go back and I feel really privileged because most of the people I’m photographing don’t have anywhere like the kind of opportunities and possibilities that I have. I think if I’m able to give a voice to people who deserve to be heard then if I can do that, great.

T: Which images mean the most to you out of everything you’ve photographed?

N: I’m always dissatisfied, I take a picture and I’m always, I should have done this, I should have done that. I didn’t get this, I didn’t get that. Because I’m often dealing with dark parts of life, images where there’s a lot of joy and happiness are good, it pleases photo editors. I think because people forget that in every situation and in the most difficult places there’s a lot of good humour and people with very little means still have joy and happiness. I would say that the images which really stick in my mind are the people who I’ve become friends with or that I really admire because they’ve overcome huge obstacles in life; they’re survivors in the most extraordinary circumstances so when I see those pictures, I always think how lucky I am. It’s not really to do with the quality of the image; it’s more about the individual that is in the picture or the situation.

T: I suppose the emotional, the bond between you and the subject?

N: A huge huge emotional attachment. Not always because I think that would be unfair, there’s a lot of people obviously I don’t keep in contact with because sometimes you do a lot of this and you feel lucky. There are individuals that, 20 years on and we’re still in touch. It’s interesting, not just professionally, it’s lovely to see people you photograph have their own families and life moves on one way or another. Distressing when it doesn’t.

T: So in answer it’s hard for you to pinpoint one images or two images, you have so many bodies of work

N: I’m quite tortured and tormented by one: I did a project where I went back to find the same women, it’s about the effects of war on women in conflict. I found ten of the eleven women across the world which in itself was good; I had a lot of help trying to find the women. This one particular young woman called Mah-Bibi who aged 10 or 11, she didn’t know her age, was already looking after siblings, two younger brothers and I’ve never been able to find her again. You look at that image and it’s very strong because you realise that her life is difficult, I just want to know what happened to her.

Mah Bibi, Ghor, Afghanistan, 2001 © Nick Danziger / nb* pictures for ICRC

Mah Bibi, Ghor, Afghanistan, 2001 © Nick Danziger / nb* pictures for ICRC

 

T: Would you say that objectivity is over-rated seeing that photographers can’t help but form an emotional bond with their subjects? I mean a traditional photojournalist.

N: Well I originally started, as you know with no photographic training, no journalism training and it was always, you have to be objective, There are two sides. And that’s certainly from Afghanistan where I travelled with the Mujahedeen, the so-called holy warriors against the Soviet Union and I was very much horrified by what I was seeing. But on reflection, I didn’t realise actually what life was like for women in Afghanistan when these freedom fighters were fighting for freedom as it were. It wasn’t for freedom of women and then going to the government side. Like many in the west, I didn’t see the whole picture. I think there’s something between being objective and looking at the situation beyond what’s in front of your nose. You need to analyse and be critical but I don’t think you necessarily have to be, there’s right and wrong in a lot of these situations. So in that sense when I’m taking pictures of something that might disturb people then it’s because it is disturbing and I don’t think we have to objective in that kind of situation.

T: When you were travelling, you were documenting what was going on around you; it must be difficult to see the bigger picture when you’re doing a project like that.

N: What I would say is that now I’m not trying to give the big picture, in the past I would have thought this might stand up but life is so complex and so difficult I’m just trying to look at snapshots., something that might give you a picture. Certainly it’s not, like I’m trying to describe or show the entirety of what’s taking place.

T: But these people were looking after you as well

N: Everywhere I’ve gone, most people in most places. As I said as one point it’s been teamwork and you can’t produce quality work unless people are really accepting of you. If they have been accepting of you that usually means they’ve been a major part of helping you, trusting you etc. The least you can do is try and repay that. I’ve often failed, some people have been upset. Maybe an image, images or a story but I’ve tried to be as straight as possible. Trying to represent them in what I think is the right light.

T: Following on from that, would you say that relationship building and how you get on with people is as important as the pictures you take?

N:Totally, in my case people would say it’s all about relationships. The technical aspect, you can’t quantify it but it’s only a tiny percentage. You’ve got to know what you’re doing but it’s no good knowing what you’re doing and not having a relationship because you won’t get the images. It’s no good going out and buying the best camera; the best camera’s not going to get you the best pictures because it’s you that gets the best pictures.

T: if you were starting out now in your career, would you do anything different?

N: Difficult, now having seen the world would I have become a photographer? Probably, maybe not the most helpful thing you know. I don’t whether medicine or law or something else, I love the visual arts and I wanted to be a painter. For me certainly the black and white is like sketching, the images I’m trying to compose I feel very comfortable with it. I don’t think there’s technical or photographic things I would change, would I have chosen a different career, well maybe. I’m not sure it was the most useful thing or profession I could have done.

T: Isn’t it true that a lot of visual artists have that, a sense of guilt about what they do?

N:I haven’t spoken to you enough about that particular thing, guilt. Yeah sure you see these things and you wonder about the usefulness of taking another picture all of us will say a mere drop of what we shoot is actually published and again how much can be said about the story because space is limited so you don’t necessarily see the richness of being in a place and seeing it is one thing. We when we visit, our experience is limited but then the person who reads it is even more limited. We’re all privileged when we do this as photographers to be able to show something of the world. The world that we live in.

T: Do you think now with the fact that you can just self-publish, you don’t have to go through the traditional channels of say getting a commission through a newspaper or a magazine or a TV station or whatever else? Assuming you can find funding for it or funding it yourself, you can do it yourself, publish it yourself, release it yourself through the Internet.

N: Well it’s more democratic, in the sense that we can all do a lot more than we used to be able to do. You don’t need a lot of money to shoot a video, edit and upload it but I think what’s interesting about that is how many people are watching it. You only need to affect one person, great but look at the quantity of what we have out there which also in a way diminishes a lot of things that do have quality and really speak out. We all want to believe that hopefully quality rises to the top but I think sometimes you need to get hold of the fact that it’s not the amount of people that go on your website but who are the people going on your website and then what do they do with it. I’m very focused on that, we all think isn’t it great and I can see that on my website. You do a programme, you’re invited to an interview on BBC radio say and you suddenly get a mountain, a spike of hits. You know at least people have listened, you’ve caught their attention and they’ve gone and looked further into it. I worry about young people getting carried away about uploading everything. It’s important that everything isn’t instantaneous, you need time for reflection.

T: Okay last question is what would you advise to a photojournalist starting out in their career now?

N: If they want to be a photojournalist probably the most important thing is that they try and put together a project that they’re passionate about, that they’re interested in and spend a lot of time on it and keep reworking it, keep looking at those images. Be supremely critical and again back to some of the things I said earlier on. It’s not the quantity, if there’s anything there’s any doubt about, take it out of the final set and keep refining it. Keep going back and keep working on it.

www.nickdanziger.com
http://unbound.co.uk/books/back-in-the-ussr

Nick has a quite extraordinary exhibition on at the British Council about North Korea called Above The Line. It’s on until 25th July. Worth checking out.

 

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A conversation with Neville Elder-Photographer and Film-maker

Neville Elder is a photojournalist and portrait photographer from Somerset. He’s based in New York and counts The Times, Independent, The Guardian and of course Bizarre magazine along his regular clients. Neville started his photographic career shooting for local news in Somerset, graduated to the Nationals and became an Englishman in New York. His portraits have seen him photograph such luminaries as Donald Sutherland, Bill Clinton and Boris Johnson. His documentary work has taken him all over the place, from covering anti-capitalist riots in London to Hamburger Eating Championships in Tennessee. Lately he’s moved into film-making and is currently looking to secure funding to finish his photographic take on the 9/11 tragedy. He is a rather talented musician as well, being the frontman for the folk band, Thee Shambles.

I first hired Neville in 2007 to cover a Rockabilly festival in Las Vegas for Bizarre magazine and from there, I ended up using him on numerous assignments all over the USA and Canada as well. Neville came to London recently and we chewed the fat for a couple of hours.

Neville is what I would describe as one of my go-to guys. If there’s a portrait or a story that needs shooting and shooting well with no fuss, he’s the man.

I’m trying to remember the thread, how you ended up shooting for Bizarre. Because I remember thinking when I first came across your work, I was thinking God he’s a bit good.

The thread was I was in London and I was the picture editor and chief photographer at City AM and I quit because it crushed my soul. I went back to New York end of 2006 and just before I left I spoke with a friend who said I should speak with Tom at Bizarre. And I called you up and you were very nice.  I started pitching you ideas until I got the idea of what you wanted. I think the thing that got me was I pitched you an idea about Roller Derby and you said “sounds good but if it were a bizarre story it would be domantrixes on roller-blades” And it was a case of “Oh” and the penny dropped. Then I pitched you the idea of a Rockabilly festival in Las Vegas and for some strange reason you sent me there.

By the pool, Viva Las Vegas, Gold Coast Hotel, Las Vegas, April 2007

After that I sent you on some really bizarre assignments, let’s see Fangoria in Texas was one. We used to do a two-page spread called the Parties page and we wanted to open it up to more than just fetish parties. We wanted to push it a bit and do conventions and festivals

Ah yes, the Fangoria Weekend of Horrors, it was a horror all right. It was raining and there were twelve people there and I thought oh god I’m going to have to pull something out of my arse here. That was a wet February in Austin.

I spent three days there trying to make a single picture, and it was only until the last day when they had a costume convention and 30 people turned up. I made all the pictures in the space of two hours. Which is exactly how it always works, you can never tell who’s going to show up.

Fangoria’s Weekend of Horrors

When you covered Comic Con in San Diego in 2008, it was a totally different story. Tons of people, tons of great outfits and it was a time where it was a lot more underground than it is now. This year, and last year photo agencies are all over it as well as the mainstream press. So when agencies send me pictures of this, I’m like whatever mate,  we’ve done it and we did it ages ago.

I think that was always about Bizarre though, Bizarre always had an ear to the ground on stuff like that. Whether it’s tattooing or burlesque or whatever it is, it just felt like we were a little bit ahead of the curve, just far enough so that we could lead it. People saw Bizarre as a source.

Optimus Prime and a Stormtrooper swap notes, Comicon, San Diego 2008

Comicon, San Diego, 2008

And then after Comic Con you did Roswell UFO festival

Roswell was great, it was beautiful there. It wasn’t our usual thrusting young freaks. It was overweight midwest bipolar disorder. People who thought they’d genuinely being abducted and abused by aliens with tubes and probes.

When I did these events, I’d always look down the list of what was going on and if there were a costume contest, we’d be all right.

UFO enthusiasts descend on Roswell, New Mexico

I had this thing with photographers that I’d send then on smaller shoots like news, like parties before giving them full-blown features.

We shot a lot of news I remember that, but it’s definitely the right way to go. Bizarre has a house style and it takes a while before a photographer understands that. There was a lot of looking for that picture and it’s not someone smiling in a funny costume, it’s someone going mad in a funny costume!! So you had to gee them up and I remember doing a lot of that, fucking with them pushing them until they gave me some sort of decent picture. So especially starting with parties, I’d be there and it would be a bit lame. I’ve got to make them do something.

Black Diamond Annie performs a Kiss tribute, New York Burlesque Festival, 2007

A girl shows her tattoos at New York Tattoo Convention 2008 at the Roseland Ballroom in New York City

I reckon the first feature you shot for me was Pauly Unstoppable. What makes Pauly especially relevant for me is that we really really wanted to feature him in the magazine. He’d gone out on his own, he’s in his twenties and by all accounts, he’s completely out there.  He’s stretched his ears, stretched his nose, done his own tattoos on his face… and we wanted something real but weird at the same time. I remember it being a bit of a test in that I needed to find a photographer who could do it. I wanted someone to go in, do a really great job but also someone who understands the magazine.

If I hire a local photographer, go on a forum for picture editors, I’ll get some great suggestions but will that person really get Bizarre.  I’ll send the photographer pdfs of past features but more often than not, they’ll fuck it up. They just don’t get it and quite often, they don’t care either.

There’s a big difference between calling yourself a pro and being one.

So with Pauly I thought, I’ll send Neville. It’s just much easier. Here’s another thing. I call you up with the details; send them over and then you’re like, lovely I’ll let you know. No fuss, easy as pie.

Then I get an email a few days later saying here they are and you’re not too sure about the shots. But they are amazing and we struggle to squeeze them into six pages.

I don’t worry about the good pictures; I only worry about the average pictures or the ones, which didn’t really work. That job, I also hired a local studio. I wanted to commit Pauly into a studio environment. I wanted to do a traditional studio portrait of him because he looks so weird. The thing about Bizarre is that the content itself rules, you don’t need to do anything zany with the photography. You just shoot it pretty much straight as portraiture and photojournalism. Keep it simple because the content itself is remarkable. I got him in the studio and I wanted to do an old fashioned Hollywood portraits with a keylight…except he had a knife up his nose. I had two days with him, which was enough, the nature of dealing with these people is that they are delighted to be photographed but get bored after twenty minutes.

Pauly Unstoppable on a break from his hairdressing job

Pauly Unstoppable enjoying a coffee

Then you did Eak the Geek; he was working down at Coney Island, as the pincushion man wasn’t it? And the story was he’d gone off to law school so he could be the lawyer who represents all the freaks.

He was working at a geek and the geeks are the guys who do things like drive nails into their heads and put mousetraps on their tongues. Lying on a bed of nails was his big thing. He has very strange tattoos all over his body and his face. He was doing his law degree down in Lansing, Michigan. It’s a very working class, blue-collar kind of place.

Sideshow legend Eak the Geek is enrolled at Cooley Law School in Lansing Michigan, USA

Then you did Rick Genest aka Zombie Boy: a nice little assignment in Montreal.

I think that was the most successful, really. In terms of pictures, with Rick I had to work quite hard. He’s virtually living on the streets The thing was where do I shoot him and it just so happened that Montreal had the biggest graveyard in North America so I was like well we’ll go there then. I called the graveyard and they speak French so it’s a little bit broken. I asked if it was all right to take pictures and they said you had to get a permit and all this. So I was like bollocks to that.You can drive right in and we wandered about, I shot that shoot under an hour. We were in and out. We were moving through the gravestones finding really good spots. The thing is he’s not really arrogant; he’s a really sweet guy. He was working with me to make it work. I think that was the most successful set of pictures I did for Bizarre. We got in there just before he went big with Nicola Formichetti.

Rick Genest aka Zombie Boy

You did John Waters at his house. Except he had no idea he was going to be a feature.

That was the one I had trouble with, the pictures were fine. He was difficult because he wasn’t expecting a big feature on himself at home. He was pissed off about it, but gracefully consented to the walkabout.

He was expecting a sit down about the book he’d just written…which I hadn’t read…but I pretended that I had. But I knew enough about him anyway that I could get away with it. We both knew I hadn’t, but he didn’t throw me out. He was a sweetheart about it – never said a thing!  Also, I had a problem with my tape; it was one of those where everything went wrong…he wasn’t as freaky as I thought he should have been for Bizarre.

That was kind of a straight shoot and I thought if we’re going to do someone mainstream who’s weird, we should see them doing weird things. I would have liked to see him balancing stuff on his head but he wasn’t up for that.

John Waters at his home in Baltimore, Maryland

That’s always the test though; it’s making them look weird in a cool way. Not in like you’re zany here’s a funny expression, like you’d see in a local newspaper. A lot of times I’ve hired photographers, they just don’t get it. They get overawed by the occasion instead of shooting great pictures.

It’s funny because a lot of the photographers you’ve used were contemporaries of mine at The Independent and The Times, like Abbie (Trayler-Smith) and Tim (Allen). Do you think they had a better attitude to it?

I think they brought something different to assignments,  Tim Allen’s first assignment that he did for me was Custard Catfighting with Alix Fox, which was a bit good ( Look out for upcoming interview with Tim Allen)

I always used mainly photojournalists for features so there’s you, Tim Allen, Abbie Trayler-Smith, Justin Sutcliffe, Matt Writtle, Vicki Couchman. Then more portrait guys like Mark Berry, Joe Plimmer and Naomi Harris. All really strong photographers.

Back when I was commissioning you a lot, you were working for people like The Times and the Indy. What’s happened to them all in terms of commissioning?

Well they’re not. Ad revenues are down for everybody and that means they cut back on freelancers at home and abroad. I’m basically getting a third of the work I was getting two, maybe three years ago. All the jobs now are portraits but all in New York. I’m a local boy now. One of the things that works in terms of what I do I have is the Fleet St vibe, which is the ‘picture: no matter what’.  There are lots of photographers in New York who are cheaper than me but they don’t have that aesthetic, that drive that you learn just for survival when you’re freelancing in London. I was working mainly at The Indy and that was seen as a liberal newspaper. In London, shooting on the ground, I’m next to people from The Sun and The Mirror and you’ve got to work really hard.

Cajun speaking Aswell Domangue, 42, in front of his shrimp boat on the Bayou – Chauvin, Louisiana

So what I was doing in New York was shooting US stories for a British market. They (The Independent) wanted English photographers. When I went over there in early 2001, Justin Sutcliffe and Stuart Conway had just left New York to come back to Britain so I replaced them. There really wasn’t anyone left. There was David Howells, but he worked almost exclusively for The Telegraph and The Mail. So it’s like there was a gap and I filled that gap. I still do in fact.

I took that English newspaper attitude out there and that’s why I got hired. But I was also a fixer as well. So I was making the story happen. It wasn’t so much that the picture editors said: “Go there at 6pm and don’t be late, get a picture and come back.” It was more like “Here’s the number; we need you to set this up”. You really needed some nous.

What was the first job you ever got in photography?

The first job I ever did was for Today newspaper; it was a sports story doorstep in Taunton in Somerset. This was 1994. I was stringing for the local agency, the Somerset News Service. It was a cricket story and it was South African cricketer for Somerset who broke the face of a West Indian cricket player with a fastball.

I had to try a get a picture of the injured player at the hospital. I went down on my bicycle with a Nikon F2 and a Metz flashgun the size of a suitcase. and I waited and waited and waited. I kept calling the picture desk saying, “What do I do now?” “Just get the picture” What I didn’t realise is that sometimes the picture desk will just send someone so they’re covered.  So that they don’t have to listen to any nonsense from the news desk. They put someone here, here and here. And they won’t expect a photograph. The number of doorsteps I’ve done over the years, the pictures I’ve actually got is maybe one in ten. Most of the time nothing happens for days on end.

And did you get a picture?

No, I got some pictures of the other players leaving the hospital. When I lifted the camera to take a picture, they shoved me away and said, “Fuck off picture man”

It was a good experience. I must have been 24 or so.

When did you make the move to work for the nationals?

I did my post grad in photojournalism at the London College of Printing with Patrick Sutherland. That place was a breeding ground for a lot of great photographers like Paul Lowe who teaches there now. After that I just walked in to The Independent. What I used to do is follow stories. It’s no good just going in with just a portfolio; you’ve got to go in with something they actually want. Like: “This is a project I’m doing now, do you want it? “

Just after college I went to see Ray Wells who was at the Sunday Times. He looked through my portfolio, flipped through it and said very nice.

I said: “Well what do you mean? What was very nice?”

I wanted some proper feedback and he was a very nice man, very patient.

He went through it again, saying things like “that doesn’t work”. He came to a picture I’d taken of the fans at Reading Festival of the fans in the pit by the stage. “This one is good but they’re not going mad enough. That’s why they’re all nice pictures. I want to see extremes. I want to see them carried out, bleeding. I’ve seen books like yours a hundred times, bring me something I want.”

That 15 minutes with Ray Wells was probably the best teaching I’d ever got, “show me the extremes”. He was talking about the highest point of the arc in a photo session if it’s a news story. Like a demo, I used to shoot a lot of these. So you start taking a few pictures of them marching, then them shouting, get a good mixture of the crowds. Then you get them going mad and the police are punching them and that’s the picture you need. The one with the fists and the shouting. That’s the money shot and that’s what the news photograph is. It’s not a photo essay, a news photograph in a single moment in time and it needs to be the most intense picture. That’s what I learned from Ray Wells and working at The Independent.The Indy encouraged you to take beautiful photographs, to look for the other side of the story.  The classic Independent story was always the picture of the media scrambling around the one person they’re photographing. It’s a cliché now. But that was the story beyond the story.

Jake La Motta ( The Raging Bull) in his apartment

Sometimes you got it right and you got screwed. I did another one for AP that I got fucked on. It was Diana’s funeral. I figured out where the route was, I thought I’d never get a shot of the abbey, I’ll never get a shot up at Kensington Palace, Maybe there’s one up at the M1 but I doubt it.  I sat on a window ledge on the Finchley Road and as it turned out, people lined the streets. Nobody was expecting that, none of the agencies were anyway because there were no other photographers there. And I got a picture of the hearse coming through and they (the people) were throwing flowers and confetti. I honestly didn’t think I had a picture.

I took them to Associated Press when it was down in Chancery lane. And I remember the picture editor on duty at the time was like “Did you get the flowers?”What I hadn’t really seen was the flowers on the windscreen on the car because I was too busy focusing and making the picture. I only had half a roll of film, that’s was it. He circled one and they put that out.

And it was on the front page of the New York Times, beneath the fold, .It was a double page spread in Time Magazine and Newsweek and the rest. I gave them ( AP) the front page of the New York Times and never heard from them again!

You can’t expect anything as a photographer; you can’t be sensitive because it’s literally fish and chip papers the next day.

Donald Sutherland

Now the new world is digital and it doesn’t disappear now, although its old news the day after, it exists elsewhere

More so than that it’s old news within the hour. There are no deadlines now; I had to be back in the office by 6pm to develop the film. Now you send from wherever you are, then you send again, then again. There’s a state of paranoia in the newsroom. They’re watching everyone else, they’re watching the Mail, and they’re watching the Telegraph, who’s got what?

And nobody’s shooting original content anymore because they’re watching each other. And when stuff turns up on online, quite often people won’t do the story.

I was talking to a journalist who freelances for The Times in New York and she said that if it’s been on The Mail Online, which in America is the second biggest most viewed news site, they’ll dump the story. Even if the Mail hasn’t really done anything on it. Just a picture and a by-line.

You mentioned about commissioning editors, well no one is commissioning me anymore. They’re expecting me to shoot on spec and then they can haggle a price.

Ralph 'Sonny' Barger

The old days of commissioning out content is changing, I think specialist photographers like food and cars are fine. But editorial portrait photographers and photojournalists have to look at a different way of working. It’s not necessarily a better way of working.

Well quality is down because of ‘citizen journalism’.

But then if you look at events in history, if the citizen journalist had been around would those events been as severe as they have been?

If you look at for example Tiananmen Square in 1989, there were only a handful of photographers who got pictures out. Stuart Franklin for Magnum, Jeff Widener for AP,  Charlie Cole for Newsweek and Arthur Tsang Hin Wah of Reuters and with all of those cases, their films has to be smuggled out of the country.

If there had been citizen journalists with camera phones showing all the other brutality and uploading pictures instantly to social media sites , would it have been as bad as it was?

Well at the time the Chinese government did not give a shit. These days they do worry about it because they’re got more invested in the rest of the world. So I think you’re right, you’d see a more rounded picture of what was going on so that’s the great thing about it.

Unfortunately newspapers rely on the citizen journalist too much because it doesn’t cost anything and they look at it as a way of trimming costs.

If I pitch a story that’s fine, I’ll go off and do it. But I won’t go off and shoot something on spec just because you want me to. Then there’s no guarantee of being paid at all, that’s just daft in my book.

But it’s all about respect for the photographer and respect for the photographer’s craft.

You’re now a filmmaker as well; tell me about A Return To Ground Zero, the 9/11 film you’re putting together with Jason Florio, another British photographer in New York.  What inspired it? And when are we likely to see it?

We still need funding to edit it but just finished shooting last month.  We retraced our paths from  September 11th 2001. Basically, It’s a detective story: we track down the people in the pictures and talk to them about their experiences as we photographed them. It was really amazing meeting people for the first time that I known for years in a single image I took on the scariest day of my life. I think the pictures I took that day were the best of my career.

Brian McCrick from ladder 168 surveys the the attack on the Worlsd Trade Center 9/11/01

Firefighter Brian McCrick displays Neville Elder’s photograph of him in the ruins of the World Trade Center, ten years after the terrorist attacks.

documentary: 9-11 film
photography: www.nevilleelder.com
music: www.shambels.com 

 

Shocking Images

In seven years on the Bizarre picture desk, I’ve seen some pretty horrendous images. The kind of pictures that time just doesn’t shake from the memory. Amongst them are the baby abandoned on the streets of a town in China, a kitten crushed underfoot by a woman wearing high heels and relentless animal cruelty that doesn’t seem to have an end.

Yesterday I received an email alert from Foto8 with a video slideshow by Johann Rousselot. He is a photographer and journalist who frustrated at the lack of attention and access to real news from Syria that he has compiled a feature consisting of videos and photos from cellphone images. There’s something about this type of media, that is moving images, stills and sound that really brings home just how awful the situation is over there. There are some unbelievable images on this film and it’s worth watching. Not because I’m a gore junkie or anything but because these are real people suffering, not statistics on a computer screen or newspaper report.

You can see the video here: Syrial Killing by Johann Rousselot