My favourite kind of blog posts are those which have forced me to write them following a conversation with someone that has really made me think. There’s often something else going on in my head or in my life that brings those thoughts into a sharper focus and this one is no exception.
It concerns a set of portraits that I shot of a gentleman called Inderjit Seehra that I shot way back in December 2008 for a business magazine. I like to post contact sheets on here and go into the back story of the pictures and frames from this set have been in and out of my portfolio since I shot them. I hadn’t selected this job as one to blog about until earlier this week when I got an email from a young man studying for a degree in photography who had been directed to my website by one of his lecturers. At his request I’m not going to name him but I do have his permission mention him here. The ethnicity of the student photographer is important to the story – he is British Asian and all four of his grandparents moved to the UK in the 1950s and 1960s. All four of them were born in India. What makes this more relevant is that a sub-committee of The British Press Photographers’ Association‘s Board are looking at what our industry can do anything to improve the career chances of BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) photographers.
Our young student and I agreed to chat on the phone about editorial portraiture. The call was interesting and I was impressed by the research that he had done into my work and my career. We quickly settled into him asking me lots of questions about specific images in my portfolio and when he asked about this particular frame he mentioned that he was considering specialising in business portraits in general and in Asian-British business leaders in particular. He asked me how I felt when shooting pictures of people with different ethnicity to my own and what I thought that my subjects felt about it. He had already spoken to a few black and Asian photographers and knew their thoughts on the question but was keen to get as wide a variety of opinions as possible.
At around that point I realised that of the most recent ten editorial portraits I had shot, eight of the subjects were from different ethnic backgrounds to me. I was asked whether I thought that was OK when there were BAME photographers struggling for work who could, possibly, have done a better and more considered job than I could. How could I possibly answer that one? There’s no doubt that they could have empathised with the subjects more completely but whether they would have done a better job – well that’s highly subjective.
That word ’empathy’ has come up before and there are a hundred reasons why you might send a photographer who could more closely identify with the subject on any assignment. Race, gender, sexuality, religion, age, language, disability and many more are all factors that a good picture editor could and sometimes should bring into the mix when choosing who to send but my experience says that it isn’t always necessary. Empathy is a trait or a skill that is possessed by most, if not all, of my favourite photographers and I hope that I bring it to my work as well.
The questions raised by this are huge and don’t only affect our profession. The one that I want to concentrate on is whether it is progressive to encourage this. There has been plenty of coverage of the idea that black photographers are better at taking pictures of people with the same or similar skin tones. I’m the archetypal middle aged, middle class white bloke so my qualifications for getting involved in this debate are very limited but I’d be appalled if only people like me were considered for jobs taking pictures of people like me.
I hope that through my 34+ years (so far) doing this job I have learned to get the best out of all skin colours. My hope is that all young photographers coming into the industry do the same and that everyone’s personal styles of shooting, lighting and post-production are one-hundred-percent adaptable. So the question is whether favouring BAME photographers when the subject is also BAME is necessary for creative or cultural reasons or merely a great way to get a stronger foothold in the industry for those new photographers? Like everything in photography (and life) there isn’t a single right answer. That’s why we need picture editors and others who are commissioning photography to be aware of any and all potential issues, to have a contact book with a wide variety of photographers in it allowing them to make a judgement call every time they assign a job.
Towards the end of the phone conversation we talked about comfort zones and whether being the best you can possibly be at your job involves staying within them or busting out of them. Truthfully, my career has involved ‘quite a bit of comfort’ but the jobs I remember most fondly and the pictures I regard as my own favourites are rarely those shot within a bubble of ‘people like me’. We left it that we would talk again and maybe even meet up when that becomes possible.
Encouraging young photographers who possess a vision is one of the joys of my job and, whilst that’s normally about style, talking to someone who is identifying what could be a growing market sector and aiming to be the leading creative working there is about as visionary as it gets.
Having whetted appetites for a story about the background to a set of pictures I had better complete that part of the story. My brief was to provide a set of images to be used on the cover and across a double-page-spread (double truck for my American readers) of this gentleman who had recently become the HR Director for Cambridge University and to get a strong feel for the university as a backdrop.
When you get a sunny day with a deep blue sky in December that sky tends to be almost unnaturally blue. Add to that the fact that the subject was completely ‘up for it’ and this was a gift of a job. We met at his office near the Senate Building (the backdrop for the first nine frames on the contact sheet) before moving to King’s College and then out onto one of the bridges over the River Cam. We had to move reasonably quickly because he had meetings to go to and it, despite the sunshine, it was pretty cold out there in East Anglia. In fact, it was so cold that the batteries on my venerable Lumedyne pack struggled to last and the pictures shot on the bridge were actually lit with an old back up Vivitar 285HV flash. I had another student photographer with me for this job and I was using a trolly for the gear for only the second time ever.
It’s amazing how many other memories talking about a set of pictures brings back. After about ten minutes my work-experience assistant decided to carry the bag because the plastic wheels and the cobbled streets of Cambridge made for an awful noise and a very bumpy ride. That weekend I swapped the plastic wheels for some larger diameter rubber ones and worked like that for quite a while afterwards. This was also only a few days after I took delivery of my first Canon EOS 5D MkII – a camera that I will always have incredibly fond memories of as well as being one of the last jobs where I used a Canon EOS 50D as my second body because my second 5D MkII arrived a few days later.