Eminent reportage photographer and MyPhotoSchool tutor Stuart Freedman talks about his career, motivations and exciting new course with chief blogger, Geoff Harris
You have a lot to condense into your course - was it a challenge trying to encapsulate so much experience and skill?
I do have a lot in my course and it was an enormous challenge to condense two decades of practical experience. However, it gave me a very valuable opportunity to focus on and really think about aspects of my work that whilst not obvious, are very important.
I want people to come away from this course with a solid understanding of what it’s like to practice as a professional reportage photographer but moreover, really think about what makes good work and how we tell stories.
I use a good deal of my experiences in the course but use lots of different - and I hope unexpected - resources: art, film and literature to try and explain where our visual sense comes from and why good photojournalism is connected to all these separate traditions.
I also want people to get a sense that photojournalism is good photography and journalism. I also want people to come to this course that are not necessarily photojournalists - there is much here for people that shoot on the streets, portraits or even wedding photographers that shoot reportage-style work.
What do you think are the biggest qualities needed to be a good photo journalist and photographic story teller?
I think that persistence and self-belief are key. This is a very tough profession to break into and to sustain oneself within.
That said, persistence without compassion is meaningless and I want students to understand that in order to report the world to the world, they have to curious, engage with it and (I hope) perhaps try to make it a better place. Robert Capa put this more succinctly when he said, "Like the people you shoot and let them know it”.
I also really believe that to report effectively, reportage photographers must try and make the most beautiful images they can. It’s that beauty and compositional elegance, like a well crafted sentence or a great piece of music, that draws an audience into a photograph and importantly, makes them linger.
I’ve tried very hard on this course to give a sense of aesthetics and show some of the best - and most beautiful - reportage I know.
What will students who do the course come away with?
I think students will come away with a solid understanding of the tradition of reportage photography and how it’s developing. More, I think that they'll get a sense of what it is to create a story and I give them the tools to do that. In fact, all the exercises are geared to getting you to go out straight away and take better reportage images and ones that work in a series.
This course, whilst fact and image-heavy, is really about pushing students to go out and capture the world as they see it within a basic, understandable framework. Photography isn’t rocket science and I think that there are certain key elements that can be learned and absorbed to make a student a better photographer.
Good photography - especially documentary work is also about listening and being with people. I try and give my thoughts and real-life experiences on that from some very difficult situations that I’ve found myself in.
These lessons however are easily translatable into a whole host of other general photographic scenarios so in that sense this course is useful to all image makers who want to improve how they record the world they see.
What kind of pitfalls do your students tend to fall into and how do you go about helping them to develop their own style, rather than just copying you?
I think you make an interesting point. Through my mentoring work I do see a great many young photographers trying to make pictures that they think that they should make. My argument is that the world already has those images and people that commission this kind of work want to see what you have to say for yourself.
Otherwise we end up with a photography dominated by cliché and, within a tradition so fraught with documenting other people’s lives, that is an ethical concern. The photographic voice is an elusive and hard won element of one’s work. Apart from a very lucky few, it doesn’t just appear by magic. It certainly didn’t for me and I still think that if I make a handful of good images a year then I think I’ve done well.
I hope that what I’m trying to teach is that that voice can be nurtured by exposure to great work and practice - but also crucially by a way of critical thinking that is absent from a good deal of the chatter about photography today.
What I try and do is to get people to simplify their images and their approach: there is so much photography out there that we can get quite lost in what we are doing (or what other people are doing) and lose sight of the stories we are trying to tell.
One thing to remember is that there are no gods out there - I honestly believe anyone can make solid and interesting reportage photography - be it at a wedding or a war zone, given certain compositional rules and a willingness to record real life as it happens in an intimate and honest way.
I want to see mistakes from students - but I want those mistakes to be interesting because I want them to have thought about what they do and start to question why they want to make this kind of work.
Which of your images/photo stories are you most proud of, and why?
I’m very proud of the work I did in Africa in the late 1990’s called The Lord of the Flies, which looked at violence and young men in Sierra Leone, Liberia, Rwanda, Uganda and Angola. I’m also very proud of the intimate work I made in Rwanda in 2004 about people living positively with HIV and AIDS.
I’m very proud of the work I did with the homeless and mentally ill in New Delhi a couple of years ago. I’m also very proud of a book that I’ve just finished (that will be published by Dewi Lewis at the end of this year) which is a real homage to the Indian Coffee Houses.
I’ve been visiting the one in New Delhi for nearly twenty years and I always sought them out when I travelled. They were a reflection for me of the cheap working-class cafes of the Hackney of my childhood in the 1970’s but they taught me, as young journalist, much about people in a strange city. The hours I spent in them and the conversations I struck up with strangers there taught me a valuable lesson about how people and their lives were the same all over the world.
In that sense, they made a strange world familiar to me and I’m very grateful for that. I originally wrote a long piece on assignment for a German magazine about the Delhi Coffee House and through that work I found out how significant these places were to the post-independence settlement and the literary and political heritage of modern India.
A cross between a sort of Indian Left Bank and the Ahwas (coffee houses and meeting places) of Cairo, they remain a kind of aide-mémoire to a whole generation of Indians that grew up as India modernised. The book is really a tribute to an India - a place that I’ve tried hard not to image as either exotic or poverty-stricken, through the ordinary people of the Coffee Houses.
Further StudyAn Introduction to Professional Reportage, Documentary & Photo Journalism
An 8 week course comprising 1 lesson every two weeks with Bi-weekly assignments and feedback and 1-2-1 advice from Stuart Freedman.