Ian Wright BA (Hons) ARPS
This was originally written at the request of Intrepid Travel as part of their information on photo tours.
By the time I was 7 or 8 the three things (apart from competitive sport – but that’s another story!) that were to be my passions in life, were already – in retrospect - well evident. Those three things are a love of travel (to see 'over the fence') and ‘the unknown’; a fascination with the art of photography and an academic interest in how individuals and societies function
When I was a child in the 1950s, my father was a railwayman working on the local docks and he used to take me with him to see the foreign ships from then unfamiliar and exotic places – often taking me onboard to meet the seafarers from all over the world. As a teenager, we used to have soccer matches against the ships’ crews. I would sometimes be allowed on board the tugs that guided the ships into and out of port. As a 13 year old I was to get my first ‘proper camera’ (a Zenit) from a Russian sailor. As a railwayman, my father also got a lot of free travel, so we would go – by steam train – all over the UK and I spent a lot of my childhood holidays on the island of Jersey. So travelling – and a curiosity about the world - was second nature to me and a boyhood love of stamp-collecting fuelled both my interest and desire to visit these far-away countries.
My uncle William had a darkroom in a small cupboard under the stairs and a home-made enlarger. I don’t quite know how he managed to develop and print in such a space but he also managed to squeeze me in too. I pretty soon had a Brownie 127 and was off on a photographic journey – I’ve still got the negatives – although there was a long detour before photography became my ‘second career’.
My favourite visit as a child growing up in North Lincolnshire on the windy east coast of the UK, was to the ruins of Thornton Abbey – wrecked by Henry VIII in the dissolution of the monasteries in the 1530s. At school, history – particularly international affairs - was to become my major interest and after studying modern history and politics at university I spent my ‘first career’ teaching these subjects at A Level (students aged 16-18) at Exeter School, an academic school established in 1633, set in the beautiful city of Exeter, Devon, and surrounded by striking scenery on the moors and coasts of the west country.
History and politics are about how societies live – their culture, values, norms, institutions, rituals, traditions, their architecture, art and music – and how societies change. My teaching always had an emphasis on ‘being there’ and soon my fieldtrips were going further afield – to battlefields like Waterloo in Belguim, to the D-Day landing beaches in Normandy, to Florence, Venice, Rome, Madrid, Barcelona and Paris for art history, annual trips to Washington with my students of government, frequent trips to Russia in the 1990s on a humanitarian project, ‘political’ education trips to China and so on.
Until the mid-1990s – when I was well into my 40s – my photography had not gone beyond the enthusiast stage – an early marriage, three energetic children with bags of interests and needing a constant taxi service and getting very willing parental support, a full and absorbing career - all meant there was little time for ‘serious’ photography. This changed with an inspiring trip to China in 1996 and my decision to sign up for a night school course. Within a couple of years, I had a fistful of City and Guilds distinctions (all, of course based on film); had become a Licientiate of the Royal Photographic Society (and later an Associate) and after being asked to photograph a wedding by a family friend soon found myself ‘by accident’ photographing 15 or so weddings a year; my images were being published by the travel companies I had organized my school trips with, and my wife Kitty and I had published our own collection of photocards. So by the turn of the century, Kitty and I were running a photography business in parallel with our teaching. We ‘went digital’ in 2003 and in 2005, we made the easy step to being ‘full-time’ photographers.
Since the autumn of 2005, we have run a very busy wedding and ‘social photography’ business (www.ianwrightphotography.co.uk) in parallel with documentary and travel work (www.ianwrighttravel.co.uk). Our travel photography has varied from ‘brochure’ photography (for example, commissioned trips to photograph the ancient sites in Greece, the Carnevale in Venice, and a ski season in the Alps) to documentary photography (for example to Nepal for VSO) to education work (for example, I lived in a refugee camp in Bethlehem teaching young Palestinian photographers in autumn 2007). Increasingly, I am leading photographic workshops – many in conjunction with Intrepid – and an essential element of my travel website is the on-line ‘Guide to Travel Photography’ – a two year project I am engaged in writing.
My Travel Photography : Encounters and Engagement
While there are many subjects for travel photographers – and of course each travel photographer has his or her personal interests - to me, travel photography is fundamentally about encounters with and, an ‘engagement’, with people.
Don’t get me wrong, I love taking landscapes, cityscapes, architecture, interiors, gardens, wildlife etc (I list over 50 headings for travel photography in my Guide to Travel Photography) and all the technical understanding of camera technique, composition and photo editing, selection, creativity in Photoshop, and printing know-how is very important. But photographing how people live is – to me – the heart of the matter. As Henri Cartier-Bresson said, ‘Photography is nothing - it's life that interests me’. Another of the greats – Edward Weston – commented that, ‘Ultimately success or failure in photographing people depends on the photographer's ability to understand his fellow man.’
I find that my photography of landscapes etc comes as a side-effect of my focus on people and their social context. That’s because we see ourselves – and our own societies - clearer after experiencing an engagement with another society which is effectively at a different place in time. Having spent 6 weeks in Cuba in the last two years, so much is reminiscent of my own childhood in the backstreets of a working class area – all the kids playing in the streets, men and women leaning over garden fences, washing on the lines in small back-to-back gardens or on waste ground. It’s important that we see something of ourselves in the people we photograph.
Just as the Impressionist painters of the late nineteenth century elevated ‘ordinary’ aspects of life and ordinary people (bars and cafes, picnics by the river, mothers and children, dancers, prostitutes) so the contemporary travel and documentary photographer is interested in the ‘every-day’. There is – literally – a picture round every corner. Street-photographer Robert Doisneau was surely correct to say, ‘The marvels of daily life are exciting; no movie director can arrange the unexpected that you find in the street.’
I admit to having a child-like excitement when I travel and photograph – a sense of wonder helps the photographer see. Over 60 years ago, Bill Brandt put it better than I can, ‘It is part of the photographer’s job to see more intensely than most people do. He must have and keep in him something of the receptiveness of the child who looks at the world for the first time or of the traveller who enters a strange country. Most photographers would feel a certain embarrassment in admitting publicly that they carried within them a sense of wonder, yet without it they would not produce the work they do, whatever their particular field. It is the gift of seeing the life around them clearly and vividly, as something that is exciting in its own right. It is an innate gift, varying in intensity with the individual’s temperament and environment.’
People-based photography requires sensitivity and an understanding of the values, customs and norms of a community. Photographing in Morocco is quite different to photographing in Cuba. At root, I find the camera is like having a dog or small child with you – handled correctly it is a great way to make contact with strangers. Some people will get a high from scaling mountains – mine come from the challenge of walking down an unknown street and looking for that ‘engagement’ I talked about earlier. It takes time – it’s best of all if you can be ‘embedded’ in the community – living with the locals, returning time and again to the same spots. Staying for example in casa particulares in Cuba or other ‘homestays’ which is typical of Intrepid trips is invaluable. Talk to people, explain what you are doing – expect to be rejected sometimes – be friendly and open, show an interest in the activities of the ‘street’ , buy fruit or market goods to break the ice. Just make people feel that it’s OK for you to just be around. Be confident in what you are doing. Simply explore – wander – expect the unexpected. ‘If the photographer is interested in the people in front of his lens, and if he is compassionate, it's already a lot. The instrument is not the camera but the photographer.’ Eve Arnold
Respecting the communities you photograph is of paramount importance, especially since many countries which we find very attractive for photography are extremely poor and conditions of life very tough. I have enormous admiration for people struggling in often desperate circumstances and never ceased to be amazed by people’s generosity, resilience, courage and friendliness. No more so than the wonderful Arab family I lived with in Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem (in the shadow of the separation wall) in the winter of 2007. Travelling ethically and contributing to the developing societies is an imperative.
Images matter – to the individual that makes them they become a part of their biography – a vivid memory bank – some become iconic – you can remember every thing about the time and place where you were. Images hang on your wall and inside your mind. You wonder where Murbarek the camel driver is or whether Sana the Arab girl is married yet.
One photographer has been beautifully poetic in describing what he does, ‘I am blessed with the awesome responsibility of creatively interpreting the fleeting events of our lives. For me, it is all about gently catching personal memories of a given place and time and precious moments spent with special people. It is all about handing these moments back to be gently cradled in our memories and shared with others, eventually to become our legacy.’ (Michael Davis)
So what are our aspirations? Sam Abell’s answer cannot be bettered, ‘We are seeking to present an image that arouses the curiosity of the viewer or that, best of all, provokes the viewer to think - to ask a question or simply to gaze in thoughtful wonder. We know that photographs inform people. We also know that photographs move people. The photograph that does both is the one we want to see and make. It is the kind of picture that makes you want to pick up your own camera again and go to work.’
That’s why – once hooked – you can never stop – photography becomes a vital form of creativity and expression.
Encounters in Morocco and Cuba