meeting Michael Freeman

Michael Freeman signing books

Michael Freeman signing books

Recently, March 1’st 2014 to be exact, I went to listen to Michael Freeman talking; I have read several of his books as well as doing four modules of the university course he has written for The Open College of the Arts. Owing to difficulty in obtaining a ticket for The Photography Show at the NEC in Birmingham where Michael was talking, I arrived about 10 minutes late for the talk but what follows is my understanding of “Off the beaten track” which was the title of the talk in which Michael described an approach to travel photography that is still viable in a world where photographers have been everywhere and once distant locations have become easily accessible tourist sites.

MF was dressed in jeans with an open-necked shirt and a polar necked vest underneath to protect him from the English winter; he also wore a jacket which landed an atmosphere of respectability to someone who is often dressed for the wilds.
He talks about Angkor … when MF first went there, the place was booby trapped at night because the Khmer Rouge were coming in at night. MF is talking about the coverage he did of this area when the troubles were still on-going and the tourists has not yet arrived. He now find it has become too touristy with herds of tourists being shepherded around. MF has been blamed for this since he was the first photographer to come here and make a book of the place and hence publicise it. There are temples other than Angkor Wat that are not so frequently visited.
Another place he photographed was in Pakistan – it is no longer possible to visit this region.
For awhile, he photographed in a Thai village, covering all the intimate goings on and way of life that no longer exists. This was among the Akar community who are also found in Yunnan.
Nowadays, where is there a track that is not beaten? A lot of superb photographs can be made by anyone who can reach the destination yet one can not “own” the landscape!? Yet can one still shoot virgin territory?
MF makes three suggestions …
1. Go Further
2. Make a story of it
3. Investigate the spaces in-between
1. A lot of views now filled with tourists and vendors yet nearby there may be something similar and worthwhile. Honeypot theory of tourism means that the industry focuses on certain places and keeps people going to just these places as it is too difficult to have them going elsewhere.
One can go further afield but downside is that it can be costly.
 (I wonder if MF’s approach to photography is a rather cynical one; his knowledgeability seems both a blessing and a curse … !?)
 he talks about buttering up local officials for help … !!
 On the subject of Japanese snow monkeys he mentions the matter of “Approaching them without compromising them” yet there is often a crowd of photographers around the place so this idea might not make a lot of sense.
MF’s book on Sudan. Working with writers who saw the country as more than a terrorist state. Difficult to find a publisher as people would not be interested in the subject. MF and writers had to finance it’s publication. Whirling Dervishes in Sudan who MF photographed feature on front cover. Different scenes such as notaries, inside hospitals, camels in desert, fallen statues, Baobab Trees, refugee camps, cotton planations, immigrant workers, people who had lost limbs, tribal peoples, effect of NGOs, cattle, music, landscapes of distant largely unknown areas, places under guerilla warfare
China, village near Lijang where hardly anyone goes. Have their own dialect. 5 hour “rule’ limit to a days expedition of photography
2. The second point MF made was to “Tell a story “
Another example of this is a work by MF on the The Tea Horse Road – ancient trade route – unheard of in West
a photobook is an extended picture story
 A typical narrative structure as in book “The Photographer’s Story”
 Structure is the key to everything
 MF also included video in his presentation alongside stills
 uses an infra-red altered camera to show biodiversity
 MF a canny Northerner? Must meet a lot of people who want to be part of what he is doing rather than find their own way!! well constructed images, documentary approach
 Sudan book has a wide range of subject matter – from tea and the way it is grown and consumed, villages along trade route, landscape, people, mode of transport, different ethnic groups, old people with stories, bridges, customs, food, religion, trades, regional differences etc
 3. Spaces between the obvious
 e.g. strange kinds of food such as Tarantula with garlic and other insects, Water Buffalo penises, snakes, foetuses,
 cities have well recognised tourist sites but can be more interesting views nearby
 time lapse photography showing people on street, shadow from sun moving over building etc
with street photography not time to ask
wait before shooting, get acclimatised to situation
 technical edit – photo of foot etc can go BUT poorly exposed photos can be worked on with ACR
 MF is very good at creating terminology
 “If one is appearing to show reality, need to work on images … respond to audience’s expectation of reality!” a significant point I feel.
Sometime after his talk, I meet  Michael at the ILEX (his publisher’s) stand in The Photography Show. I ask him to sign my copy of The photographer’s Mind pointing out that I am a student from the OCA and had won the book. Michael recognised Gareth Dent’s signature and kindly put his own in. He also signed a copy of his latest book “Capturing the Light”  which I had just bought. Michael is an intriguing character in the world of contemporary photography and has carved an interesting niche for himself. His ability to rationalise and communicate the photographic process seems unique and I am interested in many of the subjects he covers and marvel at his ability to construct photographs. He has more or less amicably parted company now with The Open College of the Arts which has gone for what he sees as a more traditional approach to art education. I enquire about his photographic workshops which are geared to developing what he calls …The Three Essential Skills For rewarding, satisfying photography, indeed to be a complete photographer, you need to have, and balance, three different kinds of skill. They are: technical, visual and conceptual. Technical skills are to do with camera handling, knowing about exposure, depth of field, processing pictures on the computer, and so on. Almost all books and websites about photography focus on these, and they’re essential – but only the beginning of the story, 

Visual skills are more about seeing, and appreciating, framing images in the viewfinder, and of course composition. This, frankly, is when photography stops being nerdy and starts to become fascinating. 

The third set of skills is conceptual. Are you aiming for beauty, drama, spectacle? Or perhaps you’re trying to persuade your audience of something. Or setting out to tell a story with your camera. Storytelling is probably the ultimate use of photography, where it joins the ranks of writers and film directors to give the audience the opportunity to inhabit, for a short while, another world. A world that photographers have the privilege to explore.

disabled photographer at The Photography Show

disabled photographer at The Photography Show

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