James Whitlow Delano

James Whitlow Delano

Deb and I had the good fortune to cross paths with James because of the Blue Planet Run book and Redux Pictures. His images of China’s desertification caught our eye for the book (They didn’t make the final edit). But more than the subject of the photographs, it was the tone, the feeling and what they convey that held our interest.

I’ve always thought that the highest standard for photojournalism is to create images that serve the publishing environment for the day but that remain relevant beyond the day. Another way of saying this is to make images that are as at home on a museum wall as they are on a page.

James’ photos linger in the mind and the eye.

We were able to catch up with James just before he traveled from his home in Japan.

Looking at the Three Gorges Dam at Sandouping

Dystopia/Utopia: Growing Pains in the New China © James Whitlow Delano

[RT] Share with us a bit about your background. How did you come to discovering photography and what experiences bring you to this point in your photographic exploration?

JWD: Photography hit me over the head like a hammer. I was studying at the University of Colorado, at the time, physics and not enjoying it. I discovered, with the help of a rare books room librarian, prints and books of photographers who would become my guides: Henry Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank, Andre Kertesz and others. Immediately, my life focused in on photography. That was in the early 1980’s.

By the late eighties, I was living in New York assisting some people who are now the bards of our medium. Joel Meyerowitz who, after 21 years, I met again in Tokyo at the opening for his show introduced me to Leicas. It would take another couple of years to save money and by an old one. Meeting him again was like drinking from the fountain of youth. I felt an optimism well up inside I cannot describe.

I worked with Annie Leibovitz and later in Los Angeles Michel Comte and Greg Gorman and learned how excuses go out the window. You get the photograph. Period. Michel was particularly kinetic. He would climb walls, run down the beach, or across the desert like an enlightened madman (meant in the most complimentary terms!). Nothing was more important to him than getting the photograph. I work the same way.

All the while, I was doing street photography. By the early 1990’s, I concluded that it was time to leave fashion and celebrity work and that is precisely the time when I had the chance to move to Japan, the chance to take my Leicas and perhaps function how Swiss-born Robert Frank had functioned in the United States had while assembling photographs for his mindblowing book, “The Americans”. I jumped at this opportunity be fore it was too late and looked upon that decision as the most important and best move I have made in my life.

Migrant Workers Search for recyclables in China

Dystopia/Utopia: Growing Pains in the New China © James Whitlow Delano

[RT] How long have you been based in Japan and what propelled you to relocate to Japan?

JWD: Curiosity drew me to Japan. I will have been based in Japan for fifteen years in August 2008. Time has flown by. I visited the country for the first time in the spring of 1993.
I gave all of my research on the country to a friend, because I had decided to remain in Los Angeles, where I lived at the time for another year. My friend went to Tokyo and when I visited, the country was so far beyond the bullet train, kimonoed women at tea ceremonies in Buddhist temples, and the shock of brightly lit Tokyo nights kind of mythology so actively promoted about this post-modern country. All those things exist but there is so much more organic texture and soul to this country.

The Three Gorges Dam (Before)

The Three Gorges Dam (After)

Dystopia/Utopia: Growing Pains in the New China © James Whitlow Delano

[RT] What attracts you about Asia and how has it evolved?

JWD: I found myself in Japan, photographing every free moment and suddenly find, despite what I had been told repeatedly stateside by many photo editors, that it was indeed possible to earn rent doing this sort of work.

I began to send out spokes into Asia. Actually, the first Asian country I visited was not Japan but the Philippines which had turned my head around 6 months before that initial Japan trip at the end of 1992. So, Asia had indelibly branded my psyche. I returned to the Philippines first but then, when all tickets to Bangkok were booked, I decided to explore instead China. I later looked at my contact sheets, back in those pre-digital days, and had never seen anything like the work I had done there. (I still shoot film, btw.)

For the first half decade or so, I took roads into hinterlands as far as they could go, changed to boats, motorcycle, 4WD, horse, mule or on foot to try to find places that were just about to feel the brunt of the outside world, though gave a glimpse into the 19th century or earlier. Change, though, is the only constant.

Around 2000 or 2001, I felt that China in particular had turned some proverbial corner in its development. The loss of heritage explored in Empire: Impressions from China, my first monograph, slowly seemed a fait accompli.

I began to explore the growing pains due to the most rapid develop perhaps the world has ever know. That series carries on and I call it “Dystopia / Utopia: Growing Pains in China”.

Windows of the World Theme Park Shenzhen China

Dystopia/Utopia: Growing Pains in the New China © James Whitlow Delano

[RT] Share with us your explorations of China — Desertification, The Three Gorges Dam… How is what is going on in China similar and different to the evolution of the United States?

JWD: This is an excellent question because I think that you are cuing into what I am doing. Both of these series are part of the “Dystopia / Utopia” series. So much of what is going on echoes of major events and the subsequent consequences of development in the United States. The Three Gorges Dam has many precedents in the US from the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) to the Hoover Dam and done for similar reasons, for development of the western interior. The lessons learned globally, that mega-dam projects are not a good idea, seems not to have filtered down though.

The desertification project was similar but worse than the Dust Bowl in Oklahoma, Southern Colorado and Northern Texas in the 1930’s though the cause is eerily similar. In the 1950’s, Mao Tse Dong ordered the Mongols of Inner Mongolia to end their semi-nomadic ways, which was in harmony with the marginal steppe grassland environment.

People were gathered into communes and the steppe as ploughed, just as the prairie was unwisely ploughed in the 1930’s. This freed the sandy soil beneath it. Now 100m + high (roughly 300ft) sand mountains are advancing like sets of great ocean waves from the heart of the Tengger Gobi Desert advancing east and burying everything in their path. The sand leaps over the Yellow River in southern Ningxia Province where a desert research center at Shapotou. Seen on Google Earth, the scale of the problem becomes so obvious. At Shapotou, is merely the end of wind-driven massive, hundreds of miles long relentlessly advancing hourglass-like glacier of sand.

I have seen several stories recently on desertification in China. Some get it right and some expose lack of research. All sand dunes are not same, or at least their significance is not always the same. What I mean is this. Sand dunes in the Taklamakan Desert in Xinjiang or at the historic Buddhist site of Dunhuang in the Hexi Corridor, Gansu Province look like the sand dunes of the Tengger Gobi but there is a very, very important difference. For a millenium, at least, these two sites have been desert. They are desert and were desert for a long time. 50 years ago, the fringes of the Tengger Gobi were steppe grassland. Seen from the air, and in the series, are oases surrounded by sand hills, which are nothing but remnants of the 800 lakes in the region, now down to 200, which are themselves rapidly drying up.

It is of paramount importance, regarding preserving the trust between the viewer and photographer, that what you portray is accurate. Only an informed photographer, who puts in the time to get it right, can earn this trust.

The New Middle Class Windows of the World Theme Park Shenzhen China

Dystopia/Utopia: Growing Pains in the New China © James Whitlow Delano

[RT] What advice do you have for photographers seeking to tell stories about China or any long term story?

JWD: The response above touched on this subject but I think it is useful to encourage photographers to be mindful of larger issues for which they have passion and going back to them over time and building on them. There are several issues from Japan, China, Islam or the rain forest, that I like to explore and return to. I think they keep the mind focused and helps pull one away from potential visual ruts.

Chinggis Khan portrait Chinese Restaurant Linhe, Inner Mongolia

Dystopia/Utopia: Growing Pains in the New China © James Whitlow Delano

[RT] Congratulations for winning the Best Published Picture Story (large markets) award in the Best of Photojournalism competition. Share with us the background on this story.

JWD: Thank you for the kind words on this. I have been told by my agent and mentor that my second monograph book, I Viaggi di Tiziano Terzani has come off the presses, though I have not yet seen a copy. This book project brought me to Afghanistan, a country where I had long want to go. It is the other side of so much of East Asia. The Silk Routes pass through there. Buddhism made its long crossing through the Karakorum and Pamir Mountains (the big and little headache mountains to Chinese pilgrims), through the Taklmakan Desert along trade routes before eventually arriving in the Chinese heartland and then to Korea and Japan. It was part of the Gandhara Buddhist Empire, which mixed Hellenistic and Hindu artistic traditions a projected them into Chinese Turkestan, before the arrival of Islam.

Tiziano Terzani, who died of cancer in 2004, is a still iconic in Italy. He could have been described as falling somewhere between a journalistic version of Paul Theroux with the affable temperament of Garrison Keillor. British colonials would have described him as having “gone native”. In his later years, he sported a massive Darwinesque beard and donned Neru collared Indian suits and spread his charisma between communitied in Tuscany and northern India. Terzani stayed behind as a foreign correspondent during the fall of Saigon, was kicked out of China after re-education in 1985, was in the Soviet Union when it fell and about twenty other Asian countries, plus Russia and Italy. My own journeys, though sometimes but not always years later, have closely paralleled his. We were bitten by the same sense of wonder and desire to share the special nature of these travels in different, but complementary media, with a western audience. “I Viaggi di Tiziano Terzani” is comprised of almost 200 photographs but I had not yet been to Afghanistan, the country from where Terzani wrote is last great manifesto, “Letters Against the War” which chronicled his anxiety about the war in Afghanistan, though the events he foresaw echoed more what would unfold in Iraq.

You could not shake a stick in parts of the old city of Kabul and fail to hit a person under the servitude of heroin. The tragedy of it grabbed and held my attention. I found out about, through research, a wonderful, and kind Doctor Qureshi whose passion, tinged with fatalism, has driven him to direct the only government-run drug rehad and psychiatric hospital in Kabul. His hospital ran a severely underfunded heroin detox program but there was also a Dickensian psychiatric hospital on the grounds as well. I sought to depict the Dr. Qureshi’s good work against the background of what was going on outside the walls of the hospital to the vast majority of people who he could not reach. Nothing occurs in a vacuum and I always try to set a context into which an issue or project occurs.

I remember coming to the end of my time in Afghanistan and hearing about these men chained to trees in the grounds of a shrine outside Jalalabad supposedly to cure them of their mental illness. I could not get a translator to join me for the trip down and was advised not to go alone. Taliban were active on the mountainous road to Jalalabad and on the outskirts of that city at times. Lying awake at 3 am, I decided I had to go and would do so by wearing a turban, I had already grown a beard. It made me invisible, as long as I did not open my mouth. When I went down to the street from the hotel and little Afghani boys who would ask for change suddenly walked by me without taking any particular notice. I took a group taxi down, did my business but left without delay before word could spread that a foreigner was in that little village outside the city. Afghanis are very decent people but keeping low key outside town was a good idea. Without having visited the shrine, the story would have suffered. Risks are necessary but should not be entered into without thought, planning and responsibility should anything go wrong.

Patient examination Psychiatric and Drug Dependency Hospital Kabul Afghanistan

Family member of patient at Psychiatric and Drug Dependency Hospital Kabul Afghanistan

Kabul Psychiatry and Drug Dependency Hospital © James Whitlow Delano

[RT] For photographers interested, share with us the experiences of getting stories published in non-US publications. What advice do you have?

JWD: I have always admired the desire to understand people in the outside world I have found through my friendships with Europeans. I know this is a deep simplification but the world is somehow seems closer when debating and discussing issues with people from that part of the world. They usually have a greater grasp of history and the fluid passage of time. The past is more often viewed as part of the present, informing the present, effecting the present, providing examples of mistakes best not repeated and 30 years ago is not ancient history. Again, I am certain to infuriate many of my North American compatriots with these generalizations but I sought to nurture my relationships with agents and colleagues in Europe because I felt my work would be better understood there. I believe that time has borne this out.

Chained patient at Psychiatric and Drug dependency Hospital Kabul Afghanistan

Handicapped herion user Kabul Afghanistan

Kabul Psychiatry and Drug Dependency Hospital © James Whitlow Delano

[RT] Share with us some thoughts about the business side of photography. What top 5 business concepts/ideas/tips should photographers keep in mind when going and being solo?

JWD: This is perhaps the hardest question to respond to coherently. My circuitous path makes this difficult. First, a career in this discipline of photograph is a marathon, not a sprint. I repeat this ad nauseam. On the marathon theme, I will echo the words of a Pulitzer Prize winning poet I once listened to giving a talk describing how she did other kinds of work to which she always gave her “best second best effort”. What I took away from that was that she never lost sight of her ultimate goal and earned rent along the way doing other work while saving her most precious energy for her ultimate passion.

These words help me during the days assisting and before I could go out on my own. Joel Meyerowitz also told me never to develop an “assistant’s mentality”. The lesson is similar to the poet’s advice but adds never to undervalue, set aside or stop your own personal work. Never, ever give up on that.

I diversify my market. Reportage is not an easy road to pursue. Add to that, I work almost exclusively in B&W. I work in color on assignment only. So the self-generated projects I produce, which was the case in every one of the projects discussed in this interview, pares down the market to a sliver. So, I offer work to magazines in Asia, Europe and North America. It is necessary but I grown from meeting remarkable people far and wide in the process.

Paraditas

paraditas

Paraditas: Tijuana’s “Standing Girls”, Mexico © James Whitlow Delano

[RT] There is a great nuance to your images. Images with greater nuance seem a harder sell in the US, why is that?

JWD: I am afraid that this can often be, though not always, a challenge. There are some magazines like Mother Jones, New York Times Magazine and the wonderful editors at Newsweek who support such work. Still, working this way has, over time, drawn me more toward Europe. Japanese editors, too, can respond to subtle, informed work. I learn from people and their points of view from all over the world. Assumed truisms are challenged and a broader sense understand and tolerance results.

Man under and umbrella Tokyo Japan

Japan Mangaland © James Whitlow Delano

[RT] What advice do you have for staff photographers working at newspapers who strive to challenge the accepted “norm” within newspaper cubicle culture?

JWD: I have several friends working in the environments you describe who have the presence of mind to work on their own projects, and find fascinating stories beyond the demands of staff work. They keep pretty busy with their contract commitments but if the passion is there, the stability of a staff position can make it easier to develop stories over large chunks of time. I think that the same principle has permeated through several responses here and that is to take a long view of things, never lose passion and focus on what originally drew you to reportage.

Whether working freelance, on staff or as a wire photographer, there is always the danger of losing track of one’s goals dealing with the present.

Sleeping man with sleeping child Tokyo Japan

Japan Mangaland © James Whitlow Delano

[RT] We were fortunate to have heard Daido Moriyama speak at the Portland Museum of Art last year. Do you know his work? If so, how do you connect with his work? Are you familiar with the Japanese photographer, Yoshiyuki Iwase?

JWD: I have often said I believe that Moriyama Daido, as he is known here, is perhaps the best living Japanese photographer. That is not something I say lightly with people like Hosoe, Kubota, Shibata and others around here too. His gritty street work is the Japan I most appreciate and understand. There is this dark side underlying all the colour and apparent order. It is Druid, pre-Buddhist and Jomon. The energy comes from the forests and mountains and bubbles up through the absolute concrete of post-modern, urban Japan and radically blurs the line between reality and the surreal. This is what feeds my work here too. Moriyama is supremely unapologetic, strays from cheap gimmicks or kiddy sleaze, and has cut out territory all his own.

Late night TV program Tokyo Japan

Japan Mangaland © James Whitlow Delano

[RT] How often do you look at the work of other photographers? Whom do you admire?

JWD: I do often look at others’ work. I get exceedingly excited when I discover work that
energizes the imagination. It is kind of like finding a new band that has found a new sound using the same simple elements of lead guitar, vocals, bass and drums, which gave us Cream, Led Zeppelin, U2 and Nirvana, all with such different styles derived from the same simple instruments.

I hope I do not offend any friends I might leave out. I deeply admire Antonin Kratochvil, Paolo Pellegrin, in my own generation and am glad to be in contact with them from time to time. Chris Anderson does wonderful work as do some younger photographers like Balazs Gardi, Philip Blenkinsop and Teru Kuwayama.

I love the work of Martin Parr, Edward Burtynsky, Joseph Koudelka and again, Moriyama Daido. I have mentioned a lot of reportage photographers because of the company I keep but my interest extends beyond the confines of one way of seeing.

Cross-pollination can fortify work.

Man making a phone call Tokyo Japan

Japan Mangaland © James Whitlow Delano

[RT] Your book, Empire: Impressions from China was released in 2004. Share with us your experience in gathering your work, editing and producing the book.

JWD: The “Empire” series grew rather organically. There was a moment in 1997, when I realized that series had grown into something with great possibility. It was not ready yet as a series but I began to realize something was beginning to happen. I remember, before coming to Asia, seeing Antonin Kratochvil’s work from the 1980’s in Eastern Europe and realized that I had not yet encountered a force of history and a source that inspired my eye and mind as it had him. At that moment in Yunnan in 1997, although the idea did not quite gel at the time, I began to get that feeling about my work in China. It was and is such a remarkable point in history and I have been lucky enough to observe social eruption and photograph it. “Empire” was merely the first chapter.

My experience with publishing I believe has been perhaps more positive than some other photographers. Grazia Neri, my Italian agent and dear friend, has made certain through her force of personality and intelligence that we work with publishers who have allowed creative freedom and freedom from some of the headaches I have heard about.
This positive feeling extends to the new book project as well.

“Empire” came out on time and was an altogether positive experience. My gut feeling is this. If a publisher likes the work, they will produce the book without hesitation. When a photographer is met with hesitation creatively, production-wise and, frankly, the publisher is not willing to take the financial risk to publish the series, I believe it may be better for a photograph to walk away. This is where problems begin.

If the project is going to happen, and be carried through positively, the push and pull will not only fall away but may never happen to begin with. Any long term project usually is the result of several years, even a decade, of effort on the photographer’s part and a photographer needs to be sure that their years of work are nurtured, not diminished.

pom poms and ponytails of Japanese girl Tokyo Japan

Japan Mangaland © James Whitlow Delano

[RT] Your work in black and white seems so different from the color work. In black and white, the subjects engage first and foremost while the color images feel more like statements about color in its environment as an aspect of the subjects. Would you talk about the difference between making black and white and color images for you?

JWD: My basic philosophy is this. I work in black and white. I enjoy color but work in color on assignment only. I really enjoy color but work on a deeper level in black & white.

Rainy season express train window Kyoto, Japan

Japan Mangaland © James Whitlow Delano

[RT] Do you see an evolution in your work that has a predictable path from here forward?

JWD: Yes I do constantly work to evolve. I like to insinuate myself into situations I am not comfortable or have not been before to see how I react visual and personally. If I could be invisible and not create a single ripple to upset or modify a situation by my presence, that would enrich the work. The Kabul series and Paraditas done in Tijuana, Mexico speak to this. I truly hope that there is no predictable path. I would like to show more often in gallery setting because I want each individual image to stand on its own as well as it might in a series. Each photograph should be its own little psychodrama. I want cohesion, divergence and staying power in the work, but most of all an out of the corner of the eye transience that burns in deep.

Speaking Spanish: SomosFoto

I sit in a 500-year-old patio where Pissarro prepared to conquer a chunk of South America. Classical music plays from speakers. Morning coffee and jugo de naranja just arrived. Palms jiggle in the morning breeze like a hula skirt.

This is good.

I’m waiting for Randy Olson or Melissa Farlow, Loup Langton or Lelen Robert or Maggie Steber, Todd Heisler, Brenda Ann Kenneally, Janet Reeves, Kathleen Hennessy or Justin Sullivan, Pablo Corral or Mark Edelson to join me for breakfast. Wait. Mark doesn’t get up this early.

Ah, Todd just greeted me: “Morning, Mr. Comfortable.”

It’s Thursday of a week that has passed too quickly in the company of these good friends in the Dominican Republic. We’re here because of Lelen and Loup Langton and a workshop they created called SomosFoto. Sponsored through the University of Miami, where Lelen and Loup teach, it brings together photographers from Central and South American countries and a faculty largely from North America for a week-long picture story workshop that is similar in concept to the Missouri Workshop.

That’s as far as I got in writing about the week. More friends arrived that morning for a lingering breakfast and demands of the workshop swept the rest of the week along like a Dominican street cleaner.

So now I’m back in Portland, pushed along by the flow of work and catching up with friends here.

There is much to learn in teaching. Bringing words to focus that convey a new meaning for a workshop participant usually means that I advance my own understanding – especially in this case because many of the words were in Spanish.

I was fortunate to team up with Randy Olson and Kathleen Hennessy in leading a group of seven students to new understanding. Our responsibility in such workshops inevitably follows whatever route it takes to connect a photographer to someone’s life as completely as possible.

Why one person, as opposed to an essay or a story about a place or an event? Because in settling into someone’s life we have to become part of it.

Along this path to knowing someone intimately with photographs are the lessons that mean the most: How you decide who will be the subject, how you navigate the conversations that allow you into their lives, how you make photographs that convey a sense of the person and their lives that goes beyond simply showing what they do, how you gain trust. It is a process of self confrontation.

Photographs are an expression of the person who made them. So making pictures of an extended part of another person’s life shows what the photographer is made of – their strengths and weaknesses, fears and joys, everything. It’s like putting a road that has many difficult passages in front of a photographer. How they navigate this road shows who they are.

Going into this workshop, I wondered if photographers from Latin countries might be different from those from North America. This wasn’t the first time I’d done a workshop in a Latin country – Lelen and Loup organized a similar workshop in Quito, Ecuador three years ago – but nonetheless it always fascinates me to see how people see. And a longtime curiosity has been whether where we’re from affects how we make pictures.

This group was different from those I’ve worked with at Missouri Workshops and Mountain Workshops, as well as many, but not all, students at universities in the U.S.

They were different in two ways: They unlearned very quickly and they tended to see deeper into situations than U.S. photographers.

Part of learning is leaving behind what we think works but doesn’t. I call it unlearning. You could also call it accepting new ways of seeing, new information, new approaches, ideas, thoughts, perceptions. These photographers were, largely, like sponges. They took every concept and applied it, they received feedback on their work and went back and made better pictures.

For instance, Randy would talk about geometry of pictures and they would see differently. Kathleen would talk about relating to subjects and giving of yourself and many of them would connect more to their subjects. I would talk about triangles in pictures and how to make more dimensional images and they would see more varied and interesting planes and relationships in scenes.

U.S. photographers tend to make pictures that are about just one plane of activity. You can tell whether you are this kind of photographer by looking at your pictures critically: Is what is happening beyond the first plane important? Are there visual relationships between what is happening in the foreground and the middle ground and back ground? Can you draw an oval in your pictures and nothing outside the oval is critical?

I often tell photographers that the success of any image hinges on the smallest element in the frame that is critical to holding the whole image together. Todd Heisler described that thought as making a house of cards, where if you pull so much as one card from the mix, the whole image collapses. It’s true of individual images and the same approach is true in sequencing images.

These are purely compositional/geometrical concerns. But in this house of cards, composition, and every other decision involved in the making of an image, is derived from what you as the photographer intend to convey about a given scene.

This is part of a longer conversation, so I’ll not linger here. Suffice it say that this group of photographers grew more and saw more dimensionally than those I’ve worked with in the U.S. Not without exception, but there were certainly more successes than is typical.

This is exciting.

Tim Clayton, Sydney Morning Herald

Tim Clayton, Sydney Morning Herald

Tim Clayton is British but has lived in Sydney, Australia for many years. Is that a contradiction, or what? Contradiction may be in Tim’s nature. He was one of the first and few ever to create an independent sports photography staff at the Sydney Morning Herald. He is both wry and serious at the same time, and has a great accent.

Mike met Tim in 1998 during Photofest New Zealand. What a hoot. They taught a Missouri workshop-style venture organized by Kiwi Melanie Burford (photographer at The Dallas Morning News). Carol Guzy (The Washington Post) was the other American on the faculty.

So let’s listen to Tim:

{RT} You were one of the first people on the planet, except sports magazines, to realize the value of a dedicated sports photography staff. Would you talk about how and when that happened and how it has evolved over the years at the Sydney Morning Herald?

Clayton: I think there was a realization in the earlier ’90s that the old all round ‘Jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none’ press photographer was a thing of the past…if you want to take the quality of your photography to the next level you have to specialize. Obviously, it is better to have specialists photographing what they are truly passionate about. This happened in many areas on the photographic coverage—sports, hard news, features, portraiture; all benefited from a new way of thinking. In sports, we are very fortunate in the fact that Australia is a huge sporting nation with a great diversity of sports in which Australians excel. We started off with one specialist, Craig Golding. I soon joined him and Steve Christo joined soon afterwards. We have steadily evolved and that is the beauty of photography. If the fundamentals are in place, you never stop learning and improving.

Photograph by Tim Clayton

© Tim Clayton.

{RT} You and the Morning Herald staff have won more awards than your
numbers would suggest, year after year. Why is that?

Clayton: First, Australia, and particularly Sydney has suddenly produced an amazing amount of quality photographers across all areas of photojournalism over the last decade. The fact that we are rubbing shoulders with like-minded, passionate, dedicated people who live, eat, and breath photojournalism, who are all trying to improve and reach the next level just causes a feeding frenzy of knowledge and desire in a positive sense. Trent Parke has become Australia’s first Magnum member, and he is certainly regarded as the pinnacle of what has been achieved in Sydney over the past decade. In many ways the small core of dedicated SMH (Sydney Morning Herald) staff has contributed to this by being a part of the bigger picture, looking beyond the wants and needs of the newspaper.

We are like most newspapers, run by word people for word people. Generally they want pictures for ten-year-olds and have little or no understanding of photojournalism at the top level. The paper has no space for story telling through photo essays, and we live an animal farm existence. ‘Everybody is equal, but some are more equal than others’.

What has actually happened is many photographers have evolved beyond the wants and needs of the newspaper. We are shooting stories that don’t get published and shooting personal projects to keep our brains stimulated. The ‘cat sat on the mat’ images pay the bills. In many ways it is a sad reflection of photojournalism today, there are so few places where top end photojournalism can be seen.

We have achieved because the want, and desire of a few has risen above what is expected and gone to the next level. The Land Diving story is a great example. It is self-funded, shot in my own time and rejected twice by my own paper for publication simply because there is no where to really show a story like that in depth. It is truly sad! I have cried and screamed and drank, but you still have to get up in the morning and want to take a great picture. It’s what we do and how we live.

Photograph by Tim Clayton

© Tim Clayton.

{RT} Most of the photos of sporting events I’ve seen from you and your staff goes beyond showing armpits. How do you make that happen?

Clayton: We make sure the players have their shirts on…. Only kidding. Craig, Steve, and I made conscious decisions years ago to move beyond the stereotypical sports image. We are always looking for something different. If you consider there are over one hundred sports and if you shoot these only once a year, you still have an amazing amount of variety to shoot beyond the bread and butter norm of whatever the main sport of your country.

In minority sports they let you in with open arms and give you access, something you just don’t get now in top line sport. Then it’s a matter of failing forward each time you shoot; so next time you shoot that sport you are a little bit wiser.

We are also lucky that we have had great support from the many sports editors and sports staff we have worked with. Trust has been built: we shoot the images they want and they give us the freedom to explore and create the images we like to shoot. Somehow it works well in sports because there are so few people making the decisions, whereas in other sections they seem to have more cooks putting their wooden spoon into the mix than they have at the Savoy Hotel! And of course everybody is a photography expert other than the picture editor!

Photography by Tim Clayton, Land Diving

© Tim Clayton.

{RT} Do you think there is a different aesthetic in Australia from other parts of the Commonwealth and other countries? Oh, wait, maybe commonwealth isn’t a good association.

Clayton: No, it’s all about attitude. In the UK where I learned my trade, they used to say “You are only as good as your last picture,” in Australia they say “You are only as good as your next picture.” Attitude is everything!

{RT} How are newspapers doing in your part of the world?

Clayton: They seem to be holding there own and the SMH is slowly clawing back readership which is a good sign. We suffer from a lack of competition with some Australian cities only having one newspaper.

Photography by Tim Clayton, Land Diving

© Tim Clayton.

{RT} Is there a type of photojournalism that isn’t being done, or that should be done more often?

Clayton: Photojournalism is still in its infancy. We have only just begun. The possibilities are endless for story telling.

I think competitions are polarizing the extremes, the worst of humanity is shown most of the time, this is understandable but, we are neglecting Daily Life in a big way. The everyday existence which can produce beautiful stories on almost any subject; however, mundane it may seem, can still be shot in a beautiful way to tell a story about some aspect of life. I think competitions need to create three or four more ‘Daily Life’ categories and encourage more story telling. And newspapers need to embrace this!

Photography by Tim Clayton, Land Diving

© Tim Clayton.

Photography by Tim Clayton, Land Diving

© Tim Clayton.

{RT} The Land Diving story you did that World Press awarded a first place was black and white – and stunning. Did you make the photos digitally? Why black and white?

Clayton: Thank you for your kind words. Funny enough, it was part of an internal rebellion against the advancement of technology. I spent ten grand last year on new film cameras and film with a specific in mind that I wanted to go back to the craft I had learned: black and white film. It really is a beautiful medium. When I found the story I didn’t even think of shooting it any other way than with black and white film. I did take a digital camera and a remote so I could shoot unique angles impossible to make with my film cameras, so a couple of the frames in the story are on digital. It helped in those moments when you need to reload your film but amazing things are happening before your eyes.

Photography by Tim Clayton, Land Diving

© Tim Clayton.

Photography by Tim Clayton, Land Diving

© Tim Clayton.

{RT} How have technical changes in photography – digital rendering of images, fully automatic focus and exposure, etc. – affected how you make photographs?

Clayton: Amazingly I think the technology has completely hindered the development of sports photography in many ways. Yes, the bigger faster stronger quicker has conveniently made our job easier, but are we producing better sports photographers now because of this? I think the answer is a big no. First, the internet and the ability to see images minutes after they are created have simply created a whole new breed of photographers who plagiarize constantly. They are at a big event, they see an image taken by one of the wire services that they like, and they go and stand in the same spot and recreate that image. Some photographers even simply recreate the image they have seen in the paper that morning, go along to the event, stand in the same spot, and hey presto…They have a great picture which somebody else saw and shot the previous day! Amazing!

The other problem is for some reason competitions still reward sports portfolios containing single images. Competitions have categories for single images; it’s the single image category. No other category of photojournalism contains a portfolio of single images because they are story telling! And this is the most crucial part for the development of sports photography, we have to encourage story telling in a big way so the average sports photographer goes beyond the single image and starts challenging their brains to create unique stories…and not recreate someone else’s single image which they saw twenty minutes ago!

Photography by Tim Clayton, Land Diving

© Tim Clayton.

{RT} You transplanted to Australia from the U.K. Have you stayed in touch with folks on the other side of the ponds? What’s your impression of photography in the U.K.? And how does it compare to other countries? Maybe that’s similar to the aesthetic question, maybe not.

Clayton: I was glad to get out of Britain at the time. Britain has totally under achieved for decades simply because they have an attitude that they think they are better than everybody else in the first place. And they are not! Leaving Britain opened my eyes up to the big wide world of photojournalism and taught me how to ‘see’ in many ways. Thankfully, I think things are improving now and I’m sure many negative attitudes are changing partly because it is much easier to share knowledge and the smart people can quickly educate themselves in the finer points of photojournalism.

Photography by Tim Clayton, Land Diving

© Tim Clayton.

Photography by Tim Clayton, Land Diving

© Tim Clayton.

{RT} What advice would you give to photographers just beginning?

Clayton: Photography is a universal language. You have to read it every day, and speak it every day and learn it every day. Your passion for photography has to flow through your veins, you have to be driven by a V8 turbo inside you…if you have Vespa inside you, go and get yourself a flat white and forget it…You have to love photography so much you are willing to sacrifice almost everything else in your life for your love of photography. Date other photographers who are equally passionate, nobody else will understand and your relationship will be doomed!

Make Magnum your home page and learn everyday from the top of the profession. Remember you are never there, so don’t get a chip on your shoulder. Remember there always is another level and keep working towards getting to that level. Always respect the subjects you are photographing and remember it is not about you! Always be humble, there is a photo God! Never stage a photo. Never plagiarize. Arrive early and stay late. You have to wake up every morning and want to take a great picture. Don’t ever get drunk before a big shoot…which could be tomorrow…work on developing a unique eye because this is the single most important thing that will set you aside from the rest. If you do all the above you have a 1% chance in making a name for yourself in what truly is the most amazing profession of all! Good luck!

{RT} What makes a sports photograph compelling?

Clayton: I think it’s still the ultimate in capturing THE moment that split second of time that is perfect. I’m still trying to get that perfect moment!

Photography by Tim Clayton, Land Diving

© Tim Clayton.

{RT} If you had a crystal ball that could look into the future of what we do, what would it show?

Clayton: Video killed the still photography star? I don’t think this is going to happen in the short-term. But, realistically when we are shooting twenty meg files at twenty-five frames a second it’s going to create a whole new industry. Until then…I would have to say photography generally is becoming more art based, it seems that this is the only way. The top photographers will survive.

Everybody wants images for nothing, and the large munching agencies have killed the profession of quality. Hamburger and chips now outsell quality cuisine in effect. A reflection of life I guess. The good thing is quality somehow always finds a way to be seen. If the paper and magazines don’t want quality then the walls and the internet will have to do.

As for making money, well, shooting hamburger and chips jobs will have to fund the quality cuisine…and it’s going to get harder. Don’t, I repeat, don’t give up your day job, rather make it work for you to pay your bills and fund your self-initiated projects to keep your sanity! And lets all hope every newspaper and magazine editor gets over their arrogance and ignorance about photography and be humble enough to go and educate themselves about quality photojournalism.

Photography by Tim Clayton, Land Diving

© Tim Clayton.

{RT} What’s the best sheep joke you know?

Clayton: I helped run a workshop in New Zealand recently. On the way to sheep dog trials with a mini bus full of Kiwi photographers I thought I’d crack a sheep joke.

I hear New Zealanders have found a new use for sheep….wool!

Total silence from the Kiwis…a few moments later came the response…from a Kiwi perspective.

A Kiwi and an Australian were walking along the road when they came across a sheep with its head stuck in the fence. “Well I can’t resist that!” says the Kiwi, obviously delighted, he drops his trousers and makes the most of the opportunity. When he is finished, the Australian turns to him and says, “Do you mind if I have a go?” “Not at all.” replies the Kiwi….so the Australian drops his trousers and sticks his head in the fence!