After my review of his first book, I received a very complimentary email from Nick thanking me for my review and expressing something between relief and gratitude that the lengths he went to to get to prints right were being appreciated. A short correspondence developed, and he has very graciously agreed to an exclusive interview for the site, which follows my review of the final book in the series – Across The Ravaged Land – and constitutes today’s post. I admit that writing the questions for that interview made me somewhat nervous, because Nick is one of my few true photographic heroes; a rockstar with integrity, talent, and beyond that, passion. Let us begin.
What first made you pick up a camera?
Animals. As I write about in the essay, “I Am The Walrus”, in the new book, the animals came first, photography second. Photography was merely the best medium for me to express my feelings about animals, and the natural world.
Who are your inspirations photographically? Did you have a mentor?
No mentor. I turned to photography in my mid-thirties, and launched into it with my Pentax 67 from the outset. Re inspiration, I have always been obsessed with black and white photography, especially the early work of Steichen.
You were previously a director of music videos (including for Michael Jackson; Earth Song was what brought you to Africa in the first place). How much crossover of skills and creative vision is there between stills and video? Was it easy to make the jump?
It was easy to make the jump practically and financially, as I was fortunately cushioned by continuing to direct commercials for 2-3 years (although I was very disdainful of them). Creatively, it must have helped, yes, as I had spent my adult life working with film and image. It was also easy to make the jump because as a photographer, I felt so liberated not being answerable to anyone, being able to photograph what I wanted, when I wanted, how I wanted. Filmmaking is fraught with endless frustration and compromise in a way that photography is not. Or at least, with the exception of the bad printing of the first two books, that is what I have been lucky to experience.
I get the feeling that photography – because images are the easiest and fastest way to make an impact – is doing more than ever as the champion of preserving the unseen. There has always been National Geographic, and of late, yourself and Sebastiao Salgado’s Genesis project – do you plan to explore any other ecosystems around the world?
Not at the moment, no. Sub-Saharan Africa is one of the last places on the planet where one can still view multiple species en masse in the wild. Not that I am necessarily going to photograph them any more. I may be photographing their absence, but this place just moves me on a fundamental, visceral level.
It would seem that the Far East is a large culprit in the decline of the species due to demand for ivory and other body parts; though China perhaps is going to be a challenge to educate, we must start somewhere. Do you have any plans for an exhibition in Asia to raise awareness? [I’d be the first to get on a plane to see it -MT]
I would love to, and yes, for the hopeful purpose of raising awareness. There are tentative plans for a museum exhibition in Shanghai in 2016. But by then, another 150,000 elephants will have been wiped out at the current rate of killing. Honestly, I don’t think my photos will make much of a dent. I think it would be vaguely delusional to think they could do more. But as a small cog in the wheel of awareness relating to this apocalypse, maybe the photos can add something.
Have you faced any issues travelling as a photographer? I’m thinking of problems with getting film checked, excess baggage, things going missing, and in the less savoury parts of the world, a decided reluctance to anybody perceived as being a journalist…
Getting film through airport security is a constant cause of stress, of course. I get several hundred rolls of the film down to Africa at once by getting them screened for explosives in the UK, which enables one to avoid it being x-rayed. Coming home, heart in mouth, all security people so far have agreed to hand-check the exposed rolls, even if increasingly they look at the medium format rolls with complete bewilderment. I process in the UK, as Heathrow security would never hand-check.
Is there anything you’d like to be able to do photographically that’s limited by technology?
Just that I wish my Pentax 67 had all the technical ‘aids’ that other cameras now have – I would love to have the options of auto-focus, image stabilizing lenses, continued shooting as opposed to roll out of film after 10 frames, motor drive.
But in spite of that, I choose the total impracticality of my camera because simply, when I view through the waist level viewfinder (how I use the camera), I am ‘turned on’ when I look at the image on the ground glass in a way I am not by other cameras. And I prefer film to digital, because as mentioned before, I love the surprises and imperfections that you can get with film, the unexpected ways that light will sometimes interact with the negative, whereas for black and white, and the subject matter that I shoot, I find digital too clinical, too perfect. And technically perfect is not necessarily better or more interesting.
Even with my scanner, I deliberately use a funky old 2003 model Nikon Scan 9000, which results in all sorts of imperfections (some good, some bloody irritating), rather than getting flawless drum scans.
One question from a reader: How do you prevent the shutter noise of the Pentax 67II from scaring the animals off?
Hah, yes! The 67 shutter is crazily KA-CHUNKK!! Occasionally, a lion will initially jump a little, but they quickly get used to it. No animal has been scared off.
Given your stylistic, subject and presentation choices, I’m fairly sure that you do what feels best to you – and audience expectations be damned. How do you manage the tradeoff internally between creativity, specialisation and experimentation? Do you ever feel like you need to take a break, photograph a different subject and then come back to your main work with a new perspective? How do you keep up your creative motivation?
No I never feel the need to photograph a different subject. I have obsessively pursued a single vision in the trilogy. However, in the final book, I was very relieved to break off from attempting to photograph living wild animals- with all the lack of control that means – and instead photograph controlled set-ups : the ranger series, the calcified series, the trophy series.
What is your main driver for taking the shot? What do you look for?
In the photos of the animals, I am waiting for them to present themselves for their portraits. For me, there is no difference between photographing portraits of animals and humans – I want to capture the spirit of that particular creature. The frustrating thing is that with animals I have to wait. But I never lose my patience – I always consider it something of a minor miracle (and relief) when I get that moment. But those moments are few and far between. (I shoot ridiculously little film.)
Your thoughts on the state of modern photography: proliferation of cameras, images, visual overload, Instagram and the like, social media…good, bad, anything else?
I think that I am most disturbed by the imminent demise of the Decisive Moment. By this I mean that such is the quality of video now that you can just roll video and then select a frame which will be good enough quality to print as a large fine art print. The end of the Decisive Moment.
The art world and success as in it as a photographic artist seems to be extremely hit and miss; it seems that most people protect their little fiefdoms with an iron fist. In the long run, this only harms the industry: proliferation leads to education which means unwrapping a bigger pie to be shared by all. It’s only of late that photography has really been taken seriously as an art form in its own right. Granted, there’s a lot of noise out there – the initial effort required by other art mediums usually puts people off trying to begin with – do you have any advice on how to achieve success as an art photographer?
The same as any creative endeavor – create only for yourself, never for others. Never attempt to second-guess reaction by the audience. Personally, I think that is the road to artistic mediocrity. Photograph for yourself, and hopefully people will respond to your vision of the world. That doesn’t mean that you will have success, but at least you will have died trying, and taken photos that at least you like!
Making photographs for yourself and making photographs as a business are two very different things – realistically, not all photographers can afford to be idealists. How do you manage to balance this? Where do you find the compromises?
I am obstinate and wilful , and as an indulged only child, used to getting my way. So compromises? Don’t understand the word…. Seriously, the times one compromises artistically, one invariably regrets it down the line.
Images preserve moments and ideas for posterity, but they’re all subject to the interpretative biases of the photographer. What message would you like your images to leave for future audiences?
That animals are sentient creatures equally worthy of life as us. That we need to stop destroying the natural world. Man should NOT have Dominion over Nature (the most damaging notion ever set down by mankind).
The end: if you could offer one piece of advice for a photographer, what would it be?
See above. Create for yourself, never for others.
I can only offer an enormous thank you, Nick, for your time, passion, and willingness to share that with us. We look forward to your future projects with great anticipation! MT
For more information on or to contribute to Nick’s Big Life Foundation in Africa, click here. On This Earth/ A Shadow Falls and Across The Ravaged Land are both available here from Amazon, with signed editions here from Photoeye.
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