Left A Bit Blog Interview

I did a Q&A about the podcast with Tom Carpenter on his fab Left A Bit blog. You can check it out here or read it below.

You would be forgiven for being slightly sceptical about the prospect of listening to a series of podcasts, featuring an array of photographers, discussing all things visual. Oh how wrong could you be...

We recently interviewed Ben Smith, the creator of the increasingly popular podcast series 'A Small Voice'. If you have an interest in photography and some of the industries finest photographers, then this is the podcast for you.

 

1. I’ve read that you started 'A Small Voice' as a way of reigniting your passion for photography and also as a way to re-engage with the photographic world again. Do you feel that the podcast has helped you do this? 

Yes it really has, because having an opportunity to meet and chat with such an amazing selection of talented photographers has been both inspiring and galvanising. It’s had an impact in a mysterious sub-conscious way, by osmosis almost. The long-term project I’d been procrastinating over, and beating myself up about and ruminating on for several years is now almost finished, because quite soon after starting the podcast I decided to stop ruminating and get back to shooting! That’s really all one can do, isn’t it? Of course, I may have come to that decision regardless, we’ll never know, but I’m pretty sure the podcast was instrumental in that process. 

2. I started Left A Bit because I wanted a platform to share photography that inspired me, the best way I felt I could do that was through a blog. What were your reasons for selecting podcasts as the platform for 'A Small Voice'? And what do you think a podcast contributes to the photographic world? 

It’s funny because, as someone who was a writer before I became a photographer, I had it in mind for many years that I should have a blog. It never happened, it seemed like the world and her mum had a blog. I couldn’t find the motivation to do it and anyway didn’t think I had anything to say. As soon as I became a regular podcast listener for the first time in 2015, I kind of fell in love with the medium. So I inevitably started searching for the photography podcasts that I wanted to listen to myself. There were one or two out there, but nothing that quite did it for me. So the next thought was, ‘fuck it, maybe I should do it myself then?’ 

As a fan of podcasts, I had the evangelical zeal of the newly converted and that provided the necessary enthusiasm to get over the initial hurdle - all the questioning and self-doubt and ‘what ifs...’ that tend to come with a new idea - and just go for it. 

I am a journalist by instinct, though not by training. I have a love of stories and a curiosity about people. I also have a degree in video and radio production, which for 25 years had proved to be about as much practical use as a chocolate teapot. Suddenly I realised I could combine my natural instincts, aptitudes and inclinations with some rusty, neglected skills and do something constructive with them. 

In terms of what a podcast can contribute, I suppose there are two defining characteristics: firstly, it is an incredibly intimate medium, the best expression of which, to me at least, is found in two people talking to each other. Secondly, podcasting seems to have naturally evolved into a long-form medium, which offers a unique opportunity to really get into detail and go deep. In a world of Snapchat and soundbites and waning attention spans that is a special thing. As all photographers know, some things need time. So when you combine those two characteristics, you end up with the potential for magic to happen. Finally, there’s kind of a joke at the heart of it, because you’re using an audio medium to discuss a visual practice. It’s like featuring a juggler on a radio show, it shouldn’t work, but it does. 

3. Aside from people who are passionate about photography, who do you feel your audience is for the podcasts? 

I hope it’s of relevance to anyone who is interested in the creative process or has creative impulses that they want to pursue. I firmly believe all human beings are born creative. The idea that there are creative people and non-creative people is baloney. It’s just that creativity can be expressed in different ways - running a business, for instance, strikes me as a very creative endeavour, unfortunately nobody bothers to point this fact out! 

So many people’s creativity is slowly but surely eroded by the education system, and the messages they get from well meaning, but misguided parents and teachers, and ultimately the story they tell themselves about who and what they are. Those of us who manage to dodge or ignore those messages are the ones who make it to the other side, and for our sins, get to try and express our creativity.  

I try to focus on the universal themes when possible. How do different people negotiate not only the challenges of pursuing their creativity, but the challenges we all face as human beings: dealing with setbacks and self doubt, juggling all the different commitments, etc.?

At the heart of it is usually the question ‘who is this person’, ‘what makes them tick’, ‘how did they achieve what they’ve achieved’ and ‘what lessons can me and the listener learn from their experience that can be applied to our own lives or creative practices’? For me, more or less everything including the podcast, is basically an attempt at self-help! 

4. When I listen to the podcasts I feel that I am constantly learning new things, and am getting a privileged insight into the working life of a photographer. For me these podcasts are a brilliant educational resource. Do you see the podcasts as being an educational resource? Is that something you envisaged for them when you started out? 

I do now! Because the feedback that I started getting from various guests and listeners was often that message: “Thank you. This is an amazing educational resource you’re creating here.” Now I realise that it has that element to it, which is very gratifying. But no, I’m not sure it was something I realised at the beginning. 

5. Do you have a list of photographers that you want to interview, or do you take on recommendations from other people? 

Both, listeners and sometimes photographer friends do suggest people, which has led to me interviewing some of them. But I need to get better at this too because there are so many good photographers that I’m not aware of, but should be and my lists are never quite long enough. There are certain obvious people I have on them, and some people remain elusive for whatever reason. I have a list entitled ‘Big Game’, with some very famous names on it, and I hope to get some of them on sooner or later. But equally, it’s really not about famous names, it’s more about finding people with an interesting story or approach or whatever.

6. After 46 podcasts to date, from all the knowledge you have acquired from them, in your mind what is the best way of becoming successful in photography? 

That’s a big question, and one which I am personally not well qualified to answer, but I’ll try. The problem is that, firstly, photography is a very broad church. Secondly, success can be defined in many different ways. For example, there are people who earn an extremely good living and have a very nice quality of life, shooting nothing but weddings. By any standards, they have the right to consider themselves successful, but many photographers would view that outcome as reason enough to take a swan dive off the nearest tall building! So it’s horses for courses. I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time pondering this question in recent years and the answer is the same, whether for photography, playing the violin, flower arranging or cage fighting. Do the work, as well as you possibly can, consistently with commitment, integrity and patience and with a sense of optimistic determination. Persist, persevere, and finish what you’ve started, even if it isn’t a good as you hoped it would be.

Getting good at anything worthwhile takes forever, don’t be derailed by fear, especially fear of failure. Failure is inevitable, and indeed a necessary step on the road to success because failure is the foundation of growth - embrace it and learn from it. If like many of us you have a voice in your head intent on reminding you how much you suck, tell it to shut the fuck up, and go back to doing the work. Anyone who takes all that to heart is going to get results eventually. Bloody hell! Maybe I should write a self-help book next?... 

7. You often ask the photographers to recommend a photo book during your interviews. Which photo book would you like to recommend? 

There are several books by friends and previous podcast guests that I could heartily recommend, but I don’t want to single anyone out so I’ll ignore them all! I got Todd Hido’s ‘Intimate Distance’ for Christmas, which is basically a career retrospective to date, and that is a lovely thing. 

8. When coming up with questions for the people you are interviewing do you approach it by thinking of more generalised questions that will possibly catch the interest of a wider audience, or is it a bit of a self indulgent process when coming up with questions? 

This is something I agonise over because I have become obsessed with the interview process, and the nuances of asking questions and how to do that well. It’s a fascinating thing. As I said above, I try to spend at least some of the time thinking about universal stuff that can be of interest to everyone. It depends on the guest and what seems interesting about them in particular, how nervous I am and whether there’s an ‘r’ in the month and all kinds of factors. The one thing I always have in the back of my mind is ‘don’t be too ‘industry’, a bit of that is fine, because inevitably a lot of my listeners are professionals. I try and steer away from that, and I certainly try not to be self-indulgent, unless by that you mean asking questions that may help me personally, in which case the answer is damned right I am!

9. Would you consider expanding on the podcasts, possibly putting on a live panel talk with other photographers and a live audience? 

Yes absolutely, I’d be very much up for doing something like that and there are plans afoot already in that direction, so watch this space, as they say. 

10. Who or what in photography is really exciting you at the moment? 

I think it’s the fact that photography has been forced to change with and adapt to the times we are living in - and they are fascinating, albeit scary times. The digital/Instagram/iPhone revolution has meant that we all have to ask ourselves, not only how the hell am I going to earn a living, but what is photography even for now? If a bazillion images are being taken and uploaded to the internet every week, what’s the value of my contribution? Assuming that 90 percent of those pictures are of cute cats and plates of food, some of them are really good. How can us ‘professionals’ or ‘serious artists’ differentiate ourselves and our work from all that? What do we have to say about the world and our place in it? It’s not enough to just be a good photographer, that’s for sure. 

There’s no mystery to the process any more. Those hard won professional skills that could only be acquired with an apprenticeship of assisting, a lot of trial and error, and a significant financial investment in film and processing can now be learnt from YouTube in a fraction of the time and for zero cost (aside from the camera itself). 

For those of us who started in a pre-internet world, the digital revolution has been like a slow moving tornado ripping through the photographic landscape. Everything we thought we knew got thrown up in the air, and the pieces are still coming back down. But those in their 30’s or younger couldn’t care less about all that ancient history crap, because they’ve never known anything else. They are learning how to work with the situation as it is, and the up side is that you get to try and leverage an unprecedented opportunity to build a relatively huge audience for your work. Us old fogeys need to learn from them and try to get with the programme, and that’s what’s exciting.

A Small Voice Podcast - End of Year Report

It's funny how things sometimes just happen. Last Spring I started listening to podcasts in earnest for the first time. By September I was producing one myself and here we are a year and thirty five interviews later. For anyone who may be curious about how and why it happened, here is my attempt at working that out for myself.

Once I began searching for photography podcasts as a listener, I couldn’t really find the one I imagined must surely be out there somewhere. “Someone ought to do this”, I thought, followed quickly by the realisation that maybe that someone should be me. I figured that I probably had the right skill set to at least not suck at it. So I let the idea percolate for a while to see if it would sod off. It wouldn’t. And that, in my experience, is usually a sign that one should pursue the damned idea.

I was attracted to the democracy and accessibility of podcasting. We live in a world in which the old barriers to entry are now virtually non-existent. In photography, podcasting, writing - all creative endeavours really - the gatekeepers have largely fallen away, replaced by a Punk Rock ethos in which all you really need is the desire and time to get off your butt and do it yourself. My problem was that since there was absolutely no chance of monetising the thing (initially, at least) I had better come up with some compelling reasons for doing it aside from income, otherwise why bother? I might as well use the significant amount of time it takes pursuing personal projects, volunteering in Oxfam, starting a business, writing a novel or watching Pornhub. So I was forced to think about the why.

I was a bit lost, both personally and professionally. I was depressed, frankly, and so had withdrawn from the world to some extent. I had allowed friendships to stagnate, acquaintences to fall by the wayside, my creative impulses to diminish, my love of photography to fade and most of my professional contacts to wither on the vine (the one thing you absolutely cannot afford to do as a freelancer). So a podcast could be a way to re-engage with the world, with my peers, with photographers I respected and admired, and to try and work out what they’d done right in their career and practice that I so obviously had not. It would hopefully also encourage me to re-engage with photography itself, to find inspiration for my own projects and to push through all the self criticism and negativity that is my default modus operandi. Finally, it would be something completely new, without the psychological baggage of photography, to which I could apply some of the lessons I had learned as a result of trying to figure out how and why I’d screwed up - lessons about doing the work, consistency, pushing back fear, persistence, being vulnerable, taking a chance, risking failure and criticism, diving in and working it out as you go. Then, having applied them to something new, I could hopefully begin to apply them to my photographic practice.

I also realised that in this DIY world of self-publishing photobooks by means of Kickstarter, the cultivation of a good-sized social network is a vital element in the fundraising equation. I had failed to understand that and could only gawp in envy at the friends and contemporaries who had slowly but surely built Facebook and Twitter followings in the thousands. I had about fifty Facebook friends and no Twitter account. You can’t get backing if nobody knows you exist. So it struck me that one effective way to build a network was to create something of value, free of charge, and put it out there whilst expecting absolutely nothing in return. That thing could be a blog, or simply the sharing of work. But in my case there was really wasn't any work to share. So a podcast it would be.

The million dollar question is "has it worked?", right? You know, it really has. I have re-engaged with the world, it has energised and inspired me to continue with my own personal projects, I have picked up a lot of invaluable advice (by cunningly pretending to ask for it on behalf of my listeners) and I have confirmed that, as I suspected, 95% of all photographers are facing exactly the same challenges. Above all, I have met a cross-section of brilliant, friendly, talented people who, because I get strangely attached to people very quickly, I now consider to be friends. So I still have no clue how I'm going to pay off my mortgage but it seems to me that what I have gained over the past twelve months is somehow more important than that.

Thanks to every single one of my past guests for graciously agreeing to chat, all the people who have supported the podcast from the outset if only by letting me know that they like it and get it, my all too exclusive cadre of 'patrons' (I think there are six of them) each of whom kicks in the cost of an over-priced Flat White every month, thus covering some of the tube fares, and, most of all, the loyal listeners who I hope have enjoyed and gained inspiration from these interviews. At the beginning, I pledged that if it wasn't 'working out' or if I wasn't enjoying it after a year I would simply knock it on the head. Well, I'm not sure whether it's working out or not, since I neglected to define what that meant, but I am enjoying it and far from being ready to quit I feel like I'm just getting started.

Tim Takes A Bow

I was delighted to receive an email from the one-and-only Tim Andrews asking me very politely if I would be interested in taking part in his photography project, Over The Hill, in which, over the past nine years, he has had his portrait taken by some four hundred different photographers. For anyone interested in portrait photography, I reccommend a visit to the website where you can read Tim's explanation of the project's origins and evolution. In a nutshell: at the age of 54, Tim gave up work as a solicitor after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, a degenerative disorder of the central nervous system mainly affecting the motor system for which there is currently no cure. Shortly afterwards he replied to an advertisement asking for photographic models. Other such shoots followed and a year later he realised he had created an accidental art project in which he would be both subject and collaborator.

Knowing a number of people who have shot Tim over the years, I was pleased and flattered to be asked so my immediate thought was “absolutely!”, followed closely by a sense of dread whereby the hyper-critical bully who lives in my head started barking, “How are you gonna shoot a bloke who’s been photographed by so many good photographers?”, “How are you gonna live up to that?”, and my old favourite, “What if you fuck it up and they discover how much you suck?”  Fortunately, having listened to this little Nazi for several decades, I am finally learning to tell the bastard to shut up.

A few days after I had readily agreed to feel the fear and do it anyway Tim announced on his blog that he felt the time had come to bring the whole epic endeavour to a close. At which point my instinctive reaction was, “Wow! Take a bow, man!” If I lived in a cartoon (which, frankly, I kind of do) there would have been a ping accompanied by the appearance of little lightbulb above my head. Thus was born my one idea for the shoot.

At some point I decided that Tim should take his bow surrounded by a flurry of motion blur as crowds of people passed all around him, a conceit that would serve as a metaphor for not only Tim’s Parkinson’s but for his incredible positivity and determination in the face of it. Involuntary movement (dyskinesia) is a common symptom of the disease and I had seen a video in which Tim’s hands were shaking uncontollably (though it's not really a symptom he suffers from these days). So the way I put it to him as I explained the idea over coffee just before the shoot was, “Tim, this time you’re the one who is going to be still!”

Tim was brilliant, of course, despite having to stand patiently in the middle of Oxford Street bowing theatrically as the world passed decidely impatiently around him. In fact, one of those joyous coincidences that sometimes accompany the creative process had emerged as we talked before the shoot. It turns out Tim comes from a theatrical family. His mother was a dancer, both his children are actors and indeed he once had dreams of being an actor himself. So that gave the idea an unexpected layer of significance that I could never have anticipated and it was fun to give him a chance to let that aspect of his personality show itself.

Anyway - full disclosure and all that - I kind of did fuck it up. The obvious way to do the picture would have been to use a combination of flash to make sure the subject was frozen, nice and sharp, and a slow shutter to allow the people in the background to blur, but, perhaps because that wasn’t quite the look I was after and I thought the flash would spoil the aesthetic, I decided not to do that. Instead I reckoned if I got Tim to hold really still, Victorian portrait style, I would get away with a quarter or half second exposure and no flash. Well not so much, it turns out! This may come as no surprise but in most of the shots he’s really not sharp, to put it mildly. Rookie error, right? Photography 101, right? Cue much swearing and self-flagellation. But, what the hell, I’m over it. It was great to meet Tim and an honour to be one of the very last photographers to be part of Over The Hill.  And as Samuel Beckett said, “Ever tried? Ever failed? No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

P.S. Read Tim's post about the shoot on his blog.

Spooks, Ghosts and Ghouls

The street I live at the end of - Winston Road, N16 - has the best halloween party in London. I have no idea how it go to be such an epic event but let's just say it justifies inclusion in the Time Out listings. For about two hours on one night a year, this typical residential road in north London is transformed into total bedlam - which is entirely appropriate, obviously - in which hundreds of little trick or treating ghosts, zombies, vampires and other miscellaneous horrors descend in droves on the obliging residents to collect as much booty as possible before disappearing into the shadows (and thence to bed). This year they even had a group of young girls performing a faithful and brilliantly executed rendition of the dance routine from Michael Jackson's Thriller video. The adults, as you can see, don't hold back in getting into the swing of things and a gloriously ghoulish time is had by all.

Belonging, Coexistence & Community

These portraits were shot during a recent commission for Tate Modern to document an educational workshop on 'belonging, coexistence and community' at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Denmark (one of the coolest and most iconic art galleries on the planet, by the way.) The participants were Danish students and some of their peers from the Red Cross School - refugees from Syria and elsewhere sent abroad for safety by their parents.

I wish I'd had more time to do these, but the workshop was being run like a Swiss watch to a tight schedule by artist Albert Potrony and since this was not part of my original brief to document the process but an idea I threw in at the last minute I had to knock them out super quick as and when I could. The objects, which are being held by the Red Cross kids, were brought in by the Danish kids to represent the themes of the workshop. The client liked the idea immediately and loves these portraits. In fact, they've commissioned me to do more of the same. Which is all merely a long-winded way of making the point that it's always a good move to throw in your own ideas and therefore provide a bit of extra value that the client didn't anticipate.

Oxford Circus Chiaroscuro

"There's a reason they call it a circus" - overheard commuter

I don't know much about art or painting so I've never known what the word 'chiaroscuro' meant. I still didn't when I took these the other day. I was just playing with the harsh sunlight and deep shadows amongst the craziness of Oxford Circus during rush hour. Then yesterday, by coincidence, I was reading a book and I learned that that's what chiaroscuro is. It's the technique of using light and shade in pictorial representation. The artistic distribution of light and dark masses in a picture. (Italian: chiar = bright + oscuro = dark). So there you go.

Louisiana Museum Shoot

Here's a short film shot by Dan Saul featuring some of my images, currently being shown at Tate Modern. This workshop took place at the fabulous Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Denmark.

Going Coastal

It is the dead of night and I'm lying wide awake in a crappy room, in a crappy guesthouse in Southend-on-Sea, a favourite coastal resort in Essex's blue collar heartland, where generations of holidaymakers have sought respite from the travails of working-class life by sitting on a shingle beach and gazing into the grey waters of the Thames estuary. Here, as in similar towns across the country, gangs of teenage girls in too-short skirts teeter on impossibly high heels, bar hopping in celebration of a 21st birthday or an impending marriage; young men get into drunken brawls outside pubs and nightclubs and families seek out the bright lights and primary colours of the theme park rides and amusement arcades.

In the street outside my window, a loudly contested dispute has finally moved elsewhere but is replaced by the sharp clatter of a discarded beer can rolling around in the sea breeze. The noise is so loud it seems to reverberate around my skull, denying me the chance of sleep. After what seems like hours of this auditory torture I can stand it no longer. I venture outside, half naked, in search of the source of my torment. I wander around in the gloom, peer under parked cars, scan the road, but the can is nowhere in sight, and indeed from that moment on it will remain silent, as though some unseen force is toying with me. I return to the room expecting the clatter to resume the instant I am back in bed but instead it is replaced by the relentless, muffled rantings of a drunken lunatic in the guesthouse next door who conspires with my snoring roommates to make worse my insomnia. The forecast for the rest of the week is for rain and a planned rail strike has scuppered any hope of an early escape back to London.

My two travelling companions are friends and fellow photographers. We are grown men and between us have three mortgages, one marriage, two children and another forthcoming - mine. Why are we staying in this shit-hole? Why do we embark on these absurd odysseys, these fool's errands? Perhaps to satisfy an obsessive desire, a compulsion, to document the human condition (or "life today", as William Eggleston once put it) in all its fascinating diversity. Or to feed an addiction to the momentary excitement, the visceral high, of discovering a good picture on a contact sheet or laptop screen. Or perhaps, like the drunken lunatic next door, we are simply madmen.  View Images »»

Road Trip USA

A gloriously sunny Autumn day; a Ford Mustang with the top down; Ian 'Chief Wherethefuckarewe' Teh riding shotgun with a big Cheshire cat grin on his face; the Pacific Ocean 3,500 miles to the west. So began our photographer's road trip cliché across the USA, on a route that would take us along the Appalachian Trail, through Pennsylvania and Virginia, then south to North Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana before heading west to California through New Mexico, Texas and Arizona.

We soon learnt the hard way that post 9/11 America was a mighty paranoid place. The seemingly aimless meanderings of two suspicious looking strangers in a rental car were enough to bring the unwelcome attention of the police on numerous occasions. The most serious of these found us standing in the blazing Louisiana sun waiting to be questioned by the FBI while a small group of redneck cops took a special interest in my dodgy-looking, Anglo-Malaysian companion's British passport, which they passed around and pored over, as though it might reveal, coded within its pages, the whereabouts of Osama Bin Laden himself. When Mulder and Scully finally showed up, their razor-sharp FBI interrogation training was mercilessly deployed. "You boys ain't terrorists now are ya?" was - I kid you not - one particularly memorable question. After this farcical yet unsettling scene had been played out and we were allowed on our way I had one question for Ian: "Mate, what's up with your passport?" He handed it across to me in silence. Plastered across the entire first page was an enormous entry visa - from the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. I was still laughing my arse off twenty miles later as we crossed Lake Pontchartrain into New Orleans.

Avoiding the huge, sprawling metropolises, we went in search of small town America. My romanticised vision of this fabled place was drawn from a lifetime's exposure to American literature, Hollywood cinema, the songs of Randy Newman and Bob Dylan and, of course, Robert Frank's seminal photobook The Americans. But the reality left me frustrated and restless, gripped by a powerful urge to keep moving, as if the real America might be found around the next corner or in the next town; because to drive across this vast country is to face up to the stark discrepancy between popular mythology and the mind-numbing banality of small town life, where each place appears to be a facsimile of the last. This is the real America, with its malls, chain motels and carbon-copy main streets chock-a-block with fast food outlets and gas stations yet often strangely bereft of life. The lovely old bloke we came across in one no-horse town seemed to be the sole living occupant (above). He had acquiesced to his wife's wish to relocate from the vibrant, urban bustle of Chicago to Nowheresville, Alabama, and the poor man was practically suicidal with boredom, though he still made us laugh with his good-natured ranting: "I'm a city boy! I loved Chicago! Look at me now, standing in the street like a damned fool!" I imagined myself in his position and felt desperately homesick on his behalf, yet part of the pleasure of travel, as Jean Baudrillard observed, is "to dive into places where others are compelled to live and come out unscathed, full of the malicious pleasure of abandoning them to their fate." We jumped back in the car, wished him luck and did exactly that.  View images »»