Story Behind the Picture 1: How to work with editorial commissions.

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As a working photographer I’m sometimes asked: how do you get to work with that magazine or newspaper? I reply: explore a certain approach to a subject; but also, do not underestimate the importance of ’serendipity’ as you progress from student to professional (and sometimes back again!). I like to use a metaphor of the mechanical ‘apparatus’ of photography itself. Chance plays a very significant role in photography. You can fight chance, tolerate it or embrace it. To some extent, all photographs are the result of chance processes.

David Hurn taught me to distinguish between photography you do for yourself and ‘commissions’ (work to order). In the latter, you’re really making pictures that other people have devised. To me, that isn’t photography but ‘camera operating’. It’s someone else’s pre-determined idea and not the product of a chance encounter with your subject. Photographing things that you are interested in and adopting strategies to suit is preferable. It’s a little like interpreting Open College of the Arts assignments: research, chase a theme, then experiment with formal/technical aspects. Sometimes these two roads — the ‘directed from above’ commission and the self-directed personal project — converge. One such client that has given me this freedom is Libération, (affectionally known as Libé) the french daily newspaper founded in Paris by Jean-Paul Sartre in 1973.

The other chance variable in the mix (which is not often admitted) is, of course, contacts. The old ‘networking’ mantra that career advisors and tutors are always harping on about. I was lucky enough to be in the same class at university with some now ‘big names’ in the photography and film world: the celebrity and fashion photographer, Perou; the Oscar winning director of the most successful documentary of all time (Amy), Asif Kapadia; and Michael Grieve, a documentary photographer for Agence Vu in Paris and regular writer for The British Journal of Photography.

Michael called me to say that he was ‘double booked’ and that Libé had asked him if he knew anyone who would be able to cover a story on Liverpool Football Club. I admitted that: “I know nothing about football. Its a bag of wind!”. Michael then explained that this was Libération, known for their thoughtful use of photographs. He’d seen pictures I had done for my MA at Newport, using family portraits, exploring cultural identity. The pictures were to be about the stoicism of people in Liverpool. The football club was simply a backdrop.

Liverpool Football Club 2006. Originally Commissioned by Libération (France) 22 May 2007. Article on Liverpool Football Culture by Christian Losson. Picture Editor Clémentine Mercier.

Here began what has become a fruitful 10 year relationship with visionary picture editors and journalists connected purely by this ‘fortunate happenstance’. The brief for Liverpool was simply ‘freestyle’: a form of ‘drifting’ akin to the french love of Psychogeography. Meet the journalist then find the subject. Another aspect of ‘contacts’ is when you are pressed for time, being able to find someone who will agree to be in your pictures.

Liverpool Football Club 2007. Originally Commissioned by Libération (France) 22 May 2007. Article 'Culture Club' on Liverpool Football Culture by Christian Losson. Picture Editor Clémentine Mercier.

Ten years after the first commission in Liverpool, I was called to cover the Brexit referendum in Leeds and Harrogate. The original journalist who took me on a ‘Qui Cherche, Trouve.’ via drinking in a Liverpool pub (I got paid for this!) was now the editor. He told the journalist: “Call Garry, if you’re in trouble for subjects, he finds people”. Sure enough, when it came to making portraits comparing the two sides of the debate, I could call on my local Councillors who I’d previously met at a charity function.

Dan Cohen (left) and Neil Buckley (right), Conservative councillors for Alwoodly ward in North Leeds, at the Moor Allerton polling office during local council elections 5 May 2016.

So, my advice: find a subject you know and a way to depict it. This is your ‘voice’ for which you will become known. Cultivate friendships. You never know when the people you debate with on ‘WeAreOCA’ will point you in the right direction for a picture. Most of all, as the Surrealist André Breton once said: “live at grace with chance”.

This blog is from a series of talks inspired by a conversation with one of my Context and Narrative students, Simon Chirgwin, on the influence of Cartier-Bresson and the critique of his ‘Decisive Moment’ in Assignment 4 — A Picture Is Worth A Thousand Words. Seen here.

Thanks Simon.

Libération (France) 22 May 2007. Article on Liverpool Football Culture by Christian Losson. Picture Editor: Clémentine Mercier.

Further References:
 André Breton’s quote (“to help chance along…so that something might happen, so that some one might drop in”) is from my former lecturer at Newport, Ian Walker’s book : City Gorged with Dreams: Surrealism and Documentary Photography in Interwar Paris, Manchester University Press. 2002: you can read this on google books here.

Henri Cartier-Bresson used this epigram in a 1976 anthology of his pictures (vol. 1 of the Aperture Masters of Photography series, seen here ).There the quote is attributed to a book called Entretiens (1952), a compilation of radio interviews of Breton by Andre Parinaud.

Psychogeography: Tate Gallery: http://www.tate.org.uk/learn/online-resources/glossary/p/psychogeography

David Hurn is a documentary photographer and member of Magnum Photos. In 1973 he set up the School of Documentary Photography in Newport, Wales. He is well known for his book: On Being a Photographer: a Practical Guide, LensWork Publishing, 1997. The book emphasises that photographers should see themselves primarily as ‘subject selectors’. Garry took part in the 2012 100 Years of Photography. exhibition at University of Wales, Newport: http://100yearsofphotography.newport.ac.uk

Images:Anfield Road, Liverpool 13 May 2007 © Garry Clarkson
 Pub In Anfield, Liverpool. Libération, 12 May 2007 © Garry Clarkson
 Brett Liberation: Dan Cohen (left) and Neil Buckley (right), Conservative councillors for Alwoodly ward in North Leeds, at the Moor Allerton polling office. 6 May 2016. © Garry Clarkson

Spreads:Liberation Liverpool Football Culture 22 May 2007
 Liberation Brexit Leeds and Harrogate 18 May 2016
 Liberation Cover (Torn Flag) 27 June 2016


Originally published at WeAreOCA.