For our latest Imagemaker Feature Article, we had the opportunity to speak with multi-award winning photojournalist Paul Stewart. For years Paul has been an avid Domke and Tiffen filter user, traveling the globe mastering the art of his craft. Paul currently resides in London and is working as the Night Picture Editor for The Daily Express.
Tell me about yourself.
I have been working as a Press Photographer for 45 years now, however my passion and fascination with the craft began quite sometime before that. When I was in school I won a local photographic competition in the 15 and under section, a competition I won with the first camera I had ever owned. It was only a little point and shoot, however once I used it I was hooked.
In Britain we have these things called premium bonds, which are essentially a part of government run lottery system. However, unlike the traditional lottery your money isn’t lost if you don’t win it rolls over as an investment. When I was 15 years old draw my Mum was lucky enough to win a prize in the monthly. It was with part of this that she purchased me my first SLR camera… and after that I was most certainly hooked!
What was your initial inspiration to become involved in photography? Was there a specific experience that influenced your career path?
In the early days many young people, my friends and myself included, were in bands. I would say this was my first subject for photography. I began by photographing my friends’ bands and started doing more and more music photography; this is where I really cut my teeth.
In London there was a magazine called OZ, it was one of the big underground magazines of the 60’s and early 70’s. In the early 70’s the magazine was actually put on trial for obscenity, it was nonsense by today’s standards, but in those days it was a big deal. Anyhow, I ended up going to cover the demonstration outside the courtroom for the trial, for another underground magazine called Frendz. I was shooting 35mm, had long hair and was most certainly a hippie… I fit right in with the crowd and could easily blend in.
As I was making my way out of the crowd someone from one of the national papers grabbed me and asked if I wanted to sell my photos to them. After agreeing to do so, the reporter took me back to their office, they developed my film, made some prints and wound up buying 5 pictures from me.
Aside from being paid a competitive amount for my work, I realized that the individuals at the paper liked my style of photography. It was at this point of self realization that I understood what I needed to do in order to get my work into the papers, it was all about getting close and becoming immersed in the situation you were photographing.
Tell me more about your experience as a Press Photographer.
When I started at this game, a press photographer was supposed to do anything. Assignments would range from going to the studio to shoot Ms. World, to photographing in an active war zone. The mentality was never, “I don’t do this” it was “OK sure!”. It’s similar to taking a ride in a taxi. If a cab driver picks you up, it is assumed that they are going to be able and willing to take you to your stop. Being a press photographer works in a similar way. If you are assigned a specific story, regardless of what it may be, you have to be ready and willing to take it on.
Before you begin any assignment, regardless of subject matter, what essentials are you sure to include in your bag?
My phone and passport are always in my Domke F-5…one can never truly anticipate where this profession is going to take you. Your day could start in London and end in Bangkok, you always have to be on your toes and ready to rock and roll.
In terms of cameras, these days I am pretty well dedicated to the Fuji X Series, I used to use Leica and Nikon for many years. However I also keep a Mamyia with full digital back for studio work, and if I am out on assignment it is X Pro 2’s, a good wide, good tele and good standard lens. These days I am trying to limit myself to primes rather than zooms.
Everyone of my lenses has a Tiffen UV protector on it and they are absolutely essential! If you go into a place like the Royal Parks Stables, where I have been working, you will find large amounts of dust from the hay and what not. Without my UV protectors, photographing in there would have been a nightmare. Regardless of where you are shooting you always have to keep equipment in good order, protect the glass!
Your career as a Press Photographer has taken you all over the world, and put you right in the middle of many historical events. Although it may be difficult to choose, is there a particular situation that has impacted you both as a person and photographer?
Lots! Being in Bosnia during the conflicts, seeing South Africans make their transition during the Apartheid period, its all certainly still with me and is always in my mind.
However the thing that has impacted me the most was the exhibition I did on homelessness in the UK. Here in the UK we have SHELTER, a big charity set up to help the homeless and in the 70’s I did some photojournalism for them. Then to mark their 30th anniversary in the 90s, I went around the country photographing the homeless, people both physically working with them, and those working to come up with solutions to the problem. Working on this exhibition gave me a more intimate perspective of the issue at hand, while also demonstrating the kindness of those involved in the charity’s efforts.
The outstanding work featured in your exhibition projects highlight many important social, political and cultural issues. For those of us who may be unfamiliar, can you give some insight as to what an exhibition aims to showcase and the planning that goes into preparing for such a project?
First you have to look at the situation as a journalist…you have to find a story. There are loads of things going on in any given situation, however somewhere in the subtext there is story, there is something particularly interesting.
Consider the project I am working on now, The Last Herd – The Shire Horses of the Royal Parks. The subtext to this project is that from an environmental point of view it is much better work with horses as opposed to tractors, as they are a natural way to look after the environment. Having seen that there was a story here, I did my research and found out that there was a herd of horses in the Royal Parks.
What makes this particular project so special is the information behind it. In doing my research I found that at the turn of the century we had 40,000 Shire horses in London alone, and a million in Britain. Today, there is only one working herd of 8 shire horses in all of London and sadly they are more endangered than giant pandas.
When working on any exhibition, book or magazine feature you must build up the back-story and then determine how to illustrate it. You must ask yourself, “How am I going to get the message through to the readers and viewers?”
If you are going to do a shoot over an extended period of time, around three months or so, then there needs to be at least two months of planning prior to embarking on your assignment. It is crucial to get your ducks in a row before you start shooting, otherwise you are just shooting and shooting and you end up with nothing as a product. I approach a new project the same way I would for a newspaper story. I make a news list, I make a subject list, and then I fill in all the gaps with the most appropriately suited photos.
When working on an exhibition, such as Revolting Britons, how do you organize your work in such a way that it tells a story and captures the emotion in the situation?
It all comes down to the editing.
While working on the Revolting Britons Exhibition, a fellow photographer and I spent hours editing and refining our work. I remember one late night after we had wrapped up shooting the exhibition; myself and my partner on the project went into the photo studio and got right to work. We must have spent four or five hours condensing our long shot list, turning into a shorter shot list, and then finally coming up with our final exhibition. At the end of the day we took about 200 long listed photos and turned them into a 30-photo exhibition.
In addition to precise editing, order is also key. When working on the State Of The Nation exhibition, someone decided to re-curate the opening night and arrange the photos in a different order… it simply just didn’t work.
Although it may seem impossible to choose, do you have a favorite exhibition or long term project that you have worked on?
The Quite Night is probably my favorite long-term project it’s a study of London’s emergency services.. During the time that I was working on this piece Britain only had one helicopter ambulance, based out of London, called HEMS (Helicopter Emergency Medial Service.)
At the time The Daily Express, the paper that I currently work for, sponsored the service, by paying for the aircraft, but I was freelancing for other papers and only Express photographers got to work with HEMS. When I told Chris Djukanovic, the then picture editor, about the project he told me I could go out with them, but that I would never get anything. He had gone on to say that there were lots of photographers he had sent out to fly with them, and that he had even given the pilots point and shoot cameras, however the content was never of good enough quality to be published as they seldom had a photographer on board when anything exciting happened.
On the very first day I went flying with HEMS I got a picture of the victim of a hit and run driver being treated in the road, which was quite good and made its way into the paper. However the next time I went out was when I got “the” shot.
When you are flying in a medical services helicopter you work for the patient, no matter who you are. As I was kneeling on the helicopter seat, IV drip in one hand and camera in the other, I began to understand the severity of the situation and knew everyone would have to think and work fast. As the patient was pulled out of the helicopter, surgeons determined that they would have no time to get this man from the roof of the hospital to the operating room, so they made the decision to preform open heart surgery on the roof of the hospital… it was remarkable!
In a split second I realized that I could get a shot of the surgeon’s hands, physically inside this mans chest holding his heart together, if I ran up to a walkway over top of the trauma room. I grabbed my camera, positioned myself and got the shot.
As we finally made our way back into the hospital, the man in distress finally in surgery, I ran over to the paper with the film, developed it and gave it to the night picture editor. This was the first time in my life that I had ever seen someone physically stand up out of his or her chair in shock. Needless to say it was a pretty dramatic couple of weeks shooting that show.
Do you have a favorite individual assignment?
There are certainly a few…
I think the assignment that filled me with the most trepidation was being sent to take David Bailey’s portrait. The pressure was certainly on for this one, seeing as photographing this man not only meant getting it right, but putting your own spin on it. It was definitely an interesting day.
However, I suppose the picture that I like the most, in terms of one assignment, was the one I got of John Lydon AKA Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols. He was an amazing guy to meet! We were at the Savoy Hotel in London, where at one point Monet was the resident artist, in the Monet suite. From that room, there a particular view down the Thames that Monet had painted, and I wanted to get that behind Johnny. It was an OK picture, but while Johnny was casually chatting to the journalist who was interviewing him, he kind of just turned around and looked in the camera and that was it, that was the moment. It worked. It was actually on the cover of one of my books.
I am a firm believer in the philosophy that a photo speaks a thousand words. As an outstanding Photo Journalist, how do you tell such impactful stories though your imagery?
Photographer Cartier Bresson talked about the single decisive moment, and how sometimes you do have it and sometimes you don’t. Sometimes you have to take a number of pictures before you get the right one. So what I often find myself looking for is something I call the quintessential distillation, where I am looking for the smallest possible group of pictures to tell the story.
With photo calls, you get what you are given and there’s nothing you can do but take the picture, but I never set up a reportage photo. For instance, while recently working with the Royal Parks Shires the coachmen said they could set up anything I was looking for, in terms of positioning and staging daily activities. I kindly told them that none of that would be necessary, as I wanted to photograph them doing it for real. If you are shooting a portrait, yes that is a form of set up, but I try to use the subjects surroundings, to portray their personality.
Tell me a bit about your experiences with Domke.
After I got my first Leica’s I went out and purchased a well-known British camera bag line. A short while after purchasing the bag I found myself on assignment in Florida completely exposed to the warm weather elements. Although the bag had done a nice job of keeping my equipment safe, it was really awkward trying to get my hands into it to do stuff, so I decided to head to a local mall to find a different bag.
After finding the camera store in the local mall the guy working the counter told me that I absolutely needed a Domke, I believe it was a Domke F-803, so I decided to purchase it. The bag was great! I could put all of my Leica’s in it and easily work from it… needless to say that after my first experience with Domke I was hooked. From that point whenever Domke’s have been available I have always used them.
One of my best Domke bags was an F-2 that used to be made in a shade of light blue. One day I went into a camera store in London called AXCO run by a gentleman named Morris Brody. As I was in the store Morris turned around to me and said “I’ve got this bag and I am certain it is for you!” With that he held up a brand new Domke F-2 in a striking light blue color. Although it was a nice looking bag, I told Morris that I had just purchased a Domke and didn’t need another one at the time.
Unfortunately, about a year later I had my entire kit stolen at gunpoint. I got some of the kit back, however sadly my Domke was not one of those things. In addition to stolen items, several of my cameras were severely damaged and in need of repair. In order to fix my gear I had to make a trip back to Morris at AXCO so he could get everything sorted out. While showing Morris my cameras I told him that I wished I bought the light blue Domke off him a year ago because I could certainly be using it now. Much to my surprise he pulled it out from under his desk and told me he had been saving it for me because he knew I would need it!
I don’t have that bag anymore, I had to get an F-1X to fit a bit more equipment inside, however still to this day I regret selling it.
The oldest Domke I’ve got right now is an F-7, which is 25 years old. Well as a matter of fact, I have 2 that I still use all the time and they are over 20 years old as well.
What made you decided to choose Domke and why has Domke been your bag of choice throughout the years?
They are very well made and they protect my kit, but they don’t over protect it to the point where I can’t get to anything. It’s all about having the ability to work from the bag, while also knowing that your bag doesn’t necessarily look like a traditional camera bag, it really could pass as just a normal bag, so no one really knows I am carrying cameras…it is very good.
When on assignment, I always put a few carabiners on my Domke that way I can hook it on to everything. Unfortunately no one took a picture of it, but on one assignment I had my F-2 clipped onto a camel going through the Sahara Dessert. Having a Domke gives you the ability to carry your kit on a camel in the desert and in the same day carry it into a banquet hall, you never have to worry about it being out of place.
What are your thoughts on photography and Social Media?
It is both good and bad. It is very good to be able to get stuff out to people very fast, however I think the cult of the “selfie” is just dreadful. I mean honestly, I prefer the term the “vanity rod” to a “selfie” stick! More and more people are becoming so narcissistic, wanting to get themselves in every frame. You shouldn’t be a part of the story you should be covering it, you should be telling it to other people, you should be telling it in the foreground. I don’t think I have ever taken a “selfie” and I don’t think I ever will.
What saddens me is the amount of photos that are taken by people without thought. So many people just press the button and shoot, whereas with a little thought everybody could learn to take great things. Pissarro, the artist who developed pointillism, believed that everyone should be given small pots of paint that way they could do pointillism paintings wherever they went. We’ve got the photographic equivalent of that. I suppose Pissarro’s idea wouldn’t exactly work, because not everyone was the draftsman that he was, however modern day technology has given us the tools to shoot some great stuff and unfortunately many people don’t. Even if people do take photos, they sit on the phone and their work never gets printed, it never gets shown to other people. Photography exists to be seen, not to sit on a hard drive somewhere.
What advice do you have for photographers who are just starting out or even those whom are looking to expand upon their skill set?
My advice to everyone in this is shoot a lot of pictures and be very discerning about your edit. Work it out before hand, get the pictures you need, edit tightly and always be true to yourself. You have to think about what you want to achieve with the pictures and be true to that.
Do you have any upcoming projects? If so where or of what?
Yes! In August of 2017 I will be releasing an exhibition for the Father Thames Trust, showcasing the river from Chiswick to Weybridge, which is known as the Arcadian Thames. For years I have been shooting this River and it is by far my favorite river in the world!
What is the number one place on your list that you would like to visit or revisit?
I haven’t been back to Jerusalem in a long time and I certainly would like to go back.
What do you hope to get out of your future experiences?
I just want to keep telling the story. I think it was Abbas, the Magnum photographer who said that it isn’t about publicity or exhibitions; rather it’s about writing the visual history of the world. I truly believe that is what we are all doing and I just want to keep writing those pieces of history, making sure people see what’s going on.