“Where has it taken me? I think it’s sharpened my understanding of the issues many people face in their lives, made me somewhat angry at injustice and the treatment of women, and has also led to an appreciation of how people can leave fulfilling lives and can laugh even though they might have little material wealth. Perhaps more unexpectedly, I find myself enjoying the company of people who live their lives on the margins.”
Q. Your name suggests that you are not native to SE Asia (!), yet some of your images are intimate in nature. How did you achieve this and can you explain some of the bumps along the way, for those who have never undertaken such things?
“I hadn’t thought that my pictures are particularly intimate, though that’s a nice compliment. I’m not a participant or insider like Antoine D’Agata or Nan Goldin, I’m more of a passer-by or observer.
I find that if you walk the same areas time and time again, you see patterns or rhythms, then you might notice anomalies when they occur, have opportunities to engage with people on the way, and sometimes make friends or gain a small measure of acceptance which can lead to more opportunities. If I think they might be receptive then I might tell people what I’m looking for and hope to enlist their help. A smile, some openness and curiosity are far more important than any preoccupation with camera equipment or technique.
Tuk tuk or taxi drivers can be a big help. The photos of heroin and meth users are an example. I made friends with AK, a tuk tuk driver who I used regularly. I bought him food and lots of cheap local whisky at seedy karaoke bars where the girls sit on your lap, flirt, sing Khmer pop songs, pour drinks and drink most of it themselves. AK later introduced me to a drug dealer friend, and so it goes on. Sometimes money is involved especially in South East Asia. While this can be a dilemma of sorts, I rationalise this by being aware that many people live day-to-day lives without any regular income and I’m seen as a ‘rich’ westerner (even though I don’t own a house, car or TV!).
In terms of ‘bumps along the way’, personal safety can sometimes be compromised especially when drugs are involved. I’m quite timid by nature, and am sometimes scared witless. Speeding on a motorbike through unlit streets after midnight in the outskirts of Phnom Penh to meet a drug dealer and heroin user had major pucker-factor for me.
Sometimes, an idea leads to nothing. In October last year, I ‘paid some money’ to cross the Cambodia border without a visa (or a passport) into a sort of no-man’s land where there is illegal gambling and cock-fighting. The complex is owned by a prominent politician. It’s illegal and also not-illegal because it’s neither in Cambodia or Vietnam….it’s in between the two borders. All this took some time and effort but when I got there I was told ‘if you take photos then you no leave’ so I left with nothing except memories.”
Q. I understand that you are not a full-time professional photographer. Can you give a feel of the amount of time you invest into your photography and projects? I assume it is a great deal, so why is this so important to you?
“My motivation can vary. There are lots of times when I’m dog tired after a week at work at my day job, don’t want to go out, and have to force myself to. There are other times when I have a weird almost trance-like feeling, a sort of state-of-grace when everything flows, and pictures just arrive like small gifts from heaven. I’ll frequently spend all day out shooting.
To give an example of my work practice, on my recent two week trip to Kolkata, I would leave the hotel after an early breakfast, return for dinner, and then sometimes go out until midnight. I’ll walk until I’m almost dropping with exhaustion. Other days, I might leave the hotel at 6am, and then break off mid-afternoon, and have an early night with a book and a glass or two of whisky.”
Q. ‘Under the Eyes of Heaven’ sounds like it was a deeply personal undertaking, with the title possibly referring to the Holy Land specifically, but also your late father. Can you explain a little about why you undertook the project?
“This perhaps goes back to motivation, about why we take photographs. When I’m taking photographs, I have a sort of ongoing mental dialogue with my late son and father both of whom liked photography. It’s a coping mechanism for me.
The ‘Under the Eyes of Heaven’ trip came about partly out of curiosity about the aftermath of the Gaza trouble last year, and also because my father was one of the British troops supporting the liberation of Belsen concentration camp in April/May ‘45. He was a young commander of a flail tank at D-Day in June ’44, spent months fighting across northern Europe but wouldn’t talk about his experiences. I remember seeing his now long-gone photographs and medals discarded in a dusty shoebox in our garage when I was a young boy. Some of the photos were horrific. I keep wondering what he would think about the Israel and Palestine situation if he were still alive so the trip becomes a sort of dialogue that never was.”
Q. Did you have a developed opinion before you went to the region and did it change as a result of the experience? What experiences left the deepest impressions on you?
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