Monday, 24 November 2008

Interview with Simon Norfolk


Simon, you gave up photojournalism in favour of landscape photography in 1994. However, how do you see the current climate in editorial photography in Britain at the moment?

I’m not really based in the UK, but a lot of my work is still editorial, as in a lot of the work I do is funded by editorial outlets. I’m making a good living out of the kind of work I do as well. Personally, I feel it’s going great, but I’m in a very lucky position. 15% of what I earn is made from editorial work, and I have the option to say no to things. To protect my reputation, sometimes I have to say no. The more I do this, the more I understand what it is I am doing, the kind of work I am making. ‘Don’t do crap basically”. Don’t take photo’s of your girlfriend’s bum you know, and show that and say ‘yeah that’s good.’ Maybe when I am older and have fuck all to do I’ll do that.

The UK market, there is no money, no imagination, the editors have no power. I have powerful friends who write letters for me and it’s important to keep those contacts. I’m producing work I think is interesting.

Your work explores how warfare and human conflict is and has affected our landscape. I think it is controversial but true to say that perhaps images of dead bodies are not necessarily interesting or as affective to the public anymore, so do you think your work is successful in perhaps showing people the effects of war because of this different angle through landscape?

Yes, you have to push it further. The reason why photo’s don’t work, is because people aren’t looking for new ways to tell a story. We are a bit tired of the ‘starving African kids’ aren’t we? What these images do is they describe the world again, and again, it’s repetition. I want to know WHY these images have been taken. Reason, cause, economics, not novelty. I am interested in the explanation of the causes of war, not to tell the same story again and again. If you see an image of a dead body, you don’t think “ok so how did this happen, what was this person shot with, why is their head hanging off like that etc..” You say “Oh god that’s horrible, turn the page..”. What I want to do is not repel you, but seduce you into my place, challenge your prejudice.

That is interesting, because I am going to South Africa to do some work for the organisation you are talking about next week. I suppose for me as a young photographer it’s important to understand what’s going on, what I can do and what photographs I can take, or how, that work..

Look I know of photographers now who have been to places, taken those photographs of starving children, and had bid auctions and raised money and done something DIRECTLY to change or affect something. I look at those images and I have nothing against them, but I wonder how they will change the world. They don’t explain to us WHY this is happening, just that it is and it has been happening since 20 years ago when I was supposed to go and buy a T-Shirt and a key ring and you told me this was going to change, but you are still photographing it and it’s still happening. WHY? I am proud that I live in a world where people like you want to change things and want to do something, but I am questioning how and what you are going to do. Make images I suppose that talk, not describe..

Is it fair to say your work is political? I worry as a young photographer about photojournalism’s future, what will happen to it. There are so many clich├ęs and so many things we are not allowed to talk about. Did you move from photojournalism because of this?

The content of photojournalism is still interesting don’t get me wrong. I like uncovering stories, researching as a journalist does. You have to dig a bit deeper, you won’t find the information you need on the BBC news tonight. I still shout at the TV, at the news, but I am looking for new ways to engage people, explain what you are doing, don’t describe it. The approaches to journalism at the moment are boring, I think that’s the problem.

Obviously context is incredibly important in your work, but how would you describe the relationship between text and image?

My images certainly are meaningless without text, because context is crucial. But you have to think about things like text, you know, captions etc. Does this go here before the image or after it or at the end or what? Context must be wider, for example, my book on Afghanistan isn’t necessarily going to be interesting of you have seen what is going on, seen the images before or the videos or the news articles. I suppose my photo’s are like anti-photojournalism. I describe it as a parasitic relationship. You won’t understand my images unless you are familiar with photojournalism. My job is to take all the stuff you know about Afghanistan, and compound it, intrigue you, seduce you, teach you. I want you to say “Oh shit, I didn’t know THAT..”, or “I thought I knew what was going on but….”

How important is the bookwork for a photographer?

Well economically, books don’t make sense. They are a huge financial commitment. In terms of building a reputation, well they are vital. It keeps you abroad of the pack, can shape how you make your career. The book I suppose is the one place you can dominate and control the piece. I have to compromise with galleries, websites etc. With the book I can nail down the meaning of a piece of work. The book is the purest place. Everything else is laden with compromise, al other meanings detachable. The book is mine, I suppose like a memorial? Fifty years from now, my website won’t be there. But my book will hopefully still be on the shelf and you can pull it down and have a look at what I thought was important, fixing a meaning maybe, “When I was in charge, this is what I had in mind”.

What is your personal involvement with your work? How important do you feel ethics and morals are within the industry?

Well it’s crucial to what I do. I am making a living in the art world, and I am exhibiting in the art world, so I suppose I am in-between two houses of photography. A lot of photography nowadays are about untruths, you know with digital and photoshop etc. The difference with my work is that you BELIEVE I have been there, that is THAT place. The first time I lie to you will be the last. And I have to cover my back, I have to research, have to thoroughly research so you can’t say ‘no that didn’t happen there, it happened there like this..’. I have to “research my nuts off” basically. People want to play games with the truth, I trade on your trust.

Do you have any doubts about your practice, and if so, how do you deal with these doubts?

Well maybe I don’t get as many girls throwing themselves at me like I thought I would, (laughs) but yeah I get doubts. If someone pays $3000 for a print I made, I sit there and say I didn’t pick up a camera to do that, for that particular purpose to make money. I doubt the effectiveness, whether the world will change, do the pictures tell the story I want to tell? I worry about the economics of the industry, will it last? I don’t agree with some of the politics of some of the editorials that publish my work, I suppose I actually though about writing essays on the back of the prints so nobody can change it. But that’s too crude, it’s pointless. I suppose most of my doubts are challenges really.

What do you want your audience to see? What is your strategy, and do you think your images are provocative?

Yes they are provocative, people have told me they move them, make them think. A good image should provoke. A really good image changes your mind. As for a strategy, I suppose my only one is from far away people can say, “look at that, it’s lovely”, get up close and it’s like “shit, what the hell is that, that’s awful..” I want you to see the world the way I see it. I use my work t reach people, I guess the best way to lecture is not to lecture.

How do you see your career developing over the next 5 years? Obviously you moved from photojournalism to the gallery as such, would you consider moving on to other avenues? Obviously as you get older and start taking photo’s of your girlfriends bum.

(laughs) Well she has a lovely bum. But I am uncertain of the things I have to do, so I do a lot of different photography. Advertising, editorial etc. A bit of different things. Photography is changing, so I have to keep my avenues open. I keep a good relationship with my galleries, if you look at a catalogue of Paris Photo from 10 years ago, where are all those people now? They still have to make a living. People are being nice to me now but I don’t know what is going to happen in 2 years. You can’t trust the fuckers.

How important is education do you think in photography, in other words, do you have to be taught to be a photographer?

(laughs) That’s two different questions isn’t it? Education with a capital ‘E’, I mean, that’s shocking. I get students e-mailing me and writing to me and asking me for a job, and I think ‘yeah, you’re a good kid, but what skills have you got to offer me?’ It’s pitiful. Student have no knowledge of the industry, I mean the lecturers are doing great getting £40 000 a year, but what are you getting? Student debt? Is that it? Education with a smaller ‘e’, well that’s another thing. Where is the passion? The FIRE? It took me 20 years to get where I am now, 15 of those years I was mimicking other people, not really understanding what I wanted to do. I guess I educated myself. Get the technical skills, web design. It’s so vital.

What are your feelings on Post grad, so MA etc? How important is theory, critical analysis etc?

People who do MA’s, Post grads, it’s ridiculous. Writing theoretical essays about what’s right and wrong, that’s a waste of time. People should concentrate on making good pictures. There is no passion with students, no motivation. Be passionate.

Well you’ve kind of answered it really, but there are 15 000 graduates leaving universities with a degree in photography ever year, what is your advice to someone like me, about the enter third year. What avenues should I consider taking, how should I enter the industry. How did you enter the industry? Work experience etc?

(laughs) Students now, the ones who come to me, they have no skills, they aren’t meeting people on the outside world. They final images they make aren’t directed at the outside world, they are directed at the three people in the institution grading their projects. Milk your course, demand the courses in software skills you need, get forced into doing work. Gear yourself up for leaving, students now aren’t ruthless enough. Instead of getting drunk at your final show, ask yourself if the works any good? It’s not the end, you haven’t completed something you are just beginning, it’s your launch pad for the next 4 or 5 years. Get onto those curators, get them to your show. I see these students at their final shows with their mums and dads and their friends from school and everyone patting them on the back saying, ‘haven’t you done well dear’. It’s a fucking joke. I go t shows sometimes, when I have the time, and I see this. I want to see a good business card, a website. Use that £20 000 effectively, be ruthless. Your degree show isn’t a party, you have to work! Have plan. When Damien Hirst’s year had their show at Goldsmiths, they had a hitlist of people they wanted there. Not a huge list. But they paid for minicabs to go and pick these people up, bring them to their show, and take them home. Be ruthless. Get contacts!

Do you still have a physical portfolio? If so, how much work is in it etc?

I haven’t got one for my editorial work, it’s too busy you need things immediately. So I have a good website and I spent a lot of money on that. My advertising agent has a physical portfolio because in advertising they like to see prints. Those are beautiful I mean, they cost me £2000 a piece. My galleries have a copy of each print they show of mine, so that acts as a portfolio.

How do you approach galleries, how often do you show etc. How important is it to you to show in a gallery?

I show at commercial galleries every 2 years, have 4 or 5 big photo festivals that I show in each year, and 7 or 8 big shows a year. I have one in New York in May, I haven’t shot for that though yet so it’s a bit risky (laughs). And I have one in Brighton in October. I have three commercial galleries, one in the UK, Los Angeles and New York, and every two years it sort of circulates and I have a main show in one of those galleries.

How do you feel digital imaging is changing photography? It’s definitely dominating it, so do you use film or digital?

I just shoot on film, using a large format wooden camera, made of Mahogony. It’s got a £45 000 digital back, so I have to be careful the places I go, I don’t want to be mugged by some thirteen year old little shit, as much as I love the idea. I think the economics of photography are changing, digital is quicker and cheaper etc. People still get shocked when I say I can’t get them their prints immediately, maybe they have to wait 2 weeks. I am talking from a truth point of view I suppose, we are dealing with integrity and truth. My images are really real. Yes I scan in my negs, so I print digital. The manipulation however, that’s the same as I would do with a black and white negative. There is no montaging etc, yes I change the colour slightly, lighting, dust and scratch etc, but that’s so I am happy with the image. With digital it’s easier to make images of falseness, we are dealing with the elusiveness of truth, the elusive truth of the document. It’s easier t fool around with nowadays.

Finally, are there any photographers you admire? I know that you are influenced by painting, but what about the history of photography? How do you keep informed on current practitioners, how the practice is developing etc?

Well I don’t really get to go to galleries as much as I would like, I am never here. But I read a lot of reviews, I go to student shows when I can. I read pretty much all the photographic magazines, Foto8; Source etc, and some American ones too. I suppose it’s mainly through photographic press.

In terms of photographers, do you mean ones I feel make the same kind of work as me or one’s I like? There are a lot of photographers I like because I like the way they work, they have fire and passion, imagination. They don’t bore me. As for landscapes, I have always liked Shaw, mainly Richard Nisrach though. He entertains me, seduces me. David Maisel, and arial photographer. He’s abstract, but very political, military pollution. I’m trying to think, I will e-mail you some in a minute…

…someone you would relate to actually, Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanan. They want to tell you something you don’t know, there are these multiple layers. They are always challenging you, you never see the same thing twice.

A special thank you to Simon Norfolk for his time and patience in organising the interview. It was conducted via telephone.

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