Monthly Archives: February 2012

Conversations with photographer Mike Hutchings

The World Press Photo exhibition had not been to Cape Town since 2007, but this year the city got lucky as the exhibition reached it’s final destination at the beginning of February. In order to celebrate this event, the World Press Photo organization hooked up with Iziko Cape Town Museums and together they organized a summer school, full of Masterclasses, readings and panel discussions. As part of the program, award-winning photographer Mike Hutchings spoke about his work to a captivated audience.

Mike Hutchings (London, 1963) is an established photo-journalist coming from South Africa. As a photo journalist he also covers sporting events, and it was one of his powerful images taken at soccer World Cup in 2010 that won him first prize in the World Press Photo Sports Category (photo of Demy de Zeeuw being kicked in the face). Mike studied Social Anthropology at the University and then began starting working as a freelance photographer. He has covered a lot of the political conflict in South Africa in the 1980’s and as well as the release of Nelson Mandela, conflicts in the Democratic republic of Congo, Kenya, Madagascar and Zimbabwe as well as global sporting events such as the Olympics and the soccer World Cup. He became a photographer for Reuters in 1991.

Can you tell us something about how you got started and how you got involved with Reuters?
Mike Hutchings: The thing to remember with newspapers is that it is not what you can do, but what you can do for them. I had been taking pictures for a number of years and the people at Reuters knew my work. You also need a dose a luck, of being in the right place at the right time, you need to build connections. I used to work for UPI (United Press International) which was bought by Reuters.

I believe that it is important for photographers to talk to other photographers; sometimes you work doesn’t translate as well as you think it does, talk to others, listen to opinions, you need honest and constructive criticism. My support came from advice from friends, various people like Leon Muller, Garth Stead, Eric Miller. It is stimulating talking to other photographers. Cape Town photographers are not a cut-throat breed, it is not that difficult to connect to fellow photographers.

What is your role with Reuters now?
MH: It is a fine balance between working with stringers across Africa, organizing all that, and actually going out taking pictures.

Can you explain what “stringers” are?
MH: Stringers are freelancers or contributors that we work with occasionally or steady.There are quite a few big stories in Southern Africa right now such as obviously the World Cup in 2010, but also Mandela himself, political disasters such as in Zimbabwe or natural disasters such as in Mozambique. Sometimes Reuters can not send someone into a situation and that’s when we use stringers. Which is different from sending in someone from Reuters itself, where someone comes into a situation, does what he is supposed to do and leaves as soon as he’s finished. Those photographers are also known as “firemen”. Stringers are locals and they can access a story differently which can be an important difference in how you cover a news story or event.

Do you own the copyright for the work you do for Reuters?
MH: No, Reuters owns it. One-sided contracts can be a problem but I find working with Reuters very satisfactory. There are different contracts for the stringers as they get a commission when the photo gets sold and that is quite unique is the world of photo-journalism.

What can you tell us about the standard of photography of photographers in Africa?
MH: Well, that’s where it gets complicated. There is a huge range of skills here. In Kenya, for example there is a really high level of skills unlike that in for example Angola. We were very happy to see that one of are stringers, Feisal Omar, in Mogadishu also won a World Press Photo (ed: Omar won first prize in Daily Life Singles) We have 5 stringers in Somalia. I was the editor of that certain photograph. As an editor you are responsible for fact checking (Reuters is very strict about accuracy), writing captions and occasionally cropping.

Fact checking can be a difficult thing in certain countries or situations, and you want to make sure all the facts are correct. Sometimes someone or an NGO sends in a photograph and it they often have their own agenda. So what you do as an editor is ask the photographer specific questions, check the Internet, discern between gossip, conjecture and facts.

How much post-processing do you do?
MH: I am not a fan of over-using Photoshop as you can reach vastly different results. I try to limit Photoshop to less than what I would do in a dark-room. I do crop slightly, mind you in Sports photography you have to crop as you are to far way and you are shooting for the crop. I used a 400 mm fixed lens on the winning photo. Using Photoshop can cause too many problems too easily as you are putting something into an image that you didn’t see. And as a news agency or photo-journalist you want the public to be able to rely on your honesty and not have it question if what you publish is the truth.

How do you keep the resolution?
MH: You can sharpen but you can only go so far before it looks stupid. The image has to be sharp before you start post-processing. As a sports photographer you can not shoot in RAW as it is too slow. Although a magazine like ‘Sports Illustrated’ does work with both RAW and Jpegs. But with newspaper work you have to be faster as the turn-over is faster. It is uploaded into a remote editing systems where the editor will pull it out. The photo of Demy De Zeeuw for example was part of a sequence, and I didn’t see the photo until 3 hours after.Shooting sporting events means you need to be “ready” all the time. If you can actually see the photo through your lens, you are too late. But you don’t want to just push your finger down either. I guess you just follow an instinct for where the action is going to be, you learn to anticipate the moment.

There are things you can do, naturally. You need to be technically ready. I preset the exposure but not the focus as I’d like to be adaptable that way. I bring several bodies and a variety of lenses depending on what kind of sports I’m covering. For boxing, you need a shorter lens than you do for soccer. Some photographers will use a wireless remote while they shoot; they set up a camera behind the goal for example while they stand somewhere else. I prefer not to shoot that way, but you never know what you are getting exactly. You only know exactly what you’re getting when shooting with light-boxes in a very static shoot.

Can you tell us something about how you view photography on the digital high way?
MH: It has gotten a lot easier now. Before you were shooting 36 frames on film that had to be developed, printed, scanned. Photographers were shooting less. Nowadays people sometimes shoot 1,000 frames. With the number of frames photographers take these days, you just need to edit more. I think that photographers were more critical about what they shot as there was a limited amount of film and were therefore possibly more instinctive. The cameras have also gotten bigger which can be a disadvantage especially in social documentary. Shoving a huge camera in somebody’s face can be very intimidating and it puts something between you and your subject. There are ways around that though, it just means you have to engage with your subject more. But I find that good photographers will always engage a lot.

You mentioned that Cape Town photographers are not a cut-throat breed. Can you tell us a little about the competitiveness in photo journalism?
MH: I have always backed away from it, but you sometimes see it in others. There is a lot of heightened tension that comes with this profession but photo-journalists realize that if you can’t get vent verbally and get over it in 5 minutes you are in the wrong business. We also have to rely on each other in dangerous situations.

Do you think that “something” has been lost with digital photography, meaning it has become less physical, less tangible?
MH: I don’t really think so, a photograph maybe changing as an entity but you still have all your files.

Any advice to photographers?
MH: Back up your files at least twice on external hard drives and keep them in separate places.

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