Category Archives: interview

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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The Rambling Life Fantastic

“You see, I have a strange serendipitous relationship with Hot Water, but I don’t think they actually know this. Looking back it seems that I always see them around the time of changes in my life.”

Those are my words, written when I interviewed Donovan Copley for Portfolio Collection’s Travel Blog nearly two years ago (full interview here: Talking To Hot Water – Connecting The Dots Through Life And Music). Strangely and amazingly enough, those words are still true. I saw them perform in The Hague this past weekend and it occurred to me that once again, decision-making and the changes that come with that, are on the horizon. Self-inflicted deadlines and self-inflicted limits between failure or success. Why do we do that? How does it happen that one loses faith when first you had the conviction to that what you felt and thought were right? It’s easy to point the finger at others, blaming them for messing with your head, while in fact those voices have always been there and it never stopped you before. Not making decisions has a paralyzing effect on me. I do know that there is only one way back from to and that is to get back on the proverbial horse. I hope it rears up and gallops straight into the fields of possibility.

In case you were wondering about the Hot Water gig last Saturday, it was awesome as always. The band consisted of Donovan Copley (vocals, guitar), Ronan Skillen (didgeridoo, various drums), Andre Schwartz (drums), Soubry Makupula (back up vocals) and I am ashamed to say I don’t know the bass players name. They played, roughly, for an hour and half with songs from their 3 albums. During one of their new songs ‘Lekker Sakkie’ they invited people to come up on stage for a dance contest, a “langarm” dance contest at that. Unsurprisingly, there were not many people in the house who knew what “langarm” was, in fact there was only one couple, a guy from P.E. and is girlfriend. Not surprisingly:)

I hadn’t seen them perform in over a year, and it was cool hearing some new songs as well as a Bob Dylan cover, watching Soubry dress up as a woman and Donovan climbing up onto the rafters during the encore ‘Tribal Man’.

Climbing up onto the rafters… to get a new perspective on things, perhaps? See, I told you I always seem to meet them when the times are a changing. Soon, I’ll be wearing shades:)


The photos photos were taken on Red Hill, just outside Simon’s Town, on a cold winter’s day. The title comes in part  from the Man Man song ‘Life Fantastic”

A house is not a home

It suddenly dawned on me while we were strolling through Amsterdam – I’ve been  “homeless” for two years solid now. I’ve stayed in nearly 40 places ever since I put most of my belongings in storage in ’09. A suitcase, a laptop and a camera is all take with me. I like traveling relatively light, I like moving and I don’t miss my stuff, however, I am starting to miss feeling at home.

 The reason why we went to Amsterdam was to pay a visit to the Marianne Breslauer exhibition at the Jewish Historical Museum. Marianne Breslauer (1909-2001) was a photographer during the Weimar Republic and only did so for about 10 years. Marianne worked in Paris for a while where she became a pupil of May Ray. She also worked for a German agency, Academia, who told Marianne to work under a pseudonym in order to hide the fact that she was Jewish. She refused and subsequently moved to Amsterdam and to Switzerland later on. Marianne left photography behind her as she became bored with the medium and more interested in her husband’s business as an art dealer.
The exhibition was ok. I wasn’t overly impressed, I must admit. It showed quite a lot of her work, even her graduation project and several publications but the work itself never quite touched me.  To me, the best thing was the historical perspective offered by her work. I really liked seeing how the women dressed in the 30’s, the very short hairdo’s, the masculine way of dressing yet remaining ever so feminine. I would love to look like that. The other thing I really liked about Marianne, was that she just walked away from the world of photography. She explained in an interview that she had done and photographed all she wanted to do, and had simply reached an end. I like that. Knowing when it’s over.
The real reason came later. While Arthur was browsing around one of Amsterdam’s best record stores, Concerto, I found a photo book by Jim Marshall (1936-2010). Just flicking through that book is impossible. One has to stand still and look at every picture carefully. Jim has photographed all of music’s biggest stars; Beatles, Stones, Allman Brothers, Johnny Cash, Blondie, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Grateful Dead, Howling Wolf, John Coltrane. The list is endless. Most of his images have become part of our collective visual memory. Who doesn’t know that image of Johnny Cash giving the finger towards the camera, Jimi Hendrik on stage or Little Richard deep in thought before he takes to the stage?
Ohhh, imagine being his assistant for a week. The things you would see, the things I would learn. It would be amazing. To build a portfolio like his is something I can only dream of.
Perhaps that can be home for a while, not a physical place but the determination to build a strong portfolio that will take me places. I think that sounds quite lovely:)
Watch Jim Marshall here:
All photos are copyrighted and belong to the photographers:
Top: Ruth Von Morgen by Marianne Breslauer. Berlin 1934
Middle: Lisa Von Cramm by Marianne Breslauer. Berlin 1934
Bottom: June Carter and Johnny Cash by Jim Marshall
Video: Sean Dana

Looking For An Icon

What was supposed to be a 40 minute train ride turned into a 2 hours trip. Not the fun extended, unexpected “go for coffee with a friend but end up with different friends on a beach you never knew existed” kind of trip, but the “leave home on your bicycle to catch the train, but get caught in a thunderstorm only to find out there is no train so you wait for the bus, miss the connecting train in the next city, wait some more in your soaking wet clothes, everyone talks too loud, walks in front of you and generally every flipping part in this city is ticking you off” kind. That kind.

  All I wanted to do is pay a visit to the Dutch Doc Days, a new three-day festival celebrating Dutch documentary photography. I had checked the program beforehand and wanted to attend a debate, catch a movie and see the exhibition. I only saw half the exhibition and never quite made it to the debate but did see the movie (documentary, I should say) which was the thing I really wanted to see anyway.

I enjoyed the documentary even if I was slightly disappointed after I learned they were screening a 4-year-old documentary but in all fairness, that has nothing to with the contents of it. Anyhow, Hans Pool and Maik Krijgsman documentary Looking For An Icon was made in celebration of World Press Photo 50th anniversary. The idea was to find out was goes into the making of an iconic photograph as well as why does one photograph become part of our collective visual memory while another doesn’t. They interviewed photographers several photographers (Eddie Adams, Charlie Cole, David Turnley and OlivieroToscani), editors, publishers and historians. Oliviero Toscani was highly entertaining with his razorsharp insight that everything is for sale somehow be it religion, news or art.

                         Authority that exerts power has to create an icon

He also chatted about a photo shoot he did years ago while with his then girlfriend. She was a model at the time and was wearing a white bridal gown. They had been working all day and were quite chuffed with the way it had been going. The assistant suggested at some point he’d take a picture of Oliviero and his girlfriend. Oliviero was wearing jeans and a shirt, she was still in the white dress as they stood side by side. They were married from that moment on. No one believed it wasn’t a wedding photo and to this day, his mother keeps that picture in a frame as proof of their union. The couple did eventually get married but according to the world they already were and people weren’t all that interested. “We believe the image, not the truth.” 

What was fascinating was seeing the frames before and after the iconic image, and hearing the photographers talk about what went in to making that photo. Charlie Cole was running out of film as the resistance at Tiananmen Square went on longer than expected, and his famous image was on frame 34 or 35 on his last roll of film. He became quite emotional when he talked about the man standing in front of the tanks and explained how he felt obligated to show the world this image as it was proof of the guy’s heroic act, one that he probably lost his life over, “they didn’t run him over them, but I am sure they did later on”.


One of the connoisseurs explained how we in the west are raised in biblical, Greek and Roman traditions where the individual can make a difference; David vs Goliath, George slaying the dragon and men fighting the gods. The image of Tiananmen Square find resonance in that tradition. This may not be the case in f.e. Asian cultures where the collective is more important than the individual. An image, therefore, may become iconic in one culture, but not in another as it doesn’t refer to the same collective stories, myths or traditions.

The documentary does not really answer the question what makes an image iconic or what is iconic to begin with. What it did explain is that iconic photographs often lack context; time and space are slightly kept out of the image as that way it provides more room for the viewer to fill in part of the story or to project one’s own emotions onto the image. And that they often side with those who have lost; lives lost, friends lost, innocence lost. Even if we tend to believe in the good of mankind we are generally lazy. Iconic images show us that “the other person” has stepped up or suffered on our behalf. The image requires nothing of us anymore as it is the end already. We can view the image, feel the pull on our heartstrings as it connects to our personal emotional history, feel a sense of right and wrong rising within us while we have our morning coffee and get ready for work. We don’t have to act anymore, someone did the job for us already.

We bought some drinks and enjoyed our beer or rosé in my friend’s beautiful garden while the sun was slowly setting behind the trees. The images still linger in my mind’s eye and stories are still ringing in my ears. Photojournalists are often criticized for glamorizing war or being sensationalist. Sure, out of all the people you can find some are, most aren’t. I think most work from a place of compassion and even if an image hardly ever really changes the world, they do contribute to our understanding of a situation and remind us of our humanity.

Tim Hetherington, Chris Hondros, Anton Hammerl recently lost their lives wanting to do that. That can not possibly have been in vain.

Fox Hill Lane

Seeing how CultureBox blogged about me, I figured I’d blog about someone else in return. And blogging about one of the most talented and quite possibly one of the nicest people in the South African music industry seems like a good idea.

 I first ‘met’ Guy Buttery when the Greenhairmermaid took me to one of Guy’s shows at Monkey Valley in Noordhoek, some time in 2010. I had heard of Guy Buttery but had never heard any of his music. Needless to say, I am glad I went. Guy creates a musical landscape, occasionally looping his music as he plays, with just one guitar to mesmerizing effects. His version of Joanna Newsome’s ‘The Book of Right On’ is seriously awesome. Anyway, I’m crap at describing music so I’ll take a quote from the Mail & Guardian instead:

“… his music has a subtle grace and power all of its own. Though his technical prowess is also bewildering, Buttery immerses himself entirely into the soul of his guitar, coaxing sonic shapes and forms of such startling originality from it that his instrument acts as a kind of lightning conductor for the sound of another realm.”

Impressed with his music, I wrote him pretty soon after the gig asking if he’d be willing to take part in my project ‘Swimming Upstream’. He said yes:)

Originally from the Durban area, Guy made his way to Cape Town in 2009. Having studied jazz and classical guitar at the University of Kwazulu Natal as well as under Nibs van der Spuy, Guy soon found himself opening for Nibs in front of crowds up to 2,000 people. And at only 18 year of age, he was the youngest ever SAMA nominee for his debut album “When I grow Up”.

 We met up a while later at his house. I had asked him about places in or around Cape Town that he finds beautiful and inspiring, and he chose Klein Plaas Dam as the backdrop for our shoot. We made our way up Red Hill in his car; packed with a guitar, camera, some clothes and snacks. In case you’ve never been to Klein Plaas Dam, it’s a very quiet and peaceful reservoir surrounded by these bleached white alien-shaped rocks. The sun was out and I struggled quite a bit with the harsh light reflecting off the rocks but managed by moving into the shade for a while.

When asked what the biggest challenge has been so far, Guy replied:

“The music industry itself. South Africa doesn’t have a very big infrastructure; there are not a lot of venues, promoters or publicists. The shortage of all this has been a challenge. You have to get your name out there. And my music is quite “niche” so that has made it even more difficult.”

Releasing his second album ‘Songs from the Cane Field’  in 2005, it was his album ‘Fox Hill Lane’ that eventually won him A SAMA award last year for best instrumental album. Quite recently his Joanna Newsome cover was included on a covers album called ‘Versions of Joanna’ which was released on Drag City. Guy will be touring with Dan Patlansky later this year (June).It seems to me that guy has made “niche” work for his quite successfully.


It’s time to head home and we make our way down hill in the late afternoon sun. The light has gone from harsh to a soft warm glow. While we stop to take some last photos and Guy plays the guitar, I can’t help thinking I’ve got the best job in the world. Seriously, eh.. to be in splendid company, be outdoors and listen to beautiful music all day long while doing exactly what you love. How cool is that? All I’m thinking is why stop at “all day long”… I think I’ll continue for a while to come yet, at least until I grow up:)

If you like Guy Buttery you may want to check out Cabins in the Forest (even if they don’t exist anymore their album is still ou there), Gary Thomas or Andrew James.

You can find more on Guy Buttery right here: www.guybuttery.co.za

The Fire That Never Happened

The last week of February is turning out to be a week of photography, uhm, decisions.  Artists Wanted announced the winners of their Year in Review competition this week. The big prize goes to artist duo Jennifer Catron and Paul Outlaw. Congratulations to them! They will be announcing about another dozen prizes later this week but I’m not holding my breath. If I remember correctly, Foto Festival Naarden will also be announcing the nominees. I am so keen to learn if I’ve been nominated… Fingers crossed y’all:)

The big thing for me though this week, was being able to show my portfolio to the picture editor of ELLE Magazine. I was very excited about it and quite nervous as well. The fact that the trains weren’t running on time at all didn’t help matters much. There had been a fire alarm earlier that morning for a fire that never happened. It sounds almost romantic, “the fire that never happened”.

Somehow, I managed to make it to Amsterdam 45 minutes early but that was cool. That way I could just walk through the city, get to where I had to be, get a coffee and relax in the winter sun.  After having been seriously and embarrassingly late for my first Swimming Upstream interview with photographer  Neil John Smith last year, I am determined to arrive to the scene early so I can wait for a bit and pitch up on time. And yes, I reported to the reception desk perfectly on time:) I was met by the editor in the hall way and we made our way, coffee in hand, to a little room just next to the staff room where we just chatted about the magazine and my photography. She asked me a bunch of questions, like what do I like to photograph etc.

And naturally, we went through my portfolio. I always feel a little awkward doing that, and probably either talk too much or too little. There was positive and negative criticism but it was always constructive and interesting. The photos of Strato and Hendrik Vermeulen that were taken for Swimming Upstream were clear favorites, together with a portrait of SA writer Catriona Ross and the father/daughter duo on the couch that I took in Muizies two years ago.

Another thing that was very interesting  was going through the new issue while looking at the photography specifically. There is a whole item about Dutch fashion photographers and ai, I need to brush up on my knowledge that’s for sure!

I can easily tell you all about Robert Capa and Robert Frank or about Stieglitz, Steichen, Avedon and Weston. Or about Anton Corbijn, Niels van Iperen, Stephan van Fleteren, Charles Peterson, Roger Ballen or Liam Lynch and Deborah Rossouw for that matter.  I can go on and on about what it is that  those photographers do that I admire and how they inspire me. Yet, I can hardly tell you anything about Dutch fashion photography. Sure, we’re good with light. And yes, naturally, there’s world-renowned and iconic photographer’s duo Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin… I know about  Wendelien Daan, Viviane Sassen and Paul Bellaart but that’s about it. I’m sure I can come up with some more if I think about it, but ja,  I sure need to catch up on my knowledge of Dutch fashion photography. Fast.

The meeting ended after about 40 minutes or so and will be continued, I’ve been told:)

Oh and I like the video for new Dutch band Happy Camper. Happy Camper is more of a project than a band, I think. Musician Job Roggeveen asked 11 Dutch singers to come into the studio and sing his songs. The video they made for Born With A Bothered Mind is quite cute I thought.

Clockwork Zoo

Clockwork Zoo’s creative writing team: Sam Wilson, Twanji Kalula and Lauren Beukes.