I want to be alone

“I want to be alone,” said the legendary actress Greta Garbo in the film, Grand Hotel.

Most documentary photographers want to be alone while they work. They don’t want the distraction of outside influences. Neither do they want interpreters, guides, minders or assistants altering the balance of the environment or disturbing the subject.

Jean Gaumy the Magnum photographer, who has been documenting Iran for many years, frequently complained that the government wouldn’t let him wander alone so that he could make pictures of people in their natural situations. Gaumy had to travel with a government minder who made the local people suspicious, nervous and uncooperative. This, in turn, made unplanned and un-posed photography extremely difficult.

While on assignment these days we are often expected to shoot in more than one medium. For instance, while on location I will often record audio, shoot some video and use the mobile phone to produce moving and still images for social media. All of this is a challenging amount of work for a photographer who is working alone and trying to produce exciting still images.

Photographer Alex Ferguson was once under fire in an Afghanistan battle where he shot pictures as the bullets flew around him. He had a recorder taped to his jacket, which picked up the sound of war, and men yelling as the attack continued. Ferguson certainly wasn’t alone and with the recording of the battle he managed to find a way of adding another dimension to the war experience when displaying his images.

With changes in the media and printing industry it is getting harder to sell your pictures or secure assignments without producing something extra to enhance your still images. The extra something usually means bringing along more equipment. When this happens I try to hire local people to assist, interpret and guide. They know the area and are usually not too conspicuous, making it easier for me to concentrate on my photography. Though I must say as a white Anglo Saxon middle-aged male, it’s very difficult in some parts of the world to be inconspicuous regardless of the personnel around you.

On a number of occasions, I’ve worked on location with documentary film crews. We have worked on the same story but with different objectives. They required constant action and I was looking for the decisive moment, which often meant we looked in different directions. This was successful on a number of levels; we could share our resources, and I could work more or less alone.

I’ve also worked alone shooting both film and stills for a United States TV network and an international magazine. I was in a location where I couldn’t take an assistant as I was photographing people who would not allow anyone other than myself entry to the building. This was a difficult situation which required a lot of juggling of priorities such as do I shoot film or stills! My answer was to put the video camera on a tripod, point it, set it up and turn it on. Then dash off and shoot stills from every position I could. I would return to the video camera, change the focal length or angle before slipping off to make more still images. It was tricky and exhausting but it worked. I not only pleased the magazine with my photographs, I also managed to get prime time T.V. coverage in America with my video footage.

Now, with the latest professional cameras producing high quality stills and video, it is a lot easier to work with one camera and switch from one medium to another. This has made it a lot more convenient for those documentary photographers I know who like to work alone with one body, one lens and a reliance on serendipity.

I have recently been on assignment photographing the changing environment in the Sarawak jungle. While working on the island of Borneo I was accompanied by cameraman Dave Callow who was making a video about documentary photography and the new Fujifilm 23mm f/2 lens; a lens which, incidentally, is a great addition to the ever-expanding range of Fujifilm lenses.

Normally on this type of assignment I would wander alone except for the occasional use of an interpreter or guide. Not this time though. Dave and I would head out along the Oya River, through the village of Dalat, in a long boat (Salui) with an entourage of Melanau people that expanded or shrank depending on which part of the village we were working in. Dave would be at the head of this conga line pointing his camera at every angle as we tested the lens while I worked on the assignment. In fact, every angle even included standing in front of me as I took photographs, though Dave was careful not to get inside my shooting range.

For several days we led the Melanau people a merry dance through the village with me in the front like the Pied Piper and Dave quietly circling and filming the scene. Then it rained, a heavy tropical rainstorm and everyone retreated, the villagers to their huts and Dave to a shelter with a long lens, leaving me once more to work alone.

Collaboration can be a wonderful thing; stimulating and beneficial. But, as a documentary photographer, I’m inclined to agree with Sebastiao Salgado who said, “…Humans are incredible, because when you come alone, they will receive you, they accept you, they protect you, they give you all things that you need, and they teach you all things you must know…I work alone…”