“If you go out with the intent of finding something, you give yourself tunnel vision and fail to see the larger world around you. 99% of the time that I do find something that is of interest to me, the moment is already playing itself out; the play has already begun.”
Marc Fairhurst (born in 1975) is a documentary and street photographer from England currently based in London. He’s got a degree in Animation.
“Shooting primarily with film, it is my aim to document as much of London life as possible, as seen from the perspective of the streets.”
Interview with Marc Fairhurst
Marc, why did you become a photographer? And why street photography?
After finishing my degree in animation, I was offered a place to do an MA in writing, but couldn’t afford it. My writing dried up and I was becoming frustrated and restless and needed to create, so I started looking at cameras in a catalogue. I’d always looked at the tourists in London with their big Nikon’s and thought, ‘I’d like one of those. I bet I could take a pretty decent shot if I had one.’
So I used my wages and got a Nikon D7000. I tried everything to start with, taking the usual tourist shots of the city, but the more I looked to other people’s work online, my focus shifted to documentary photography and photojournalism. For about a year I chased activists around London and tried to shoot stories, but I got no sense of satisfaction in what I was producing, so I turned to the streets instead.
Basically, I went for a long walk and started all over again. In that year, I taught myself as much as possible. In October 2011 I didn’t even know what ISO was and had to Google aperture.
What does photography mean to you and what do you want to say with your pictures? Or what it is at all that a photograph can transmit in your eyes?
I like that photography allows me to see what other people find so alluring and attractive. I always ask myself when I look to others, ‘Why did you take this shot?’ I try to figure people out I guess. At the moment I’m not trying to say anything with my images; I’m not trying to tell a story or change perspectives, I’m just shooting what attracts and allures me too. I’m still in training as it were; still finding my feet and way, and I think I’m heading in the right direction. I’m going through a bit of a transitional period at the moment, and it feels good.
What was your most memorable moment shooting pictures out on the streets?
I don’t really have any as yet. I don’t have the nice story to tell about some lovely moment whilst out shooting.
You started out shooting digital and now turned to film photography. What caused that move and how has it changed your approach to photography?
When I first started out, I was photographing protests and activists in and around London. Being trigger-happy with a big dslr isn’t frowned upon when you’re doing that kind of photography, so my camera was always set to its highest frame rate. However, I’d be getting home most evenings with well over 1000 images and it became such a time-consuming process to go through them all, hunting for the perfectly caught moment. It also became a drain on my relationship with my girlfriend; I’d spend hours out taking these shots then a few hours more in the evening to get them out to agencies as fast as I could.
“Each time I pressed that shutter button, it was costing me 30p. I couldn’t be so trigger-happy any more. The shot had to be worth it in my mind.”
I’d be done around 9pm of everything and neglected everything else. I needed a break from it all and from photography, as it was consuming all my time and thoughts. When I eventually returned to it, I knew I needed to slow the whole process down. Film photography allowed me to do that. I also no longer wanted to chase people around London.
I made a few sales to papers, but I’d grown tired of it and wasn’t happy with my work. Switching to film meant I had to think about what I was going to take a photograph of. Each time I pressed that shutter button, it was costing me 30p. I couldn’t be so trigger-happy any more. The shot had to be worth it in my mind.
Also, when I get home now from being out for a few hours, I have no choice but to put the camera on the shelf. I can’t see what I’ve shot. I can’t go through them for an hour in Lightroom. The photographic process stops. Also, I can distance myself from the scene, from the shots, and forget them.
I believe I look a little closer at a scene now before taking a shot; sometimes I let the moment linger and I find myself also lingering in a place for longer – maybe it will offer me something more than what I had originally seen.
Which photographer has inspired you most?
Fred Herzog and Stephen Shore are having a big influence on me right now.
How do you handle uncomfortable situations while shooting street photography? People, for example, not wanting to have their picture taken or not understanding the concept of street photography.
It doesn’t really happen. Most of the people I photograph aren’t aware that they’re being photographed, and if some do see me, I always look up at the building behind them and pretend I’m a tourist or give them a big smile.
What’s your strategy when you walk up close to people. Do you interact with them or take the shot and move on?
I don’t really have a strategy. My eyes are constantly shifting around, scanning people, scanning their attire or what they’re doing; how the light is, what colours are present; I’m also looking ahead, to the distance, seeing who is approaching – my camera is nearly always set and ready by the time someone is in about a 3-foot range of my lens. I don’t interact. Some people do, but I don’t.
How would you describe your photographic language and creative process?
I don’t think that I have a photographic language as of yet. I’m not trying to convey any kind of social message with my images, yet, as I’m still developing and finding my way. Maybe in another year I will have landed on something that fits.
Every photographer is going through different stages in his formation. Which “landmarks” do you recall that have marked you and brought you to the place where you are today as a photographer?
My switch to film. That’s the biggest landmark for me. I feel film has made me a more observant photographer, rather than the ‘shoot anything and hope for the best’ kind of photographer. It’s strange, because I upload to a popular street photography website and they kind of determine if your shots are classed as street photography or not. If not, they go into an image pool, and every shot I have on their that was taken with film has been regarded as ‘not street’. And everything from my digital days was labeled street and some got featured etc and as “Photo of The Day”. Strange. And I thought I was getting better. (laughs) But film has changed everything, and for the better.
What do you consider to be the axis of your work – technically (color treatment, framing, lens use, etc.) and conceptually?
Shooting film, and I shoot only colour. It’s just my personal love and preference, and only Kodak. I use a little point and shoot film camera, an Olympus XA, which I use mostly on my commute to and from work, and my main camera is a recent purchase – a Nikon F3, which I have just run about 15 rolls of film through that are out for processing. I’m really excited to see what comes back to me and scanning the negatives. That’s aso the beauty of film, the wait and anticipation of what you shot – will I get what I wanted, did it all work out for me that day.
“It’s like adding Cola to Jack Daniels; why destroy something beautiful that has gone through such a meticulous process to get to you?”
I also don’t touch the photographs as much as I did when I shot digitally. When I have scanned my negatives and put them through Lightroom, I make very minor adjustments, pull back a little exposure if need be and maybe a crop, but rarely. I like that and I’m not willing to go through the process of shooting film, only to change the hell out of my frames in post.
It’s like adding Cola to Jack Daniels; why destroy something beautiful that has gone through such a meticulous process to get to you?
What qualities and characteristics does a good street photographer need?
I’m not sure really. To be patient and not be so keen to get as many shots as possible. To see what’s happening or what may potentially happen. Patience, and to be ready to talk to someone who doesn’t want their photograph taken. You’re taking something from them, you’re grabbing life and they’re giving it to you – I think it would be wise to be as polite as possible; to have respect for the people you are photographing. In a sense, we are stealing moments. The least we can offer is a wink or a smile if needed.
Street photography is very much about seizing the moment. Things usually happen unexpectedly. How do you train your eyes to “know” when a special moment is about to come?
I guess you just have to be really observant, all the time. Certainly for me, I assess everything and everyone constantly along with so many other things, like light and colour etc. I can’t help that. When I’m on the tube to and from work and I can see nothing is going on, I’ll close my eyes and sleep. But my little camera is always in my hand. Always.
I think if you go out with the intent of finding something, you give yourself tunnel vision and fail to see the larger world around you. 99% of the time that I do find something that is of interest to me, the moment is already playing itself out; the play has already begun. I just have to get to my seat as quickly as possible. But I have to say that I’m not after special moments, I’m not really interested in the humorous street photograph or the juxtaposition photograph any more.
In fact, I find it hard to see that kind of work now. My focus has shifted in recent weeks. What and whom I want to photograph has changed. I’m not after that ‘Decisive Moment’. I’m not after juxtapositions and a world ink-black in shadow etc. I’m after something more now, and I’ve stocked up on a truck-load of film in my pursuit of it.
What does a photo need to be a great street shot?
I think if a photograph makes you wonder as to what might be going on, or what may have just happened, then the photographer has done a pretty decent job. If a photograph haunts you, as some recently have me, then it works. But you know, what’s great to one, may not be to another.
Where do you draw inspiration from for your photographic projects?
Well, I don’t have any projects but I get a lot of inspiration from the books I have. I regard myself in training at the moment and I’ve got so many books now from those great photographers of the past. I study them. I consider myself finally on a Master’s course haha. I love it. And I love them.
What’s the biggest challenge shooting on the streets?
Right now, my biggest challenge on the street is light. The lack of it. Coming back home from work is fine as it’s the morning and I know people in London are just heading into work. They’re in a hurry, they may be moody or angry and mixed into their pot are tourists getting in the way and all kinds of people. Anything may happen and a scene may present itself to me that I like the look of.
“Is this scene before me worth a frame? I still waste a lot of frames on rubbish.”
Going to work though is different. I head out around 9:30pm and get into work at 10:30pm. During that time the only good light I have is in Victoria Train station and down on the tube. But they’re my own little challenges I have with myself. When actually on the street, a challenge is deciding if a shot is worth it or not; is this scene before me worth a frame? I still waste a lot of frames on rubbish.
Talking about gear. What is in your bag when you go out shooting?
I have a Nikon F3, (a current purchase), 35mm f/2 lens, and for when I go to work or to the shop, I use an Olympus XA, again 35mm lens f/2.8. If I leave the house, that Olympus is glued to my hand. I also take a couple of rolls out with me when going to work.
I was on the train last week, tried to wind on and realized the roll had finished and I hadn’t taken extra rolls with me. I felt useless and without a cause. I have an array of different types of Kodak film as I’m still trying to find the one that best suits my own personal vision. I have a lot of 35mm film to get through now, winter stock and also some Kodak medium format film, as I plan to do some medium format photography during 2014.
What’s your favorite website about street photography?
I don’t have a favourite, but ‘American Suburb X’ is a great site to just look at great images without all the waffle. I’m on Flickr mostly of all the places I can be and follow quite a number of street photographers. I like to see what everyone is doing, what the trend is to photograph for everyone.
Then I say to myself, ‘Don’t photograph anything similar to what they’re all photographing.’ Of the people I follow and admire, it’s easy to pick out their work from the crowd, but sometimes when I scan the work of everyone on Flickr, I find it hard to make any distinction between one photographer to another. It’s then that I tell myself to stay clear of that kind of work.
What photography book would you recommend?
“Fred Herzog: Photographs”. It all just seems so honest and real to me, and so effortless. Sidewalk, Magnum Contact Sheets, Helen Levitt, Robert Doisneau-Paris, too many to name that I currently have and learning from, but the book I have wanted for a very long time is, ‘Subway’ by Bruce Davidson. It’s on my next Birthday wish-list.
Which advice would you give someone who wants to get going with street photography?
Buy a small pocket-sized camera and never leave home without it. Don’t expect others to like your work, so shoot for yourself and enjoy the process and don’t be discouraged if after taking many photographs, you find only one that you regard as being worthy. 80% of the shit I shoot is just that, shit.
Read the ‘rules’ of street photography. They’re out there on-line and there are plenty of people out there with lists informing you what street photography is; the do’s and don’ts. Read them, and then ignore them completely.
There are too many opinions out there on the internet as to what is, and what street photography isn’t. Don’t let it weigh you down, this isn’t university, this is life. You probably have too many do’s and don’ts at work. You don’t need that shit when you get to the street.
Last but not least, let’s switch roles: Which question would you have liked to be asked in this interview about your work that I didn’t ask? Please feel free to add it – as well as the answer.
Q: What’s your favourite thing right now?
A: Haribo candy sweets and M83 in my ears.