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Stuart Freedman: ‘A good photo isn’t usually an accident’

In conversation with our SideStory photography Insider

SideStory Insiders are busy people – being an expert in your chosen field usually means you’re in high demand. So it’s always a pleasure to catch up with them for chat, and a perk of the job to be able to snatch creative hints and tips. This week we sat down with SideStory’s Stuart Freedman, an award-winning photo journalist of some renown, to talk about some of his work and one of the most talked-about London photography exhibitions in some time.

If you’re interested in finding out more about Stuart, his SideStory Experience is called East End Revival, more of which you can read about here, and his latest book, The Palaces of Memory, is out now, published by Dewi Lewis.

India - New Delhi - Men sit and talk in the Indian Coffee House

Elsewhere on the SideStory Journal, we’ve been talking about the upcoming Barbican exhibition, Strange & Familiar, curated by Martin Parr. First of all, I wonder what your thoughts are on the curator himself. He’s known as ‘iconic’. What qualities in his work do you think mark him down as ‘iconic’?

Parr is certainly prolific and is seen as the great contemporary documenter of Britain. I do have some issues with his work – I think some of it can come across sometimes as rather cruel – but there’s no denying his significance. I’m actually a fan of his early ‘bad weather’ work which is worth searching out.

Of the photographers he has curated into this exhibition, which do you particularly admire, and why?

I’ve always admired Robert Frank for the singularity and individuality of his vision. The Stefan Lorant work from ’50s London is always a joy to see, in as much as it holds a mirror to what seems a completely different country that is now London. It will be interesting to see Tina Barney’s set, if for no other reason than to look at uncomfortable pictures about how the other half (AKA the 1%) live – a complete contrast to the deeply personal travels of Shinro Ohtake. There’s also Cartier-Bresson and his opposite, Winograd, who re-defined street photography.

Are there any particular photos you’d expect to see in an exhibition of this nature?

I’d really like to see Market Luskačová’s work on Brick Lane. It’s charming and rarely seen these days.

India - Chertala - Customers in the Indian Coffee House

You’ve spent much of your career taking photos across the globe, and I know you have a particular connection with India. When you’re documenting life and events abroad, are you aware of your ‘outsiderness’?

Absolutely, and I’m deeply suspicious of any journalist that says they ‘know’ anywhere that isn’t home. That said, I’ve always tried to be honest with what I’ve reported on, and I’ve attempted to see things with open eyes. I think that viewing ‘otherness’ is, in some sense, inevitable. However, I’m always surprised how much similarity I find around the world.

Do you think the very fact that you’re not from that country offers you any extra insight?

Yes I think so, but it takes time to see past the usual tropes and inevitable stereotypes. Once you start digging you find the most unexpected things. That however does take time. In a very real sense, a journalist is and always will be – by definition – an outsider. That in itself is not a problem in fact that goes to the heart of reportage – the ‘this is what I saw’ moment – the point is to go deeper and find out why.

Drunken riot protestor, Stuart Freedman

Having taken your SideStory Experience, I know you’re very much of the mind that you should look at the scene before you snap – that you should have an idea of the image that you want to take before you take it. Is that always possible? An image such as this one (which is simply astounding, by the way) must have a certain amount of serendipity about it. How do prepare for something like that?

Well to be clear, I think that I was trying to explain that when working on a story it helps to have some idea of what you might expect and find – although we have to leave room for serendipity. I think I was trying to make the point that photography is more about looking than photographing. If we look at what’s in front of us we have the opportunity to compose – to arrange life in a ‘readable’ way rather than just pressing the shutter and hoping for the best. A good photograph isn’t usually an accident, and I try and get people to examine and anticipate what may happen.

Cartier Bresson often waited like a big game hunter (he had been one in the ’30s) around a scene that had interesting shapes, and then waited for a figure to walk into it. His Hyères, France (1932) is a case in point. It isn’t always possible – or desirable – to work like that, but it can be a starting point. The essence is to look; to be alive to the myriad visual possibilities that confront us constantly and that we usually ignore.

‘The essence is to look; to be alive to the myriad visual possibilities
that confront us constantly and that we usually ignore’

The riot picture was taken on assignment for Newsweek during the anti-G8 protests in Prague. I had just taken off a gas mask (the protesters had just been tear-gassed) and withdrew from the melee up a side street. I knew I had some ‘safe’ images, but then saw a column of police preparing to charge with a (drunken) protester trying to be invisible. I could see what was going to happen and shot three frames on a long lens capturing the (somewhat humorous) moment.

India - Kollam - Sangaran, a waiter who has worked at the coffee shop for 17 years. The Indian Coffee House

Going back to the Strange & Familiar exhibition – having lived a lot outside the UK, do you think travel in general has allowed you to experience your own country in a different way? Do you think it has affected your own style, and what you choose to shoot?

I think that it has. It was always a decision to work away from England, both in the sense that I was particularly interested in the Developing World’ (both Asia and Africa) and I felt somewhat stifled in the UK. I haven’t photographed here much in 20 years, but travel has certainly made me aware of the subtleties that Britain has to offer.

Do you have images that you’ve shot in this country that you’re particularly proud of?

I made a reportage for the German magazine Der Spiegel in the mid ’90s about Kirkby on Merseyside, which – looking back on now – still has warmth and affection. It reminded me very much of where I grew up in London. I still think that resonates with me. The images are strong and human.

Book now to take a SideStory Experience with Stuart, focusing your camera skills against the background of London’s east end revival.

Photo credits. (1) Men sit and talk in the Indian Coffee House, Baba Kharak Singh Marg, New Delhi. The Palaces of Memory (2015) ©Stuart Freedman (2) Customers in the Indian Coffee House, Chertala, Kerala. The Palaces of Memory (2015) ©Stuart Freedman (3) A drunken protester attempts to hide in a doorway as riot police charge during the protests surrounding the World Bank. ©Stuart Freedman (4) Sangaran, a waiter who has worked at the coffee shop for 17 years. The Indian Coffee House, Kollam, Kerala. The Palaces of Memory (2015) ©Stuart Freedman