I go straight in very close to people and I do that because it's the only way you can get the picture. You go right up to them. Even now, I don't find it easy. I don't announce it. I pretend to be focusing elsewhere. If you take someone's photograph it is very difficult not to look at them just after. But it's the one thing that gives the game away. I don't try and hide what I'm doing - that would be folly.
If you photograph for a long time, you get to understand such things as body language. I often do not look at people I photograph, especially afterwards. Also when I want a photo, I become somewhat fearless, and this helps a lot. There will always be someone who objects to being photographed, and when this happens you move on.
I am only photographing what is obvious, and part of my way of working is to tap into people’s prejudices, and depict all aspects of things happening in today’s society. I give people an opportunity to air their prejudices, and if they want to say the working class is scruffy and dirty, then the pictures exist to illustrate that thesis.
..I’m creating entertainment, which has a serious message if you want to read into it but I don’t expect to change anyone’s mind — I’m just showing them what they think they may know already. I’m in the entertaining business! The great strength of photography is that it’s high and low culture at the same time. So you can have a picture on the wall of a very fine museum like the Tate or Museum of Modern Art, but you can also have it printed very cheaply in a zine and hand it out for free. The fact that photography goes across all these genres is one of its wonderful strengths!
I went for an interview at colleges in Manchester and Derby and I was enormously impressed by people doing these creative photography courses. I was impressed by people smoking in the darkroom—the idea of having your own darkroom and being able to smoke in it, I just thought was absolutely fantastic.
I think the mindset you require is stamina, discipline, and just sheer hard work. There are basically very few shortcuts. You’ve either got that ability to apply yourself to a given situation or a given idea and explore it and resolve it, or you haven’t. Most people are just lazy. The danger with photography is that it looks very easy but in fact, it’s a very difficult medium to really excel well in because basically, people don’t work hard enough – they’re lazy. Don’t be lazy!
I like making books, it’s ultimately [...] the most satisfactory way of getting a body of work out because it’s contained, it has a narrative, it has a beginning and [an end] and it’s a physical thing so, even though we are in the day of the internet, the book still really sings out as being the ultimate statement for a photographer. [...] It’s a very good way of seeing how good your pictures are; do they actually hold up and keep someone’s attention for the 50-100 pictures that you need to constitute a book? I would suggest we all make books to see and really appraise how good or bad we are.
I like the idea of making the final selection of the images from prints rather than on the screen because if there are two or three shots of the same subject, I can put them all together to determine which one works best. And also, I think it’s much more unforgiving to see [a photograph] as a print rather than on a screen because you can really see how good or bad a picture is.
I looked around at what my colleagues were doing, and asked myself, 'What relationship has it with what's going on?' I found there was a great distortion of contemporary life. Photographers were interested only in certain things. A visually interesting place, people who were either very rich or very poor, and nostalgia.
Photography’s central role is to be the absolute medium of the day. It is fantastic that there is no longer any technical intimidation. When I first started learning how to take photographs, you had to spend the first six months figuring out what an f-stop was. Now you just go and take pictures. Nobody thinks about technical issues anymore because cameras or camera phones take care of that automatically. On the other hand, you still have the option of controlling every technical aspect. It’s the most accessible, democratic medium available in the world. This has to be celebrated, and we must continually remind photographers of this.
My approach is to criticize the conditions in the First World, what we are doing with mass tourism, the greenhouse effect, the lack of sustainability in our way of life, and so on. Those are my issues, but I package them in an entertaining way. Because if serious issues are only presented seriously, they achieve nothing, because no one wants to know about it.
All types of photography are important. For me, vernacular photography is essential as it provides a record of a moment, of important events in peoples’ lives, whereas many documentary or artistic photos are produced for a specific purpose. There is an urgency in vernacular photography that you don’t necessarily feel in professional photography.
I’ve been photographing for fifty years and I’m as excited now about what I can go and photograph as I have been all through my career. So the sense of fulfilment of going out and photographing, it can never be underestimated. I get cabin fever if I haven’t been shooting for a few days, so I just want to get out there and start photographing because that’s really when you’re free to be yourself.