An interview with Adam Ferguson
Adam Ferguson is an independent Australian photographer and QCA graduate (the same school I’m currently doing my masters at) who does a range of work including photojournalism and social documentary for high profile clients including Time Magazine, National Geographic Magazine, The New York Times, Human Rights Watch and The Financial Times Magazine. Among his published photographs, seven have graced the cover of Time, and one the cover of the British Journal of Photography. Among his slew of awards are multiple Pictures of the Year International awards including two first places (2010 and 2011) and a first placing in the World Press Photo Spot News category (2010).
Adam took some time from his hectic schedule to sit down to a Skype interview using the wifi from a busy New York café. What follows is a transcript of the bulk of our conversation.
***Please note that due to the effects of WordPress’ resizing, images appear soft, please click on the images to enjoy sharp versions from Adam Ferguson’s website***
AY: What was the path you followed from graduating from university to the point where you had a fairly stable career?
AF: I’m not sure that there’s any such thing as a stable career as a photographer, but how I built a platform to work from was I started producing personal work. I think it’s really important to not just be a working photojournalist. I think in this day and age it’s important to invest in work on stories and projects that you’re interested in, and from that you can generate work. And I think that more and more, photo editors, institutions and non-government organisations get behind stuff that is already in motion.
To start with, I became an intern. So when I interned with VII photo agency in Paris, that gave me a really good professional insight. Coming from Australia, which is very removed from the international media world, I was pretty clueless. I had graduated with a pretty good sensibility for documentary photography, but I had no idea about the world of working photojournalists. The only career path in Australia is either working for a newspaper or existing in the fine art world, both of which are pretty fickle when you’re starting out.
Doing the internship with VII gave me a really healthy range of contacts at magazines and newspapers in the States and in Europe. It also afforded me the opportunity to develop relationships with established photographers, which was fundamental, I think, ‘cause I learnt things about photography and working in foreign places and covering war – stuff that you just don’t get from a university degree. And a bunch of photographers at VII kinda became my big brothers and mentors – Gary Knight, Christopher Morris, Antonin Kratochvil, Franco Pagetti – so it was really good exposure.
And then from there I moved to India, which seemed like a good place to go and base, because there was a lot of work there, I was interested in the stories, it just epitomised everything that is relevant about, you know, this era in human evolution. It’s got a booming economy, it’s got poverty, there’s a war at every border, so I just moved there and started to freelance. I just landed there and approached every media organisation that had an office there, because New Delhi is the hub of Asia – every news agency had a correspondent there, every NGO had an office there. Most of my assignments that I started getting were not that interesting, but I kept working on my own stuff, and I used that work that I self-funded to show magazines what I was up to, and over the course of a couple of years I’d built a client base.
I very much had my sights set on Afghanistan, which was very close to India, so after a couple of years building up a client base, I self-funded my first trip to Kabul, and I just started photographing, and I picked up a little bit of work with some of the people I was already working for. I guess I’d hit a point where I had developed my visual literacy. I mean, I wasn’t making great photographs, but I had a bit of a sense of what I was doing and what I wanted to say and it just kinda snowballed until the next thing I was covering war in Afghanistan and I was getting significant publications behind me to support the work. And that comes back to my first point that people are not just gonna call you up and send you places but ultimately you really wanna be covering things that you’re interested in and you wanna build the work around what you wanna be photographing. That’s the way I want my career to be anyway. There’s obviously photojournalists that have a staff job with a newspaper or organisation and they cover whatever the hell they want, but I’ve always gone down the independent road and that’s the way I’m interested in having my career, at least.
AY: How do you source projects to work on?
AF: I cover what I’m drawn to. I really wanted to cover the war in Afghanistan. It was the most significant war of my time apart from Iraq. I was a younger photographer, I wanted to follow in that tradition of covering conflicts, I wanted to say something about that war – I felt that I had something to say about it – so I just did it. And I did that with other stories.
There is a mix now. My career has grown to a point that I do get a lot of assignments – magazines ask you to go and photograph something that I wouldn’t normally photograph – but that’s quite interesting as well. Now it’s a mix of things that I work on in my own time, and then people sending me places to photograph.
AY: I read that you were planning on working on a project locally?
AF: Yeah, I’ve started working on a project on regional Australia. I don’t know what it is, to be honest, yet. I’m just kinda photographing, and I’m being quite deliberate about not knowing what it is. I’m trying to do something that isn’t a news story. It’s not a journalistic piece. You know, it’s social documentary – it’s just about me interacting with Australian culture and making pictures.
AY: You were based in Delhi and then Bangkok, so how important is the location you’re based at?
AF: I did four years in Delhi and four years in South-East Asia and I’ve recently left South-East Asia and I’m actually homeless right now, but I’m moving to New York in January.
I think when you’re building a career, it’s important, because a magazine isn’t going to call you up to fly to the other side of the world to cover an issue that you’ve never covered. When you’re starting out, it’s important to live somewhere close to what you wanna be photographing – to live it and breathe it and make work about it – and I don’t think you can do that remotely, you’ve gotta be in a place. I think moving to Delhi and growing a career there was the best thing I did as a young photographer. I think living in Sydney or Brisbane it’s very difficult to develop a career unless you’re gonna develop a career as an artist or as a newspaper photographer which is pretty dire in Australia these days. I think if you’re interested in working on international stories, go and live on a story. That’s what I did – I moved to India and lived in India and Afghanistan and Pakistan. I lived in the region for four years working on stories and building a reputation for being a guy in that part of the world and that was a good way to do it.
AY: You have photographed in some dangerous situations. How do you balance personal safety and actually creating the best possible images?
AF: I’m not sure how I balance that out, I mean, I’m not a cowboy, I don’t do things that are suicidal. I feel that all the risks that I take are quite calculated. Like all the work I did in Afghanistan I made a decision to go out on patrol with American marines or army and, you know, it’s unlikely that I would get shot or get injured in a bombing or something like that, but then I’ve had colleagues that that’s happened to, so in some ways I guess you have to be part crazy and have faith that it’s not gonna happen to you, but there’s no balance in that. When I do work like that I’m quite unbalanced. But with other stuff, say my work recently in Iraq, there’s parts of the country which are very dangerous. There’s times I’ve travelled with security, I won’t go to places if I think it’s too dangerous. You look at the situation, you take calculated risks, but there’s no balance to it. When I’m doing dangerous work I get pretty consumed by it. The hardest thing for me is having some balance with life outside of that.
AY: Seeing some of the tragic things you would see on the job, how does it affect the way you see things when you get home?
AF: It always takes a bit of time to transition. I’m not the kind of photographer that is just jumping from conflict to conflict, I tend to pick and choose my battles. I bite off as much as I think I can chew. Sometimes I bite off a lot more than I can chew and it takes a bit longer to digest it, but I’m not one of these guys that just goes jumping from one place to another covering non-stop war. I think I’d go mental if I did that.
AY: Have you ever faced the dilemma of whether to photograph or to actually help in a situation?
AF: Not really, and funnily enough it’s a question that people always ask. I think with every humanitarian crisis that I’ve covered there’s been people more qualified to help than me. Obviously if there was no one there to help, I would help, but say covering people wounded during the war in Afghanistan, there was always medics who were more qualified than me who were on the scene to help, there’s always been ambulances to help, there’s always been people from NGOs who were there providing assistance in some capacity, so I’ve never really been in a situation where it was just me and somebody that needed help, and if I was in that kind of situation I would help and not photograph.
That doesn’t mean you don’t sometimes feel like an arsehole for taking pictures. When people are in a really dire circumstance sometimes you photograph and it’s a hard thing to do. You’re pointing a camera at people who are having a really tough time and that can be uncomfortable. There’s times I’ve been asked not to photograph and I’ve continued to photograph, and I justify that to myself by saying that the work’s important and I’m the only person there witnessing it and I have risked my life to witness it and to document it and I’m gonna document. There’s been times I’ve photographed wounded soldiers where other soldiers have asked me not to photograph, but it’s a taxpayers’ war and the US government has signed off on my presence there and it’s not somebody’s prerogative to censor what I’m going to photograph or not, so I continue to photograph. And that’s been difficult at times, ‘cause you wanna respect people around you and sometimes you just have to assert your rights and do your job.
AY: On the technical side of things, how much processing do you do on your images before they’re sent off?
AF: A little bit, it depends on the work, to be honest. I tend to do more processing on portraiture than I do on reportage stuff, but I change the contrast and saturation, and maybe a bit of dodging and burning. I don’t do anything you couldn’t do in a darkroom, obviously, it’s kinda unethical to do that.
I work with a retoucher that does most of my retouching now, so I don’t even do it myself. So I have someone that I have a relationship, you know, bounce around a few tests, we have a bit of an understanding of how I like my pictures to look and someone else does it. I don’t have time to sit at a computer and do Photoshop work all day and actually don’t have that much interest in being a Photoshop whiz. I’ve tried to do that and I’m just not that good at it and I don’t wanna do it, I’d rather someone else do it and I’d rather concentrate on editing and on making the work.
AY: Thinking about the work you did on sand mining in India where people involved would not want their illegal activities reported, how do you keep a low profile in situations like that?
AF: As a white guy in India with a camera you kinda don’t keep a low profile. So I was just out there amongst it, and it was difficult sometimes because I couldn’t photograph for long because people didn’t really want me there to be photographing – like the sand mafia for example – and I would photograph until my presence was noticed and people were upset and I’d leave. You’re always trying to work it out, I mean, access is never perfect. You never really get on a photojournalism story where you turn up and everything’s happening and you’re allowed to photograph and you photograph all day and it’s all easy and then you go home. I think every story that I go on is a troubleshoot. The access sucks, what you have been sent to photograph isn’t happening that day, if it is happening somebody doesn’t want you to photograph it. Every story is a logistical nightmare and part of the job is actually being able to navigate that. Doing the pictures at the end of the day is really the easy bit. It’s everything that built up to that and getting yourself in a position to make those pictures is kinda challenging.
AY: Any parting advice?
AF: The first objective is to make work. Create work, let it be criticised, improve your skills, and work on a project. I’ve watched photographers – people who I grew up with – and they just taper off. They think that people are gonna call them and start giving them work and they get disillusioned with being a photographer because they don’t make enough money. The bottom line is if you keep making work, you will succeed, but you can’t sit around and think that this career is gonna grow itself. You have to work your ass off. There’s no time to rest. You’ve gotta take it very seriously and produce. You’ve just gotta work hard, and the most talented photographers aren’t always the ones that have long, successful careers, it’s the people that have conviction and that choose a project and work hard on that story, and then work hard on the next story. That’s what it’s all about.
To see more of Adam’s work, visit his website: http://www.adamfergusonphoto.com/