Our well-connected friends at SideStory – the collective of creative movers and shakers in London who arrange personal tours and unique experiences – recently chatted with Stuart Freedman, the award-winning photojournalist. They let us eavesdrop as they spoke about travel, photography and, more specifically, about Freedman’s journeys through India, as captured in his recent book The Palaces of Memory.
If you’d like to meet Freedman in person and pick his brain for even more photography tips, check out his SideStory experience East End Revival.
SideStory: 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’?
Stuart Freedman: 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.
Based on your SideStory excursion, it’s clear that you’re 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 the one above must have a certain amount of serendipity about it. How do you 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 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.
Having lived quite a bit outside of 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 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 the UK 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.
Photo credits:(1) 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 (2) Customers in the Indian Coffee House, Chertala, Kerala. The Palaces of Memory (2015) ©Stuart Freedman (3) Men sit and talk in the Indian Coffee House, Baba Kharak Singh Marg, New Delhi. The Palaces of Memory (2015) ©Stuart Freedman (4) A drunken protester attempts to hide in a doorway as riot police charge during the protests surrounding the World Bank. ©Stuart Freedman