The original version of this interview with me was taken from Inspiration Point, a place for young people interested in the arts in the north-east of Scotland to find out more about the creative pathways available to them within their local area and beyond.
What is your connection with Aberdeen?
Aberdeen marks the city where I transformed from a school boy to a fledgling professional photographer. I studied zoology here and changed a lot as a person, and my worldview underwent a paradigm shift as I considered the deeper questions of life. That also made me consider the direction I was heading, and I began my first job for a press agency covering the north east.
How did you get into photography?
Since I was a small boy, photography has been my tool to process my curiosity about the world; it is a very intuitive thing. When I saw something of interest, whether it was beautiful or ugly, I would document it, and think about it later and share it with others to see what they thought. Years later, I travelled to Malawi for my dissertation to study blue monkeys and discovered I spent more time documenting the land and the people than I did carrying out my fieldwork. As I had to decide what to do next, I reasoned that I should be a photographer because that’s what comes most naturally to me. Journalism was the best training to learn how to think critically and communicate what I was seeing.
Can you describe a typical working month for you?
My diary looks very different on the first and last day of the month. The empty space fills up with weird and wonderful and unexpected events. I plan a few actual events to give structure and some sense of direction but generally the time is up for grabs. Every Monday I sit down at the start the week and refocus on the year or two ahead. Without the big vision, the details feel less significant, and I will drift aimlessly.
When did you feel confident telling people you were a photographer and why?
At university people said it to me. Other people can usually see you better than you can. I was incessantly documenting everything – nights out, nights in, the people who were around me.
What have been the high points of your career so far?
I won a World Press Award when I was 25. I was young; a junior photographer in Glasgow, learning my craft, and it was for a self-initiated story. I couldn’t believe it. My colleagues couldn’t either! It opened up doors of opportunity from nowhere. The best thing about it was the surprise factor; I had found great pleasure in the process of documenting the mass migration of bats in Zambia. The high of winning almost eclipsed that. When I look back I remember that the joy was in the process and not the award. The former made the latter possible.
What would you say have been the biggest challenges in doing what you do and what has helped you through?
The better I get, the bigger the challenges! To improve you need to push beyond comfort and experience and so I make bigger challenges for myself. Practically that means finding new ways to fund or produce the work. We are creatives but success or failure comes down to how we do the small things- including the mundane details of business. I find that the hardest discipline is trying to carve out time and space to create, while also keeping on top of the growing to do list. The challenge, I think, is to maintain your passion. Without that joy you lack energy, and produce your worst work.
How do you sustain your practice?
There are daily roadblocks, and generally they revolve around the necessary questions of finance or admin. If the roadblock is a looming deadline then the adrenaline kicks in to get through it, but the hardest roadblocks are sometimes best ignored for a few hours. When things are going well, you have momentum, and it’s like you are smashing them in a Sherman tank. But often it’s like the creative harr rolls in and you lose sight of what’s happening, and you feel cold and a bit depressed. Those days I force myself to get out, turn off the phone, avoid social media and see friends or go for a walk somewhere new. That’s usually when new ideas come. Fatigue is the worst culprit, as the grind of work wears you down. I can’t understate the value of a good night’s sleep or time off. Then you have the energy to tackle the problem.
Are there any resources that you’ve found particularly helpful?
Older people. They offer a perspective that our immediate peers cannot. We may think the world is so new and different, and that they are cynical old dinosaurs, but the most innovative artists I know are far older than me. They can read the trends, ignore the froth and bring a life of experience to new events. Reading biographies often helps to show us that.
What do you love most about what you do?
Being on the ground, with my cameras, actually making the work. To witness and document life as it unfolds before me.
What’s the best piece of advice you have been given so far?
‘Go to the toilet when possible.’ An Aberdeen Evening Express photographer shared this nugget when I first started. I call it pithy wisdom! It captures the importance of planning and taking opportunities when they present themselves. That way we won’t be distracted from the main task later on.
What advice would you give to someone thinking about getting into photography and to those just starting out?
Keep going! Your instinct is good. The arts are vital for a flourishing society. You might not get paid as much as other jobs, but you can make a decent living, and it’s hugely important. People with big houses can’t sleep because they are worrying about the car in the drive. With a crappy car it’s not a worry! On the other hand, debt is no fun and it will kill your creativity, so live within your means. Start small and build up. Do whatever is in front of you with all your skill, and the new opportunities will present themselves in due time. Don’t despise the day of small things.