I’m 56, but I don’t feel like it. I bought my first camera when I was about 10 with some money I’d been given for my birthday. It seemed to me like a magic box. Point it at someone; click click click; post the film cassette to a chemist; a few days later photographs came back. Then a few years later I learned a real magic trick. Our school had an old darkroom that nobody used, so I missed classes I didn’t find interesting and went to the darkroom instead. There I learned that if I mixed some raw chemicals with water I didn’t need the postman any more: I could develop the films and even make prints myself.
Meanwhile I discovered old news photo magazines like Picture Post in the school library; then things like the Sunday Times, which at that time was featuring incredible photojournalism by people like Don McCullin. Outside the school there was a war going on, because this was Belfast in the 1970s. And suddenly the Sunday Times and every other publication was full of pictures by people like McCullin and Chris Steele-Perkins and Gilles Peress: and those pictures were taken in my city.
So then I discovered the best magic trick of all: I could take my photographs to newspapers and magazines, they would publish them, and give me money. But I’m trying to keep that trick secret: otherwise everyone will be doing it.
These are the words of Jeremy Nicholl. For several years, the photographer and blogger (“The Russian Photos Blog”) observed the case of “Agence France Press & Getty Images vs Daniel Morel”. The news agencies were accused of using photos that Morel had taken after the 2010 Haiti earthquake – without his permission.
You attended the “AFP & Getty vs. Morel” case and covered it very thoroughly on your blog. What made a photographer from Russia go to the United States to investigate this story?
I’d been writing about it for nearly 4 years, so when I had the opportunity to attend the trial it seemed silly not to go. But when I first wrote about the case I never expected the story to go on for so long. It was so completely crazy, that a media giant would steal these photos, then sue the photographer when he complained, that I thought it would all be quietly settled out of court.
I really don’t have any sympathy for AFP & Getty. They behaved like the worst kind of corporate bullies.
A few months have passed. What do you consider as the outcome eventually?
AFP & Getty have appealed against the verdict, which I predicted would happen. They want the judge to either overturn the jury’s decision herself or order a completely new trial. But I’ve seen their court documents, and frankly their arguments are rubbish, so I expect the appeal will fail. If that happens they can then appeal against the judge’s decision; really, I’m not making this up! But eventually they will run out of options and finally have to pay up. The cost will be enormous: so far the process has cost an estimated $9m, and the longer it goes on the greater the final bill will be. But I really don’t have any sympathy for AFP & Getty. If they had been sensible they would have settled the matter very quickly. Instead they behaved like the worst kind of corporate bullies, hired really expensive lawyers and tried to crush the photographer they’d robbed. In the end it will cost them a fortune and severe damage to their reputations, but they’ve brought that all upon themselves.
All of this would not have happened without the advent social media. How do social media change your work life?
If they’re honest about it most professional photographers will say the biggest change with social media is that they keep seeing their work ripped off. In that sense the AFP/Getty-Morel case wasn’t unusual, just a very spectacular example. I’m not talking about teenage blogs, but big commercial companies and political organizations stealing a photographer’s work to make money or propaganda. I’ve seen hundreds of examples of this with my own photographs, and it’s very frustrating. So that’s the bad side. The good side is that the various social media can be great communication tools for publicizing work, engaging with an audience, researching new projects, and of course just finding out what’s going on in the world. Personally I love Twitter as a source of breaking news, but can’t get on with Facebook at all. But it needs to be handled carefully: there’s so much information which simply isn’t accurate, either deliberately or not.
Of course, I have only seen a handful of your photographs. But the ones I saw, I would describe as illustrating a person lost in the wideness of the Russian Motherland.
Yes, I think that’s about right; being lost can be good, you don’t know what’s coming next. I saw a quote from Dorothea Lange the other day: “To know ahead what you’re looking for means you’re only photographing your preconceptions, which is very limiting.” That seems to me a good attitude.
It’s important for a photojournalist’s work to be honest, but that’s not the same as neutral.
One photojournalist once told me that it is essential for a photographer to be neutral especially when it comes to politics. What do you think?
I think that’s very naive: it’s important for a photojournalist’s work to be honest, but that’s not the same as neutral. Some of the greatest photojournalists – people like Eugene Smith, Philip Jones Griffiths, Don McCullin – have been anything but neutral, and that’s what has made their work important. Neutrality means you’re not taking a position, simply being a disinterested observer, and that’s a very poor position for a photojournalist. How can anyone go to a war zone, photograph people being killed, and then remain neutral?
How important is it to have a good network to make photo projects possible? Do you think there is a difference in Russia compared to other countries?
I don’t think it’s especially different in Russia, although all countries have their own specific cultural differences. Networks and contacts are important everywhere, and you need to be open to ideas and suggestions from people you meet.
I’ve been shot at, and arrested, and beaten up, all that sort of thing. Journalists and especially photographers have become targets.
Has one of your assignments ever put you in a dangerous situation? Which of your works required the most effort?
You probably mean physical effort, but the mental effort is just as important, and can be just as exhausting. So far as physical effort is concerned I’ve worked a lot in very cold conditions, as low as minus 60c. That’s very tiring since you just burn up a lot of energy, and of course it’s difficult for the cameras. Batteries die, digital equipment stops working, film will freeze and shatter in the camera. You really need to be organized.
So far as dangerous situations are concerned, I’ve worked at various conflicts, so I’ve been shot at, and arrested, and beaten up, all that sort of thing. But you know these situations are dangerous going in, so you try to be aware and take precautions. The problem is that people are now far more media aware, want to control what you do, so journalists and especially photographers have become targets.
What’s your regular work equipment?
A couple of DSLR cameras and a few lenses: the brand of camera is really unimportant. I prefer prime lenses because they usually have wider apertures and you have to move around to compose properly, which means you have to think more. Zoom lenses just make you lazy, although they can be useful for news situations. A comfortable pair of shoes is one of the most important pieces of photo equipment you can have.
Smartphone cameras are getting better, having already reached 41 Megapixel. Do you take photos with your smartphone?
Yes, and some have been published, but despite what some people say, camera-phones are really only good for snapshots or if you don’t have a proper camera available. The number of pixels is only part of the measure of quality or usefulness. And most importantly camera-phones offer almost no control over even really basic photographic functions. My iPhone is a fantastic piece of digital technology, but it has no control over aperture or shutter speed, so in purely photographic terms it’s less sophisticated than the East German SLR camera I bought 40 years ago as a teenager.
Marry into money. In the publishing industry there’s much less money available.
With that development there is a growing army of photo amateurs having the wish to become professionals. Do you have an advice for them?
Yes, marry into money. Seriously, the chances of most amateur photographers — no matter how good they are — becoming successful long-term professional photographers, making enough money to support a family and so on, is basically zero. Even in the past only a tiny number of people who studied photography at college would go on to a career as a working photographer. Now there are many more people who want to be photographers, but because of changes in the publishing industry there’s much less money available. Why do you think so many well-known photographers spend a lot of time these days running workshops? It’s because they don’t make enough money as photographers. That’s the bad news. The good news is that if you’re talented and just want to make photographs and publish them without making a living doing it then it’s much easier. You no longer need a darkroom, space to store all your negatives and prints, any of that: just a laptop, a decent digital camera and some lenses. And you can publish your photographs on the internet, which is where most professional work is seen now anyway. Over the years I’ve had many amateur photographers ask me: “How do I become a professional photographer?” But that’s the wrong question, and they’re asking the wrong person. Really the first question they need to ask is of themselves: “Exactly WHY do I want to be a professional photographer?”
More from Jeremy Nicholl:
Fotos: Copyright Jeremy Nicholl