– by Wendy Morley, VW’s Creative and Editorial Director –
Even after all this time, photography is not universally accepted as art. When it is, there is usually a clear delineation between “art” photography and photography that is used as documentation of any sort. As photography critic Sean O’Hagan expressed in an article published in The Guardian, “… the ‘photography is not art’ debate is so old it’s hardly worth revisiting,” and yet he too appears to determine that certain types of photography do not rank.
Emily Garthwaite’s work should change anyone’s mind. A British photojournalist based in London, Emily has a Masters in Photojournalism and Documentary photography from the University of Westminster. Internationally known, her exhibitions include those at the Natural History Museum, Ambika Gallery, Gallery on the Corner, Norman Rea Art Gallery, 4th Floor Studios, The Tabernacle, The Hive and Central Saint Martins. Emily is an Associate Member of Street Photography International, which is Instagram’s fastest growing account for the genre, with over 250,000 followers and reaching over 8 million people per month.
Wendy Morley: You studied photojournalism. What was it that drew you to this field, and what were your goals?
Emily Garthwaite: I first established an interest in photography when I was 15. There was a forest fire near my family home, and I remember watching the fire destroying the woods that I played in and feeling the need to document it before it disappeared. I sent my photos to my local newspaper, and they were published the next day. My love of photography blossomed from that point.
I started to assist fashion photographers in London and photographed events in my free time. It wasn’t long before I moved away from fashion photography, and photojournalism became my sole focus. I believe my work is reflective of how I see the world and I always try to stay true to my own creative identity. Photojournalism has allowed me to travel, learn new languages, engage with different cultures and meet some extraordinary and inspiring individuals.
WM: You’ve done wildlife photography, street photography, photography focusing on the marginalization of women, religious differences and I’m sure many, many more. Can you tell me about some things during these assignments that especially affected you?
EG: There have been moments that I have almost frozen in disbelief at the scene before me – not necessarily because they are emotionally challenging moments but because of the sheer beauty. Documenting orangutans in Sumatra is especially poignant, partly to do with their almost human expressions.
I will never forget taking a photograph of four boys playing in a giant washing vat inside Dhobi Ghat, Mumbai. The temptation to splash water at me is apparent in their faces. I was 21 when I took the photo and had been in India only one week, knowing I would be there on my own for another six months. I remember feeling so creatively free as I stood half drenched in the washing vat with them.
WM: When you look back at your photographs, do you feel you captured what you wanted to capture?
EG: Yes and if I feel an image isn’t representative of a situation, I won’t publish it.
When you work alongside another photographer, you realize how different two creative eyes can be. There have been countless moments I have been in the same room as another photographer, and we have walked away with incredibly diverse work. I don’t consciously think about what I want to capture when I am on an assignment because you can’t predict what you will see. Perhaps the people you meet will be shy, maybe there will be poor light, or there will be time limitations. I try always to be prepared and as focused as possible. Sometimes I think of a “dream” shots or scene, but mostly I keep a checklist in my mind of the photographs that will tell the story.
I am continually drawn to photographing women and children, mostly because of the connection I have with them.
WM: What do you feel is your greatest strength as a photographer?
EG: I’ve always been drawn to color photography and how color can lead the eye to a focal point, in the same way the use of the light can. It’s become a strength of mine, a signature of sorts. I don’t actively seek out colorful backdrops; I just like to maximise on the tones in a scene.
I have found it to be a great strength to be a woman, too. My fiancé, who is also a photojournalist, has at times been unable to photograph young children or women simply because he is a man. Universally I have found that being a woman has allowed me greater access to my subjects. I believe that it is a luxury to be a female photographer partly due to the instant connection you have with other women, or at least that is what I have found.
WM: Can you tell me a little about the camera(s) you like to use?
EG: I’ve recently changed camera systems from a Canon 5D Mark iii to a Leica M240.
The Leica M240 is more suited to what I want to create as a photographer – it’s discreet, has intensely rich colour and excellent dynamic range. I still love Canon but the body combined with four lenses requires a large camera bag while the Leica and four lenses fit inside a small shoulder bag.
WM: Do you prefer shooting a specific subject: wildlife vs city scenes vs people, for example?
EG: I love photographing people and animals alike – it’s an instinctual connection and whether you are shooting candidly or staging portraits. There is always an element of surprise.
WM: Do you have a dream assignment?
EG: My dream assignment was to visit Sumatra and document orangutans. I always kept it as a goal, something aspirational. I was incredibly fortunate to visit Sumatra in April this year after dreaming of visiting for so many years. My father was a zoologist for over a decade and looked after Sumatran and Bornean orangutans, so it was always something we spoke about when I was a child. I worked with the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Program, run by Dr Ian Singleton, for a month and had the opportunity to visit their quarantine base outside Medan as well as work on field assignments in the Leuser ecosystem.
– Click on images to see larger versions (All images copyright © Emily Garthwaite)