Thursday, 2 February 2012

Guy Martin was on the frontline during last year’s Arab Spring, covering historic uprisings in Egypt and Libya, until he suffered a serious injury in a bomb attack in Misrata. He talks about the challenges of foreign assignments and why great images require logistical nous and a love for your subject…

I was studying A-levels when it dawned on me that I wanted to be a documentary photographer.

I was doing sciences and physical education and wanted to be a sports injury massage person – I’m fairly active and growing up in the south-west I was mad into surfing. But for my 17th birthday my parents bought me a book about the war in Vietnam with photographs by Don McCullin and Larry Burrows. That type of photography moved me. It seemed to have value – it was something you could hold, something that had a lifespan.

I went on to study photography at Newport. The first foreign project I did was in the second year. With no support, no nothing, I got myself to northern Iraq and southeast Turkey to do a lot of small stories which were offshoots of the war – the long petrol queues, the trucks and commerce between Turkey and Iraq.
That was eye opening. I was just 21 or 22 and had to figure out early on how to operate in those countries. You need to be well-balanced and forward-thinking to work out if I’m going to take this picture then I need to be able to pay for this driver or I need to get from there to there if there’s roadblocks – you need to be logistically switched on or you simply don’t get the pictures.

All this helped prepare me to work in Egypt last year, which has been the highlight of my career so far. I was on assignment for a major North American paper, the Wall Street Journal, witnessing the overthrow of a regime and having my pictures on the front pages and online, seen by millions. The biggest challenge was not to repeat myself. I was used to working longer on slower projects that don’t have an immediate news deadline.

When you’re on assignment you have to please your clients. The papers can get images off Getty, Reuters or AP so, as an independent photographer, you have to go into those same situations as the wire photographers and come out with something different. My training and everything told me I had to stay in a situation from the beginning to the end to find out what happened. Even if I had a deadline I’d push it and stay for as long as I could and then go back to the editor with a different set of pictures.

Tahrir Square’s about the same size as Leicester Square, so when you’re standing in the middle of half a million people, you’d have to be a complete robot not to feel emotion, sadness and anger. I throw myself completely emotionally, physically, economically into my subjects and I hope that comes through in my pictures. I don’t detach myself in any way from what’s going on.

To young photojournalists, I’d say: whether it’s Tahrir Square or Tyneside, if you invest emotion, effort, money and time in your subjects, it will show in your pictures. If you’re wondering, why aren’t my pictures that good or why can’t I get that close to my subjects, I think if you don’t photograph what you love, people can pick up on it straight away and that doesn’t work as a process. But if people can see you’re passionate about their story, it will work.

It doesn’t matter if you’re somewhere exotic or dangerous or mundane, if you can translate your passion and your emotion into a photograph then you’re making big steps towards being a successful photographer.

Guy Martin was talking to Rachel Segal Hamilton.

This article originally appeared on IdeasMag.

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