“Ninety percent of photojournalism is psychology” Jason Alden on photojournalism
An interview with photojournalist and traveller Jason Alden, conducted by Raluca Petre
As a regular photographer for The Independent on Sunday and with work featured in TIME Magazine, National Geographic, The New York Times, The Times and The Guardian amongst many others, Jason Alden has captured on film numerous characters within widely ranging cultural contexts. He talks to The Wanderer about his approach to travel photojournalism, some of the memorable people he has met on his travels and how his job can convey the real feel of a place.
Your photos show that you like to capture moments which reveal something about the culture of a place. What was the most striking photo essay you shot abroad?
What is most striking to me is when I am faced with real cultural differences. When travelling to Uganda, I found that the difference there between the rich people who live in the capital, in Kampala, and the poor is really glaring, as a few miles down the road you get shanty towns, where people live in mud huts. When I went there it was really, really shocking. I was working for a charity and I got to photograph child soldiers in a rehabilitation centre. You put yourself in a situation in which you have to immerse yourself as much as you can. Capturing their emotion, their culture, it was really a lot about understanding it. It was my first big job away from home and I saw poverty, people that had been mutilated, it really woke me up trying to get across an element of what these people were going through.
Which places in the world have surprised you the most once you started working on a story about them?
Let’s take Colombia, Colombia’s one of my favourite places. It’s a fantastic place for a photographer, the people are so beautiful, the places are so vibrant. Colombia really did strike me. It’s a South American country that’s incredibly cosmopolitan. Bogota is electric, a fantastic night out. Honduras, politically, is also a really interesting country, there seems to be a coup every 5 weeks there. Nonetheless, a really beautiful country. I don’t really go to any of the tourist places when I’m out there working, I have been to South America twice and have never seen Machu Pichu. But I do go to a lot of bars, that’s where you meet the real characters, where you get the real stories. You go into a rough backstreet bar and you find out more about the country in 5 minutes than you would in a day at the top of Machu Pichu.
How did working on a story in a particular place help you understand it better?
Ninety percent of photojournalism is about psychology. It’s about getting to the places you want, having the right contacts. You have to be able to pick up the culture really quickly. The act of making a photoessay really does stretch you, you’ll cover different areas with people from different social classes. As a photojournalist in a particular country, you’ll be shown the best places, get the right treatment; they don’t want you to see a lot of the stuff you’d be interested in. People will ask you to do things from different perspectives and it’s a matter of getting past that. In Uganda, in the rehabilitation centre, the people in charge would tell me to do the story from a particular perspective but then you get in there and you get away from all that and suddenly you’re surrounded by 14 year old boys who clubbed to death someone in their own village. It’s a lot what I’m about now. I’m a very different guy now from the person I was a few years ago.
What do you look for when taking photographs on a job abroad? What makes a photoessay good?
It’s about emotion, you look for something that’s intimate, human. As a photographer it’s really hard to edit your own work. The ones that stand out are the ones I’m most proud of. They’re not necessarily the ones for which I’ve come up with a great idea and made it happen. You do have to help the photograph along, as sometimes ideas are not attainable. So the main driving force for me is to convey a real intimacy with the subject. After a while, your style builds to your taste. Mine is bright and colourful, there’s lots of light, flashes everywhere.
You talk about intimacy with the subject. Could you tell me more about an encounter with a striking subject and what made you want to take their photograph?
I was in India, I was shooting some portraits of a family but I kept seeing on the other side of the field a beautiful, beautiful woman, she was dressed in a really bright, vibrant sarong and I looked at the sun, there was a really nice, really diffuse light. There was a glass less window in front of her so I took a few faraway shots. However, I carried on shooting this family. I kept looking over at the woman, I walked over to the other side just one camera, one lens. When I got to the front of the house, this little boy walked over so I gestured to her that I’d take his photograph. Eventually she started to warm to the idea, and came over to take her picture as well. You can tell that he’s more comfortable than she is but she wants to be in the photo because it makes him happy. This is one of those pictures that you just get hung up on even though you can’t really edit it. What made it for me was getting her reaction.
What did you find most difficult when you first started out as a photojournalist and how did you establish yourself?
I did an NCTJ in photojournalism in Sheffield and the course is well connected, many news photographers in London have done that course. You have to get as much experience as possible and then just use the contacts you establish along the way. I entered competitions to get my name out there. The next step usually is to get a job with an agency. It is important to take advantage of key moments and luck comes into play with regards to capturing certain moments that will give your photos an edge. I’m now working with the The Independent which is a great place to work in.