IN CONVERSATION WITH DAVID GILBERT WRIGHT
Four decades of being a photographer inevitably results in the development of both a way of seeing and a way of telling. When David Gilbert Wright first set out as a photographer, he soon realised that although a photograph should ‘speak’ for itself, a story always brought the photograph to life. Now, forty years later, David is writing about his photographs and about photography as one of the most powerful ways of communicating.
"If I could tell the story in words, I wouldn’t need to lug a camera."
"How true that is but equally imagining that a picture is worth a thousand words is also naïve. Photographs in themselves do not have meanings, which is why I like to combine photographs with text. It enables me to tell the story I want to tell." explains David. "Finding a subject and then spending time exploring it photographically and getting to know the people and their stories yields much more interesting results than simply taking pictures of anything and everything."
When and how did you start getting interested in photography?
It was during the Foundation Course in Art and Design. I didn't really do any photography before then. As a little boy, my dad let me hold the Box Brownie and press the shutter once or twice but that was about it. Suddenly being shown a darkroom and processing films was magic! I was hooked. And that feeling of seeing a print emerge in the tray is a wonderful experience.
Where do you find your inspiration?
Life. Some say that by photographing an event, you are not really experiencing it and that is true to some extent. Equally, to photograph it is to participate in the event at the time as an important recorder of what is happening but also to experience the memory of it over and over again whenever you look at the photographs. That is why so many people take pictures – so they can remember and relive the experience.
Who are your favourite artists/photographers? Who has inspired you?
No one exists in a vacuum. The same is true of photographers. We will always be a product of what we have seen. I find it interesting to reflect on who may have provided inspiration to me. Cartier-Bresson for his theory of the “Decisive Moment”. Bill Brandt for his ability to represent the dignity of ordinary people. Homer Sykes for showing me how to notice what is in plain sight and of course, Ansel Adams for his whole approach to exposure, processing and printing.
Has your style of shooting changed since you first started?
Documentary photography is all about telling stories. Four decades of being a photographer inevitably results in the development of both a way of seeing and a way of telling. When I first set out as a photographer, I realised that although a photograph should ‘speak’ for itself, a story always brought it to life. Now, here I am forty years later, writing about my photographs and about photography as one of the most powerful ways of communicating.
I adopt a particular approach when producing documentary photographs. I do not set out to simply record something that happens in front of me. My aim is to let the viewer see the world ‘through my eyes’. I want them to see what I saw and to feel what I felt. I want my photographs to move people. Obviously, not every picture will do that, which is why I have adopted a storytelling approach. I do this by putting photographs together in a certain order so that they affect each other and produce meaning in the same way as the great Russian filmmaker Eisenstein. The impact of the whole story is greater than its individual components.
The subjects in my photographs normally know I am taking their pictures. I spend time beforehand explaining the project and what I am trying to do. It is a particular anthropological approach, one of gaining confidence and eventually becoming part of the group for the period of producing the pictures. Some describe it as a ‘fly on the wall approach’. I like to think of it as becoming accepted and trusted to do the subject justice. Reassurance and knowledge of my work is key. I show a sample of my work to people first whenever that is possible. Even on projects like the Climate-Change Activists, I arrive early, talk to the protestors and show them my website. That way, they can be confident that I am not going to sensationalize them or rip them off.
Trying to produce an emotional response in viewers does not mean that the pictures are dishonest. It is simply the reality that I witnessed and experienced at the time of taking the photograph. That is why my photographs and stories have the power to move people. It is an intentional act.
Where is your most favourite place to shoot?
The British Isle is a wonderful place to take pictures for many reasons. There is so much happening and such diversity that as a documentary photographer, it is like being locked in a sweet shop! The light is amazing with those bright summer days and stormy winters. I am currently working on a particular way of making portraits using dramatic backgrounds. I think some may call it Landscape Portraiture. A number of my new photographs use the approach.
Do you think equipment is important in achieving your photographic vision? What would you say to someone just starting out?
The Camera is a means to an end. Cameras and equipment are simply the tools I use to express myself. I began my career using a Pentax KX. It is a very basic camera and one of the things that I learned was that you need to be able to change speeds and apertures quickly in documentary situations. So, the simpler the controls the better. Knobs and rings are things you operate manually by touch. You don’t need to look at them. Modern cameras have so many functions with layer upon layer of multi-screens but it takes a real expert to be able to find, use and override functions rapidly. I am not a Luddite, simply someone who wants to retain the craft aspect and be able to concentrate on the events as they unfold in front of me. Another important part of being a documentary photographer is getting right up close to and in the action. To become part of it rather than a spectator looking on. Therefore, I use a wide-angle lens and a telephoto for portraits so I am not right in their face.
What characteristics do you think you need to become a photographer? What’s your tips or advice for someone in your genre?
My advice to those just starting out as documentary photographers is to work in projects. Try to find out as much about the subject or event you can in advance and plan what kinds of pictures you want to take. Don’t be afraid of getting to know the people you are documenting. It will pay dividends. Explore the emerging themes and look laterally. Not everything is happening inside the viewfinder, so stay alert.
Have you ever been involved in the artistic world before photography?
I was in my late teens when I went to Art college. Before that, I was very keen on painting and drawing. My art teacher once handed me a camera ready loaded with black and white film and sent me and some friends off to see what we could do with it. So, really most of my life has been about photography.
Are there any special projects you are currently working on?
I am working on two projects. The first, Modern Tribes of England is a long-term documentary project looking at groups such as Morris, Pagans and Climate-Change Activists. I spend extended periods with the groups getting to know them and what they do. The second project is exploring the triumph of the human spirit over adversity. The participants are people who have experienced a serious trauma and come through it, stronger and more resilient. This project involves the survivors telling their stories and then having a portrait made. It will result in a book and an exhibition once I find a publisher who would like to take on the project. I have also been working on several ‘Lockdown’ projects.
If you were not photographing what would you be doing?
I would be planning, pre-visualizing and working on the next photography project. I do other things. I enjoy walking with my family and the dog. I play the saxophone and we have recently taken up cycling in London using ‘Boris Bikes’ which is great fun as you can cover more territory.
Thank you David!
All photographs © David Gilbert Wright
You can also read a photo reportage by David "Disappearing Ireland" HERE on the website.