in conversation with: GARETH WATKINS
French-British photographer Gareth Watkins started photographing back in the early eighties after reading French literature at University. In his early days, he mostly tried to capture street type pictures, in London, where he was living at the time. Gareth quickly realised if he was to work in photography, he would have to move into more general photojournalism. Thus, from the mid 1980’s, Gareth started working for a number of newspapers and agencies in London, before joining Reuters News Agency as a staff photographer in Paris in 1987. Here he covered many local and international stories for over 15 years. Since leaving Reuters, Gareth has started to shoot his own long term projects, documenting the region in France where he lives.
Firstly, tell us a bit about yourself. What was that moment that sparked your interest to pursue photography as a profession?
I was born in the UK, but have lived the majority of my life in France, first in Paris, then in north-eastern France where I live today. I have both British and French nationalities. I currently run my own business offering fishing holidays.
I first got interested in photography when I was still at university and my father bought me a Minolta SLR camera. The college had a Photo Club with its own dark room, so I jointed and learned the basics of processing and printing my own black and white pictures. After my time at university, both in the UK and France, and graduating with a degree in French literature I got more and more interested in photography and decided that I wanted to make a career of it.
My first efforts to break into the profession, were to cover local sporting events in South London, where my parents lived and I tried to sell pictures to the local newspapers. After a while, a couple of papers started to use some shots and offered me my first assignments. I managed from there to get a staff job on another local South London paper.
London was a great place to work when I started out, as it allowed us to cover the same stories as the national press; for example, the Royal family and major sports events like First Division Football and Wimbledon. I was thus able to put together a portfolio of shots and get some freelance shifts on the UK daily papers and PA new agency.
After a year or two trying to get steady work on Fleet Street, I came across an advert for a job at Reuters in the UK Press Gazette. Not really expecting to even get an interview, I applied and to my great surprise, was hired as a Photographer/Picture Editor. After a year or so, a position opened up at the Paris bureau. As a French speaker I decided to apply and again I was successful. And so, I moved back to France. I remained in Paris until I left Reuters at the beginning of the 2000's.
As your time as a photojournalist, can you tell us about any significant moments that you had over your career?
During the more than 25 years I worked as a photojournalist it is very hard to pick any one assignment. My favourite assignments to cover were the big sporting events, as I always felt it was me and the athletes, and no other outside influence. If they were good and I was good, the pictures could be exceptional. I covered eight or nine French Tennis Opens, several World Athletics Championships, and Olympics, as well as the Tour de France and major football and rugby competitions. Outside of sport I was able to cover the Paris Fashion weeks for many years. One assignment the marked me was the Kurdish refugees story following the first gulf war, where I travelled to Iran and the border with Iraq. This was a memorable trip in a fascinating part of the world.
We also covered French politics on a regular basis, travelling with the French President, initially François Mitterrand and then Jacques Chirac, visiting countries as far afield as the Caribbean, West Africa, and Asia.
I think the most significant aspect of the period was the huge change in technology from my beginnings to when I left. We started with b&w prints, travelling with a portable lab and transmitter, developing, and making prints in hotel bathrooms. Securing a reliable phone line to wire the pictures was an important part of the job. We then moved to colour negative and were early adopters of digital technology. The early cameras were dreadful quality, slow, cumbersome, and ridiculously expensive, but allowed us to shoot and transmit images in a fraction of the time it took to develop and wire a negative. Our production switched 100% digital after the 1998 Football World Cup in France. We were all issued two Canon EOS1 DSC520 cameras and a Macbook. This meant with a GSM mobile phone, we could literally send pictures from anywhere in the world in minutes.
Retiring from your job as a photojournalist, how has this had an effect on your personal photography projects?
Working as a photojournalist in the wire service, one has virtually no time for personal projects. We were shooting often 2 or 3 assignments a day or travelling to cover an event or breaking news story. During my leisure time I didn’t generally take any pictures, even if I always had a camera with me just in case. After leaving Paris I initially did some commercial assignments for the local tourist board as well as moving into video, shooting corporate promotional clips in France for a couple of UK based holiday firms.
Since leaving the world of press photography, I have for the first time had way more opportunity to concentrate on my own pictures, as well as returning to my favoured medium of black and white photography.
Working for the press or commercial clients you have to shoot what they want, and there are few possibilities. Nowadays setting myself projects, I can shoot what I want, when I want; look for good light, interesting subjects without the pressure of a client or a deadline. It is extremely liberating. I saw an interview with a Magnum photographer recently, and he said he couldn’t bear working for editorial clients, and I can totally see what he means.
Pictures are digital these days, I can’t see me returning to film. Not having the pressures of deadlines and time constraints, has freed me to look for local subjects to document; the Covid crisis being a notable case in point.
Can you tell us about your current project documenting where you live? What would you like to communicate to the viewer? And why did you want to do the project in black and white?
My current location in France is near the famous WW1 battles grounds of the ‘Chemin des Dames’. Having moved here in the early 2000’s I have become fascinated in this history steeped area. It was largely obliterated during the Great War, with over 300 villages raised to the ground. Some were rebuilt and some were abandoned, and nature was left to take back it’s right.
Having a decent collection of photography books, by some of the photographers I mentioned earlier, I realised that they were for the most part, not assigned the subject matter they chose to shoot, but made personal projects documenting an area. I felt drawn to this part of France, French history and the people and places around me.
So, I started to research for myself the various places of interest and to visit them one by one. This included interesting landscapes, but also the people. Black and white was just a natural choice. Firstly, I had always enjoyed the gritty aspect of monochrome, but also, I felt by the very nature of the subjects, it made for stronger images. In many instances the colour takes over the picture and becomes the main focal point. One can’t do anything about what colours are present, unless the choice is made to shoot in b&w.
I then made the choice to self-publish the pictures in Zines and Photobooks. The internet now has a fantastic choice and offers multiple companies that will produce one-off publications. It is a simple matter to download a ‘drag & drop’ programme and to create a picture book.
I feel it is still important today to see pictures in print. All too many images are simply posted on the internet or stored on phones or hard drives and probably at some point deleted. I unfortunately, lost a large percentage of my press pictures during the early digital days, simply because, we didn’t have the drive space to stock the pictures. Hard drives stopped working and the hugely expensive media was reformatted after the story was filed and any unfiled picture deleted. In those early naïve days of digital we didn’t realise just how fragile this chain of production was, and also didn’t appreciate the value of our work. Once it was transmitted to the subscribers and published, it was forgotten, and we moved onto the next assignment.
So today I find it far more satisfying to see a collection of my pictures of a certain subject printed in book form. Over the last couple of years, I have done projects on the local canal, a collection of the local people where I live seen through my eyes and lens, as well as a personal collection of the recent Covid pandemic, seen through our experience, being locked down in a small village in rural France. These projects printed in small runs for myself gave a focus to my ongoing project of documenting daily life, the people and the places around me.
Do you have any favourite artists/photographers?
In my formative years I collected books by photographers such as W. Eugene Smith, Don McCullin, Henri Cartier Bresson etc. I think they inspired many aspiring photographers at the time, and still do. I was fortunate to have worked with some of the most talented photojournalists in the world over the years. Many of the wire service guys were exceptional photographers, and I learned a lot very fast with a hugely steep learning curve.
Currently I follow closely a number of photographers, as social media has opened up access to a wide number of artists one would probably not see outside publications in magazines and newspapers. The last book I bought was the hugely impressive work by Peter Turnley covering the start of the Covid pandemic in New York and Paris. His black and white pictures were not only beautiful and eloquent but terrifying at the same time.
Do you have any other favourite places outside where you live that you enjoy photographing?
One of my favourite places is Le Touquet on the northern coast of France. We rent a holiday house there every summer. It is one of the majestic turn-of-the-century French ‘Station balnéaire’, like Cabourg and Deauville. Except is has a family atmosphere and a lot of charm. I find it a wonderful reservoir for picture opportunities. I have always loved the seaside, with its wonderful light and often grandiose landscapes. Added to this the quirky nature of beachgoers and it is the perfect setting for ‘street’ type photography. It takes me back to the days when I used to wander around East London looking for pictures, but instead of the rather sinister aspect the city had back then I have a more festive holiday backdrop in which to seek out interesting pictures.
When you take pictures, do you usually have a concept in mind of what you want to shoot, or do you let the images just "come to you", or is it both?
I would probably say a bit of both. I will often try to come up with a local subject, be it an event or just and interesting place to shoot. I will usually check it out on Google Street View, which I have found an invaluable tool, in looking for angles and details that one can easily miss when actually on location.
While I like to have people in my pictures, to add context and as a document of our places and times, I still often like to make a landscape shot too, especially if the sky is dramatic, and here in Eastern France, with wide sweeping landscape vistas, we get some awesome skies, that are prefect for black and white.
Other times I will simply grab my camera and wander, this can produce multiple nice shots or nothing at all. But after years as a wire service ‘snapper’ where we regularly had to go out at any time and make a decent illustration of a newsworthy subject, that was at first sight rather dull, one gets good at finding a picture. One gets adept at summing up the surroundings and seeing or anticipating quickly if there is an
interesting picture to be made, and where to place oneself to get it.
I think if I had one piece of advice for anyone starting out today it would be that you need to anticipate. You need to see pictures; composition has to be second nature. Once you see where a potential image might happen, you need to be in place to frame it and snap it. Sometimes it works sometimes it doesn’t. But the more you do it the luckier you get…
Cartier Bresson spoke of a ‘decisive moment’, but you don’t just get lucky and ‘bang’ you have a perfectly timed shot...No, you have to see where the scene will break down, where the elements will come together and what your picture could be. If he was a master of these perfectly timed shots, there was no luck in it. He knew and had the vision to see the picture. One needs to always be looking for pictures, always framing in your head, even when you don’t have a camera in your hand.
Shooting sports before autofocus trained us to anticipate. It was virtually impossible to follow a soccer or rugby player running flat out or a 100m sprinter. One had to look at the game, know the sport and guess where a piece of action would take place. Focus on the spot and get your timing spot on. It was hard and need concentration, but it was a good school. Nowadays, follow focus on a modern camera makes all this far easier, but the basic premise still rings true, and no amount of technical wizardry can take away the need to anticipate.
Does the equipment you use help you in achieving your vision in your photography? (What camera do you use? Do you have a preferred lens/focal length?)
Equipment is not hugely important; all modern cameras give excellent results. I did however, make the choice three or four years ago to move away from big DSLRs and Zooms. I had a bag with Canon 5D iii bodies, and 16-35mm, 24-105mm and 70-200mm zooms. It weighed a ton...I think many photographers who lugged around bags of heavy gear for years, ended up with back issues, and I was no exception. So, my equipment requirements these days are based on size and weight as much as anything else. A friend offered to sell me a Fuji Xpro1 and a couple of lenses. I bought this and was hooked. It was small light, and the quality of both the images and fixed focal lenses was superb.
I have since widened my collection of lenses and updated to the Xpro2 bodies. The Xpro2 is a very fast camera to use, has excellent autofocus and is a joy to use. It’s retro style takes me back to my first serious camera the Nikon FE, with it’s dials and aperture ring.
I currently use the 23mm F2 and the 50mm F2 as my main focal lengths. These give me a full frame equivalent of 35mm and 75mm. These are attached permanently to my camera bodies. I do have the 18mm and 35mm (28mm and 50mm equivalents) but only rarely use them.
These two cameras go everywhere with me now, in a small Billingham bag, and mean I can grab a picture at any moment. I often see a subject while out in my car and can stop, jump out and make the picture. This would never have been possible with the Canon gear, as I simply wouldn’t have had it with me at all times.
What are some of your goals as an artist/photographer? Where do you hope to see yourself in five years?
I’ll be 60 next year, so while I am still fit and healthy, I don’t really have any massive ambitions as a photographer. The world of photojournalism has moved on and now a new generation of young people often armed with just a phone has emerged and replaced the generation I came from. In France, the printed press is in crisis and press groups are firing more staff photographers than they are hiring. Pictures are now sold for very little money and surviving as a freelance these days is a very hard task.
As I said above the advances in camera technology have meant that it is now far quicker and easier to make pictures and produce nice images than it used to be. While the soul of photography has perhaps been ripped out, the digital era has opened up image making to many more people and democratised the whole process. What used to be a skilled trade, shooting, developing, and printing pictures and wiring them on time to hit deadlines, has disappeared. Now what would have taken several hours to do can be done literally in seconds. Publications can now change up their content literally on a minute by minute basis...pictures have become far too ephemeral. This is why I like to print my collections, so in 10 or 15 years and beyond we will have a record of what life was like, hopefully pictures that only have marginal value now, will take on a historical document function and show future generations what our times were like. We have seen larger strides made in image making in the last 15 years than were made since the inception of photography.
In five years' time, assuming I’m still as fit as I am today, I will continue to set my own projects and print my pictures…and who knows, I might even do some colour work...but as someone once said to me "Don’t forget to smell the flowers along the way!"
“When I am not out photographing, I (like to)…
...as we live in the countryside, we like to walk usually with our two Tervuren dogs. We try to get out and do some cycling as often as possible to keep active. Also I am a lifelong fisherman, so when time allows, I like to get out and fish the local rivers in my region. I have my own lakes for my fishing business too and I will often do some fishing there, if I don’t have any customers."