Photojournalist Elizabeth Dalziel
"I'm trying to elevate the mundane to something universal that the viewer can relate to"
Interview: Nezih Tavlas / November 17, 2021
(Credit: Jamie Tarabay)
Photojournalism News: What drew you to photojournalism?
Elizabeth Dalziel: When I was growing up in Mexico there was little freedom of the press. Our local newspaper was filled with reports and images of meetings and achievements of Mexico's ruling party which had been in power since 1946. The national dailies were written and photographed for the most part, by people who were on the government payroll. Photojournalism as I know it today was non existent for me to view; aside that is, from a single image which I witnessed at 5 years of age. It wasn't political, yet that photograph carried much of the drama I would come to see later in life as a photographer. It was a Sunday afternoon at the Progresso bull ring, in Guadalajara. My stepfather was an 'aficionado', a fan of bullfights, and the whole family would join him on the weekly pilgrimage to the plaza. It was like most other Sundays until, midway through a fight, the bull strayed into the 'burladero', the corridor like frame that separates the matadors from the bull. Everyone ran in panic for the safety of the wooden planks lined against the wall. One man was not fast enough. He was gored and killed a few feet away from where my family and I sat. The next day when I walked into my stepfather's office, I saw that same image I had seen at the Plaza: The dying man, in black and white, flat on the front page of the newspaper. It was just as I remembered it. Years later, while in college and through my job as a curator of 19th century photographs at the Regional Jalisco historical archive, I learned that Mexico had a rich tradition of documentary photography. Noted foreign Photographers brought to Mexico by the dictator Porfirio Diaz to illustrate what Diaz perceived as the good state of the Nation under his rule. Among those sent for was the man who would become the father of Frida Kahlo, Hungarian photographer Guillermo Kahlo. From Mexico itself the Cassasola brothers, who illustrated The country's convulsed revolution and the inmates of Lecumberri jail. Itinerant and local photographers who recorded the life and times of the townspeople and whose work populated family albums. Manuel Alvarez Bravo a masterful photographer, who followed the same candid photographic line as Henri Cartier Bresson While documenting daily life in Mexico in the 20th century. My knowledge of Mexico's photographic history came later, most of this documentary work was not easily available for the laymen on the street or much published through mass media.... Other than that small anticipation at the age of 5 of what would later constitute my way of life, my visual education came from a strong tradition of Mexican of graphics, muralism, religious icons and folk art. Figurative narrative images that read like a book to the illiterate community at whom they were aimed. Another important source of my visual education was Catholicism. Every morning at six o'clock one of my siblings or I would take my pious grandmother to mass at the Mexicaltzingo church, a dark, old-style chapel in Guadalajara. She was a stout woman, no more than five feet tall and as she listened to the priest's incantations, rosary in hand, I would while away the time looking at hundreds of petit tableaux laid across the front of the pulpit, in the candlelight lit. They were graphic expressions of thanks drawn with different degrees of skill on little tin plates. They would each tell a story. Of love lost; of sobering up; of escape from near death in accidents. Others gave thanks for a good harvest, or a miracle cure. The topics were endless, but everyone was a means of communication for the voiceless. Through these images they were able to communicate with others, and more importantly for them with God. This sea of tin plates, known as "ex votos" and "retablos", was itself encased in a Church decorated lavishly with bloody scenes of suffering, death and resurrection. Later when covering conflict and war, the wanting eyes of the souls in purgatory and the images of saints enduring unspeakable pain that I remembered from the religious imagery of my childhood would come back and cloud my memory. They would mingle in my head with images of wounded soldiers in Palestine or the quiet suffering of a mother mourning her child's remains in the middle of a mass grave in Iraq.
Photojournalism News: What equipment do you use? Do you have a favourite lens/camera?
Elizabeth Dalziel: I have two canon camera bodies, canon prime lenses 24mm f1.4, a 35 mm f1.4, a 50 mm f1.2, and a zoom 70-200 2.8, a 300 mm f4 and a 1.4 teleconverter. I am in the market for an 85 mm prime lens. My favourite lens is probably the 35 mm f.1.2? But maybe my favourite lens changes depending on which one does the job for the situation in each shoot. I am a big fan artificial light, so I am not up at 4:00 AM chasing the golden light, unless the assignment requires that. I own two canon speedlights, an off camera cable, a speedlight transmitter, a Godox propac to regenerate the flash faster after each shot, a set of Profoto heads, as well as 3 studio lights that plug to a wall with, backdrops, unmbrellas, lightboxes and the whole kit and kaboodle that comes with it, a Mini Mavic drone and an Iphone 10. Also have a microphone and a couple of tripods for shooting video as well as LED light heads.
Photojournalism News: What social media platforms do you use?
Elizabeth Dalziel: I use Instagram and Twitter badly, Facebook privately with friends. My website probably has more in regards to some of the editorial work I have done than my social media links, and even that could do with more frequent updates. I know editors look a lot more at Instagram and need to make it a bigger priority, for now it has been a more personal than a proffesional outlet. But watch that space, I might start to up my game.
Photojournalism News: How do you prepare yourself before any assignment? What would you put in your camera bag for a typical task?
Elizabeth Dalziel: I research all I can on the subject ahead of an assignment and try to get a clear brief of what images we need. After that I work with the situation on the ground to try and bring what the editor wants and what the situation offers as close as possible. What I pack changes depending on the nature of the assignment. For news I try to travel light, I love my friend Wesley Bocxe’s Newswear vests and pouches, it really helps distribute the weight and keep everything close to hand. For my everyday bag I have a Billingham where I tend to carry a camera body, a wide (24 mm or 35mm), a 50 mm and a flash. For studio work, if outdoors or I need to travel light I carry my profoto heads, umbrella and a lightstand, if it’s a larger studio set I need, I bring along big lights, backdrops and the kitchen sink.
Once you get there “Let the story guide you”, My husband, who is a broadcast television editor and producer tells me: “Start photographing and the assignment will lead the way. Don’t force it”. Photographing an earthquake in Colombia in 1998, I would go out to shoot with pre conceived images in my mind, I became very frustrated when I couldn’t find the images I wanted. I would come back to our office empty handed and upset. Colombia Editor Ricardo Mazalan told me: “Relax and just go and see what is out there”. Once I stopped looking for what was in my head I was able to see what was in front of me. As photographers we want to control everything that goes in to the frame, you have to surrender to the fact that reality doesn’t comply to what you want, you have to just roll with it. The scene will provide more than you could think of. Also It’s important not to force the scene to fit what your editors want. Saying no to an editor, telling them “I didn’t find what you wanted out there because it wasn’t there”, is a good quality for a photographer to have.
Photojournalism News: How would you best describe your style of work? What are you trying to say with your photography?
Elizabeth Dalziel: I think I am trying to elevate the mundane to something universal that the viewer can relate to. I thrive with daily life, my life is one big assignment.
I became a master at photographing the “b” side of an assignment when I was at the wires as I tended to be changing a roll of film when “The picture” came along. I scrambled to get an alternate image to make up for it. What seemed a handicap at one point, not getting the goal in focus, became a bonus, teaching me to not go after the picture that people expect from a certain situation, it made me look for something different. Humour is also very important in my work, it makes everything a bit more bearable and who here doesn’t like to be amused?
Photojournalism News: How many photos do you take for one story?
Elizabeth Dalziel: Lots. Gone are the days of souping rolls in tanks in the film era. Before I started a new roll, I would think: “If I shoot more than X rolls, I will have to soup in a bigger tank, or soup twice. Which means it will delay my editing and filing”. You were careful to use your 36 frames wisely. As digital photography has come of age I find we shoot probably more than I need just to be safe. Better to have it and not need it than to not have it. I easily go in to the thousands. For my last couple of NGO trips I averaged 17,000 frames, give or take.
Photojournalism News: What is the last trip you made?
Elizabeth Dalziel: Two months before lockdown I travelled to Ethiopia to address the water crisis in the South Omo valley.
Photojournalism News: What projects will you be working on next?
Elizabeth Dalziel: I am quite interested in exploring a way to illustrate Menopause and middle age women. I feel it’s an overlooked subject. I like the challenge of putting in to images something that is hard to picture. I might try to do mix media and combine it with print making or painting. I am also writing quite a bit, I think it grounds photo essays when you put your thoughts down in to words, it adds another dimension to the images. I am working on a couple of book ideas, one is a compilation of the images I have made bringing up my two boys and the other is about migration as illustrated by my family’s crossing borders in search of a better life.
Photojournalism News: Which of your photographs would you describe as your favourite? What makes them so special to you?
Elizabeth Dalziel: The photographs of daily life with my children would top the list, the domestic space it is a part of everyone’s life but often overlooked. I Love a picture of them inside the supermarket cart shopping in the cereal aisle. Bathtime, Fancy dressed as a storm trooper in front of a puddle, It is something quite universal in the Western world, something you can relate with.
There are others as well that I hold quite dear. The day my car was shot up in Hebron, the family who gave me shelter made tea for me. I shot a picture of them preparing the cups and brewing the tea, a calm domestic scene while outside a gunshots rung. It was never published, when I called my editor, Jackie Larma to tell her I had something to file, she said she we needed to concentrate on getting me out of there, so it wasn’t ever filed in the wires. I later made a painting of it.
Photojournalism News: What message do you want your photos to convey?
Elizabeth Dalziel: The power of the familiar and the mundane.
(All images © Courtesy of Elizabeth Dalziel)
Photojournalism News: What does a photo need to be a great in your eyes?
It has to engage and move you in some way. I rather like it when I am editing or looking at images and burst in to laughter. If it can do it for me I figure it will get a reaction from someone else.
Photojournalism News: In the digital age people consume billions of photos every single day, under the circumstances what could make a photo memorable?
Elizabeth Dalziel: When a picture surprises me. Catches me unaware, when there is something in there that doesn't quite belong, one that makes you think that you need to keep on going back to look at it in order to figure it out. But what makes a photo memorable could change with time and who is looking at it, or what they are looking for. A picture that took me where I needed to go 20 years ago might not be the one that gets me there now.
Photojournalism News: What motivates you to continue taking pictures and what do you do to keep motivated?
Elizabeth Dalziel: The compulsion to tell stories. Stay curious, try to have a fresh eye, but when that doesn’t happen take a step back. I once told a friend that careers are long. There will be peaks and troughs.
Photojournalism News: What was the biggest professional risk you have taken and what was the outcome?
Elizabeth Dalziel: Becoming a freelancer. It was learning how to be a photographer outside of a safety net. I loved being within a structure that provided you with gear, assignments, amazing colleagues, knowhow and security. I had to learn how to navigate on my own and tell a different kind of story, I wasn’t going to compete with the wires or try to chase news. I have a more anthropological interest in pursuing themes and delving in to them. I had to buy my gear, keep up with the technology, build a webpage, do my own accounting, pursue clients. It is a constant learning curb and each client and editor presents you with different challenges. Trying your hand at video, drone photography, remote photography. During lockdown I did quite a bit on remote photography and have started a project photographing medical developments that use AI technology in Africa remotely.
Photojournalism News: What would be your dream assignment?
Elizabeth Dalziel: I have my dream assignment. I get to shoot things that interest me and choose what stories I want to tell.
Photojournalism News: What are the essential skills/ qualities a photojournalist should have?
Elizabeth Dalziel: Empathy, curiosity, a sense of humour, determination, resilience and honesty.
Photojournalism News: What do you think about the digital manipulation of images?
Elizabeth Dalziel: In journalism it’s unacceptable to add anything or create a scene that was unlike what you shot. I tend to do basic toning, cropping when needed. When working with commercial photography, art and mixed media it’s a different picture, you can dissect the elements of a photograph you have taken and use them to create something completely different all together.
Photojournalism News: What does it mean to be an ethical photojournalist?
Elizabeth Dalziel: To be able to sleep soundly at night and be at peace with the decisions you make. Not to hurt anyone in the process of making a picture. No picture is worth hurting someone. To abide by of the general standards upheld by the trade. Not to misrepresent a situation, and to be honest with your photo subject, your editors and yourself.
Photojournalism News: How do you see the role of photojournalism evolving in the world? Do you think photojournalism is losing its importance?
Elizabeth Dalziel: It is evolving, like any discipline or art form. From it’s inception photography was controversial. Ingres, went so far as to ask for the new medium to be used only as a tool for painters. Painters had to change what they did to have their art remain relevant. So does photography need to adapt to the rise in citizen journalism photography, it’s no longer who gets to the scene first, with everyone holding a smart phone in their hands, photographers have to hone their craft and make compelling images that tell stories in different ways. I remember John Moore, my editor in Mexico city, telling me at the start of my career: “People will want to use your images not because of the places you have been to or your frequent flier miles, but because of the particular way you look at the world”.
Photojournalism will always remain important because it is human nature to tell stories, and journalism excels at showing us the world and expanding our view of it.
Photojournalism News: What is it like to be a female photojournalist in a male-dominated field?
Elizabeth Dalziel: I have found it useful on many occasions, where you could get access to areas where men were not allowed. I remember covering a gunfight in Ramallah, there where molotov cocktails, tear gas, rocks and bullets were flying when I felt a tap on my shoulder. It was a Palestinian woman telling me: “Leave the men to their fighting, come and join us for tea in the back garden” I did just that and it was lovely. I was often more interested in covering what the majority of the population where doing while a small percentage were hitting each other over the head with sticks and stones. Women in war zones aimed most of the time to try and create a sense of normalcy for their families.
Photojournalism News: Do you have any advice for aspiring photojournalists?
Elizabeth Dalziel: Every story is a local story. Don’t turn a blind eye to the complex narratives sitting right next to you, don’t ignore your own backyard in lieu of remote exotic destinations. There are images everywhere and the “duller” the subject, the more it will need your skill to make it come to life. I found great joy in photographing so called “dry subjects” such as the economic stories in China. One of my favourite photo essays from my time there was about the rise of the middle class and what they do with their expendable income. I shot the increased use in cosmetic surgery, which only a few decades back would have been seen as capitalist behaviour and shunned in a society that wanted uniformity and compliance. Enjoy what you do. As the saying goes “Choose a Job You Love, and You Will Never Have To Work a Day in Your Life”.
Elizabeth Dalziel is a Mexican freelance photographer based in London whose work ranges from the coverage of the Second Intifada and the Iraq war to documentary photography in London. Her assignments have taken her across Latin America, Europe, the Middle East, Asia and Africa. She has published her work in major newspapers and magazines around the world while working as a staff photographer for The Associated Press based in Mexico City, Jerusalem, New Delhi and Beijing. Her work include assignments for National Geographic, The New York Times and Major Non-Governmental Organisations. She was awarded a John S. Knight Fellowship in 2007 by Stanford University and also has won awards from the NPPA, POYi. She won The AP President’s award for her coverage of the Iraq war. Her long-term project chronicles her experiences as a mother and family life. Part of that project “The Secret Life of Mothers” was honored in 2016 by POYi. In 2020 documenting Homeschooling her children during lockdown won her an Director’s Choice Award in the Covid-19 Personal Expressions category from POYi.