Photojournalist Giles Clarke
Interview: Nezih Tavlas / May 5, 2021
“My ‘style’ is to jolt the viewer into some kind of engagement”
(Courtesy of Giles Clarke)
Photojournalism News: What drew you to photojournalism?
Giles Clarke: I was drawn to photojournalism primarily by my love of early black and white photography and the work of those who documented some of the major events and struggles of the 20th century. I built my first black and white darkroom when I lived in West Berlin in the 80's after I saw an exhibition of Robert Capa's 'Effects of the War on Hiroshima'. I remember standing in the gallery looking at those jarring images by Capa and Eisenstadt. The burnt skin on young children in the atomic-scarred landscape shook the senses and deeply moved me. At that time, I lived close to the Berlin Wall and worked as a 16mm camera assistant for a news crew. One of the most memorable stories we covered was the last-ever Cold War spy swap in February 1986 on the Glienicke Bridge (Bridge of Spies). Living in that unique divided city for three years, surrounded by a 13ft concrete wall and machine gun posts every 150m, was exciting and raw at the time. It was a vibrant melting pot of reactionary German counterculture, art and protest, That was where my love of photography and photojournalism first started.
Photojournalism News: What equipment do you use? Do you have a favourite lens/camera?
Giles Clarke I travel very lightly if I can. I just find it easier not to be weighed down in places where space and time is limited. In some parts of the world, you might have just a few seconds or minutes to operate - in places like Yemen and Somalia for instance. Being able to stay nimble and keeping it simple in those situations often gives an extra valuable moments to work. In war and trouble zones, I tend use the SONY A-7r package of 2 bodies and maybe 3 lenses total. Zeiss is my preferred glass. The Sony gear gives me perfectly good quality and are solidly built. Being lighter and more manageable is key,....and not a problem if they dinged or knocked about while on the move. In general, I've never been obsessed with my cameras or the need to have the latest fancy kit. Taking very expensive camera gear into some places only causes problems. One also has to remember that some of the greatest images ever made in photography were created on cameras with less resolution than today's IPhone..
Photojournalism News: What social media platforms do you use?
Giles Clarke: I use all the usual social media culprits
Instagram - https://www.instagram.com/clarkegiles/
Twitter - https://twitter.com/gcwingman
Tumblr - https://clarkegiles.tumblr.com/
Photojournalism News: How do you prepare yourself before any assignment? What would you put in your camera bag for a typical task?
Giles Clarke: Much of this depends on how much lead time you have pre-travel but first off, decide what the story elements you will require and what is needed to make that happen. The main things for me are access and security - both getting into the country or zone of focus and then how to move around safely. Always assess the health risks well ahead of schedule. If you need malaria or any other kind of preventative medication then allow time for prescription for instance. Things in my daily camera bag whilst there, (other than camera kit and batteries) might include a local power adaptor, a stash of cash and, if possible, a spare local flip phone for emergency use. I also always carry a copy of my country visa and scan my passport to show at checkpoints - if needed..
Photojournalism News: How would you best describe your style of work? What are you trying to say with your photography?
Giles Clarke: As a photographer who is drawn to highlighting our humanitarian struggle, I try to be focused on those who are living in the middle of the conflict, struggle or crisis that I am covering. I suppose my 'style' is to jolt the viewer into some kind of engagement; not through shock particularly but by arresting a viewer's gaze for a few seconds. In this 'overload' world, jolting your audience for a second is key.
Photojournalism News: How many photos do you take for one story?
Giles Clarke: I take many thousands of images on a typical assignment. But for me, It’s not about how many pictures one takes but instead how many pictures you need to tell the best story...It’s about getting the bones and editing sometimes just one image can do that..
Photojournalism News: What is the last trip you made?
Giles Clarke: My last overseas assignment was to Yemen during November and December of 2020. I work very closely with United Nations Office of Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) on awareness campaigns for issues directly related to the humanitarian crisis. I find this work extremely rewarding and I have a great deal of respect for those working in conflict zones in the humanitarian capacity. The work the UN does in general is always understated and in many ways undervalued by the majority of the developed nations.
Photojournalism News: What projects will you be working on next?
Giles Clarke: I am always circling a number of crisis-related stories. I often need months after I return from a long assignment to best utilize the various content such as video, sound and stills. I follow a number of conflict regions and look at the possibilities of getting involved.
Photojournalism News: Which of your photographs would you describe as your favourite? What makes them so special to you?
Giles Clarke: That’s a tough one - I don’t really have a favorite but maybe the opening image from my El Salvador gang cage series is one of them. That was a powerful moment to record given I was not expecting that scene. I had spent the week before that image in and around the police station where those cages were located but had no idea they existed until a female officer insisted to the captain that I see the cages. To this day, I still struggle with how depraved and inhumane that whole situation was.
Photojournalism News: What message do you want your photos to convey?
Giles Clarke: I just hope to make you think and hopefully show a side of humanity we might not usually see….. I am, however, not here to make you feel comfortable or secure. Goes back to that jolting I was talking about.
(Courtesy of Giles Clarke)
Photojournalism News: What does a photo need to be great in your eyes?
Giles Clarke: A powerful image should stop you and ideally hit you hard… Of course that has many facets be it beauty, pain or simply framing. A powerful image gets your attention- You want to know more.
Photojournalism News: In the digital age people consume billions of photos every single day, under the circumstances what could make a photo memorable?
Giles Clarke: Its all about impact. And timing. An image resonates to each of us in different ways. I only know what makes something memorable for me. That's how it is in this field, we have remain true to ourselves and maybe others will connect with something - or not!
Photojournalism News: What motivates you to continue taking pictures and what do you do to keep motivated?
Giles Clarke: I am motivated by a number of key factors that, for now, keep me inspired. Firstly I've always loved photography and that eternal quest for powerful imagery. During my 20's, I spent many years working in the darkroom printing for other photographers so I got to learn a lot about other visions, precise framing and subtle tonality etc. The printing began in the commercial and fashion world and I learnt a lot about that side of things. But I struggled to stay motivated after a few years so I walked away and got into other things. Eventually I realized I wanted to use photography to say something about how I felt about the world...and have been on that path for the past 15 years.
Photojournalism News: What was the biggest professional risk you have taken and what was the outcome?
Giles Clarke: Risk is part of the job but how that's managed is so critical. Working in remote and often dangerous places obviously raises the risk but with coordinated planning and intel, the threats are decreased. Photographing at night in gang neighborhoods of places like San Salvador or Guatemala City is something I used to do for stories but shy away from now. The unpredictability of these areas I find more troublesome than war zones where frontlines and threats are far more defined. One has to also remember that many of us will often only spend a few months at most in these hard areas- unlike those who live there permanently. It's all relative. Millions of people still live in active war-zones today where children play in fields of unexploded ordnance for instance. I will often try to highlight these threats as these are elements of severe risk in those societies today. How much risk has the displaced family taken by fleeing a war-zone? How much risk do aid workers and frontline medical workers take on a daily basis? There simply has to be a certain amount of risk otherwise nothing would get done!.
Photojournalism News: What would be your dream assignment?
Giles Clarke: My dream assignment is to travel the world on trains and boats for the a few months a year -with my family alongside…I always miss my wife and children when I am away so having them with me is a dream assignment.
Photojournalism News: What are the essential skills/ qualities a photojournalist should have?
Giles Clarke: It's a never-ending learning process. No story is ever the same. Every approach is different. For me, it began with a love of photography then morphed more into a kind of activism. I get fired up about things in our world so maybe I can help give a voice thru others? The 'race to win' and dog-eat-dog mentality has left too many people behind - those stories of neglect and social abandonment interest me. On the practical side for freelancers, the eternal challenge is being able to get the balance (and work) that enables the commercial work to pay for the editorial more personal stories. You can't sit around waiting for assignments these days- you have to hustle!! Ultimately, it's about having the desire to create a meaningful story whilst accepting the wall of challenges. You gotta get over the wall every day to get it done. You just have to find a way to figure it out. Without putting you and your team in unnecessary risk, do whatever is needed to make it happen.
Photojournalism News: What do you think about the digital manipulation of images?
Giles Clarke: Sometimes enhancing poor light or cropping is important. I come from years of darkroom work in my first career as a black and white printer. You often need to balance a story through tonality and look.
Photojournalism News: What does it mean to be an ethical photojournalist?
Giles Clarke: Being ethical in this work is critical. Arguably the most important value in respected journalism. Do a course on photojournalism ethics before you hit the road! Always respect your subject and the risk of highlighting them dangerously. Keep the scene natural. Keeping it honest from time of capture to captioning and onward is the route to take.
Photojournalism News: How do you see the role of photojournalism evolving in the world? Do you think photojournalism is losing its importance?
Giles Clarke: Photojournalism is clearly losing importance to the majority of media budget planners. Photo departments have become easy targets for cuts and layoffs. That lack of support demeans the entire industry as longform and more investigative reporting becomes harder to produce. Coupled with growing threats against reporters generally by governments and authorities, the list of obstacles gets longer. Add the fact that the photo syndication companies take increasingly larger percentages from photographers as they do deals pan the industry, it's not surprising that fewer professional photojournalists are still working. On the flip side, the rise of the iPhone and civilian reporting is making important steps into transparency and truth on our streets. The recent George Floyd case highlights how critical it is to record events as they unfold in order to hold violence and oppression accountable.
Photojournalism News: Do you have any advice for aspiring photojournalists?
Giles Clarke: Studying the work of notable photojournalists over the last 80 years or so is a good start. It's so important to have solid reference points from iconic past work - pictures and stories that reached and moved people in years gone by. Why did certain images change national perception? Read and learn about Capa, Dorothea Lange, Margaret Bourke White and Walker Evans - just to name a few. Engross yourself in other regions and cultures. Just be all over what you do and wake up hungry. Be curious; Be concerned; Stay prepared and most of all, Keep it honest.
Giles Clarke is an award-winning photojournalist based in New York City and focusing on capturing the human face of current and post-conflict issues throughout the world. Giles started his career as a 16mm camera assistant in a daily news production company in Berlin in the mid 1980's. He then trained and worked as a professional black and white photographic printer in London and New York City during the 1990's. Currently working on projects for UN OCHA (Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs) covering the East African famine and the Yemen crisis.