PhotoVoice is interviewing established photographers to gain a wider insight into the power of photography and the different approaches to ethical issues. This month, we interviewed Laura Pannack on her photography and her passion for the medium.
Laura Pannack is a renowned and award-winnng photographer whose social documentary and portraiture seeks to explore the complex relationship between subject and photographer.
Where did it all begin and why did you chose photography and not another medium?
I don’t remember a specific moment, I just remember falling in love.
I used to paint and draw and it was something that I really enjoyed because it allowed me to concentrate really deeply on one thing and I found it quite meditative, but I’d often stop a painting before finishing it because it took so long. Photography lends itself so closely to painting but without the frustration of having to be patient. I found that I executed my vision a lot more promptly and it felt like I was learning more.
Tell us a bit about your approach to photography.
I try and not define a technique or approach before starting something. I used to really preempt my images and map them out and draw them out in my head. I often still do that but I also try be really open to just witnessing moments. I never just take a snap; I always think before I take a picture and consider if it’s worth it. That’s really important to me.
How do you decide if something is worthy of being captured?
I ask myself why am I taking the picture? I also think about how it is going to be perceived when I look back on it because often I am taking pictures of people, and if I take a picture of somebody it might be preserved in a way that I don’t want it to be. It’s not that I am making work for an audience but I’m just being aware that I don’t want to hurt anyone or present anyone unfairly.
Is there a single image that defines you as a photographer?
I kind of hope that there isn’t. I think that there are images that represent my life and images that reflect my approach to people or my views on a certain subject at a certain time. It also comes down to whether they are my images or images that I have taken for somebody else because you could say that ‘Graham’ from World Press defined a lot of my editorial approach, but I don’t really have set aesthetic rules. It’s down to what that image is saying, the purpose and intention.
Can photography bring about positive social change?
Yes, definitely. I think that photography like literature and any art form can have a huge influence on people, and I think what’s so powerful about photography is that it is a universal language that can reach everybody.
It’s also an incredibly intimate language in the sense that an image can really emotionally effect you, it provides you with the opportunity to interpret freely, whereas I think that writing or movies can be so direct that in some ways it can limit interpretation. Not always, but sometimes film and literature has a defined narrative whereas with photography a single image can be so many different parallel narratives which I feel can be more personal.
I also think it’s a gentler approach. You can choose to engage with it or chose to make it about you and about your life. You can choose to be yourself in that image or you can choose to step away from it.
Has charity photography changed since you started?
I don’t know because my photography has changed since I started and charities have changed since I started. I have the advantage that my mum has owned and run a charity for over 18 years so I have the understanding of how charities work from the inside. My mum believes that a charity is a business, she encourages me to not be so forgiving of those playing the ‘charity card’. I believe that giving to charity is a choice, not an obligation. A lot of charities will ask for things for free and it’s something that I disagree. I also think that photography and photographers should be valued.
I guess my answer to that question is I don’t know if it has changed but I think that my attitudes have changed in so many different ways. When I first worked with Oxfam I felt awful because I was photographing people who were dying of cholera and I didn’t feel like I could photograph them in a way to dignify them. My attitude changed dramatically when someone turned around and said ‘you are delivering my message, thank you for helping us and for listening to us’. I think that my attitude switched from ‘this is about us and them’ to ‘this is about us altogether’.
What is your approach to the ethics of photography?
I try to allow myself to be vulnerable and if I’m asking somebody to stand in a muddy bog I’ll stand in it first and say: ‘would you mind doing this?’
I don’t judge other photographers for their working methods. There’s the constant conversation about the ethics of Photoshop and the ethics of asking people before taking their picture and I think that everyone has a different approach. If somebody has good, pure, selfless intentions then that will show.
What is your greatest achievement as a photographer?
I’m quite proud of myself in making a living out of being a photographer but I think also my greatest achievement is that I still enjoy it; that I found something that I just really love. There’s lots of things that I am proud of, like I’m very proud of World Press. That was a massive thing for me.
How important do you think equipment is?
My mum has always said a camera is just a box. I differ slightly I’d say it’s more like a pair of Rollerblades; if you have a really beautiful camera it’s sometimes much easier to skate. What’s more important is how the photographer feels about their equipment. Whenever I’m buying a camera I really need to hold it and I need to play with it and try it out. I’m also sentimental about my equipment, it protects me, it’s like a friend.
Do you have any advice for aspiring photographers?
Be your own worst critic. I think that the minute people get arrogant or complacent their motivation has died.
http://laurapannack.com/blog/ one post a week – one image – one story – every Thursday