Ten Questions with… Louis Quail

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 the renowned documentary photographer, Louis Quail on his photography and passion for the medium.

Louis Quail’s most recent project, ‘Big Brother’ is an intimate body of work following his brother Justin, who has schizophrenia. The project was selected for the Metro Imaging portfolio review prize and shortlisted for the Renaissance Photography prize 2017. This week a crowdfunding campaign has been launched to publish the work as a book with Dewi Lewis publishing.

Where did it all begin and why did you choose photography and not another medium?

I actually studied Graphic Design in Brighton, with an emphasis on illustration, so I could easily have been an illustrator like some of my friends. However, I was always impatient to get to the point of the communication: what is the point of the image, what am I trying to say? Photography is much faster and more accessible in that regard.

Tell us a bit about your approach to photography.

With so many pictures out there it’s important to use the medium of photography to say something worth saying, otherwise it fast becomes a pointless exercise. I like to story-tell and I use analogue film (Kodak Portra) because I like the pace and care that analogue photography demands, I’m not so interested in the one “killer image” but more how pictures work together in a series.

How do you decide if something is worthy of being captured?

Well first of all, you have to be interested in the subject matter, and then you have consider whether anyone else will be interested; and if not how can you photograph it so they become interested.

When I was younger and the editorial market was a tad more robust, I would try and tell stories which reflected news coverage of global events, and travel to those regions. The magazine market was still strong enough to invest in good stories at that time, I travelled to Afghanistan, Haiti and Libya, however the time you could spend on a story was always limited by the economics, which could be frustrating.

Around that time, I started a self-funded project called Desk Job, which explored the forces of globalization by documenting people around the world sitting at their desks, showing our increasingly similar experience of work across the globe, whilst simultaneously asking questions of the role of the corporate. Not an obviously photogenic subject or an easy one, but somehow by trusting my gut and using the typological form to make comparisons and find interest in the banal I made a body of work that people are interested in. It’s still getting exposure today, the magazine, ‘It’s Nice That’ featured the project this year, at least five years after I finished the work.

Is there a single image that defines you as a photographer?

Interestingly, I was asked to take part in a book project by Peter Dench called ‘The Shot that Made Me” which asks a similar question:

I wrote:

“Despite a lifetime photographing across continents, it’s interesting to note that my most recent, nearest and personal project is potentially my best. This picture is taken from a project that explores my brother’s struggle with schizophrenia. Not so much ‘the shot that made me’ as the shot made of me; a life times experience has given me the skills, confidence and self belief to make a work that reflects me like no other before it.

“I love the picture of Justin wrapped in the blanket, at his ‘den’. He is high on life and his mind is whirring with chaotic thoughts, excitement and a constant flow of ideas. Although it can be harder for Justin to stay within the confines of society’s expectations in this state, for me, it’s much better than the alternative, which can be a debilitating depression.”

© Louis Quale, from the series Big Brother

© Louis Quail, from the series Big Brother

Can photography bring about positive social change?

Yes, but it’s not always from a point moving forward with everything getting better and better; sometimes photographers are trying to bring about social change from a position of narrowing horizons, defending open, socially aware thinking against opposite; like now, as the political right seem to be in ascendance.

People often say photography makes no difference, but I met a person recently who told me she started a whole charity in her community helping immigrants coming across the Mediterranean based on the one famous picture of the drowned child (Alan Kurdi) on the beach.

Has charity photography changed since you started?

I hope so, but I’m not an expert. I am always surprised by how many charities rely on conventional photography and how hard they find it to bet on truly creative solutions to raise awareness. This is changing however, but I suspect the rent-a-celeb approach is still the most popular. Nothing wrong with that but they need to be betting on riskier projects as well.

What is your approach to the ethics of photography?

That’s a huge subject, I teach and I have a lecture on it which takes an hour and half, short answer: Its very important to be ethical and right from the very beginning, otherwise it might come back to bite you when you’re famous!

© Louis Quale, from the series Big Brother

© Louis Quail, from the series Big Brother

What is your greatest achievement as a photographer?

Another difficult question, when I left college my only ambition was to make a living from my craft, which I did for many years, now I’m more interested in making good work that engages people and makes them think about the issues I want to talk about; even if that means me loosing money. Big Brother, published by Dewi Lewis, is receiving some critical success, I was awarded the Metro portfolio prize at Format and shortlisted for the Renaissance photography prize this year. I guess, I’m moving in a direction that suits me.

How important do you think equipment is?

I remember the lecturers oft-repeated mantra, ‘Its not how good your equipment it’s what you do with it that counts.’ To be honest I always felt that to be a bit disingenuous. The equipment you use should be fit for purpose. There’s no point in taking a landscape picture intended to be printed for a large wall on your iphone when it needs a 5×4 Large format camera. But vice versa, you don’t need an expensive camera to engage your Instagram community.

Do you have any advice for aspiring photographers?

Have stamina, play the long game and find a way to support yourself, so you can do the photography you love. If you simply want to make a living in this business, it’s still possible but making good money and doing interesting work is the hardest thing.


To find out how you can support Louis Quail’s Kickstarter click here

Featured image: © Louis Quail, from the series ‘Big Brother’.