I studied with Scottish painter Leonard McComb, a Royal Academician at Whitechapel. He valued sensitivity above probably everything else. He was disappointed when I turned to photography, but I realised I needed to study something I could earn a living from.
As a teacher of photography, sensitivity is the one quality I look for in potential students. If you’re not sensitive to your own feelings and to the feelings of life around you, then it is going to be very difficult to interpret them. The technical skills of photography are now quite straightforward, but the ability to understand why you are doing what you are doing and to understand the world around you and to connect with it as an author is a much greater challenge.
The first photo book I bought was Mary Ellen Mark’s Passport, and I really like her approach to the way she photographed people, she had a lot of soul. I also really appreciated Henri Cartier-Bresson and the fluency of his visual language.
When I was at the height of my career at National Geographic I stepped away from photography for five or six years to study geography at university and it was a risk worth taking. I think any amount of concentrated reflection and learning and reading you can do in your life is always going to pay off. I think it is too easy to move from week to week or month to month just with the sole aim of paying the rent or school fees or whatever people have to pay. You have to look after your inner self.
Study enabled me to shape my way forward as a photographer. To be exposed to an awful lot of ideas through literature is incredibly valuable.
Even while I was doing my PhD, I was working on my first book and I’ve now done ten. The book Hotel Afrique was pretty instructive, a coherent body of work very tightly edited with only 28 pictures. I think I really understood what I was doing with that work. It’s very difficult to move from a whole range of possible actions you can take, when you’re working on a personal project, to define a single track and then being confident it is the right one. I felt in that book, and one or two others, I was able to do that.
I’m not really interested in style. I think there are two things to talk about in photography. One is how we approach a subject or a story and the other thing is the way you choose to do it, whether you choose a 5×4 or a 10×8 or a Leica, how you work. I have worked in every way imaginable, but my approach has been consistent. Style, I’m not sure it is a very helpful concept. It might be good in advertising.
As Henri Cartier-Bresson once said, Magnum is a community of thought. Everybody in Magnum is very passionate about photography and always challenging themselves in different ways. It is such an interesting place to be and it’s an honour to be able to talk to people about photography in the way I’ve been able to do through Magnum.