In Focus Friday - Hanging free

04 May 2018

SIG: Documentary

This week we invite the new chair of the Documentary Group, Mark Phillips ARPS, to share his thoughts on developing as a photographer and his approach to project work.

Can you give us a little background about the shot?

The image is part of an ongoing documentary project on urban regeneration and specifically exploring urban sporting areas, which were created from derelict areas in Havana, Cuba. I want to show something of the spirit and energy - so, I had a vague idea of the type of shot I wanted. This particular area is in Centro, someone had mentioned it to me, but it was quite hard to find, hidden behind high walls. The area is small with a basic basketball court and the exercise bar. I was immediately attracted to the coloured wall, the ‘windows' and the rudimentary exercise bar, it provides such a graphic background. I pre-focussed and took 2-3 shots of various exercises, then he decided to ‘hang’. I got one shot before he realised and ‘posed’. He was with a group of friends, and soon they all started exercising, so there are some other images in the series from the same location. I try to get the shot as right as I can ‘in camera’. I only use Lightroom and limit my post-processing to simple adjustments like crop, exposure and curves, and some selective adjustments (akin to dodging and burning) .

What was your plan for the day?

On this particular day, my focus was on sports areas, so I travelled light. But when ‘on location’ the day can be quite busy as I often try to fit two different projects into one day… I visit some sports areas on my own in the morning to catch early work-outs, mainly adults, but by 9:30 they are largely empty, so I then move to work on another project on ‘repair', often with a local photographer as my ‘fixer’. This project is mainly indoors, in workshops, I work until around 4pm, when the repair shops close up. I then move back to the sports areas for late afternoon light. By then they have filled with school kids and youths. I might continue shooting until late, often using just street lighting. 

What’s your routine just before heading out with your camera?

I usually have an outline plan for the day. I know roughly the locations I’m going to and what I am hoping for. These days, for projects like this, I almost always use a Fujifilm XPro-2 fitted with a 28 mm Leica Elmarit lens, but I might take an old Fuijfilm XE-2 as well, fitted with wide angle lens. I check batteries are charged then spare SD cards, spare batteries, pencil and note book, some tape (always useful), a very small torch, a cleaning cloth, and some example pictures (A5 size), so people can see what I’m trying to do, some business cards and a bottle of water. I use a small Domke F-503 bag, but it's amazing what you can fit into such a small bag…

While you’re out what makes you press the shutter release?

Although I often go out with a type of image in mind… if I see something that resonates I’ll just stop and photograph. I like simple very graphic backgrounds and something interesting, preferably a little ambiguous as the key subject. 

Where can we find more of your work?

I have had work featured on LensCulture (link) and LifeFramer (link), but the best place to look is my own website (link). You will also find regular updates and new work on Instagram (@markaphill link).

What do you think photographers don’t do but should?

Read (and see) more… study the work of great photographers and study diverse work. They say you cannot write unless you’ve read widely. Looking at photography books, and art and film, helps to build visual literacy. I know one Magnum photographer who told me that he studied photo-books for three years BEFORE he picked up his camera again. 

what essential piece of advice would give your novice self?

Be patient! And go and read more…

Which camera has been your all time favourite and why?

I’m not sure I’m an ‘all time favourite’ sort of person. I have found that as my approach and style have developed, my kit has changed. The first camera I bought myself was a little Rollei 35B; I still have it but it's broken. Soon after, I migrated to SLRs… then autofocus SLRs… then digital… then full frame digital. Then a few years ago I decided I could not be bothered to carry tonnes of kit around. So I switched to mirrorless and Fujifilm. I currently use an XPro-2, and my older XE-2 as a back-up. I also moved back to using manual lenses and currently use a Leica Elmarit 28mm f2.8 (link) on the XPro-2 with an adaptor, so it's equivalent to a 42mm lens. For 90% of my work it's perfect. I love the feel, the lens is really sharp and tiny…… So, instead of a camera, can I have that lens as my all time favourite? 

What’s the best purchase you’ve made for less than £100?

The best purchases are books. I have to admit to having quite a few, so picking just one is a real challenge. Many cost less than £30, so I am going to be greedy and pick 3 different types, but up to £100 in total. So, first is Stuart Franklin’s "Documentary Impulse", if you want to understand something of what contemporary documentary work is about, this is a great start, and currently less than £15. I am seriously struggling to think of anything else thats better ‘photographic’ value. For pure inspiration I have to pick Alex Webb’s monograph, “The Suffering of Light” (currently £50). Whilst it is not strictly documentary, it is ’street photography’ and Alex's images weave complex layers of colour and structure with a level of ambiguity. They are often described as ‘poetic’ and certainly, in my opinion, far more interesting than many literal, pictorial images often seen in documentary work. I think I have £35 left, so can I also go for Mathieu Asselin’s very recent “Monsanto - a photograph investigation’ , which I bought for €40 at Arles last year. It is an amazing example of modern in-depth documentary work, very serious and yet beautiful work. After that we might just have enough change for a coffee…

Thanks Mark. I'll start asking for book tokens now!

If you would like your work to feature in a future edition, please email us (docweb@rps.org ).