Our Image of the Month in the February issue of CR was a stormy shot of the South Wales coast from photographer Ben Birchall, which featured on newspaper front pages across the UK and beyond. CR talks to him about his career in photojournalism…
As a Press Association photographer, Bristol-based Birchall covers news across the South West of the UK, along with other editorial assignments and projects internationally.
In the February issue of CR, we featured Birchall’s photograph that captured a dramatic moment along the coast, as enormous waves towered over Porthcawl Harbour and crashed against the promenade. Onlookers standing beneath, watching the action and taking photos, appear to be enveloped by the surf. The resulting image featured heavily on newspaper front pages, and has become an emblematic picture of the strength and scale of the storms here this season.
CR: Your recent image of the UK storms (pictured at the top of this article) has been widely featured across the media internationally, could you tell me a bit more about the shoot?
BB: I was in the Porthcawl area because I wanted to see how dramatic the effects of the storm hitting the UK would be at high tide, so I made a special effort to travel there that day.
I used a Nikon D3 camera body and a Nikon 400mm f/2.8 lens to capture this shot. I also had another Nikon D3 with 70-200mm f/2.8 zoom lens fitted, which I got a few much wider shots, albeit nowhere near as dramatic. Shooting in incredibly windy conditions is tough, especially with a heavy and long lens. I had to select a reasonably high shutter speed to avoid blur and camera-shake. Added to the fact it was very cold and there was lots of sea-spray covering the camera, it was challenging. However, I was in a very safe spot away from the breaking waves.
Regardless of the sturdy harbour wall where the figures in the image are watching and photographing the waves, I would say there is always a risk being so close to unpredictable waves and violent seas. I’ve photographed from that position on less dramatic days and it’s horrendously wet, windy and the swell can be so random that rouge sets can get quite scary.
I’ve been extremely pleased with the exposure the image has been given and the praise it has received as a representation of the recent UK storms. I’ve had bylines in newspapers as far away as Canada and Australia. For a foreign picture editor to place a weather shot from a small Welsh seaside town in their publication, I feel, is testament to its iconic power as a dramatic image.
CR: Can you tell me more about your background – how did you first get into photography?
BB: Photography began as a hobby for me in the late 80s. I was fascinated during a science lesson at school where we were making pinhole cameras and developing prints in household chemicals. From that moment I was hooked and managed to acquire a 110 compact film camera, saving all my pocket money to buy and develop films at Boots. From there I climbed the photographic ladder stepping up to a 35mm Compact and eventually a 35mm SLR on my 18th birthday.
CR: What were your first subjects and which have been your favourite?
BB: My first forays into serious photography began with photographing local bands and covering gigs in Lincolnshire and the Midlands. I was also in a band at the time and had a strong sense that image was very important. It was a great period of experimentation with people photography, and I would say it’s where my passion for documentation and photojournalism really took off.
CR: Can you tell me more about the nature of editorial photography, documentary work and photojournalism?
BB: Great documentary and editorial photography, and ultimately photojournalism, is all about telling stories through pictures. In the digital and information revolution we are privileged to be living through at the moment, I’d say the appetite and ability to tell stories through images has never been stronger.
By its pure nature documentary photography puts the journalist at the core of a story or event, and personally I find it’s a better way of conveying the emotion and drama involved. A few seconds spent looking at a great editorial picture can save minutes reading a huge chunk of text.
CR: Who or what has most inspired you?
BB: I’d say that my first inspiration came from the great masters of photojournalism and documentary photographers of the early and mid-20th Century shooting for magazines such as TIME, LIFE and Picture Post. I learned a lot about off-the-cuff composition and the best way to get the most from a shoot by soaking up the fantastic images on those pages.
CR: What image has been most significant for you in your career so far?
BB: The recent picture of storm waves in South Wales has been received well both domestically and internationally and has obviously been a highlight.
However, back in 2002, before the viral nature of twitter and the internet, I managed a similar scoop that was splashed all over the front pages of almost every UK national newspaper. It was of an 11-year-old girl breaking into a supermarket and completely destroying the store. I documented the whole scene, including her trying to attack me and consequently being arrested. I was nominated for an award (up against the likes of Tom Stoddart) for that set of images and it was definitely a springboard for my career.
CR: You’ve shot on assignment in various countries where there is conflict, could you talk a bit about what it’s like being a photographer in these types of situations?
BB: As far as photographing in Afghanistan, I’d say that it can be challenging, both mentally and physically. Including two camera bodies and various lenses out on patrol, there’s the added weight of body armour and helmet. Once you’ve factored in three litres of water it can become difficult to just get up off the ground. The ballistic eyewear and dripping sweat doesn’t help composing through the viewfinder and most images I take are done pretty quickly on patrols.
The terrain can be very arduous too. The Green Zone and especially poppy fields are often flooded, rendering the landscape more like a muddy Lincolnshire Fen rather than a desert. Wading through endless drainage ditches is as nerve-racking as it is tough, because that’s where a lot of IEDs [improvised explosive devices] can be hidden by insurgents.
I’ve worked alongside all the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), both on and off operations, including the army and the police, and although I’ve not always felt safe in certain situations, the camera does become a kind of security blanket that is comforting to hide behind. The few times there’s been enemy contact during a patrol I’ve been on it’s always been dealt with so swiftly both from the ground and the air that it can be frustrating because there’s not much of an aftermath to document.
On the whole, being embedded with British forces, whether alone or on combined operations, is always exciting. They’re so accommodating and you really do become part of the team, sleeping, eating and shitting right alongside the soldiers, whether in a foxhole in the desert or in a comfy patrol base.
CR: Do you have any rules when it comes to your work, or lessons learnt?
BB: Every rule in photography should be broken at some point or another. I find the key to being a true professional is knowing instantly in any given situation when to take that calculated gamble and shoot something completely against the grain of how others are shooting.
The only hard and fast rule concerning editorial photography in a modern age of rolling news is to always capture the picture quickly and get it seen on picture desks as soon as possible.
CR: What items are in your must have kit?
BB: If my car was on fire and I could only grab one piece of equipment it would be my battered Nikon D3 with a 70-200mm f/2.8 lens fitted, as I could carry on working for the day. If I had chance to also grab my Nikon 24mm f/1.4 lens I’d be a happy photographer.
CR: What’s the best thing about being a photographer now? And the worst?
BB: The very best thing about being a photographer today is quite literally having a global audience being able to see images from assignments almost immediately after the shoot. The internet has created the phenomenon of instant appetite, and it’s great when images are appreciated in far-flung corners of the world and go viral. However, on the flip side it creates the added pressure to shoot, edit and transmit quickly.
CR: What do you have planned for the year ahead?
BB: Along with the bread-and-butter news across the South West UK that I manage daily, hopefully there is a chance I’ll be off to Mali mid-February to see UK forces train Mali troops. There should be a couple more chances to get back out to Afghanistan this year, as the draw down continues and UK troops pull out of the country too.