Team Loupe is a series of interviews with the photographers behind Loupe Magazine.
Interview by Giorgia Lenzi –
With his widely published photography ranging from commercial work to intimate portraiture and documentary, English photographer and writer Alex Ingram talks to us about his influences, his photographic approach and his new upcoming project.
Giorgia Lenzi: How did you first become interested in photography? Did you have an idea of where you wanted to go with it?
Alex Ingram: Growing up I had always wanted to be an architect. I loved the idea of creating something in your head then seeing that become a physical object within the real world. I actually went to university in Nottingham to study architecture, but very quickly realised that it wasn’t for me, and what I was actually interested in was how the light and the people would interact within the space, and so I moved down to Bristol to study on the Photography course there.
I’ve always been interested in people and the stories that they have to tell. I am quite a nosey person, and photography is the tool that allowed me to document the people I have met throughout my life. It’s like a VIP pass into peoples lives. With a camera and a smile, I’ve found that you can pretty much get into most places.
GL: Which photographer was your earliest influence?
AI: I’ve always been obsessed with Bryan Schutmaat and Jon Tonks’s work. I think everything about it is completely finessed and mastered. I look at hundreds of different images every single day, but I always find myself coming back to their work and can spot one of their images immediately, even if I’ve never seen it before.
GL: You are predominantly a photographer but you also write for Loupe. Many photographers avoid working with words, how does writing affect your own practice?
AI: I am always trying to create a narrative within my personal work and I feel that writing helps me achieve this. It’s not something I do with every shoot, but whilst shooting David’s House and also with my new project The Gatekeepers I found it incredibly useful to make notes during my conversations with the subjects. I shoot in quite a slow way, and really enjoy engaging with the subjects and getting to know them and their story before shooting. It enables them to be more at ease with me taking their portrait, and I get to build a better connection with them. Writing about my work and my encounters with these subjects helps me better understand them, and influences me with the final edit I select.
GL: When you are working for clients, how do you balance following a brief with your own creativity and aims?
AI: There are always restrictions when shooting a job for a client when they have a particular brief, and some jobs are just incredibly dull, there’s no denying that. But I’ve found one of the most useful things to do is to actually sit down with the client prior to the shoot day and talk them through my ideas and how I’d like to shoot it. A lot of the time, they may have an idea of what they’re wanting, but after you spend time speaking to them, what they’re actually after is something completely different.
I often remind myself that I’ve been commissioned for a reason. There are literally thousands of other photographers that they could have commissioned to shoot their story or campaign, but they have chosen me for this. There must have been a reason for that, and that reason must be that they like your style and your ideas. There’s obviously a balance between the client brief and your creativity, but if you can pitch your idea in a confident and appealing way, you will end up with much stronger final images.
GL: Most of your projects seem to originate from personal motivations. Do you think having an emotional connection with your subject modifies your documentary eye and if so how?
AI: I suppose it does. Like I said before, I’m a nosey person and what I’m really interested in is meeting a range of people, it’s exciting! I’m fascinated with other people and their lives, and I find it a challenge to try and represent a person through a single frame. You have all the power behind the camera. The way you frame the shot, what you choose to include or exclude, how much direction are you giving the subject, and how much do you want the viewer to see is completely at the disposal of you, the photographer. Is there such thing as a completely truthful portrait of a person? I’m not too sure. But portraiture enables me to interact with people on a completely different level, building up a relationship with the subject and representing them in a way that I think is respectful to them. I always take something away with me from each shoot and every person I meet.
GL: In your project Dr. Ingram you explored the complex relationship between memory and photography, giving an extended portrait of someone through their objects and old photos. Can you talk about this less traditional approach to portraiture?
AI: Dr. Ingram was a project about my Grandfather that I’d been planning for a while, documenting his life and his adventures. You always think of your loved ones being around forever, but that is never the case, and unfortunately my Grandfather passed away before I was able to begin the project. All that was left were his stories and his possessions that he had collected throughout his life.
Like a lot of elderly people, my grandfather was a bit of a hoarder, never throwing anything away, and as a result, his home was filled with unique and unusual anecdotes that offered us snippets into his life. The project was more a way of me and my family remembering him through these personal belongings that we found whilst clearing out his home, and explores whether or not you can evoke memories and emotions through physical objects.
Whilst the project doesn’t contain any photographs of my Grandfather that I had taken myself, I used these unusual objects, as well as archive imagery, to create a portrait of his life and explore our obsessions with material things and what remains when we’re gone.
GL: What is the most inspirational advice or lesson you received relating to your photographic practice?
AI: Robert Capa once said, “if your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” That is something that has resonated with me from the moment I heard it. A lot of people seem to think that he’s on about how physically close you are to a subject, but what I take him to mean is in your emotional connection with the subject. Whether you are photographing a person, or an object, or a place, if you haven’t taken the time to really understand the subject and create a connection with it, then to me, the image has failed. On commercial jobs I have to shoot in a very fast paced digital world with quick turn arounds, but what I love about shooting personal work is that you have the time to fully engross yourself within the story and completely slow down the whole process. Shoot less, listen more, and then you’ll find what you’re looking for.
GL: You’ve said that your work is fundamentally about people. What skill do you consider essential when approaching a subject and their story?
AI: Be kind and smile. It’s as simple as that. First impressions are so important, and you need to be understanding and sensitive with your subject. Some people are really comfortable in front of the camera, but others aren’t. It’s a really unnatural thing to do for a lot of people, and I hate it when I’m being photographed. The most important thing though is to make your subject feel comfortable around you and let them feel that they can trust you. Listen to what they’re saying. Sometimes you have a couple of hours with a person so you have they time to talk to them before and you can build this relationship with them. Other times you have a matter of minutes. Whatever the situation, the principle for me is still the same.
GL: Tell us about your new project The Gatekeepers, how did the idea come to mind?
It focuses on Island Wardens that spend their lives in quiet solidarity on the remote islands surrounding the UK, far away from the crowded, overpopulated landscapes of our urban world. With limited access to the mainland during the winter months, no mains electricity, and under constant attack from harsh storms and perilous currents that can see them marooned for weeks at a time, it’s not a role many are suited for.
This ongoing project documents the lives of these rangers, exploring how they have come to adapt living in such remote circumstances, and questioning their place within our modern world. The idea for the project came about whilst speaking to the coxswain of the St Davids Lifeboat whilst I was shooting David’s House. He told me about this couple who spend all year living on Skomer, the small island just off the coast of Pembrokeshire and I immediately thought how bizarre that was and wondered how they coped living on such a remote location all year round.
Over the next two years I’m going to be visiting these remote islands and spending a week on each, living with the wardens and exploring what life is like living in some of the most beautiful, yet inhospitable landscapes in the UK.
GL: What’s next for your career?
AI: My main focus will be shooting The Gatekeepers. It’s completely self funded and a real labour of love, so will take up the majority of my free time over the next couple of years. Aside from that I’ll be continuing to work on various commissions and ad jobs around the UK.