Guy Woodland: Reflections on a Life in Photography
The son of a diplomat serving in the then British Foreign and Commonwealth Office I was born in Karachi, Pakistan in 1962. It was a world devoid of the modern digital media platforms and reliant on the BBC World Service, a short wave radio service for entertainment along with a turntable for the once again popular vinyl records. Cameras and photography became an early fascination and hobby, an enjoyable way to pass time and to navigate an exciting world which as a child would change every three or four years as my father’s job moved from country to country, taking in Australia, Ethiopia, Portugal, Brazil, St Lucia and the UK.
My first photograph was taken when I was five. This began a keen interest on my part to capture and 'own', moments. This has continued all my life as I became exposed to different worlds, different cultures and people and places I could never have imagined, even in the varied childhood I enjoyed.
This passion and desire to try and define the world in front of me continued throughout school. Eventually I became a professional photographer and on the advice of Patrick Litchfield (The Queen’s cousin and an acclaimed photographer) who pointed me in the direction of Blackpool and Fylde College where I spent 3 years on a specialist course learning the rudiments of the photographic game. Ironically the first college I had visited when considering a career in photography was the then London College of Printing, today known as the London College of Art. Again a circle has been completed, as some 34 years later I joined the college as a mature student, where I studied for an MA in Photojournalism and Documentary Photography. I completed this in 2016.
Over the years my career has allowed me to cover many varied assignments. In the early 1980's and during the 1990s work was easy to come by. As such I have worked as a photo-journalist, both within the editorial and documentary context, and worked as an aerial and commercial photographer, with additional extensive experience in landscape as well as portraiture. For a period, I worked for the acclaimed auction house Sotheby's and spent several years working in a commercial studio.
All of this was enjoyable and has taken me around the world several times but still the desire to experience new places and new challenges continued. There was always another challenge, another experience or another adventure.
A change in circumstances and direction about 15 years ago drew me to publishing. An opportunity to publish a book out of the blue gave me insight to another world. More importantly it was an opportunity to consider project work. This involved research, photography, design and selling books (to date over 100,000 books). My first book in 1990 entitled 'Stephen Broadbent - Sculpture' was put together in a similar way to modern crowd funding circles. I raised the necessary £50,000 through approaching potential sponsor/investors and in return for their commitment each one received 100 copies of the book. This has been a model I have used extensively in the last decade but it is interesting to note how now ‘crowd funding’ schemes seem to have replaced such patronage.
Recent adventures have included China and I have been fascinated by the changes occurring across this great country. I have been fortunate to visit the provinces of Guizhou, Gansu, Sichuan and the capital city of Beijing, as a guest of the Chinese government; a process of exploration I will continue to pursue.
However, in a game changing decision at the age of 53 I decided to go back into education. In some was I was becoming bemused at the way photography in general was both being practised and viewed in this age of social media platforms. In 2015, as an example, the number of photographs taken through various formats exceeded, apparently, the total analogue film archive.
Pretty much everything has been photographed, again and again and today the social media outlets swamp us with images to such an extent it is impossible to take it all in. How as photographers do we navigate through this jumble? How do we establish what is real and what is pure fantasy. Peter Fraser a fine art photographer makes this observation:
"One of the major problems facing photographers today is that we all carry around with us a huge library of other peoples images in our minds even if we are not aware of this, and these images interfere with the potential of the quiet, unique voice we all have within us."
Of course, there are positive as well as negative repercussions to this brave new world of digitisation. It can transcend cultural barriers and borders, and it can be available instantly. But I am tending to wonder how will we be able to absorb all these images raining down on us, raising a crucial question: Where have all the photo/stories gone that were – and of course still are – told. How do we trawl through the morass of images to find them, and, more pertinently today, are they truthful? Do these story/images – from a wide range of sources - actually become diluted or even missed as they compete against endless bucketsful of trivial pictures of pets and food (not that I have any personal issue with pictures of cats and dogs or endless snaps of breakfasts and dinners).
This has led to the rise of the ‘curator ‘whose job is to order, select, and maybe make sense of images. Thus the role of the curator, the re-user of images, is on the rise. This is way beyond that of the traditional curating process. By re-using other people’s images the curator presents a world defined by their awareness and personal vision. This recontextualisation or re-purposing of images takes a regurgitated world to another level of defining the world through images. This in itself presents new challenges. A world imagined - sometimes true sometimes false?
The traditional disciplines in photography have been eroded and some have gone. Over the last few decades and more I have been fortunate to meet serious and great photographers covering important topics from genocide to famine, injustices, corruption or humanitarian disaster. Today most of them cannot make a living. The role of these precious visual storytellers has been overwhelmed by the ‘noise’ and profligacy of images that have little meaning.
This poses a conundrum: if media outlets will not run stories then eventually this kind of reporting which imparts the essential elements of photojournalism and documentary photography, will stop. This then leads into another consideration: photography has always been manipulated by totalitarian states – and of course also by the more democratic nations – to suit their own purposes whilst ‘independent’ photography has so often provided the vitally important checks and balances on validity and truth. If these voices become diluted to a point of obscurity, then where does that leave freedom of speech and indeed the bedrock of democracy. Meaningful reporting is in a state of flux and I am not sure where it will end up. Certainly the accepted notion of ‘false news’ is very topical and is becoming the norm. We are being fed streams of inane stories and others that are simply not fact checked or verified.
So in this world which is constantly changing and evolving, where are we now as a photographic industry? If everyone is a photographer, where will the profession end up?
Thirty odd years ago it seemed straight-forward. Today it seems everything is jumbled up and changing, sectors merge and disciplines become diluted. Photography in many ways is perhaps still in its infancy and the discussion about how we nurture this precious ‘child’ is crucial if professional photography and meaningful storytelling is to survive. This is a conversation I am happy to be involved in.
I am addicted to film photography, enchanted by the almost slow and meditative discipline that it calls for, but, am also enticed by mobile photography which can be rapid, instant and is developing all the time.
I hope this website reflects the experiences I have enjoyed three decades and more as a professional photographer, and it also nods to the future as I want to find new ways of taking photographs and expressing myself. Having worked in so many different sectors within photography nowadays I seem to be more interested in an artistic approach to my work. To this end I am very interested in the state of the conscious and unconscious mind and how by sometimes letting go or being in the ‘now’, might we start to explore new areas and in doing so create a new visual ‘voice’.
Either way I know this latest journey will be intriguing and exciting.