The Story Behind the Picture: Henry Wilkins
Our curiosity for photographers and their photos continues into April. In our second edition of The Story Behind the Picture we introduce Henry Wilkins, a photojournalist with a striking portfolio and a keen eye for absurdity. Henry talks us through a photograph he had commissioned by The Telegraph and what inspired the shot taken at the infamous Victoria Falls.
What initiated your interest in photography?
My dad was always into it but he never had anything published. I went travelling when I was 18; I bought a one-way ticket to India and disappeared for a few months and just took film to point and shoot. The photos I had at the end of it weren’t very good. I did a lot more travelling after that and I wanted to record it in a way that would do it more justice. That covers how I got into it in an amateur sense.
I didn’t get my first thing published until I was 31. The thing that got me into it in a professional way was with Karl Grupe [The Mango Lab]. His was the first evening class I did with the University of the Arts. He gave me a lot of encouragement. We were encouraged to do a project that we would work on throughout the 10-week course. We presented it at the end and Karl said I should send it out. So I spent a couple of weeks in front of my laptop just sending out pictures to anybody I could think of that might be interested. It got picked up by Vice, then the British Journal of Photography and then on the back of that a Belgium newspaper picked it up. I just thought if I can do it once I can probably do it again so I just kept at it really.
I think the biggest challenge was coming up with new, fresh ideas all the time, because I think as opposed to the photos themselves, with the drones project, the idea was the strongest part.
What’s your thought process on coming up with an idea? Is it a light bulb moment late at night?
It’s in the shower for some reason! I don’t know why. I read the news a lot and read Twitter a lot and it’s a good way to pick up on fresh things that are happening. I don’t think you could call it an artistic process; it’s not really the reason I’m interested in photography. I’m more interested in it as a form of communication than a way of artistically expressing myself. Where it will end up and the message I’m trying to communicate with it are big parts of the process for me.
Before photography, what were you doing?
I was a teacher.
The shot you’ve chosen accompanied a story you did on the impact of low water levels at Victoria Falls. What inspired this shot?
It was a commission from The Daily Telegraph. They asked me to write a story that I picked up whilst I was in Africa, and they asked for some photos with it. I knew that the story they’d asked me to write about was interesting in itself so I wasn’t too worried about writing it but I knew that I had to find something that would communicate it – it’s the classic photojournalism thing – a photojournalist should take a photo which illustrates the story in as concise a (visual) way as possible. That was it really.
How well do you think the photograph conveys the story about drought in southern Africa?
It’s difficult to talk about the photo without talking about the story first. The whole point with that story was that I found myself in Africa back in December last year and visited Victoria Falls, and it was almost not there – it was different from the touristy perspective. The experience was disappointing, you could say, and all the locals seemed to be saying they couldn’t remember the last time levels were this low. So I read a bit about it and found out that southern and eastern Africa were undergoing one of the worst droughts that they’d had for decades, probably even worse than the one in the ‘80s, which started Live Aid.
I think the problem a lot of journalists have is making stories like that interesting, environmental stories in particular. I thought taking Victoria Falls, which is a symbol of Africa that everybody recognises in the West and the fact that it was so dry, was a good way to hook people into the broader story which was that Africa is having one of the worst droughts on record. With that photo, I think it communicates it reasonably well… it’s got Victoria Falls in it for a start; it’s got a local guy in it. He’s looking over a precipice, which I think to some extent sums up the way that a lot of the farmers and people that I spoke to were also feeling. I also thought seeing somebody that close to the edge of Victoria Falls is quite a striking image within itself even if it isn’t particularly relevant to the story.
Did you approach the man in the shot?
Yes, he was just a local guy. It was taken at this place called the Devil’s Pool which is a spot on the edge of Victoria Falls which, during the dry season, you can walk to, right from the edge of the falls across to this spot where you can go and swim right there on the edge. But usually that Devil’s Pool would be cut off at the time of year that I took that photo. Water levels would already have risen to such an extent that you wouldn’t be able to get there. The fact that he could even be there at this time of year was interesting.
What camera was it taken on?
It was taken on a Canon 600D
What was intentional and what was accidental in this shot?
It was very deliberate. I trekked out across the falls to the Devil’s Pool with the specific intention of getting a photo because it’s a place that’s visited by tourists and I’d seen pictures of it on adverts for tourists, like at the hotel I was staying at. I just thought it looked like a really striking image. From that point of view it was very deliberate. The guy’s not posed – he was just swimming in the pool. I think he was aware that I was taking pictures – that didn’t phase him.
As a photojournalist what different components are you considering to tell the story? The writing has become a big part of it because I think I’m still taking photos and then using writing to explain it rather than the other way around. It’s different in different situations; with the Victoria Falls shot I think the images became a big part of the story.
Is your style inspired by anyone in particular?
I think my photography is inspired by a lot of different photographers. Martin Parr is a big one – I think he has an eye for absurdity. I can’t think of a lot of photographers that have that to the same degree. I like to think a lot of my pictures have an element of absurdity like with the drone project – sometimes some of those photos remind me of 1950s UFO movies – Mars Attacks! There was a project I did for The New Statesman. I was photographing and interviewing private investigators, there are pictures of them modeling fake beards and there’s one where the guy has got his secretary hooked up to a lie-detector machine. There’s a strong overtone of ridiculousness with those. That comes from people like Martin Parr.
There’s this other really obscure photographer called Nils Jorgensen – he’s London based, but again just seems to have this keen eye for the absurd in everyday life. I’m looking for something surreal, something slightly absurd. Obviously I do think about the composition and the colouring to some extent, but only to the extent that I feel it looks nice. It’s about the content more than anything.
Are you sentimental about your images?
I’m not particularly sentimental about my images. I think they are ephemeral. I was listening to an interview with the editor-in-chief of Buzzfeed news and he was saying that some journalists create journalism or write or take photos in a way where it’s designed to be hung up on a wall and stand the test of time like a piece of art and he said he doesn’t have much time for that kind of thing. He said journalism is ephemeral; it’s meant to be read by however many thousands of people or millions in the space of about a week. And once it has served its purpose in doing that it’s gone and it has done its job and lets move on.
What are you hoping people will feel looking at the image?
I hope that it would be enough for them to read the story. That’s it really. The thing that I am sentimental about in the whole sort of package, not just the image, is the message that climate change is messing people up. That’s something to be sentimental about – the picture itself isn’t.
How important was using Photoshop in editing this image, if at all?
I changed the colour and cropped it. I did the camera raw settings and adjusted the shadows and clarity. I would never want to be without Photoshop; I think it’s pretty important.
What does photography give you that nothing else does?
It gives an immediacy to a message that you can’t get with many other mediums. With writing you’ve got to write an article or a book, with film you go through a 10-minute YouTube video or a two hour film, but with a photograph, when it’s done right you can get an idea across in a split second and I think that’s probably what it does for me.
To view more of Henry’s work visit: www.henrywilkins.com