Through a photographer’s eye is the first in a series of interviews featuring Australian photographers. In each interview, we learn about the person behind the camera and how they use Fujifilm X Series cameras to photograph the world around them. Our sixth interview is with Melbourne based photographer, Chris Hopkins.
Chris, can you tell us how you got started in photography and what the visual medium means to you?
I travelled a lot in my twenties. I spent 6 years travelling around the world, but Africa got to me visually. I decided (prematurely!) that I wanted to be a wildlife photographer and upon returning home to Melbourne with no career my partner encouraged me to enrol in a photography course. I was then accepted into Melbourne’s Photography Studies College. I did studio classes and learned about the history of photography but it was seeing the work of the masters of photojournalism like; Sebastiao Salgado, Henri Cartier Bresson, James Nachtwey and Marcus Bleasdale that hooked me.
The visual impact these guys images had, particularly their composition and ability to tell a story within a single frame resonated in me and my passion grew from there. In a society that is oversaturated with images, I still feel that quality photojournalism is the most powerful tool to convey a message whilst documenting history. As visual storytellers, I feel it is our duty, to use our skills to tell the story of those that otherwise couldn’t. The ability of an image to change policy and make the world a better, safer place is why I love photojournalism.
Recently you photographed a series of portraits of Melbourne’s homeless, tell us why did you find it important to document this and how did you go about crafting this visual story?
I photographed the series ‘Streeties’ after a small batch of homeless set up a makeshift protest camp in Melbourne’s City Square. They set up the camp in response to the tabloid media’s misrepresentation of the homeless; painting them as violent, drug users and a danger to society. This witch hunt led to the police ‘cleaning up’ the streets, leaving the genuine homeless with nowhere to go. I am a stringer for Getty Images and Fairfax Media and around that time I was on shift for The Age newspaper and felt it right to try to portray these people as the people they are, not the objects of derision they had been touted as. Initially, I introduced myself to a few of the guys in the camp and listened to their stories and explained what I wanted to do. They were keen to be shown in a positive light.
The winter sun in Melbourne comes in very low in the late afternoon but it is golden and warm and I wanted to use this to contrast against the blacks that form in the shadows of the city. I only had a ten-minute window before the sun dropped behind the high-rises so I would find the pocket of light and move the subject into position then let them pose as they wanted. Some would stare at the camera, some would smile others looked away but they all have a certain dignity to them, even after all they have been through and that is ultimately what I wanted to show.
Did the size of the camera and lens combination put off your subjects at all? Were any shots arranged or did you take the portraits without any planning?
I think the size of the camera helps. In this situation, the homeless had long telephoto lens pointed at them from across the street, so immediately if I went into the camp with that sort of gear it would be met with apprehension. I know from experience that using a big press kit on intimate documentary work can have an adverse effect as the subject can feel objectified. The less myself and my camera compromise a situation the more ‘real’ the image will be. Obviously, it’s got a great deal to do with how you interact with the subject as to what picture you make but I feel the Fujifilm’s smaller, less conspicuous size helps put the subject at ease.
For the series of portraits published in Fairfax Media, as mentioned earlier, I basically had the guys, 2 or 3 at a time follow me into pockets of light as it slowly fell away. We would chat and interact and I would make pictures as the sun dropped. I would return the next day at the same time to do more and because of the initial work I did getting to know them it was easy for me to organise people to photograph.
Is there a reason why you decided to photograph in black and white and can you elaborate on the lighting setup you used?
I wanted the portraits to have an ageless feel like they could be from the States during the depression or under Thatcher in the backstreets of London but I also wanted to give the subject a sense of dignity, despite their situation. I feel that by making the images Black and White it was easier to achieve this goal. The lighting was all natural. I just found the smallest shard of light possible and by exposing for the light it meant that the shadows deepened and made for the contrast I was looking for.
When engaging with the people, did you form any emotional ties with any of them, and how has this project affected your outlook on life?
Since meeting these guys I now know most of them to say G’day too and have a chat about how their day is going. I am in the city for the paper or Getty most days so I get to see them reasonably often. I always have had an open view regarding people and their circumstances, by that I mean not to judge a book by its cover, but I wasn’t aware of the wide variety of people who are homeless. While many are drug dependent and some are violent, most that I know are quite gentle and polite, often with some form of mental illness, but a quick chat and asking how they are can mean the world of difference to their day. One gentleman Asha, I have formed a bond with and subsequently, I have been documenting his life on the street.
You mentioned you were documenting Asha’s life on the street after one of his family members got in contact after seeing him in published photos online. How has the story unfolded since?
I received a message via social media, six months after the series was published, from his grand-daughter saying that she saw the images and was certain Asha was her missing grandfather. Her family hadn’t had any contact in thirteen years and had presumed he was dead. She asked, if possible, could I contact him or somehow get a message to him for her.
I wasn’t sure that he wanted to be found or have anything to do with his family as I was aware that his past, especially his family life, was quite chequered. After a couple of days searching I found him in a new camp that was set up on Flinders St and has since become infamous for its open visible drug use and recently disbanded by police. He was cleanly shaven unlike in his portrait where he sported a heavy beard.
When I told him about his granddaughter he was overcome with emotion and desperately wanted to make contact. I’m sure he rang from a payphone within 5 minutes of me giving him the number and I have been documenting his life on the street ever since. It has been an emotional and at times frustrating project, as it’s hard to find him as initially Asha didn’t carry a phone, but I guess knowing that because of my work he has made steps to reunite with his family and put plans in place to better his quality of life is rewarding personally. The full story, “Melbourne’s homeless: Photo tells the story of hope and renewal for Asha Lang” can be seen here.
Can you see yourself staying with Fujifilm X Series equipment for your future projects and how has the Fujifilm X-T1 helped you with your photography?
Oh definitely! I now use both the X-T1 and the X-T2 on all my projects. The nature of press photography is one of constant pressure and there is a great deal of emphasis on speed. Events happen quickly, you’ve got to be fast to get the shot and filing must be done so quickly that it seems the editor wants the pics before you make them! Using the Fujifilm gear allows me to get into a situation where I can dictate how long I need to make the shot. By giving myself that time I then can concentrate more effort on composition and really think about the story the image will portray. I am also in awe of the image quality that I get from the lens. I use the XF23mmF1.4 and the XF14mmF2.8 and the crispness of the image and focus speed are second to none in my mind.
Where can people find you online if they want to see more of your work and do you have any other projects coming up we should look out for?
My folio can be seen at www.chris-hopkins.com.au. My next project has already been shot, all with Fujifilm gear, and will be released as part of a documentary film release campaign in March. I spent time in the Mentawai, an archipelago off the coast of Sumatra, which is the home to a small indigenous tribe that is on the brink of extinction. A small band of natives led by their Sikerei (Shaman) are rebelling against the government’s forced assimilation program that strips them of their culture and traditional ways. It was an amazing experience and the images are particularly striking so I can’t wait for it to be published.
Other interviews in this series