Bad Company. A dialogue with Simon Sharp
Can you tell me a little about your professional background and why you are now pursuing a career in photojournalism?
I was in the voluntary sector in Nepal, India and Thailand, teaching in New Zealand and Italy and worked as a special needs therapist/counsellor with children in the Autism spectrum and behavioural challenges in Canada and the States. So, pretty eclectic but always people based and always using forms of communication. In that regard photography is no different and I bring all that experience with me. The experience I have working with vulnerable groups I find invaluable in my photography practice. It taught me about emotional space and therefore when NOT to shoot. When it is simply not the right time.
Most recently I spent a few years at university studying social science and international development. Academia and its ivory towers really taught me a lot about communication and how discourse can be a powerful tool wielded badly, or to serve interest’s that may not benefit those who need such benefits.
I was involved and overheard too many high brow chats in cafés oft quoting great thinkers by people who had no intention of ever getting their hands dirty in the field. I wanted to be at the forefront of these issues and be able to disseminate the language in a media more accessible to the average person on the street. What’s the use in writing an article for a high brow academic publication when it will only be read by other academics in institutions in the west while the people who were being written about suffered in silence. I found this whole approach quite ‘othering’. It objectified real people into a knowledge commodity. I wanted to resist that a little and the language of photography allows me to do that in a much more democratic form.
You don’t need a PHD to look at a photograph or watch a ten minute film. That’s not to say education is not powerful tool. But it is just that, a tool, not an end in itself.
I know that Bad Company is one of your first short films. Why did you decide to shoot this story in moving images and not in stills?
To spread the media. Stories are that hard to find, fund and fulfil that I really wanted to extrapolate as much data – if that’s not too cold a term – out of the issues as possible to take to the editing room.
Plus, I see separating stills, moving images etc as the true multimedia. An audience may have preference for stills over video and vice versa. Shoot both and you can cater for both audiences. Why alienate 50% – as an arbitrary figure – when you can provide material for a 100%. That and the learning of the skill. Video and stills are like chalk and cheese, they require completely differing skills, languages and grammars. It’s not so often a stills shooter embedded in years of that discipline transfers over to video too well. I wanted to diversify before the iron clad discipline of one or the other set in. That’s the true multimedia.
© 2016 – www.simonsharpphoto.com
Why is this an important story for you to tell?
I think there are social worlds hidden within everyday objects that we just disregard. Sweatshop labour has been well documented in uncovering the abuses that go hand in hand with our shiny sneakers but I thought the symbol of the brick to be even more powerful. The brick, in its essence is a symbol of growth, of expansion. How ironic that the people that make them are often the poorest of the poor, the most vulnerable and most exploited workers on the planet. Children.
Can you tell us a little bit about your technical approach to things when shooting this story (choice of equipment)?
I chose for video the Sony A7s. I understood I would be working in low light and as a single operator I needed something small and light. Not necessarily light for actual shooting, but more for transporting gear to the site and back. On a motorbike gear can get big and heavy pretty quickly.
For stills I stayed with the tried and trusted Nikon D700. Mainly for it’s durability, low pixel count and speed with a grip. Working with multimedia – or cross media – on an extended trip can become exhaustive on memory, so 12MP enables me to shoot without needing multiple drives. Although I have 7 La Cie Rugged’s and use them all!
For sound a Zoom H6 and Rode NTG3. The Zoom is light enough and ok for recording while I went with the NTG3 for it’s warm tones for interviews. I anticipated interviewing a lot of children and always like how that mic captures the tonal range. Although the protagonist in the end was 23 years old ! Next time out I would use a sanken CS3-3E. Great of axis rejection qualities would mean less time spent trying to find a space to interview in a noisy city/factory. A factor I didn’t really consider but 100% advise people to do for themselves when selecting audio equipment. Noise in the developing world can, and does, come from anywhere. Finding sterile environments can be really tricky. Unbelievably so.
Can you tell us a little bit about the actual process of shooting the documentary – in particular some of the obstacles that you had to deal with on the ground?
After thinking there would a story there and doing some initial research I literally dropped into Nepal and started asking questions on brick factories. If I met someone who spoke English in a bar or store I would quiz them on local info. Local photographers were another potential source, although they tended to get in the way a little, thinking it was their story, or trying to tell me how to shoot it, so in the end I worked with a young guy who I employed as fixer/translator/researcher. He was invaluable at times, at others a source of frustration.
This is the area of most challenge when working in developing countries, and being from a western country. Local fixers/translators wages would go through the roof when they discovered it was a Westerner they would be working with, sometimes more than the day rates for seasoned pro’s at the big New York magazines. A source of frustration as I simply didn’t have the budget for the inflated wage demands. Although, I wouldn’t have paid it anyway. It was difficult as all I wanted to do was tell the story of these children and complete the work but you had to stick to your guns. I wasn’t going to be exploited while doing a story on exploitation. As a one man band in the field no one is going to look after you. You need the skills to be able to look after yourself. Not always as easy as it seems.
As always access was an issue, especially shooting an industry which is in fact illegal as child labour in Nepal is – supposed to be – illegal. Without local contacts it would have been impossible to gain access into the sites. Again there’s no secret formula here. Just graft. Asking around for countless days on end interviewing, hiring, firing. It was like running a mini production of staff. It was difficult. It got done.
Using smaller equipment was OK but owners/overseers got a little uneasy when I turned up with big video tripods and dollys etc. What was OK with a small camera on Monday suddenly was not OK come Tuesday with a large tripod and the same camera ! It just looked too professional. It gave them the jitters. I scaled back down.
Did you have a publication plan before you set out, and how did you find a publisher for the story?
In a word, no. Which was totally intentional, I wanted to go out alone and see what I could do. Without an institutional agenda or vision guiding my own. I think this is super important for anyone in the creative industries.
Personal projects I believe are an invaluable space for people to experiment, create and develop. Also, they potentially become marketable as an entity and even in if ‘unsuccessful’ in that regard then you have a project to demonstrate to future/potential clients what you can do. Your brand, your voice, your vision. Your credit. That’s worth a lot. And you own it because you are ‘it’. No one can take that away from you. It’s actually all you have and all you’ll ever really need. It’s priceless.
I got a little traction after attending the Eddie Adams Workshop in October 2015. TIME showed interest as well as Mediastorm and what I got from this was a sense of validation and confidence. From there I just sat down and thought about the respectable publications/NGO’s I would like to see my work with and what my business model is and began to target them one by one.
Some people are more than happy to be published for piecemeal. I decided real early I was not that person and consequently only targeted organisations that were serious about paying for professional work at professional rates. $300 for six months work is simply exploitation in my language and why people sell their work hoping to become famous at the end of it I have no idea. I have never actually met anyone that has happened to either!
You and I (Poul Madsen) started a dialogue on your story more than a year ago when you were still in Nepal. Can you tell us a little bit about why you decided to approach me/us with the story (why did you reach out to external producers like us, Mediastorm etc.)
BFC has a great reputation for teaching workshops as well as their own productions. As an Indie operator working stills, video, sound, production , direction, well, everything, the essence of what you are trying to achieve, the vision you started out with all so clearly can become a little foggy while in the field. That’s why I contacted you while I was still in Nepal. I needed some guidance, a different perspective on the story and how it might be best to go about it. I just shot the beating scene in the night I think literally a day or two before we spoke. I knew the scene of the beating was key, I knew something really important had just happened although I wasn’t 100% what to do with it. After we talked that scene went in the introduction. This kick started the film, it was the premise, the question that the rest of the film seeks to answer. This gave me a real structure to work with for the rest of the production.
Also outfits like BFC and others already have a foothold and a good reputation in the market. To be equated with quality operators I believe can fasttrack one’s own reputation somewhat. In that regard it’s just like any other business. By being associated with certain brands your own stock rises.
Can you describe the process/dialogue that we have had over the past few months (good/bad things) and how that has influenced some of the decisions that you have made in your edit?
A fundamentally important part of the process we had is the word ‘conversation’ or ‘dialogue’. Working remotely with an external editor cross culturally could be fraught with meanings and context becoming lost in translation, especially over email. So much meaning and context is lost within email only communication even in everyday matters, never mind matters dealing with fine detail and nuance as documentary film making.
The suggestions and decisions made on the edit were always bilateral which is really important for an indie film maker such as myself. While being able to tap into a wealth of knowledge and experience is a great opportunity I feel people need to tread carefully that they are not actually being moulded into a facsimile of the person/organisation they are working with. That might be fine short term, but what are you actually becoming, how are you developing your own voice and language if the advice you receive is meted out in non dialogic manner ? Yes its safe. Its also easy for the mentor and it might even ‘work’ once or twice over but is it in the best interest of the recipient ? Is it in the best interest of the story ? I doubt it. The conversation becomes a monologue and the recipient a robot. A mini-me.
Our method was totally the opposite. I wouldn’t like to guess how many of the suggestions you made made it into the final and to be honest it doesn’t matter if it is either 100% or 1%. What matters is the conversation, the meeting of ideas and opinions within which a new direction or thought process can be borne and decisions can be made as a direct result of that process.
I was made ware by you that this was MY story and MY edit. The finals were MINE and the responsibility was MINE. That gave the me the freedom to explore with you the possibilities without feeling I was moulding the film into something that was being built around your own ideas and agenda. In short a BFC production.
What are the most important things you learned throughout this whole process of shooting, editing and publishing a short film documentary?
Well, this is a tough business. The time spent learning new skills that not so long ago were the remit of a professional is both taxing and an opportunity. We live in a time that you can pack a backpack, take a flight somewhere and shoot a documentary, go to wherever home is and edit the material on a laptop with state of the art editing software.
To have that kind of firepower at your fingertips is pretty amazing but it all takes time. Time and skill to master. That’s the main lesson I’ve learned perhaps, the time these projects – if you’re to do them properly – take from inception to publication. Even a short 10 minute film can take a year to see through. I didn’t really understand that at the get go. I do now though !
What are your plans from here?
To develop the relationships I’ve been lucky enough to have started in the last few months and shoot, shoot, shoot. I’ve spent so much time editing lately that I’ve honestly forgotten how my camera works. Sorry, how my camera’s work.
I’m thinking about doing a local story in the UK which will be a challenge for me as I’ve fallen for the adage that the exotic is the only place in which stories exist. That’s simply not true. There are people whose stories need to be told in each of our own countries, right on our own doorsteps that we all overlook . I think that’s a crying shame.