Steve Watkins Q&A Interview

James Interviews, Q&A interview

Steve Watkins Interview

I went to Marrakech in the company of Travellers’ Tales, the travel writing and photography training company. Initially exploring the souks of the Medina and the vibrant Djemaa el Fna, we then travelled up and over the High Atlas, and made inroads to the desert, all the time practising writing and photography techniques. At the end of the week, I caught up with the three tutors, Jonathan Lorie the director and ex-editor of Traveller magazine, distinguished travel and history writer Anthony Sattin and the force behind the BBC Unforgettable series, photographer Steve Watkins.

How did you get into travel photography and what was the motivation to do it?

I came into travel photography from travel. I didn’t study photography at college or journalism. I did a big bike trip for nine months – a mountain bike trip from New York to Chile in 1991 at the tender age of 25. And basically four guys spent the entire nine months camping and in occasional hotels down through South America. I shot 70 rolls of film, I think, during the entire nine months and at the end of that, I ended up going to Australia, and living in Australia for four and a half years. And while I was in Australia I managed to sell, sort of hack together, a couple of features and then I sold a couple of features to UK magazines which are now long defunct and nobody’s probably ever heard of. There was one called Outdoor Action, and I managed to sell a feature in to them about a small part of the trip – about the trip across the Bolivian salt flats and I got paid £60 for the words and the pictures. I was ecstatic that anybody would pay me anything to travel and take some photographs and write.

And on the teaching side, what got you into it, why do you like it, and what do you get from it?

Teaching runs in my family. My dad was a lecturer, my sister’s a teacher and so naturally I didn’t want to follow in anybody’s footsteps and for a long time went my own way. I wasn’t involved in teaching environments.

As my career in travel photography progressed I started to get involved in some of the travel shows in London, so at Destinations I’d be on the travel panels and this started the little seed of thought of progressing with the teaching, but it’s a fairly recent thing. I was working on the BBC’s Unforgettable Journeys book and during the last few months of working on that as I was flying around endlessly on planes and I started to turn my mind to what I was going to do after the book and teaching was one of the things that I felt that I was ready to do. I had enough experience in the market and enough experience of travel photography to hopefully be able to impart something.

I think positive thinking is such a good thing and I think out of that thinking, within a month or so of finishing that book I ended up on a travel writing panel with Jon [Lorie, director of Travellers’ Tales] in London. And at the end of that we went to have lunch with Lyn Hughes, the editor of Wanderlust. And out of that sort of instant half-hour get-together, I liked Jon, we seemed to get on well, and he said that he was looking for tutors so that’s really what started it.

What is your top tip for impressing editors and publishers and what are the different approaches you need to make?

I think it is a different approach between approaching magazines and approaching books. I think for magazine editors, they are on a much tighter time schedule so without a doubt keep to a deadline. Magazine people – they give you a deadline and there’s not an extra 4 weeks, usually, of extra padded time and therefore they pretty much work to their deadlines. So, professionalism and sticking to deadlines for magazine editors is more important than how great your photographs are or how great your words are. You can be the best travel photographer in the world or the best travel writer in the world but if your copy and your pictures arrive three weeks after they need them, they don’t get used. So that’s the critical thing.

Book publishing is very different. Deadlines and book publishing seem to be infinitely flexible so I think that’s less of an issue with books. Sometimes you can push a month or two months past what they initially tell you is a deadline. The thing with book publishers is that you bring an entire package for the book. So rather than just going in as a single photographer and offering them just images, I think it’s good that you bring to them a package. And whether it’s writing and pictures or its pictures and your contacts and the ability to organise the logistics behind a big project. And so they are looking for people who can sort things out on the ground. They don’t want people coming back when they’re working on such a big project saying, “Oh I’m sorry that I didn’t get the pictures because the bus broke down in the mountains and I couldn’t get there.” That doesn’t cut any ice with them, they just want the finished package. So I think what book publishers are very much looking for, it’s almost like making a television programme, they want a producer. And the more of those elements you can do, you might work with a writer, if your writing is not so great, but I think from my experience book publishers want one point of contact, they don’t want to be dealing with all these different strands and all these different people on their project. The BBC came to me and they handed it all over. So anything to do with organising the trip, if I need other photographers to work on it, writers, I organise all that.

What are your top tips for the composition of photographs?

I think the one thing, the top tip, is to fill the frame with your subject. And whether that’s a landscape, in which case it’s this big grand view, or whether it’s a carpet in a souk market in Marrakech, it’s important to just fill the frame with whatever the subject is. You don’t want extraneous people walking round the outside of it or plastic chairs in the far right hand corner. So fill the frame is probably the key thing.

Another good thing with composition is you can hint at what lies outside the frame. So, for instance, if you put the horizon very close to the bottom of the picture it hints at all this grand space above it, and on the contrary if you put the horizon near to the top of the picture then you’re compressing everything down and are saying this is an enclosed space and whether you’re shooting a picture of a desert from up on a hill, if the horizon’s at the bottom it looks like a desert under a big sky, if the horizon is at the top it looks like the people in the picture are lost in this sea of sand dunes. And that’s a very simple way of hinting. You can’t fit everything in, it’s impossible.

What’s the benefit of learning photography in Morocco?

Well a key point about Morocco is, one, it’s close so it’s not an unnecessary long flight to get somewhere, and yet within three hours you have probably one of the most exotic and varied countries in the world. So you go from the chaos and mayhem of the souk markets and the people and the spices and the smells. And then you can go for a couple of hours drive and you’re in some of the highest mountains in the world pretty much – 4,500-metre high mountains, snow capped peaks and glaciers. Then pop over the other side of that and down to the Sahara desert with 300-metre high sand dunes. So within a very tight time frame, within a week, you can cover this really wide variety of subjects. It’s the most exotic country that you can reach easily from the UK.

As you’re currently working on Unforgettable Walks what will you be getting up to over the next, say 15, months?

I’d love to have 15 months! But no, it’s finished in November so that’s from now until… I think I need to leave! You’ve just reminded me, I should be in Japan!

My deadline is November and unusually for a book that’s probably quite a strict deadline and we’ll have all the editing finished December, and it comes out 1st February 2008, so January will be the final touch of details and putting it to print.

So between now and 15th November, is the final date, I’ll have another 20 trips to do. And it’s very varied so we’re going from walking around the temples of Kyoto during the blossom time, we’re going up to the Lofoten islands off the west coast of Norway and doing this amazing trek through these stunning mountain islands where you have these 1,000 metre high peaks soaring out of the sea and these beautiful little red wooden fishing huts on the shoreline and little trawler boats. Another one of the trips is to New Zealand, where we’re doing the Routeburn Track which is one of the classic walks over there. Mostly I’ll be spending most of my time between now and November either in-country walking or at Heathrow, or Gatwick, or preferably Manchester, because it’s much easier to fly out of Manchester!

How many pairs of boots do you expect to get through?

I’m hoping not too many! I would imagine maybe three or four pairs.

Have you worked out how far you’re actually going to walk?

No. I will work it out, it will be a long way. Maybe I should wear a pedometer! I’ve worked out for some of the other books how far we travelled and flown. I think for Unforgettable Journeys we did 240,000 kilometres.

JamesSteve Watkins Q&A Interview