Five Questions is a series that asks pro photographers about how they do what they do. Today we talk to photojournalist Alex Bowie. Bowie began covering the violence and unrest in Belfast, Northern Ireland, in the ’70s and photographed many of the world’s trouble spots during the 1970s and 1980s. He has photographed many areas of conflict during his years in the field, including Bolivia, Iraq, Thailand, and Cambodia. Bowie, now represented by Getty, has just published his archive as a Blurb book called Everyday Realities. We talked with Bowie about conflict, photography, and risk.
Blurb: Can you describe how you go about an assignment in a fast-moving, dangerous environment where you are often an outsider?
Bowie: You need to know your own limitations, be aware of the dangers around you and have quick reflexes. You need to think-forward and have a good intuition of what could happen in any given situation. It’s also a good idea to be seen as non-threatening and to be personable with people around you. Always stand up for yourself and the news organisation you represent; even if you are on a freelance assignment.
Blurb: The last page in your book shows you helping a wounded colleague in the field, which leads me to wonder how you balance the need for a good photograph with your own personal safety.
Bowie: The big question: Is a photo worth dying for? Probably not. Time magazine’s onetime photo editor, Arnold Drapkin, once said to me: “Keep your head down. We want pictures, not heroes.” As I grew older (and possibly more mature) I took less personal risk; I weighed up the dangers before committing myself to any potentially rash action – more so after the untimely deaths of Bill Latch and Neil Davis in Bangkok. Also, when you fall in love, get married and have children your focus moves away from personal risk-taking to family responsibility.
After the coup in Bangkok in Sept 1985, I decided that risking my life for a photo wasn’t worth it. I covered the People Power Revolution in Manila in February 1986 and continued to shoot some assignments, but by 1987 I moved into the design and art direction of business and current affairs magazines, then later as Picture Editor of the New Zealand Herald. I now teach photography as a sessional lecturer at the University of the Sunshine Coast near Brisbane, Australia.
Blurb: What’s the most important ethical factor to keep in mind when covering a story of conflict?
Bowie: Be honest to the story and yourself. Never fake, manipulate or set things up just to get a better photograph. And in the digital age, Photoshop should only be used to optimise a photo, but never to recreate or manipulate the image itself.
Blurb: We always ask photographers about their gear. What camera did you start your career with, and what do you use now?
Bowie:I’ve always used what I could financially afford at the time. Initially (as a student), I used an inexpensive Russian-made 35mm Zenit-B camera with a 3.5/50mm Zeiss Tessar copy. I then traded that up to a secondhand Nikon Nikkormat EL and a Nikon FTN before splashing out on a couple of Nikon FMs, together with a range of prime lenses as well as a 70-200mm Nikkor lens that I bought from Philip Jones Griffiths that he’d used to capture images in his famous book, Vietnam Inc. Later in Asia, I switched first to the Canon A-1 and then to the Canon New F-1. I’ve also used a Leica M-6. These, of course, are all film bodies. Presently, I use a Canon 1Ds MarkIII and a Panasonic Lumex DMC-LX5. My favourite focal lengths have always been 24mm, 35mm and 85mm. I prefer fast prime lens at F2 or lower.
Blurb: Do you miss using film?
Bowie: I miss the magic of the darkroom for processing black and white film and especially making prints. But certainly not for colour transparencies, which degrade over the years and often suffered mis-handling or loss by editors – something that wouldn’t normally occur with digital files. In fact, Time magazine once paid me USD 10,000 for transparencies lost while in their care! Ten grand is still a lot of money, but thirty years ago it truly was a lot – although I would have preferred my images returned.
Blurb: Do you have any advice to aspiring photojournalists, particularly in the digital age?
Bowie: I teach digital photography and photojournalism at the University of the Sunshine Coast in Queensland, Australia. My advice to photographic students and aspiring photojournalist is: First, learn how to use your automated digital camera on its manual settings – you’ll understand the process of photography much better and become a better photographer for it; second, become reasonably knowledgable on whatever story you plan to cover, so that you can make intelligent conversation with people who may be able to help you get access to that once-in-a-lifetime photo opportunity; third, get up to speed on all the technical aspects of professionally processing your work for presentation to a picture editor; and lastly, don’t sell yourself short.
This interview took place before the tragic death of French photojournalist Remi Ochlik in Syria, another reminder of the dangers that photojournalists are in during all moments of an assignment. Take a look at a full preview of Bowie’s book below. You can also buy a copy in the Blurb bookstore. For those counting, yes, we asked Bowie a bonus question – we figured anyone that’s been through what he’s been through deserves an extra word or two.