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Feel the photographer behind the picture: interview with Alain Schroeder / #URBANinsights

Fourth appointment with #URBANinsights, a series of exclusive interviews and insights dedicated to the winners of URBAN Photo Awards. After Harry Giglio, Beniamino Pisati and Valeria Sacchetti, we give space to Alain Schroeder, URBAN’s Beast Author in 2019 and 2020.

Hello Alain, thank you for taking the time to speak with us. How would you introduce yourself to those who still don’t know you as a photographer?
I became a professional photographer in 1979 after completing my studies in Fine Art and Photography in Belgium. I started as a sports photographer and in 1989, I established Reporters Photo Agency with two other photographers. I have done all types of photography over the last 40 years, plus I had to learn all the administrative and financial aspects of running a midsize company. Around 2000, business began to change due to the Internet and the rise of digital cameras. Competition increased not only from other agencies but almost anybody could sell or try to sell pictures, and prices went down. This revolution affected magazines and newspapers as well and the money suddenly disappeared. Magazines no longer offered assignments nor guarantees and we were forced to explore other sources of revenue like corporate communications, video,..
As a sport photographer, I shot World Cup soccer tournaments and Olympic Games, but I was specialized in tennis, so I shot Roland Garros, Wimbledon and the US Open many times over 15 years (more than 500 magazine covers). After that came a period of book assigments; 30 books on different countries and cities including China, Persia, Thailand, Tuscany, Crete, Vietnam, Budapest, Venice,… art books on the Renaissance, Ancient Rome, the Gardens of Europe, the Abbeys of Europe, Natural Sites of Europe,.. Belgian books include: « Le Carnaval de Binche vu par 30 photographes », and « Les Marches de l’Entre-Sambre-et-Meuse, Processions de Foi ». I have also completed many assignments for National Geographic, Geo, Paris-Match, …
In 2013, I decided to sell my shares and leave the company. I am once again a freelance photojournalist traveling the world searching for stories. The Internet has brought new opportunities for photojournalists including more contests with cash awards, crowdfunding platforms for projects, grant funding opportunities, exhibitions, and online photo sales.

I want to congratulate you for your amazing projects. In 2016 you ranked first in the Projects & Portfolios section at URBAN Photo Awards with the project “Kushti”. For two years in a row (2019 and 2020) you have been crowned “Best Author” of the competition. I particularly liked two projects this year, dedicated to the coal mines in Toretsk, Ukraine and Pniówek, Poland. Can you tell us the “behind the scenes” of these shots?
Thank you.
I went to Poland as a tourist toward the end of 2019. I had been there 30 years ago and wanted to see how much the country has changed. One of my desires was to visit the coal mines in the Silesia region. It was December and a lot of chimneys in the villages were spewing yellow and black fumes. One of the local NGOs in Krakow that I contacted was having some success raising awareness about the dangers of burning coal within the region. I had two story ideas; the pollution in winter, and the last mines in Europe. Then I met a very helpful Polish journalist who was able to get permission to shoot in several mines. By coincidence, she had been working on a similar topic in Ukraine so a few weeks later we took the train from Warsaw to Kiev and then to Toretsk in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine. The story from Toretsk will be published in National Geographic Holland/Belgium in March 2021. I had permission to shoot in the mine in Toretsk but it was not easy because the miners did not want to be photographed. I had literally only a few seconds to shoot them when they came out of the shaft crossing a sort of no man’s land outside in -10° C, and in the changing room only some of them were happy to see me and let me work. Of course I took care not to show any nudity, but I needed to be in their intimacy to capture the ambiance. Technically it was very difficult as everything was quite dark but I knew the potential to get a few images was there. I spent 6 days at the mine and everyday I concentrated on a particular shot. At the end, I had an interesting series though one picture is missing – for security reasons I could not go down into the shaft (1124 meters) to shoot the extraction process. I think that I am particularly interested in mines because I grew up in Liege, a city in Wallonia, the industrial region of Belgium. Around 1965 (I was 10) I remember that we had classes about the coal mines in the area, the way of working, the equipment,.. Plus as kids we use to play football next to the slag heaps, so in a way it is part of my roots.

You are a tireless traveler. From Indonesia (“Saving Orangutans”, winner of the World Press Photo) to Kyrgyzstan (“Dead Goat Polo”), passing through the two Koreas (this year on display at Trieste Photo Days). Is there a country that has impressed you more than others? Are there any countries you haven’t visited yet and would like to photograph?
Yes, Afghanistan in 1974. Coming from the Iranian border, I arrived in Afghanistan late in the afternoon. The dusty main street of Herat (western Afghanistan) was backlit by the sun. Seeing turbaned men, horse carts, veiled women; it was visually magical, like entering another dimension. I had not often felt such a dramatic change of scenery. It was like travelling back in time to the Middle Ages. I returned several times, the last time was in 1978 one year before the Russian invasion, and then the war prevented me from going back there for 30 years. In 2015, I returned to Afghanistan for a few days via Tajikistan. Nothing has changed. People are always so welcoming. It is a country frozen in time.
In fact, as I am answering your questions, I am back in Kyrgyzstan to finish the Dead Goat Polo story. This time with pictures of the game in the snow.
I also have a plan to go to Japan for a story in 2021. I have never been there and I am really looking forward to it.

Did something weird ever happen while you where taking a photo, any strange situation or something that surprised you?
Probably shooting the series Living for Death in Sulawesi, Indonesia, where people are cleaning the corpses of the deceased members of their family. They remove the coffins from their burial sites and open them. The cadavers are cleaned, dried in the sun and given a change of clothes. Expressions of sadness are mixed with the overall happy atmosphere surrounding these moments of bonding with loved ones and honoring ancestors. Very unusual but very interesting.

How long have you been photographing? Why did you choose a career as a professional photographer? How did you get interested in it? And what about your first shot?
When I was 16-17, I spent a lot of time at the library reading fine art books. When I had seen all the books they had about painting, the librarian gave me some photography books. One was the famous French magazine Photo and the first story I liked and remember was made by a Japanese photographer, Kishin Shinoyama. It was a very interesting magazine as it mixed all kinds of photography – fashion, documentary, travel, war, personal work – in one issue. After that I discovered another famous magazine called Zoom and all the classic photographers like Cartier-Bresson. I was hooked and switched immediately from fine art to photography classes. During my studies with very little money I travelled to Afghanistan and I caught the travel virus. It was the perfect combination of travel and photography but not easy to make a living at. Of course you need a little bit of luck and it came by coincidence in the form of sports photography. I was asked to replace a tennis photographer who was sick. At first I did not want to do it as I did not have the right (telephoto) lenses but the magazine had their own equipment so I could not refuse. As a long time tennis player I knew immediately what to do and I captured the ball in almost all the pictures. The editor was impressed and he hired me. That was the beginning of my professional career and I never stopped working since.

How would you describe your style? Which photographers have influenced you?
I like Koudelka for the poetry in his pictures, Alex Webb for his personal use of color, Raghu Rai an Indian photographer, Guy Bourdin and Steve Hiett in fashion, but I am more struck by a photo or a series rather than a photographer. I forgot to mention Eugene Smith who had the most influence on my editing process; I mean the ability to see at the moment you take the picture and later in front of the computer to choose the right pictures and put them in the right order to tell a story. I love his Spanish Village series, a masterpiece.
I like photographers in many different fields as long as they show the world through their own eyes, with strong personality. I like when you feel the photographer behind the picture, not only the subject.
Concerning my style. I don’t know. If I have a style I’ll let you describe it.

Could you describe your creative process? How do you choose the subject of your photos, what are you looking to capture? What do you look for, and what catches your attention the most? How do you get inspired?
I learned photography with B&W and color slides and analog cameras in the 70s. I know the techniques very well but since then camera manufacturers have made so many technical improvements that I usually put my camera on S (so I can choose the speed). I studied fine art and over the years I developed a good sense for framing a picture. I feel instinctively where I should place myself to get the best shots in a given situation. Photography is not made by the camera but rather a little bit by your eyes and mostly by your brain. I love a quote from Picasso where somebody asked him how long it took to make a particular painting and he said 60 years. He was 60 at the time. Everything is in that answer. Transposed to photography it is the way you take pictures, how you edit, the way you post produce. Your photographs are what you are, you cannot escape that. Choosing a subject is chaotic, random, irrational, I can choose from hundreds of possibilities but again these 40+ years of experience have led me to certain stories. It’s hard to explain why I choose one story versus another. Probably need a psychoanalyst to explain that 😉

Tell us about the more difficult shot you ever took. And which do you consider your best project?
Kid Jockeys in Indonesia was not easy to start. There were almost no spectators and only 4-5 jockeys per race. I really had to think about what the story could be. As I spent more time on the racetrack, I began to fine-tune my approach to the series. In the beginning I thought it was all about the sport, but I discovered all the associated rituals which I had no idea about when I started. I edited my pictures to reflect the bigger story. I was also impressed by the contrast between modern Indonesian lifestyle, this local custom, and the way they choose to live their passion with their horses. The tradition of horse racing in Sumbawa has not changed over a century.
The only aspect I did not really like was the fact that they do not wear helmets. Barefoot and bareback is fine but you know (or should know, even with the protection of the healer) that almost inevitably the jockeys will fall. And when that happens a helmet could save a child’s life or at least limit the damage of the fall. Well, the adults should know…
Sometimes things do not fall into place easily. For my last story, Saving Orangutans in Indonesia (published in the 2019 August issue of National Geographic Holland/Belgium), I tried for one year (by writing) to get permission to shoot. With no positive response, I decided to go to Sumatra where it took two more months to build relationships, get specific permission and pass the required medical tests. When I finally got to where I wanted to be, it took another three months to get the shots I wanted. Preparation is important but patience and perseverance is key.
No best project. I cannot really answer that question.

What equipment do you use? Do you spend a lot of time editing your images?
Fuji XPRO 2 and now Fuji XT4.
If by editing you mean to choose the right image for the series in the right order, yes. I agonize for weeks over which pictures will make it to the final selection of 10 images and often I have to leave good shots out. To give an example, in the Orangutans series (which won a World Press prize in Nature Stories) I did not choose the image of the dead baby orangutan for the series, and then that picture won a World Press prize in Nature Single shots.
About the process: I choose 15 to 20 shots that work together and try to place them in a cohesive order. Once it makes sense and I feel that I’ve got a good story, I start the post-processing work. After, I choose an additional 20 images to broaden the selection. It’s possible to tell different stories based on the editing.
I learned post-processing with B&W film. I was making prints with an enlarger, using hot water to accelerate the developing process sometimes, or developing some parts with a paint brush, exposing others longer or the opposite,… the list goes on. Today, all these techniques exist in Photoshop. The difference is that now you can work in a cafe sipping coffee instead of using dozens of sheets of paper to achieve the desired effect. But those hours, days and nights spent in the darkroom helped me a lot. I know immediately what should be done on a given picture. The best post-processing is almost invisible. No excessive post-processing approach will fundamentally change the light. When the light is not good you are just adding a trick on top of a picture. The general public might not see or understand it as a trick but professionals will. Other then those more technical aspects, the main thing is to take a good picture. The rest (technique) is easy to learn. Plus the camera engineers are absolutely brilliant, I love the way they make our lives (as photographers) easier. Just think of how difficult it was to achieve a perfect exposure for slides 25 years ago, and no way to save an over-exposed image at the time, it was directly for the garbage even if it was a great shot. Today, there is more pressure for the quality of the stories rather than the technique. And the overall level of professional photographers and photojournalists is much higher then before.
I like to tell stories in a personal, visual way. I try to be impartial in the sense that I don’t want to misguide the audience about what I saw, but I always try to do it in a more personal way by the sense of framing, the use of color or black and white,.. Shooting a series gives a better understanding of a story. In general, I am not a single shot photographer. I think in series and editing is key. You can tell one story or another by where you place the accent.
Magazines ask for +/- 30 photos and they make their own editing which does not always reflect what you had in mind. They often go for cliché shots, or sometimes they don’t recognize the best pictures. In those cases, I diplomatically suggest a different selection and usually they listen.

What are your projects for the future? What are you working on now?
Like many photographers my plans were totally disrupted by Covid-19. I came to Kyrgyzstan in the beginning of March 2020 to shoot a few stories and had to shelter in place until August. I went back to Europe for a few months and now I am back in Kyrgyzstan again until the end of the year, working on the Dead Goat Polo series with pictures of the game in the snow. I am hoping to go to Japan and several other places in 2021. We’ll see what parts of the world open up…

What advice would you give to an aspiring photographer who wants to turn his passion into a job?
Let’s start with the advice I did not get when I was a young photographer. I started to study photography in 1971. I had very good technical B&W teachers (of course analog at the time, which has helped me a lot throughout my career) but unfortunately nobody in the photojournalism field. I had to learn that by myself when I started as a professional sports photographer. To give you an example, over the summer holidays in 1974, I hitchhiked from Belgium to Afghanistan crossing Europe, Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan for my final school project. Along the way I documented people in all those countries but I « forgot » to make a story about the people in their twenties called hippies, starting to travel the world. At the time I did not understand the journalistic value of that particular story because I had no photojournalism background, only an aesthetic approach of photography.
To give advice I have to share an interesting experience I had when I was a sports photographer. I was invited for many years to participate in the making of the book «Roland Garros seen by the 20 best tennis photographers in the world» managed by Yann Arthus-Bertrand, the famous French filmmaker and photographer. In the confined area of Roland Garros, the idea was that every day 20 photographers had to bring back a few good pictures that were immediately displayed on a wall. Yann would select the best ones for the book. Some days you did not even make the wall selection! But every day your colleagues made good pictures sometimes when you had not seen anything special. They might have found a new location, a new way of seeing things from a higher perspective or taken photos at night after the matches, etc.
What does it mean? The pictures are there, they exist. You have to ask yourself, how can I make a good picture and where is the best place, then find the spot and make it happen (I mean wait for it to happen not provoke it). So I know that the pictures « exist » in a sense, and if I don’t get them myself another photographer in the same place will find the way to reveal them. There is always a good picture to be taken, you just have to work hard to get it. That idea never leaves me.


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