Life goes on
In Rwanda and Eastern Congo, Finbarr O’Reilly saw the impact of images that only tell part of the story and decided to work on changing the narrative.
Canon Ambassador Clive Booth’s stunning photography captures the soul of his subjects and has the remarkable ability to touch that intangible something that lies far beyond the surface. Talking to him makes you feel that you are within grasping reach of some rare photography secrets, but he is happy to speak openly and frankly about his feelings, beauty and anxiety, as well as the value of purpose, integrity, authenticity and truth.
“I'm all about storytelling. One of the privileges of my position as a photographer is meeting extraordinary people who do extraordinary things, and I get to tell those stories to other people. This is why photography gives me real sense of purpose. I've always been driven by challenge and purpose. No human being can be fulfilled without those two words. We're at a point now with technology where cameras do pretty much everything, and I often let the camera do the work and have no embarrassment in leaning on the tech. It frees me up to connect with my subject 100%, to allow my empathy and sensitivity to feel, and bring this to my images. Don't get me wrong, I understand the technology, but I'd rather focus on building that connection with my subject and following their movement. We're in a very exciting time technologically, and I'm achieving some of the best results from my work since the mirrorless system.
I also find purpose in teaching, and it has become a big part of my work. I'm collaborating with my local school for the Canon Young People Programme with the Ideas Foundation, and working with the Queen's Platinum Jubilee, which is very exciting. Purpose and passion are key. The third word is fulfilment. Many people in life remain unfulfilled, and I don't think there's any magic wand for it. When you're young, you have dreams, but then you might fall into a profession you don't particularly like but do well at, and make money, then buy a house and a car and find yourself in a trap without feeling fulfilled. I think Covid 19 has been interesting in that it made people seriously rethink what's important in life.
Where do I get my fulfilment from? Certainly not from money. I think challenge plus purpose equals fulfilment. There is also something to be said for balance. You can't be fulfilled all the time and life naturally brings both darkness and light – you need both. You can channel your darkness in useful ways. For example, I often draw the colour out of work, as I don't like painting sunny days. It distracts from the subject. How many times do you hear people say, ‘it's a sunny day, what a great day to take a picture!’ No, that's the worst day to take a picture! The contrast is too high and where is the atmosphere in that? I'm much happier on a darker day with splashes of sunlight coming through the clouds. The secret is empathy – then add atmosphere and a bit of technique, and you've got a winning formula.
However, I'm also a real worrier – just ask my wife and agent – and I'm very much a home person, but my work and ideas force me to leave. Anxiety is something you learn to live with. I still get nervous before shoots. There's that fear of failure, you know? When I go into a project, I think about the worst that could possibly happen and the best that could possibly happen. It's a blessing and a curse all at the same time. The curse is that sometimes life can be painful as you feel things very deeply. The blessing is that I was born with a lot of empathy and sensitivity, which is a benefit when you're working with people, as you can read them and empathise with them, and possibly see things that others may not. I've been very lucky to work with some of the great photographers, such as Sir Don McCullin, and although he had to be tough in his life, he has great empathy and sensitivity for his subjects. This is something I've seen in all the great people I've worked with. For me, integrity and authenticity are key – it's all about truth. Without embellishment. I capture what is – it's almost like having an extra sense.
I've been going to Scotland for almost 30 years now and the people are literally like family. In 2013, it dawned on me that I should do a project about this unique connection with the place and people. I had been directing some quite big film commercials, so it was lovely to go back to my roots of just a couple of camera bodies and maybe two or three lenses, and then go out to the island [the Isle of Islay in the Inner Hebrides, off Scotland's west coast]. I shot a series of work and shared it with the European manager for print at Canon, and he immediately commissioned me. A few months later, my agent got a call from Louis Vuitton in Paris saying they had seen this series of work and liked how gritty and soulful it was, and they commissioned me for three years to shoot their social media campaigns. So that passion project led to, and still leads to, commission work.
The little boy in this picture is called Robbie Brown. He was 9-years old at this point and I was there to photograph his dad, Scott, who was one of the RNLI volunteers. Robbie would keep appearing on a quad bike and try to get my attention. Suddenly, he appeared with a puppy and a lolly. I looked and didn't say a word, brought my camera up and took this picture. There was something about the composition, his shirt and his lolly, and it was just one of those moments in time. I really empathised with him wanting to be part of it all. Unfortunately, his dad died two years ago of a heart attack, so I often think about Robbie and his dad who became a very good friend of mine, as did his whole family. It's a picture that has become very important to me. It makes me smile, and really emphasises the importance of every picture you take and every moment you catch. It could end up meaning a lot to somebody. This is one of my favourite pictures from the entire project and it has had massive personal significance since Scott’s death. Robbie is a wonderful young man now, and I think he's following in his dad's footsteps to some degree, and his dad would be immensely proud.
When I was younger, I asked myself if I wanted to be that person hiding under the seat when your mum takes you to school for the first day or if I wanted to be the person who embraces challenges. I am now a complex mixture of the two. I am so full of passion for what I do. I find that nearly all the successful projects I've been involved in come from that passion, and these have led to commercial work. So, what I want to say to people is ‘follow your heart’. Cameras are just enablers. They're the things we put between subjects like Robbie and ourselves. We're painting pictures, raising awareness and telling stories with cameras.”
Find out more about Canon Ambassador Clive Booth and his work.