WildTomato Interview

Recently I was asked to do an interview with WildTomato magazine as part of a ‘staff profile’ advertisement for NMIT, I said “yeah, why not!”. Fortunately the editor needed to cut my misguided egotistical ramblings down from 1300 to about 500, good work Matt! So, for those interested and to feed my own ego, here’s the uncut version.

At what age did you first take an interest in photography?

I first remember picking up an old Zenit E and feeling captivated by the possibility that I could freeze moments in time, I guess I was about eight or nine. But it wasn’t until I was in my early twenties that I found chemical processing. I studied traditional photography under Chris Wright (film director Edgar Wright’s father), I remember being in the darkroom developing film and processing my own prints when realised I loved photography – I get a kick out of the technical side of things, not just the artistic interpretation, but the concept of recording and the manipulation of light to ‘paint’ a picture had me hooked. I later specialised in photography for my Degree at West Wales School of the Arts and loved every second of it.

How much time do you set aside for your personal projects, (outside teaching of course)?

As much as I possibly can. I’ll set myself a project that will take me anything from six months to a year to shoot, that way I can invest more thought and explore every avenue of a subject. Personal and professional projects are vital to my teaching, it’s those moments where I make discoveries that benefit  what I take in to the classroom.

How quickly did you grasp onto it all? And were there any areas of photography that never grew on you?

With anything that’s worthwhile, learning something new begins with inspiration. I was lucky to be inspired by great tutors while I was in polytec and later university, those years as a photography student were some of my happiest. I worked in a second-hand camera store during my study, I guess overall it was a five year investment. There’s nothing about photography that opposes my enthusiasm, using a lens to capture the world around you is hugely engaging and I’m always learning. I’m currently really interested in filmmaking, Doug Brooks, James Wvinner and Aaron Falvey are fantastic local filmmakers, there’s great things happening in Nelson and Marlborough which I’m happy to be a part of. Our students are able to work with the collective Top of The South Filmmakers. Photography and filmmaking is a growing industry here in NZ, we’re so close to Wellington and being a gateway to the South, Nelson and Marlborough are in prime positions to be part of new, exciting projects.

Can you describe the value you find in teaching all this? Do you ever learn from your own students? And what are the most rewarding aspects of being a photography tutor?

Firstly, the value I have in teaching is entirely directed by the value gained by the student, if no one in the programme is progressing then I have to evaluate my teaching strategies. Folk come to an educational institution to learn, learn a specialist subject and to learn something about themselves. Being a facilitator of that learning is hugely rewarding. The differences made in people’s lives can be subtle and sometimes dramatic. New skills and found ambition can change lives in such a profound way. At its very core learning photography, accountancy or basket weaving is irrelevant, the act of learning creates powerful connections in the brain which can aid and improve skills to other areas of life, it’s knowing this as a tutor that get’s me out of bed each morning. And yes, I’m constantly learning from my students, that’s what’s great about sharing.

The model for learning continues to evolve as we go deeper into ‘the digital age’. Classes today are sometimes purely online, opposed to the traditional face-to-face style of learning. Which do prefer to teach, and why?

What we need to understand is that there is no right or wrong way, in the classroom or online. What matters is understanding how we learn. It’s the job of the tutor, teacher or lecturer to differentiate between the learning needs of their students, both in the classroom and online. We’re in an age of ‘blended learning’ where we’re using technology to aid the learning experience and being able to cater for those who learn in different ways is fundamental. The classroom offers a personable level of guidance, however this may not be suitable for more didactic learners who prefer to learn by themselves and equally higher-level and dyslexic learners who excel with a blend of both. Having the luxury to choose, really means nobody gets left behind. As a tutor I embrace ‘online’ and ‘classroom’ because no two learners are same. We’re far away from the ‘textbook chalk and talk’ style of teaching, now tutored education is for anyone and everyone thanks to its accessibility. We’re doing some great things with TANZ eCampus (The Tertiary Accord of New Zealand), and NMIT is leading the development of eCampus with a network of leading New Zealand Institutes of Technology Polytechnics (ITPs).

Back to photography; who are your personal role models, and for what reasons?

I have so many, I’m a collector of interesting people – my friends, colleagues and family continue to be an inspiration. But I guess if we’re to be specific to photography then, Gregory Crewdson, Lorna Mattocks, Huw Davies, William Eggleston and Don McCullin are my heroes. It’s important to me to be as agile as possible when it comes to being inspired by new things. I don’t ever want to stay within a bubble of one subject. Front-end web design and development, illustration, carpentry, running, muay thai and just lately concepts around neuroplasticity – keep me on my toes. It’s important to me to stay active, I like the idea of being a polymath.

Have there been any major mishaps or challenges in the time you’ve been in the industry?

There’s always something, always a drama somewhere. Changes in the industry are inevitable and resistance will always be a factor, both in the teaching and photography industry. The important thing to remember is that we have a choice, we can adopt, shape and ‘cherry-pick’ the best tools to get the job done. I guess photography saw a revolution as digital become affordable, I remember there was a period when film was still superior over digital, but these traditional techniques never fade away, they become desirable crafts on the next trend rotation  – I’m looking forward to a time when digital is ‘old-hat’ and we become skilled makers of this ancient craft. Ha!

Are there any words of wisdom that you could say for any budding photographers out there?

Don’t think great photography comes from using the newest equipment, sure, get a good enough DSLR and a nice lens, but don’t think that you can’t get a great picture without using the latest Canon full-frame whatever! The best photographs I’ve seen were taken on secondhand, beaten-up old rigs – it’s all about composition (framing), look for the light, look for colour, look for expression, character, line, shape, texture and just shoot it – and keep shooting. Being able to see and recognise something powerful, inspirational and capture it with a camera takes skill, but that’s the greatest thing, photography is a lot of fun and you get better with every photo you take – just keep shooting!

Is your future ripe for change? Do you plan on going elsewhere or doing something else, or are you comfortable where you are now?

At this moment I’m captivated by teaching and my own personal projects – ten years from now, I like to think I’ll be someone totally different. Education is currently undergoing a revolution, we’re only just tapping in to the possibilities of online learning, we have courses that are hugely successful, people are learning new things from everywhere and at anytime. As educators we’re taking advantage of technology, it’s an exciting time, who wouldn’t want to be a part of that?