INTERVIEW: Vanessa Champion – Documentary Photographer

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Photographer, Vanessa Champion

A slight break with convention from my Writers’ Interviews here… But keeping with the same creative vein, a photographer: Vanessa Champion.

I was fortunate enough to meet Vanessa (‘Ness’) back in mid-February for a headshot shoot for my acting portfolio (more images here) and was immediately taken by her charm, her easy-to-work-with professionalism, and her aura. It was like I had met a long lost soul and was catching up on old news. It seemed obvious that I should do an interview. Ness is a fascinating lady, a talented lady – with oodles of modesty thrown in for good measure (which is why I haven’t edited ANYTHING out!) – and I’m honoured that she is now one of my close friends.

Without further ado… Vanessa Champion, in her own words…

Technology has changed over the years, do you have a preference over digital or ‘old school’, and why? 

I started life working with film cameras. My early sales were just with a little Olympus, and one could argue it’s the photographer not the camera which makes the image, but maybe I won’t bang on about that here (I can waffle and write for England!). I can’t stress enough the importance and value of having worked with a medium that MAKES you THINK before you press the shutter. With film, you have to think, frame, think, focus, think, expose, as every time you press the button, it costs money. When I started earning money as a “jobbing” photographer, I used to buy a 36 exposure film, shoot 24 for the client and keep the rest for me to shoot. I did a Roliflexdeal with my supplier and printer, so my client paid for 24 and wasn’t out of pocket I hasten to add (I didn’t shaft them!). I learnt in subsequent years, that Cartier-Bresson did just that, he would be commissioned by Life Magazine and shoot most of the rolls for them and keep some frames for himself to shoot. When I did make the move to digital, I still shot with that slow and considered way, and still do. I find myself firing off more during portrait sessions, but that’s more to put subject at ease than lack of framing. Am converting from slapper flapper Nikon (the loud “clack you hear when photographers press the shutter) to the silent Fuji mirrorless system, which is perfect for the theatre, opera and TV still work I do. Actually Fujifilm gave me a load of singleuse cameras (you know those throwaway ones you often get at weddings) to teach former street kids in Uganda how to document their lives. Was really interesting to see how they started thinking and framing, they REALLY understood the value of each photo. Am producing a book of their work to help raise money for much needed beds for the kids out there. Tough lives.

Vanessa ChampionYou have been described as a ‘documentary photographer’, can you expand on what this means to you?

I story-tell. When I shoot, I see stories. That might seem obvious when I’m shooting an opera or a theatrical piece, but I see the same when I’m shooting a corporate event, I watch interaction, reaction, timing, personality and try and capture the energy and rhythm of the moment. I shoot for NGOs in Africa and Asia, the same thing, I look and see the stories and time my capture with the heartbeat of the story unfolding infront of me. Sometimes I do feel like a sniper!

Do you have a ‘wish list’ of subjects you’d still like to shoot, and why?

Adam Ant, the former President of Uruguay…  – the reason? Character, I love character. Also a road trip up South America, to document the music, food, people, artisans, workers. I’m working on some personal projects, WWI Ulysses (an installation piece of a soldier in a WWI trench, with music and soundscape), plus a series of sportspeople and well, there’s quite a bit in the pipeline I’m building!

photoaidYou wear many hats, as you’re not just a photographer, you are editor of a newspaper, and do a lot of charity work. How did this all come about and how to you juggle so many things?

Not sure how it’s all happened. Have been very lucky, have put in some long hours (hate to think sometimes just how many!) and have been blessed with some terrific clients who have given me opportunities. Being an academic first, I think, makes you a solution finder, a researcher. I love solving problems and helping fix things. And really, that’s all business is about, having a “problem, product, idea” and needing a solution to “fix, sell, make happen”. I just utilise the years of research experience and deliver. I’m still not sure what I want to be when I grow up, am working on it though… Photography has always been there, it’s the creative thread that holds my world together.

If you were not able to do the things you do, what would do instead?

I love music, so I’d love to be Ray Charles with the voice of Aretha Franklin (fix it for me, Ant!).

MumbaiDo you have any advice for aspiring photographers?

Photograph, photograph, photograph. And then shoot some more. Find your genre, create your style and most importantly LOVE what you shoot.

I know you’ve recently returned from Mumbai, what else is on the horizon for the rest of 2015?

I was documenting the work of one of the NGOs I work with, “Born to be Beautiful” in Mumbai, which teaches impoverished women beauty skills they can then use to earn money and slowly gain value within their community and therefore try to stop the endless cycle of violence and fear.  I am founder of PhotoAid Global, and we are running a course in extreme PhotoJournalism this year (theory and practical), plus sponsoring a photojournalism award with the Art Gemini Prize, with an exhibition at the Menier Gallery, London. To enter click here… Plus I’m writing three books, one of which is an entry level “how to photograph your crafts”, a book on British Heritage Artisans (coffee table photography book), plus a book on Cuthbert Orde who drew the pilots of Fighter Command in 1940. Am putting together another couple for the NGOs I work with, but that’s alongside the day job. Hoping to head into France, and maybe off to Ethiopia with the lovely NGO I work closely with, PENHA  (Pastoralist and Environmental Network in the Horn of Africa), it’s the 25th Anniversary this year, so watch out for an exhibition of the images I shot with the pastoralist nomads in Uganda as part of their Silver anniversary (some of the images have already been in Venice as part of the Biennale).

Anything else you’d care to add…?

Some recent work on www.vanessachampion.co.uk love to hear from anyone who reads this. Much love and thanks, Ant.

Unfortunately this article isn’t long enough to give Ness the words to say ALL she’d really like to say, but she’s very approachable, and doesn’t bite (hard!) so check out more of her wonderful work: Vanessa Champion Website.

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The Shepherd Cover ArtANTHONY DONNELLY blogs about all things writing, inspirational, and motivational. He has published a number of books for children and adults. His latest book, a short, inspirational parable THE SHEPHERD  is currently climbing up the Amazon charts, and is available in Kindle or paperback. When not sat at his keyboard writing, he can be found in Costa Rica, North America, or somewhere in Europe motivating and coaching individuals and groups in self-development techniques and life-balance. Most recently you can see him back on the sets of films and in front of the modelling camera again.

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