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Interview with photographer | Ewan Burns

When did you become first involved in photography and why?

Good question.  I was 26 and had recently left a reconnaissance unit in the British infantry.  I loved being a soldier, but felt that I needed to do other things outside the military.

I had two plans:  one was to move to London and live on the streets with my camera.  My other equally well-researched and organized plan involved hitchhiking into Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina at the time.  The city was surrounded by Serbian forces and was being shelled every day, and hundreds of civilians were being killed while a home-grown militia force defended the city.  Am I a genius or what?  I discussed these two plans with my older brother, who counseled me to hitchhike into one of the most dangerous places in the civilized world.  Good, I thought, that’s settled then.

I mentioned my brilliant plan to a few friends and slowly began to gather information, which proved invaluable for gaining access to a limited war zone.

I caught a train from London to Zagreb (capital of Croatia), borrowed a button-down shirt from an English chap called Richard, then off I went to the airport to speak to the UNHCR (United Nations High Commission for Refugees).  Long story short:  I somehow got through security and onto an airplane after agreeing to deliver body armor to Larry Hollinsworth, the UNHRC head man in Sarajevo.  I had no idea at the time that it was this easy to get into a lot of trouble.  So I began photography as a man who did not know what the little numbers on the lens meant, but did learn that having a camera legitimized my tendency to do zany things and gave me the courage to gain access to places and people that otherwise would have been untouchable.

Who are some of your favorite photographers and why do you admire their work?

Paul Wakefield.  Paul is an amazing landscape photographer and, in fact, I had no interest in landscapes until I worked with him.   Gradually the art revealed itself to me between loading film and taking very detailed and specific notes.  Due to his influence, I feel that in many ways I always start with the background.  If the background is beautiful and then you put interesting things in front of it, you have given yourself a good head start.

Richard Misrach.  He makes beautiful landscape compositions that remind me of Salvador Dali. There was a lot of work in the nineties that suggested Richard had taught a weekend seminar to some of the best advertising photographers in England.

Anton Corbijn.  He was one of the first photographers whose work I wish could call my own.  I want to have his job and his subject matter.

Tina Barney.  I had no idea who she was until I assisted her for a month in London.  I realized that she made true art photography and that it was so much more fun than advertising and editorial.  We would go to someone’s house and out would come the 4×5.  I have never seen someone work a 4×5 so fast.

Jerry Oke.  He was a London still life and advertising photographer I assisted in the late nineties in London.  I consider him to be my photographic father.  We would sit and have pints of beer after work and I would try to will his skill and abilities to be passed on to me through some sort of social osmosis.

Garry Simpson.  We went to art college together, had many things in common, and became fast friends.  One of our tutors said he thought that Garry would become a heavyweight London advertising photographer, and he did.  One week he was carrying someone else’s black bags (assisting) and the next week he was taking jobs from the likes of Nadav Kandar.  He’s an inspiration to me all the time.

What is your greatest experience as a photographer?

I was in one of the Unis Towers in Sarajevo, once the largest and most modern building on the city’s skyline.  It had been hit countless times with artillery and mortar rounds, so what once was a steel and glass construction was now a shell of its former self, with shattered windows and broken glass everywhere.  Small arms fire was hitting the building close to where I was, and I could not tell if I was being targeted or just in the general kill zone.  I moved behind a pillar and watched the tracer rounds from a Serb sniper targeting a window in the building next to me; in the background, a tank was firing phosphorous rounds into an apartment building.  The light was failing and I remembered someone telling me that you could push film, so I rated it at 800 ASA and began to shoot, trying to capture the tracer rounds and the burning building.  And there I was composing a foreground of tracer rounds from Serbian snipers’ fire, a middle ground of an apartment building burning from a Serb tank attack, and a background of the mountains containing untold Serbian and Chetnik forces who probably could have taken the city at any time.

What equipment to you prefer to use and why?

Well, things have changed and I have been forced to change with the times.

I would have said a Mamiya RZ with a 65mm lens and a 220 back, Sekonic 189 light meter and off we go… and I would have had to include my trusty Toyo field and 90mm lens.

Now I roll with the deliciously forgiving and talented Canon 5D MKII and a bevy of “L“ series lenses.  It works really well in studio, although I’m not so keen on the luminance range of back light outside, etc.  But it’s a great system.

Describe your editing process.

Editing, editing, editing…

I go through the shoot and look for anything that wholly or partially fulfills the criteria of the shot. For example, if the face of one subject is good but not the other, I select it.  I try to find anything of value and keep it as a part of the recipe.  Having said that, I rarely and barely retouch anything, and usually there is a shot that does fulfill all of the criteria.  It might not be perfect, but I always seem to value sincerity over perfection.

Selects go into a folder, and then I apply the same process again and make another folder.  It’s a process of elimination.

In terms of compositing, generally I like things the way they appear in my lens.  It’s personally satisfying for me to compose in the camera rather than relying on doing it in post-production.  I think I am overly optimistic sometimes and like the idea that a moment can be caught.  Perhaps I should, as there are a bunch of great photographers who work that way, but I prefer the chaos of possibility and chance and the excitement of the moment, the challenge of capturing that moment.

As for retouching and printing, there is always a little clean up and then I tend to print emotionally in terms of color but generally stay with what was real.  I remember 10 years ago when I began to print:  everything was less sophisticated in terms of calibration and re-creatable color profiles, I think I learnt a lot because what I looked at on the monitor was not what came out of the printer, so I would have to print test strips just like with film.  The result was that I was far more exploratory with color and used to be complimented on my printed palette.

What sets your work apart from others?

I think I have above average energy on set.  I like to surround myself with a lot of music and energy, with everybody on the crew working hard and thoughtfully and enjoying their day. Many of my subjects have told me how much fun they had; that, I think, is high praise because I shoot a lot of “real” people who often dread the idea of a big production shoot.  I’m conscious of that, and would hate for the tables to be turned and have the camera on me.  My goal is to give my subjects and my crew a good experience.

Last year I shot a big campaign for BBDO Worldwide and GE capital bank. I was shooting interactions between CEOs of very successful businesses, like Jet Blue and Polaris, and their banking partners.  These interactions, often conceived in highly contrived circumstances, were supposed to look “natural”, and sometimes we had only the time between takes of a concurrent commercial to pull off the shot.  This is when my particular skill set sets me apart.  I like the pressure of it being barely possible.  The more stacked it is against me, the more interested I am in the problem.  But I also know that it wouldn’t be possible without having people around me that have my back.  I believe in great producers and assistants and paying them well.

What are your plans for the future regarding photography?

Something in me wants to go to Afghanistan and shoot the coalition forces doing their jobs.  Up close, personal, intimate soc doc reportage with an Ewan Burns twist.  It’s been done but not by me.  Also, I want to take some beautiful images of people falling out of airplanes (skydiving).

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One response

  1. Reading this post is a “real” time travel into the many aspects of
    Ewan Burns brilliant survival zones when he first began shooting.
    An amazing interview and incredible images that go beyond words
    of description.

    April 26, 2011 at 4:01 pm

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