I recently ‘sat down’ with Ben Nelms (re: emailed) to talk about his work as a photojournalist, and to get a little insight into why he does what he does. I’ve known Ben for a number of years, and he has always been deeply passionate about photography – even at a time when most teenagers were only concerned with making (and breaking) friends and getting the money to buy clothes from the brand du jour. Read on to find out a little bit about the ‘man behind the lens’, who will be taking the stage, so to speak, on Friday, June 28 with a talk entitled Photojournalism Ethics: Documentary Photostories, presented by The Wanderer and PrairieSeen. This talk is completely and utterly free; tickets can be reserved via Eventbrite.
Tori: You started taking photos seriously at a fairly young age. Can you tell us how you first got into it?
Ben: I think the foundation for my interest in photojournalism stems from my outrageous curiosity of everything around me. I have always been interested in the process of photography and the storytelling component it holds. I am a very visual person; that’s how I learn and that’s how I tend to communicate. Photographs and cameras are simply just a tool I use to learn about people and the way things are, and I like to pass that along to others.
T: Is that why you ended up pursuing photography as a profession?
B: There definitely was a moment when I realized I could support myself by using my camera. I really couldn’t see myself doing anything else now other than working full-time as a photojournalist. That being said, I never got into photojournalism for the money, and that still isn’t a priority.
T: Yet it is great to see it is a financially viable career path, even if it isn’t necessarily a lucrative one! So you grew up in Edmonton, went to post-secondary school in Belleville, Ontario and now live in Vancouver, a fairly expensive city in Canada, to say the least. Is there a reason you’ve chosen to move around so much?
B: Moving around is a symptom of being in such a fragile and often unpredictable industry. You have to sacrifice a lot of things to stay in this business and one of them is a stable living situation. I moved to Belleville to attend Loyalist College’s Photojournalism program because it is simply the best program in the country. I didn’t go there to learn about photography but moreso to be plugged into the industry and build a network. You need to be naturally passionate about this industry and your photographs or else you will get left behind. There are thousands of talented photographers in this country, but talent isn’t much without passion.
T: I definitely agree, and I think that sentiment can be extended to include any and all talents. Passion aside, what do you find are the positives and negatives working as both a contract stringer for Reuters and as a freelance photographer?
B: The pros of working for an international wire service like Reuters is the experience and level of work you need to produce for them. It’s the big leagues in photojournalism and the stress and pressure of working on some of the bigger assignments forces you to produce your best work. You literally are working by the second and dozens of publications and clients are waiting for your photos to come through. Seeing your photographs in publications around the world and realizing that you have a huge responsibility to get the most accurate reportage to a huge audience is the only motivation I need. Some people would say the cons of working as a freelance photojournalist are the unpredictable work hours. News breaks whenever it sees fit – I personally love this aspect of the job.
Freelancing for other publications or magazines offers a creative opportunity to work on a body of work about a story or subject that naturally interests you. Unlike the news world, magazine work and photostories can be shot on much longer timelines with more time to work on them. The ‘slow photography’ or documentary work is what keeps you sane from the fast-paced news world. It isn’t uncommon when working on a longer term story to have days where you don’t take a photograph; you are simply listening and gaining the trust of the subject.
T: That being said, what is your favourite genre of photography?
B: I wouldn’t so much say I have certain genres of photography that I like but moreso certain photographs. I like photographs or photography about people or with people in them. Whether it be one person or a photograph documenting a relationship between two people; a photograph that can be reproduced exactly the same the next day doesn’t captivate me. I also tend to like photographs that are incomplete, or that have a vulnerable aspect to them. I look at hundreds of photographs a day, and the ones that stick with me are the ones that make me feel something and ask me questions… why are these people here? What happened here?….what happened next?
T: I feel the same way about art – it is always a difficult questions when someone asks you who your favourite artist is without pointing at very specific works. But to go onto another ‘favourites’ question, what was your favourite story that you shot in the last year or so?
B: I would say working on the Shark Fin story was incredible. I encountered so many people and learned so much about something that I didn’t know much about initially. We worked tirelessly for some wonderful access into the lives of people working on the front lines of the controversy. Getting on a shark-harvesting boat and learning about the work was invaluable.
T: You publish many of your stories online via your blog and website. The Wanderer, and our co-presenter, PrairieSeen, also utilize these forms of online media. Why do you choose to utilize them, and how do you think they have changed the profession of photography?
B: Its immensely important. When done right, a proper online presence can reach an audience that was never really possible before. In the newsprint world, we all are aware that most, if not all, printed newspapers will cease to exist in a matter of years. You have to be adaptable, and learning and utilizing online media is part of the job. On a personal note, I love reading and browsing new work of other colleagues or artists. My appetite for inspiration is huge and websites such as The Wanderer or PrairieSeen are efficient places to get my fill. A really great photographer and friend of mine, Aaron Vincent Elkaim, recently started an online blog of his photographs and he summed it up best: “the passion to photograph is rooted in the passion to share”.
I would like to thank Ben for taking the time to speak with me. If you are interested in finding out more about what Ben has to say, make sure to come to our free event this Friday, June 28 at the Stanley A. Milner Library. And be sure to check out the slideshow of works by Ben, below.
Ben Nelms is a photojournalist currently based in Vancouver, B.C. Ben was born and raised in Edmonton, Alberta and went to Loyalist College near Toronto for his Photojournalism degree. After working for a few daily newspapers, Ben decided to take the leap into the world of freelance photojournalism. Since then, Ben has worked for such clients as National Post, The Globe & Mail, The New York Times, Macleans, Sports Illustrated and Canadian Geographic. In late 2010, Ben moved to Vancouver to work as a contract stringer for Reuters News Agency and continues to freelance on the side. This year, Ben was awarded 1st and 2nd place ‘Picture Story of the Year’ awards at the National Pictures of the Year awards in Calgary, Alberta.