Cover Artist Gallery: Johan Hallberg-Campbell

An interview with the creator of The Walrus’s May 2011 cover
May 2011

SubjectNotes From Newfoundland” by Lisa Moore

Thank goodness for serendipity, and for the winds of fate that brought Johan Hallberg-Campbell to us. In the wake of the success of Gary Ross’s written portrait of Vancouver last year, we had been planning a series of pieces in the same spirit. Lisa Moore’s story about The Rock was an ideal second piece: it’s different in tone and spirit, but equally intelligent and loving. Grant Harder’s photography last year was really excellent, and we needed an equally good follow-up. Fortunately, at the suggestion of Don Weber, Johan introduced himself to us.

Johan pitched The Walrus an interesting photo essay about the disappearance of La Poile, a small fishing village in Newfoundland. He had already developed two other stories about the disappearance of fishing, fishing culture, and communities in nearby Grand Bruit, Newfoundland, and Scalpay, Scotland. I loved Johan’s images, but at the time we felt the proposed story was not a good fit for our editorial calendar. But, there was Lisa’s story…

Johan’s work aims to capture the sense of “place”; to photograph, as he says, “the environment without prejudice.” This is exactly what we were hoping for in terms of a visual approach for the story: something that would give the reader a sense of the place and the people in an open way. Johan’s previous images bore his ambitions out, and in aims, interests, and abilities, we couldn’t have met a better person at a more opportune time.

Brian Morgan: How did you first approach this? And what is your typical process for generating ideas?

Johan Hallberg-Campbell: I tend to review the information I have been given and think about it for a few days (time permitting). I had just spent some time in a small fishing community, Scalpay, in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. Scalpay has a very similar feel to Newfoundland with strong traditions and immense warmth from the people. The trip was fresh in my mind and helped me imagine how I would tackle this story. The last few years I have been developing a relationship with Newfoundland, travelling there more often. I had a very clear idea of the landscape and people, and knew I wanted to capture Newfoundland’s honesty. After formulating my thoughts I start speaking to people. I am interested in the experience of people, in hearing their stories. I learn from them and begin to understand their history. People are the place.

Brian Morgan: In general terms, how do you create your work? I’m wondering how much do you rely on Photoshop; do you long for the age of film, or not miss it at all; do you take a lot of images and sort them out after, or do you shoot relatively small sets; how do you put your subjects at ease when you take the camera out?

Johan Hallberg-Campbell: I am not at all a heavy Photoshopper. Generally each file takes me about five to ten minutes to process in Photoshop. I convert the raw file, adjust the levels and curves, make sure the highlights are not blown, and that’s about it. When I print for exhibitions, I adjust the image to work with my paper choice; I make sure it is not too dark or overly contrasty. I love colour to pop, but prefer the natural look.

I started on film and miss it: not so much 35mm; digital does a great job in this format. I have a fondness for medium format and Fuji Pro H film; it has a beautiful natural tone, a softer, gentler look compared to digital. I like the tangibility of film, the negative, something you can hold. The whole process slows you down and you compose and capture very differently to 35mm. I find I study what’s in my frame slightly more. Film is still very much in my future for personal projects. I am looking around at the moment for a decent six-by-nine rangefinder camera.

Shooting with digital you do tend to overshoot. I am guilty of it. It’s a different way to work: a looser, freer format. The editing process is a huge part of telling a story. I spend a lot of time thinking about the images and what they mean. I love printing four-by-six-inch prints and use those to figure out what works and what doesn’t. It did take me some time to feel comfortable using digital. When full-frame cameras appeared on the market I thought, “Huh, not bad, okay, let’s do this.” I use wide-angle fixed lenses. I like to be close to the subject I am documenting.

I am good with people and feel this is one of my strengths as a photographer. I am non-threatening and mostly can get on and chat with anyone. Patience is a virtue. Being Scottish helps; the accent is a conversation starter. When walking into to a rougher environment such as a Glasgow football pub, I always have my camera over my shoulder from the time I walk in the door. The patrons can see I am a photographer, it gives them time to adjust to me being there, invading their space. Being upfront tends to work for me, rather than the candid, sneaky approach. I will sit and when the moment is right bring the camera to my eye. When they get used to you, they forget you are shooting. That’s when great photography happens.

Brian Morgan: What was your inspiration for this final image?

Johan Hallberg-Campbell: The Mummers were such an integral, important part to the piece; I had a feeling that this would be the image I would like to see on the cover. I shot many frames of the different costumes over one day in St John's. In the morning the younger generation of mummers came out to parade on the colourful streets. As the mumming took place — boisterously waking through the streets, playing music and fooling around — I followed and captured individual portraits with the backdrop of the traditional homes.

Brian Morgan: Whose work has influenced you the most? And who or what has shaped your style?

Johan Hallberg-Campbell: I am influenced by everyday things. Something I see in the street, a story told, read or viewed. I am lucky to have many talented photographer friends who inspire me with the passion they exude as well as the images they produce, why they make their work, and what it means. I am influenced by the people I have photographed and their outlook on the world.

My photographic style developed over the years. I studied photography at the Glasgow School of Art, which was a very conceptual, thinking program. I am glad I took this route over a traditional documentary/journalism class; at a young age, I was introduced to the question “Why?”

Every Thursday, photographers would get together in the editing room, and that day would be spent constructively critiquing each other’s work. We were brutally honest. It made you stronger as an artist. You have to know why you make the work and you have to stand up for it. We would go to many free talks, attend openings, sit in the pubs and discuss our ideas, print for hours in the darkroom, come out for air and look at each others’ prints. Every day I would meet someone new and talk about photography. I still love to make a beautiful looking picture, but the why comes first. Even at art school my work was very focused to documentary. I must have been the only one in the class.

My fine art background mixed with journalistic approach to photography has shaped my style. Photographer Thomas Joshua Cooper pushed me the hardest and was a huge inspiration at the school. His passion, feeling, and intelligence excited me and gave me confidence to keep going.

Brian Morgan: You work in a traditional vein of photojournalism at a moment when, although clearly there is a universe of good stories to tell, and digital technology has made every photographer’s life a lot easier, the distribution and dissemination systems for photography are undergoing a mighty change. What do you think the future holds?

Johan Hallberg-Campbell: That’s a huge question and not sure that anyone knows the real answer. The biggest worry a freelance photojournalist has to deal with (after safety) is where the next paycheque is coming from. I am always trying to figure out how to fund personal projects and ponder what is going to happen in the future. I hear this from many photographers. Indeed digital has made the photographer’s life easier, and the internet has also evolved the way we read and capture news and events. Unfortunately it has affected magazine and newspaper sales, which in turn effects the working photographer. Budgets are cut and work dries up. Artist grants are becoming the only way to try and fund photographic projects. Young emerging photojournalists are having a very hard time breaking into the industry.

The digital camera is a great tool; it has opened up the realms of photography to everyone, the box Brownie did the same thing in the early 20th century — every family could now afford to own a simple camera. The professional portrait photographers of the time must have cursed it. The modern market has become saturated. There are more photographers than ever before. That’s not a bad thing, but it does mean that strong photographers can be often underappreciated. I feel photography is going through a new age, and we are all learning again. People are realizing that it’s not that easy. It has been ten years since the digital camera started to dominate and the dust is still settling. Kodak has reported that film sales have gone up recently; it is hip to shoot film again and teenagers are experimenting with the process. It is not going to replace digital, but it is not going away anytime soon.

Talented photographers are pushing the boundaries in the digital age — this will always happen when a new era is born. It is important to make work from the heart. It is important to have a voice: people respond to passion. You do get depressed because your bank account is empty, but then you move on. I did not choose this path because it is easy, I choose it because I want to tell a story, this is the way I know how, and the medium I love.

Brian Morgan is the art director of The Walrus.

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