Andy Barton’s photographic journey started in a most unusual way – with a passion for BMX and an assignment in Ulan Bator, Mongolia.
In 2005, at the tender age of 23, Andy had already learned a trade as an electrician and built a reputation in the competitive world of BMX – a sub-culture where cycling meets freestyle. The course of his life seemed set.
Then, out of the blue, came his first assignment.
“I found out they had built this massive outdoor skateboard park in the Mongolian capital and I thought it would be amazing for BMX. So myself and a friend sold the idea to a BMX magazine, who agreed to a double page spread,” remembers Andy.
On his way to Mongolia Andy picked up his first ever camera, during a stopover in Beijing. “It was a pretty decent Canon point-and-shoot,” he recalls.
But when Andy and a fellow BMX enthusiast arrived in Ulan Bator, the skateboard park was nowhere to be found. “We called the magazine and explained that the reason for the assignment was no longer there but promised to get some good pictures anyway. In the end we got one page in the magazine.”
The assignment had come close to disaster, but the seeds of a passion had been sown.
On returning to his home town of Manchester in northern England, Andy started doing regular paid assignments, photographing parties and events for a friend’s company.
He got his first DSLR “to look more professional” and spent many long nights “photographing drunk people.”
“After a couple of years, I was pretty much burnt out,” says Andy. “At the time, I didn’t have enough experience to understand I could have made a good documentary story on the rave culture in clubs.”
By 2010, after a number of years scraping by as an electrician, Andy was becoming increasingly aware of the glaring social problems caused by government austerity policies.
“I was living in cooperative housing and there was a lot of homelessness. People were taking to the streets and there were regular protests. By then social media was emerging too. Instead of putting up posters, people were posting on Facebook.”
It was during this period of austerity that Andy experienced what could be called an ‘awakening’. “I had a camera and began posting pictures. And I soon found that people were really interested in my work. They couldn’t believe what I was showing them.”
“It opened my eyes too. After seeing the drama of life in other countries like Brazil and South Africa, suddenly I was seeing what was happening at home with fresh eyes. I started asking myself how can I make my pictures better? Eventually, I decided to go a step further and study photography at college.”
Surprisingly perhaps, Andy’s photography course took him away from the instant world of digital photography and into the slow, manual universe of film and the darkroom.
“I became really interested in understanding the process of photography. In the second and third year, we spent a lot of time in the darkroom. I remember I had bought a new digital camera and I was keen to learn about Photoshop. The lecturer, who was close to retirement at the time, said we don’t use Photoshop here. She said ‘you see that darkroom over there? That’s your Photoshop.’”
“At first, I was irritated but when she started to teach us how Photoshop was actually based on darkroom skills, I got really interested. She explained that if you understand the principles of the darkroom, learning Photoshop will be easy. She was right.”
It was during his three years at college that Andy’s personal photographic vision began to develop. A raw interest in picture taking grew into a deeper understanding of photographic culture and art. His inspirations and influences were broad and eclectic, ranging from the work of fashion photographers like Guy Bourdin, to icons like Steve McCurry, Henri Cartier Bresson, Martin Parr and Raymond Depardon.
Today, Andy is a working photojournalist covering news and social issues in the UK, distributing his work via agencies like Sopa Images, Rex Features, Getty Images and Alamy.
Although the practical demands of earning a living, mean he still needs to shoot some commercial assignments, his true passion remains for social documentary work. “I’m kind of an anti-capitalist at heart,” he says, with a smile. “It’s really unbelievable how little you can get paid for a photo that appears on the BBC. It’s unsustainable.”
Andy sees his photographic journey as an ongoing process of learning and gradual evolution, whereby he is constantly synthesizing a broad range influences and experiences to form a personal style and vision. “It’s not just a job,” he says. “If I wanted to earn money, I could go back to being an electrician. With my photography, I’m constantly striving to learn and to create the best image I can.”
Interested in Buddhism, Andy also brings a philosophical angle to his understanding of photography. “I feel it’s a lot to do with being in the present moment. That’s the beauty of photography for me. It’s the one tool that truly forces you to be in the moment.”
Discover Andy Barton’s work on his website at https://www.andybartonphoto.com/
Three pieces of advice you would give to photographers starting out:
- Don’t start out with a single aim. Learn what you’re best at by trying lots of different styles. Shoot on location and in the studio, shoot fashion and documentary. Shoot in as many different lighting conditions you can.
- Get a website and set up a portfolio online. It looks much more professional.
- Be nice to fellow photographers. It’s a small world and it’s getting tougher for us all, especially as the public becomes more suspicious of the media.
What’s your favourite lens?
I love primes. I would say the Canon 50mm 1.2 because it gives a very honest perspective. It’s also not too big and not too heavy.
What’s wrong with the industry that needs fixing?
The pay structure needs fixing. It’s not the editors’ fault but it’s just not sustainable. I understand the pressure the industry is under but clients shouldn’t ask for images for free.
Link to Harmen student of the year 2015
Written by Yvan Cohen
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