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Member in the spotlight: Ben McRae


We are pleased to announce that Ben McRae has been chosen as our next Member in the Spotlight. Ben is a photographer based out of Wollongong in New South Wales, Australia. Ben's regular travel to Africa, and his subsequent photographic journeys have seen him drive thousands upon thousands of kilometers through all of southern and eastern Africa in search of that perfect image.

If after reading this interview if you would like to ask Ben McRae questions about his work please use this forum thread.

1. Briefly tell us about yourself, where you live, and your photography background?

I'm an Ocean Lifeguard in Wollongong Australia. Having this job I am lucky enough to have plenty of time on my hands to travel in the winter months, and it seems each year I find myself jumping on a plane heading back to Africa. My mother is from Rhodesia and I have family still living in South Africa. So it's always an easy choice where I'm heading - it's just which corner of the continent I want to immerse myself in, in search of new images. I was not bought up with a photographic background, it's something that has just evolved from my travels, and each year I just find that my craft is growing. I'm self taught and find it's easier to be out there shooting and making mistakes rather than sitting, reading and trying to get it all right on the theory side of things. While I've messed up some great images this way I'm happy to say I've a also captured many excellent ones from just being out there and having a crack in various scenarios and lighting situations.

2. What does Documentary Photography mean to you?

It's really just about showing what is there in front of you, and I mainly focus on African tribes who won't be around for much longer. This is due to the way some countries’ governments are forcing tribes from their lands, and also the way that the western culture is slowly encroaching into the lives of these tribal people.

These are really not new issues, but with tribal lands shrinking, and the demand for these tribal people to conform to a "normal" way of life there really is no other option for these cultures than to embrace the world around them. There are so many different reasons why these cultures are disappearing, and each area and culture has its reasons for change. So, really my images are about showing the viewer that these cultures are still there, and that these people are clinging to the life they have and live which is the only way they have ever known.

Some people see this as living simply and a lot of people romanticize this sort of existence, as on face value these tribes and cultures are happy with what they have. Being able to raise a family and provide enough food is what is most important to these people.

I also think documentary photography is all about showing people in their environment, and how they live. It gives the viewer insight into somebody else's life, and what they have and want to make themselves happy. We all have a desire to live in different ways, and my own thoughts are that this really should not be governed by governments or outside cultural changes. 

The majority of the culture’s I love to photograph have been around for a very long time, and due to changes on a global level, the world is losing these small identities at an alarming rate. I am just happy to have been given the opportunity to document these people’s lives before their culture is wiped out for one reason or another.

3. What are you trying to tell the viewer with your images?

I just want the viewer to see what I was able to see at that certain time. I'm a privileged person who is there, at that moment, experiencing their life and culture, and I just want to show the viewer that the people I photograph live the way they do.

I like to think my images encompass the environment and the actions at the same time. By showing the dirt and the interiors of the mud huts, I hope that the viewer gets a sense of how people live. The first time I travelled to Africa on a surfing trip down the East Cape of South Africa, I was actually quite naive about a lot of things. I was really blown away at how the people made do with what was available to them.

From a western viewpoint, these people were poor. What I saw was that they were happy, everybody had a smile, and everybody I encountered would go out of their way to make me feel the same way.  It was these experiences that drew me into their way of life. I found this with every place I stayed at or travelled to. So perhaps one message I try to convey in my work is that just because something is different doesn't mean it needs changing; these people live the way they do and are happy, and honestly I'm probably the happiest when I am in these environments, as I feel welcome there. I would not be taking these images if I did not feel happy being there. Of course this has to be mutual, and it is. After spending time with them, I became aware that they are open to my taking photographs showing their lives.  You may find it interesting that I don't get this same feeling when I enter half of the establishments right here in my own home town, and especially if I have a camera in my hand!

4. What topics most interest you?

Basically anything African. That's a pretty broad answer, but I feel that there is a real beauty in every facet of the continent. I live in Australia and I have hardly taken any images here. I just find there are so many levels to African subjects. Whereveryou go there are different cultures, there are animals lurking around every corner and once you are out of the cities, the landscapes leave you in awe.

I live in Australia and I have hardly taken any images here. It's probably a strange thing to say with all Australia has to offer, but I find Australia is already well covered by photographers. It is easier to access as we are all on the same system, everything works, the roads are well maintained the government does what it is supposed to, and we all understand the same sort of culture and live in a similar way across the country.

Australia is a young country in terms of "settlement" so our culture is quite similar. Don't get me wrong, I do have an interest in Aboriginal culture and the roots that they have with the country, but after learning about them in school and experiencing them in and around my local area I don't feel the same pull or need to photograph them the same way as I do with the vanishing African tribes. Also, we don't have the scary animals that can eat you in the night or my favourite subject of all in the African bush, the elephant!

5. What comes first, the image or the story? By this I mean do you go out looking to document images for a particular story/topic that you want to cover, or do you photograph what catches your eye?

Probably the story. I prefer to spend a lot of time with the villagers who I visit and I want to make a connection with the people, which hopefully will then flow through my images. A good example of this is the work I have done with the Himba people of Namibia, a collection of images taken over a 5-year period.

I have recently finished compiling an eBook of my images and experiences that is available through my website

I'm always welcomed into one particular family when I visit the area and it is interesting to see the family grow; this is a great privilege. Of course this can sadden me at times as I have seen how their culture is changing due to so many western influences.

The Himba is just one example of how western ideals are encroaching on their traditions and lifestyle. For years the Namibian and Angolan government were planning on damning the Kunene River at Epupa, which is part of the Himbas spiritual land. This process put a lot of stress on the local communities but with outsideassistance, they were able to stop the dam’s construction.

The outcome was not as good for many Southern Ethiopian tribes, as they have been removed from their lands so the Omo River can be dammed for the agricultural demands of Europe and Asia.

These cultures, and particularly the Himba of Northern Namibia, are also faced with other types of western influences. I have seen this first hand over the past few years as the children are now encouraged to attend school to learn English so they can further their education with prospects of jobs in the future. I've explored this a little in my eBook, as the village elders cannot understand why the children need these skills when they need the children to look after the village sheep and cattle as they did when they were younger.

Piece by piece their village traditions are being broken down and are changing. The village chief, Tjanongombe, cannot for the life of him get his children to be interested in his stories of the Himba past, and his children spendmore time travelling to and from town in search of news of the latest English premier league results. I don't like to comment on whether this is a good or bad thing but it is happening across the world.

I am aware that my presence in these areas directly escalates these scenarios too as I need a translator for my interactions and so I never want to come across as hypocritical. Each and every culture has it's challenges and that is why I think the story comes before the image. You have to experience what is happening, how people live and react before taking an image or conceiving an idea of an image, because if the image comes first you are not correctly portraying how life actually is.

6. What, generally, is your relationship to your subject matter beyond being an observer?

I always try to integrate myself as much as possible with the families I'm with. I find by leaving the camera in its bag for a few days helps me develop a friendship rather than one of an observer, and I'm seen as a friend or a visitor rather than a photographer.  Having this bond and helping with daily chores makes it a mutual friendship, a bit of give and take. You do miss a lot of images, but I feel that when I do get a great image it is exactly that, as a lot of people say they can feel that connection I had with the particular person in the image, as they are relaxed. 

7. Tell us about any difficulties that you face, as a photographer capturing these styles of images in countries that you are travelling in?

The main difficulties often involve a lack of understanding. If the subject respects and feels comfortable with me, they will be happy to go along with my request. Most of the time, when I am doing something a little different, my subject will get really involved, and will want me to continue shooting even though I’m ready to finish.

This then causes another issue and problem, which is a lack of sufficient electricity.  I like to spend a lot of time in an area trying to get a feel for the life around me and due to this I cannot just plug my batteries into the local hut’s power point; that option just doesn't exist and it's the same if it's a Bedouin tent or in remote areas of the African bush. If there is a generator around there will also be a reason why it is there, so I'm not going to use up their electricity supply to cover my lack of planning. Due to this I always have a load of batteries for each and every device and ultimately this leads to my other problem of lugging this kit around, especially when I'm on and off various flights!

After these issues most other things are manageable. If I'm entering a new area or wanting to photograph a new culture, I will do all of the research that I possibly can beforehand. You really need to be informed about where you’re going, and the dangers that exist. If you fail to do this, this is when issues arise. I also always try to have a guide sourced before I arrive in a new area, that way I can gather recommendations from them and know if there have been any issues in the past I need to be aware of. Being on top of these points, usually gives me a clear idea as to what to expect. So, once I'm on the ground it's one less thing I have to think about and I can set about making the connections that will hopefully lead to great images.

I always try and show my subjects their images on my laptop as some people love seeing their pictures. Of course this also strengthens the bond between us. The ones that don't, who are not interested, I know not to push that relationship but then also, there are people who will not leave me alone when it comes to reviewing their images. They are happy with what I am doing and ecstatic that I am showing an interest and giving something back. This enthusiasm also means I have an open door when it comes to capturing something a little different. I know that if that person is doing something that I can approach them and photograph exactly what they are doing, in essence they will be a willing model for the time I'm there and once there task or chore is done they will be happy to see their photos.

8.  What ethical and/or moral guidelines do you follow when taking images?

Ask before hand! If somebody is shy or even slightly looks peeved by my cameras presence I'm just going to put my camera down. It's not worth it, I want my images to be of good memories not just snap shots of bragging rights of where I have been or who I have seen; so if the subject is not happy nor am I. I think that is also another reason why I'm so attached to African tribes, is that you rarely get a no once you have made an effort to get to know them and they understand that you have a real interest in their culture. 

Once you have taken this interest they will not try to hide anything regardless of how shy a person they might be; everything is done with a smile and it makes you comfortable.

Some cultures around the world are not so open or are a little suspicious, but in Africa I don't find that is the case. Stop on the side of the road in any country there, and you will find that people just emerge from the surrounding  area. People are inquisitive and most of the time helpful if there is an issue with a tyre or mechanical failure.  Also, if there is no quick solutions there are always people around that will help you make a plan.

9. The idea that Documentary images can/should ask questions of the viewer, rather than just present information, do you agree with this?

Yes for sure, and I like to think that my images do that. I want to show simplicity of life and the harsh realities some people face to live that simple life.  As we know, in richer countries people sometimes moan about their supermarket not having this or that, but really they should be happy to have a supermarket or even the income to use at the supermarket. My subjects are happy to have something to put in their bellies - full stop. Basically if an image has given you a question it is a good image, if you reflect on that question you may learn something for yourself, you may open your mind and think about the greater world and how some people actually live and how lucky we are in the western world. Unfortunately there are some people who regardless how brilliant an image is just won't get it and these are really not people who I take my images for.

10.  Who – in the Documentary photography genre – is your favorite photographer and why? Please share a link to his/her work if you can.

Mitchell Kanashkevich rates pretty highly, I really think he has been pushing the envelope for the last few years. He has always been open and approachable  - I do love looking at his work. He really has a brilliant grasp of available light which makes me think in a different way sometimes and the way he immerses himself in a location for long periods of time really serves a great guide and shows any documentary photographer that if you want the images you have to give your all and spend long periods of time pursuing your images. One day and night is just not going to cut it. You can see some of this photos here:

Click here to go to Mitchell's homepage.

Big thanks to Eliza Deacon for this inspiring interview!

Carefully read, benefited