Join ePHOTOzine, the friendliest photography community.
Upload photos, chat with photographers, win prizes and much more for free!
Pictures with Chris Steele-Perkins - As an award winning photographer whose work has taken him from Bangladesh to Japan, Chris Steele-Perkins has had a long and successful photographic career, but this career could so easily not have began if it had not been for a university newspaper.
Graduating with honors in psychology and going on to work in developing countries sounds like the perfect role for any psychologist, but this particular graduate shunned psychology and chose to document and record the heartache, delight and grief he witnessed through a lens.
The journey began at the age of two when Chris Steele-Perkins moved to England from Burama. He studied at Christ's Hospital School and went on to read psychology at the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. When he began to work for the student newspaper he soon began to realise that psychology may not be for him.
"I worked for the newspaper as a photographer and picture editor and just found photography a lot more interesting," said Chris.
He continued his studies and graduated with honors in psychology in 1970, where our journey with Chris and psychology comes to an end.
"Psychology was functional at University but that was it, I didn't find it very exciting, so I thought I would try something else."
He moved to London in 1971, where his career as a freelance photographer began to take shape, with foreign work entering the scope in 1973. He visited countries such as Bangladesh and took on many other travel assignments, an occupation very different to what was discussed in lecture theaters back at university.
Even though he did not choose psychology as his occupation, you would think three years of studying human behaviour would make his job slightly easier by supplying him with the knowledge needed to deal with human emotion, but Chris seems to disagree: "I don't think psychologists would like to hear me say this but really psychology is common sense, it doesn't really help me when dealing with people. What has helped me is life."
His extensive career that spans well over thirty years has thrown him into enough situations to make him realise that really, there is no better lesson than life.
"By getting into situations and just experiencing life I know how to deal with things," he said.
"The first time I went to Bangladesh I was astounded, it really threw me, but the whole experience allowed me to go back a second time and really enjoy its simplicity."
He visited Bangladesh in 1973, when famine was sweeping the new nation and after joining Magnum in 1979 he soon began working in other parts of the developing world.
"I chose to work there because it interests me. Photography is basically my passport - it lets me into different peoples lives and into different countries. It lets me see things other jobs can't and I love that," explains Chris.
Chris was visiting foreign countries at a time when many people in the UK hadn't even stepped foot on a plane and he only has his photography to thank for that.
"Having a camera really opened up the world to me and I am thankful. It has given me a chance to see the world how I wanted to see it and that idea really drew me into it all," said Chris.
His explorations still continue today with him now working extensively in Japan, where 35 years on his reasons for doing what he does still has the same emphasis.
"When I chose photography I made the choice because I thought it could let me do the things I wanted to do, not set me up for something in 10 years time. I mean, it is all well coming from a middle-class background, living in a middle-class home in a country comfortable with it's own wealth, but there is a world out there and I want to explore it," said Chris.
Chris is fascinated with how people live and finds all our differences very exciting.
"Even a country like Japan - that is technologically more advanced than us - is still a fascinating place to visit."
Japan has recently become a main focus for Chris and with the countries technological advances he too has become quite aware of how photography technology is progressing.
"I like the way the photography market is going and have looked at the new high definition cameras. It is all very interesting."
With his extensive knowledge and his lens as his passport, photography has given Chris the chance to explore and document places and people in a way a normal member of the public couldn't.
"When you visit places as a photographer you get the chance to be more involved than you would if you visited as a tourist. You have to get close to the people you are photographing and have to really understand their country," he says.
Getting to know the country means Chris became a part of all the places he visits and witnesses many human emotions and even people threatening his life.
"People do try to rob you or shoot you, but these are not every day occurrences and are far out-weighed by the good. My chosen profession lets me find out about the world we live in and gives me the chance to meet extraordinary humans," said Chris.
As a photographer whose work spans decades, Chris has witnessed the rapid changes that have occurred in both technology and the industry over the last few years.
"The industry is now a lot harder as there are a lot more photographers. Think about all of the universities and colleges not just from the UK but from all over the world who churn out student after student every year," said Chris.
Sadly for the photographer more graduates means greater competition, which means you have to work twice as hard as the next photographer to ensure your the one the industry notices.
"I just sold a piece to a Sunday supplement for a sum of money I would have got two or three times more twenty years ago. The magazine market was what drove me financially as it used to produce really good spreads for really good prices but with the size of the market now it has all changed."
With all the complaints Chris has with the magazine industry of today he is always happy to see his work in a magazine or up on a gallery wall.
"It is always nice to see you pictures some-where two million or so people will see them. Don't get me wrong, galleries are nice places for your work to appear but when you want to reach out to people magazines are a good medium."
When you have been a member of the industry for as long as Chris has your profile becomes rather extensive. You only have to glance at his Magnum profile to realise how big his collection of work is, with pages and pages of photographs from all over the world decorating the site.
"I have covered a wide range of issues both culturally and emotionally," said Chris."I don't really have one favourite, I have done it for so long I can't really say I have one image more impressive than the rest."
His impressive array of images that can be found on the Magnum site would not be there if it wasn't for one particular Czech photographer who is famous for documenting the lives of gypsies.
"Josef Koudelka proposed I apply for Magnum. The person who nominates you presents your case but there is no guarantee you will get in," said Chris.
To his relief Chris was excepted into Magnum Photos in 1979 where he was given the scope to really start documenting the developing world.
"Many people do not get into magnum, I was lucky. It came at a time when I was just starting out going abroad so I needed them," said Chris.
Magnum Photos is home to many great photographers who are respected by many and Chris is no exception.
There are many people I admire in different ways. The late Philip Jones Griffins who died not long ago was a difficult man, we had many arguments but the work he produced and the quality he left behind is there for the long haul," said Chris.
Leonard Freed who is famous for the book Black and White in America is another photographer Chris greatly respects, so much so that Leonard has indirectly influenced a lot of the work produced by Chris.
"When I used to go out taking pictures I always thought is that how Leonard would have done it, is the picture I have just taken good enough for him," said Chris.
To continue working in the places he wants to visit, Chris requires a lot of funding, which now comes from corporate jobs, for example the Sony trip he was on a few years ago with ePHOTOzine editor Peter Bargh to trial the Sony Alpha.
"To allow me to do the projects I want to do I have to fund them personally and they in turn supply me with funds. As long as I have no problem with the product or company I am promoting I am OK with the whole thing," said Chris.
This need for money is something Chris would not have thought about ten years ago, when all that mattered was going out and capturing a great image.
"I just stopped thinking about the money element. I knew I would be paid when I got back so I just used to leave. Until one point when I returned and didn't receive anything and thought, 'hang-on this can't be right'. Now I look for alternative ways to earn money so I know I will always have funds."
As well as corporate projects Chris has also turned his hands to teaching and he will be taking part in the HP's photography and printing masterclass, in collaboration with Magnum.
"I have began to do more teaching over the last few years and have begun to really enjoy the challenges it offers. When you are talking to an audience they have to know what you mean it is no good just you understanding it," said Chris.
The masterclass which will be held at the British Film Institute on the 1st of May will give people the chance to get an insight into the extensive career of Chris and fellow photographer Donovan Wylie.
"As I have said my camera is almost my passport, I have an interest in the world and as a result I have a lot of experience to pass on, which this masterclass is good for," said Chris.
Find out more about Chris and view some of his work at his website.