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Canadian born Photographer, Marjorie Clayton, has spent several years working with and photographing the locals in rural Bolivia. Marj enjoys getting to know her subjects and believes the friendship she shares with her models is the key to accurately portraying their lives. She is about to produce a book, commissioned by Oxfam, and has an exhibition 'When the **** Crows' at The Camera Club in London. The exhibition features a black & white series of 33 images that aim to show some of the challenges and sacrifices women face in rural Bolivia and Ghana. We caught up with Marj to find out more about her fascinating photographic project.
ePHOTOzine: How did you get started in photography?
Marj Clayton: When I was 11 my father introduced me to photography. He lent me a loaded Pentax Spotmatic camera and after a brief class on how to use the light meter we were off to the forest. Although Ive long since left the shooting of rocks and trees to my father you might say it was in the forest that the photo seed was planted.
EPZ: What photographers have most influenced or inspired you?
MC: Eugene Smith for the type of photography he did and how he handled photo essays. He was never one for a brief hit and run series. Eugene found somewhere interesting and stayed there for as long as necessary, he lived photography and wasnt one for compromising. I also love Karshs work for the fantastic detail and tone, although they are posed they come across very natural. Stephen McCurry knocks me out - no one knows how to work colour better. He keeps it simple and powerful using the background as a tool to tell you some of the story.
EPZ: I understand the indigenous community in the Andes is rather camera shy, how do you manage to get such intimate photographs.
MC: When I am in a community I wait until both myself and the people I am with feel comfortable. I tell them about my interest in photography, what I do and why, and then see if they will allow me to document them. This process can take weeks or even years. For the people that dont want images taken I take notes instead, listing interesting backgrounds and ideas of activities that I could shoot at a later date if the opportunity presents itself. Note taking gives me hope and temporarily calms my need to shoot, with the idea that it will happen in its own time. One of my Bolivian sisters was ill at ease when I got my camera out for the first 15 years that she knew me then a couple of years ago she couldnt get enough. She finally felt she could trust me and let me shoot as much as I liked.
EPZ: What about the people you photograph what do they get out of this project?
MC: I normally take black & white for myself which most of my models dont like - finding it old fashioned or cheap, so I take colour shots for them. I remember how grateful my youngest Bolivian brother was for the pictures saying if it wasnt for me he wouldnt have any good photographs of himself. I also try and help out financially where I can with school fees, books and clothes. When I am on the farm in Bolivia I am responsible for herding the sheep and cooking the evening meal. Occasionally I am asked to help with planting, but Im afraid Im not really very good at that!
EPZ: So, you mentioned you take black & white for yourself, why is that?
MC: Since the beginning I have been a real B&W fan, theres so much you can do with that wide range of zones. My prints usually have quite a lot of burning and dodging if they were shot in colour they would have died a death. I think colour should be used when there is colour or if you are going to USE colour like with Steve McCurrys work. The colours in his images are no accident, they were sought out and when possible enhanced used to their highest degree. I love colour but need to think another way and that would only dilute my black & white work. So for the moment I will stick to what Im good at.
EPZ: What kind of lighting do you use?
MC: Because of the nature of my work I use sun light, reflected or diffused and very occasionally I may stick a wee bit of fill flash. Studio lighting is too heavy, takes up too much room and needs electricity to work, making it very impractical for me to use; besides I find that blast of light really annoying and dont really want to put my models off.
EPZ: Why are most of your photographic series based in 3rd world countries?
MC: I find people in the 3rd world, particularly farmers to be sincere people who are willing to share time and conversation and I think the absence of TV sets, electronic games and computers actually make their family unit stronger and more communicative. Their priorities lie on people rather than the sitcom on at 8pm. Everything is manual and needs the assistance of all family members giving a real feeling of community.
EPZ: What do you get out of photography?
MC: Well, its usually not money!!!! Photography is not just about the image, but is also about the process, the experience. If it wasnt for photography there are so many people I wouldnt have met, interesting places I would never have seen and experiences I wouldnt have had. For me photography is the great challenge worth working your butt off for and the huge buzz when it goes right.
EPZ: Whats the book youre working on all about?
MC: The book is about my adopted Aymara family The Mamanis. The adoption isnt formal and Im not sure who adopted whom, but were all in agreement. I came to live with the Mamanis in 1985 as apart of a cultural exchange organised by Canada World Youth and have returned six times since then. The book starts with our experience in the program and continues through my return visits. Although the book is image-based it wont be just a visual experience but an adventure into the lives of each of the Mamanis using their own words and stories. I want to give the pictures names and personalities so the people reading the book can feel as though they know the people and can appreciate and benefit from more than just the physical images.
EPZ: When will the book be finished?
MC: Im not sure when the book will be done, as there is always another event, story or photograph I would like to include. This summer I have been invited by the Mamanis to photograph my brother Daniels wedding. It will be weird for me to shoot this event, as I met the groom in 1985 when he was 10 years old, we use to watch over sheep together and play moonlight football. This marriage will mark the beginning of a new era when one of the youngest members of the Mamanis starts his life as husband, and father. I suppose this would be a good logical ending to the book but I feel that this project isnt quite ripe yet, so Ill keep at it until it is.
EPZ: What other projects are you working on this year?
MC: I hope to continue a photo essay I started ages ago on farmers in the UK, but Im afraid I dont have many contacts in the UK, so its rather slow going. I also intend on returning to Ghana at the end of this year to catch up with some friends I met in 1993. I love meeting people, being accepted into their lives then returning after a few years to catch up, its exciting to see the changes and hear the stories of what I missed while I was away.
EPZ: Youve done a number of exhibitions that have included Ghana, Bolivia, Canada and the UK, do you have any plans to go somewhere new?
MC: I keep saying Id be interested in going to India and have even received invitations to go and visit but when it comes to the crunch I chicken out. I dont want to spread myself too thin. So once Im confidant that the Ghana and Bolivia essays are strong and of a decent size and quality Ill have to venture out. If not India, Mali, Nepal or perhaps Mongolia. There are so many interesting places, but not enough time!!!
If youre in London take the time out to visit Marjs exhibition When the **** Crows. It runs from 8th April - 4th May at The Camera Club
Address: The Camera Club 16 Bowden Street, Kennington, London SE11 4DS.
Tel: 020 7587 1809
Opening times: Mon to Fri 11am-10pm Sat and Sun 10am- 6pm
Nearest tube: Kennington (Northern Line)
To find out more about Marjs work or buy photographs visit her web site http://www.marjclayton.com