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The Pilton Project

Award-winning photographer Matthew Joseph has shot his fair share of personal projects, including capturing portraits at Glastonbury…

What was it that drew you to photographing people?
Way back when, I realised that if I took the camera from my parents and offered to take the holiday pictures, then it meant I didn’t have to be in them! That was my introduction, then many family weddings in my early teens drew me to emotion and capturing moments and I realised it was something I was drawn to. As much as I’ve enjoyed shooting many things over the years, I have always been drawn to people because people are what makes this world what it is!

For The Pilton Project, why did you decide to focus on the people of Glastonbury, rather than the musical acts?
Because I’m always on the search for a new angle and everyone else has their lenses pointed at the Pyramid Stage. Why not look the other way? These acts wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the people watching them.

How did you approach your subjects and how did people respond to having their photo taken?
In the environment and atmosphere of a festival, people naturally have their guard down a bit more and are open to doing something new – it certainly helps! I don’t think anyone said no. There were a few people who made it harder for me and a few I wanted to get access to but didn’t quite manage it, but other than that I always approach these things in the same way: make them the hero. Do that and hopefully they feel flattered that you’ve asked. Some take a bit more tact though!

How much planning went into the shots, did you spend time watching your subjects and then getting to know them a bit, or was it more a quick spot and shot of someone?
A bit of both. Some I spotted on my walks round and realised I had to come back and seek them out. Some were spontaneous, others I approached them without my camera, got to know them, then returned at a later time.

I have a rough idea of my approach with these things and sometimes have an approximate hit list, but this is hugely open to interpretation and I keep it very flexible. I am very used to being reactive to a situation, too much planning can mean I miss things sometimes.

What sort of techniques did you use to take your images? Did you have any specific lighting tools that you used, a specific lens etc?
This series (and most of my personal projects) are all shot on Phase One medium format at either 80mm or 55mm focal lengths (not equivalent to DSLR focal lengths). I light everything with one light source – I think this was an Elinchrom Quadra going through a Photek Softlighter – it’s light and very portable and can be used quickly – very important to my approach. The medium format can really limit me, slow me down and give me grief – especially in low light. However, it never fails to be worth it for me – I almost love these challenges and the files just have something special to them.

How have people reacted to the images?
It’s been really positive. I mean who doesn’t like Glastonbury!? That’s an easy win right there … some images stand out more than others – Harry the candle seller being one of them. That was a special moment and was really hard to orchestrate so I’m glad it paid off. I think people will always be fascinated with other people – and there are some truly fascinating people who gather at Glastonbury!

You’ve shot a lot of personal projects, what sparks an idea for a project?
Life experience, meeting people and usually a plane journey to zone me out and create the right space for a ‘spark’ to occur.

How does your personal work benefit your commercial work?
They both feed into each other really. Sometimes personal shoots have been commercially minded and I’ve seen that pay off two years down the road. I will always think like that to a degree – I can’t help it – but really now I want my personal work to be a true reflection of a passion of mine, no strings attached – pure creativity shooting the world the way I see it.

It is true that if you want someone to pay you to shoot something (a certain subject or style etc) that you have to spoon feed them to prove you can do it; personal projects are a great space for this and it has really worked for me. I would warn against being too commercially minded however, as it may stifle the true creativity within you.

When I first had a portfolio review a few years ago I was shocked that the art buyer didn’t want to see what I’d been paid to shoot, he wanted to see what I’d chosen to shoot. He wanted to see ‘me’. People that commission photography are fed up of commercial work sometimes so show them something different and refreshing and you’re more likely to make an impact. Better still, show them a true authentic version of you and it goes even further: this is where personal projects come into their own!

When photographing people what do you think is the most important factor?
To not be lead by the subject too much, it has to be lead by you and your interpretation of the person and the environment. That’s why you’re there – unless you’re purely attempting to document with putting no stamp on it yourself. When you see a portrait of someone you know but you are suddenly shown a new angle or side of them, it really grabs your attention. That can be really hard to do, especially with seasoned celebrities who want to give you a professional pose – but I think as a photographer you should always be attempting to offer something new to the world. Try and interpret the same situation (a person) in a new way and do it in your style. If you’re lead by the subject and perhaps intimidated by their presence, then you’ll simply just take a nice photo that the world has probably seen before!

Have you got any more projects coming up? Do you plan on making regular photo visits to Glastonbury?
The release of The Pilton Portrait shortly followed an even bigger project called PODO. This was due to timings of being able to shoot and release – they ended up closer than I’d liked! For that reason I really need a break. A few years ago I feel I actually shot too much personal work and now I am realising the importance of stepping back for some breathing space. My commercial schedule this year has been absolutely crazy so I need to allow some time for it to settle, for me to breathe and just keep watching the world as I travel through it. Having said that I’m writing this on my way to a meeting with an FGM charity regarding a potential project so who knows…. I can’t sit still for long!

To see more of Matthew’s work, visit his website.

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