Matthew James Harrison’s photojournalistic style has earned him assignments from such renowned media outlets and companies as the BBC, National Geographic, Condé Nast Traveller, Nike, Adidas, and more. Currently, he’s based in Copenhagen where, in addition to running his photography business, he has co-founded Shooting Copenhagen, a series of photography workshops that leads participants around the city with cameras in hand. Before relocating to the picturesque Danish capital, he refined his skills as a press photographer for UK media.
In our interview with Matthew, we sought his perspective on how to successfully start new endeavors, how and when to turn down work, which experiences he thinks any creative professional should face, and much more.
Describe the moment you realized you were a photographer.
It was probably the time I got offered a full-time position as a photojournalist for the Derby Telegraph. I’d pulled over at the side of the road to take the call, and truthfully it could’ve gone either way. I was preparing myself for a ‘no.’ After I was told the photography job was mine, I put the phone down… then went ballistic in my car. Basically punching thin air and making strange ‘whooping’ noises. After spending all of my life not knowing what I was going to be ‘when I grew up,’ I now had the answer.
You are an award-winning photojournalist who has contributed to such renowned publications as BBC, National Geographic, and Condé Nast. But, rather than talk about those accomplishments here, can you tell us what your creative origins were like? What did your “just getting started” look like?
[Laughs] My origins started out photographing peanuts in a wine glass using Kodak monochrome. This was January 2004. Peanuts eventually evolved into local landscapes in the snow (I grew up in the beautiful area of the Peak District in the UK) and then back to black and white portraits of friends in really boring locations.
I didn’t have a clue what I was doing, nor which direction to take things in. But it was a trip to New York City in 2005 that finally got the creative juices flowing. Still shooting black and white, but this time cityscapes that looked beautifully simple once printed. I started selling a few of these as framed prints, which really got the ball rolling in terms of confidence and ability. It led to me winning second place in a local photography competition; the subject of my image being an old gravestone in the foreground, with the 12th-century church looming overhead (slightly out of focus, of course). People started hiring me for weddings and I still didn’t really have a clue what I was doing.
Much of the advice I received came from an eccentric gentleman who owned his own camera store. He told me two important things: “If it bleeds it leads,” (referring to front page news and headlines in the media) and “Never try to make a living through what you love doing.” I knew one of these had to be false, so I persisted with my new hobby.
During my traveling phase, I took with me a point and shoot to make things easier. White balance was a complete mystery to me, as was pop-up flash, so most of my images just looked awful. And don’t even get me started on editing software because that was totally not on my radar. It wasn’t until 2007 that I received my very first SLR – an Olympus E500 – and started teaching myself with DVDs and so forth. It wasn’t difficult finding willing subjects to photograph, and gradually some of these freebies turned into paying clients. Authors, weddings, that kind of thing.
You traveled and photographed extensively before enrolling in a Press Photography and Photojournalism course in your home country of England. How do you reflect on the informal training you acquired during that time in your life? And how did it differ from the formal training you received?
It differed a great deal. I certainly had my own style and uninterrupted approach to photography. I didn’t have any idols or influencers, and that remained the same until day one of the press photography course. Seeing the other photographers leafing through the daily newspapers for photo credits and captions was all new to me, and it was the first time I started to take note of photo agencies around the world, such as PA and Getty.
But on the flip side of that, there were others on the course with absolutely no interpersonal or social skills, and this caused problems for them on assignments. I felt at the very least like I had a head start in that department, as I’d met and befriended so many different types of people from many walks of life. My college tutor himself confessed that it wasn’t my photography skills that got me on to the course! Learning to adapt to your surroundings is equally as important as taking a great photo, and dealing with different people helps build character. Especially the ones who don’t take warmly to you. I met plenty of them, too.
As a follow up to the question above, what are some experiences you think any creative professional should have?
I think plenty of rejection needs to be experienced in order to understand the game. It hurts like hell, but it’s a reality of the industry. Like most creatives I can get a bit defensive and think too much about other people’s negative comments, but it only makes me better at what I do.
I also think it’s important to photograph as many different themes and styles as possible to find your niche. It’s easy to fall in with the wedding photography crowd, but I think the long-term goal should be brought into focus, too. Finally, and this one is fairly new to me, start saying “no” more often. We’re told that customer service is important and we should always be willing to be flexible to our clients’ needs, but sometimes the shoe just won’t fit. Years ago I asked a friend to design my website, to which he flatly said, “No.” It stung a bit, but now I understand the reasons why. The more you say it the easier it gets.
As someone who has been working as a professional photographer for more than a decade, what have you found to be a successful way to start a new creative endeavor?
I think the secret to success is pretty simple: it’s other people. Without friends, family, colleagues and peers to judge, critique and inspire us we’re left with nothing but our own thoughts and opinions. Pick up the phone, send an email, or better yet, meet in person those whose brains you wish to pick. You’ll find they’re a rich source of knowledge and advice (whether useful or not) and you’ll discover that the creative process seems to carve its own path through the darkness. Currently, I’m in the process of starting a couple of new endeavors and have reached out to those who have earned my trust. I want these people involved, because I can’t do everything myself and rely heavily on their time and expertise. You don’t – and shouldn’t – go it alone.
With more published work comes more credibility and, hopefully, more requests for commissioned work. As creative professionals, we know that not all paid work is necessarily right for us. When contacted about a commission, what compels you to say yes or no?
Mutual respect plays a big part, and personal enjoyment. I can think of a commission I did for a large brand that paid well but caused me months of stress afterwards. The relationship eventually went sour and it taught me a helluva lot.
In comparison, I’ve shot editorial assignments that pay a lot less and take longer, but have been so much fun. So I think about the overall benefit to my business and personal well-being – a work-life balance, I suppose.
For the first three years I used to say yes to everything that came in, regardless of the money, and it became too much. Nowadays I spend more time carefully planning my shoot-days so I still have time to write blogs, chase late payments, and all the other admin and marketing work that needs doing. It gives me so much more time with my family, and I’ve reduced my hours significantly to the point I take Fridays off.
Having said that, I do have a couple of extra shooters who often go out on my behalf to photograph some of the smaller jobs. We split the payments fairly and they get to improve their photography skills.
What is your favorite image you have shot? And why? Describe its creation in regards to location, lighting, composition, context, etc.
That’s a really tough question to answer, but it has to be this one. I shot it back in November whilst traveling across New Zealand with my partner, our two kids and her parents. From day one I’ve been attempting to photograph star-trails but have always been hindered by the weather, lack of skill or equipment, or just plain bad luck. But on this occasion the stars aligned (pun very much intended) and I got the shot.
By complete coincidence, we had arrived at Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve, and when I discovered where we were I became really excited. Unfortunately, the weather sucked, with rain clouds looming overhead. But as night closed in the clouds disappeared, so we went looking for a place to sleep for the night as far away from the main town as possible. We ended up on a dry riverbed in the middle of nowhere, and as the others got ready for bed I grabbed a camping chair, a few blankets, and my camera equipment.
When I realized I’d forgot to bring my shutter-release cable I was fuming, so I went to Plan B. This involved several failed attempts at trying to figure out my camera’s timelapse settings as the temperature continued to drop. Eventually, I adjusted the settings to what I hoped were correct and spent the next 60 minutes sitting in complete silence, watching the galaxies and nebulas above swirling around my head. The only interruptions came in the form of rabbits, scavenging in the bushes nearby.
It was another week or so before I finally got the chance to edit the images. And because I hadn’t used a shutter-release then it meant having to stack all the images on top of one another in Photoshop. So I set the program to run and went for my lunch. An hour later I returned to my computer to the amazing sight of (almost) perfect star trails. I wasn’t finished of course, and the next stage was to perform further edits using the Google Nik collection, which helped to blend the stars so they appeared to be moving on the outer edges of the image.
The reason this image is my favorite is because it combines so many things. Firstly, my passion of photographing the night sky; secondly, my passion for travel, nature, and solitude. My camera knowledge also played a vital role, as I would have failed if I hadn’t considered an alternative to the missing cable. And finally, knowing that my family is tucked away safe and sound in the campervan, without being visible in the photo, make it a pleasant keepsake for the future.
Where, or how, did you learn your technique?
Without a doubt, it was at The Derby Telegraph newspaper in England, where I worked for two and a half years. It taught me how to work quickly and accurately, within the boundaries of the law, and how to produce at least one strong image… several times a day.
My colleagues gave me constant support and were always a phone call away when I was stuck for ideas. In particular, the sports desk were constantly unimpressed with my football (soccer) images, because no one had told me how to shoot it differently. It was my colleague Leah McLaren (former Picture Editor at The Guardian) who sat me down and started explaining cropping and framing, and everything just started falling into place after that.
I had a pretty good relationship with my boss, who wasn’t afraid to crack the whip now and again. It kept me on my toes and because of this, I was always one of the fastest photographers when it came to editing and sending images on location. On top of this, the journalists were always grateful for my simple and accurate captions. All these things pressed the necessary buttons inside me and encouraged me to stay on top of everything until it was embedded in my workflow and psyche.
How do you prevent yourself from getting creatively stuck?
To be honest, I don’t! However, I have found that my best ideas come when my options are limited. Put me in a room with too much going on and I struggle to focus, but when there’s less to work with I perform better.
I’ve shot campaigns for large brands, where there are literally dozens of people all waiting for you to tell them what to do, how to do it and when. The pressure is insane. But then, I can come up with all sorts of ideas when left alone, or with a bunch of people I feel totally comfortable with. Don’t get me wrong, it’s important to get out of your comfort zone every now and then, but I don’t like to stay there for too long. It also helps to look at other people’s work, which I don’t do as often as I used to. But it definitely helps when you’ve hit a brick wall.
In addition to running your own photography business, you offer workshops for beginner photographers that take place across Copenhagen. What inspired you to start offering these courses? And, more personally, what has starting new endeavors revealed to you about yourself?
One day I was walking over one of Copenhagen’s many bridges and spotted a woman about to take a photograph of a boat passing underneath. Her flash fired (in broad daylight) and I thought to myself, “Somebody should teach her how to use that thing.” It reminded me of my early days getting into photography whilst traveling around Europe. My partner and I had climbed the Eiffel Tower and were standing in the shade, trying to take a well-lit portrait with a crisp blue sky in the background. But, we just couldn’t get it right, and it was all because of not having any knowledge of flash.
In regards to starting new endeavors, it’s taught me that working for yourself is the most rewarding of them all. It certainly wasn’t easy, and there were difficult times, but five years later I feel confident and totally in control. The incentive to succeed is 100 percent personal, where more money isn’t always the goal. I could get a “proper” job tomorrow if I wanted, but then I’d be giving everything I’ve got for somebody else’s benefit. Each time I come up with a new idea or project I simply get on with it, because there are absolutely no limits to what you can achieve. When you work for someone else there’s always more obstacles to get through first.
Let’s flip the roles for a moment. If someone attempted to capture you in a single photo, what would be happening in it?
When summer comes around I like to go swimming in the harbor before or after work. I’m drawn to the water, somehow; it’s total relaxation. Somebody once said to me, “All the problems of the day disappear as soon as your head goes under.” So maybe a nice sunrise portrait of me standing by the water’s edge, about to dive in, with the amazing Copenhagen architecture in the background. Cameras and water don’t mix, so best to keep these as far apart as possible!
If it were a snapshot of me in a day-to-day situation it would be me cycling through Copenhagen, with all my heavy-ass equipment hanging from my body. Camera bag, harness, tripod, hotshoe softbox… you get the picture. Cars and Copenhagen city center don’t mix!
If you were asked to give a TED talk, what would you give it on?
I really enjoy inspiring people to take risks and give up their day jobs (if they aren’t happy, of course). As someone who used to work 9-5 in a bank (and later an energy company) I know how it feels to have a comfortable life, with good pay and all the benefits. But seeing the world and learning new things gives me better memories than all the times I got crazy drunk on expensive cocktails, or bought an expensive pair of shoes. Materialism vs life experiences. Sharing my own story of success to encourage others to do the same.
If you could master one skill you don’t have right now, what would it be?
Probably the piano. When I was 21 I told a colleague at the time that I should start having lessons, but never signed up. I kinda regret it, to be honest, because now I’d be pretty good, I expect.
If you could have a billboard anywhere, where would it be and what would it say?
Despite having no regrets in life, it took me a long time to get off my arse and do something meaningful. Fear of the unknown played a large part in all of this, and some words of wisdom on a daily basis would have been useful medicine. With that in mind, I’d like my billboard to be erected on a hillside overlooking the town I grew up in. It’d be a deep magenta color (to stand out against the green hillside), with bold white text, quoting Mark Twain:
“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”
Looking back at your career thus far, if you could redo one of your big decisions, what would it be?
Trying to do everything by myself! We’ve all been there, I suppose; designing websites and business cards, networking, accountancy, chasing late payments. I think doing all these things by yourself definitely makes you more aware of what it takes to run a business, but there were naturally things that didn’t require all of my energy and attention.
These days I try to outsource tasks so I can spend less time working and more time earning. With two kids at home it’s important for me to be around for them, and I definitely didn’t have this opportunity for the first couple of years running the business (thankfully I wasn’t a dad at that point). I literally burnt myself out working all hours of the day and became obsessed with doing more and more. I can look back now and say I made it through to the other side, but it came at a cost. Namely my physical and mental health, not to mention friendships and personal time.
Dane Johnson was the former Editor of PHLEARN Magazine, where he helped creatives share their stories. Dane currently is the co-founder of Clementine Coffee Roasters and he accepts most assertions of his hipster-ness and millennialism without flinching.
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