An Interview with Rob Pearson-Wright winner of the 2014 Terry O'Neill Photography Award Mobile Device Category / by Philip Parsons

Terry O'Neill is an English fashion, style and celebrity photographer well known for a career filled with iconic works spanning from the 1960’s to the present day.  In 2011, he received The Royal Photographic Society’s Centenary medal “in recognition of a sustained, significant contribution to the art of photography”.  In 1995, he set up the Terry O'Neill Photography Award to showcase up and coming talent. 

This year’s winner of Terry O’Neill Mobile Device Award is Rob Pearson-Wright.

Firstly, let's find out about the man behind the mobile. Rob, tell us a bit about yourself.

I was born and raised in London, England. I work in my family’s architectural ironmongery firm as the office manager, but like any small business I muck in with various different aspects of the business. Once upon a time, I was married but that ended fairly badly and fortunately I didn’t have any kids to worry about. I officially got divorced on my birthday in 2013. Best birthday present ever! Anyway, now life is pretty good, I have a girlfriend, lots of new friends and loads of hobbies and interests that I’m passionate about.

What about your artistic background? Have you had any formal training?

I’ve been creative one way or another for as long as I can remember. I’ve always sketched, doodled and drawn cartoons. I’ve learnt to play various musical instruments, been in a couple of bands and produced four albums worth of tunes of my own. I’ve had no formal training apart from art or music lessons at school and that’s a while back now.

What about photography?  

I have no formal training in photography either. Two short courses specifically about iPhoneography are the extent of my training. My first memories of photography probably go back to a Polaroid that my parents had. I remember posing for shots they would take of me by myself or with various visiting relatives. Sometimes I’d get to play with it but I’m sure nothing more exciting than a blurry picture of my cat was the outcome.

Business Creche

Business Creche

What are your early memories of photography?

At college I borrowed my brother’s Canon A1 and enjoyed taking shots and sending the film off to get developed. However, he soon wanted it back and I went back to taking pictures on little disposable cameras when I needed to.

What was your first camera?

My first real camera was a little point and shoot Pentax digital camera. It shot 5MP and did the job reasonable well. I had no real expectations of it beyond taking snapshots and pictures whilst on holiday.

So when did you make the transition to mobile photography?

December 2010.

Why?  What initially sparked your interest?

I had wanted an iPhone for a while and couldn’t quite justify shelling out for one until it could replace my camera, phone and iPod. When Apple released the iPhone 4 I took the plunge albeit a few months later. I had read about the Hipstamatic app and was intrigued by the different combos of lenses and films. I quickly got gripped by it and would eagerly wait for new Paks to appear. It became my go-to camera for everything, but it wasn’t until June of 2012 that my interest in mobile photography properly peaked. When I started the first class of the iPhoneography course things opened up and the touch paper was lit beneath me.

Eskimo Kiss

Eskimo Kiss

What drives you to keep taking photographs?  

I don’t want to miss out on the next ‘decisive’ moment to capture, the next interesting character to cross my path or let the next scene of beauty slip away without documenting it. I guess I’m chasing that elusive great shot. It could be my next one or thousands of shots down the line. Besides that, I love the process of taking photos, editing them and sharing them. I’m curious to know what people think of them and in turn what they think about me as a reflection of the images. Essentially I’m documenting life as it goes on around me. I shoot because I want to and maybe a little bit because I need to. I feel compelled to for no other reason than I want to really.

What do you shoot with?

I started out with an iPhone 4 and shot with that for nearly 3 years. Now I shoot with an iPhone 5S. Personally I feel that the iPhone 4 served me better than my current model. I could just point and shoot with the 4 and nail a shot. The 5S seems to be more of a pig. I always have to tap and focus to get a vaguely non-blurry image. Maybe it’s just my iPhone but I’ve heard the same from other people I’ve connected with on the web. I can’t wait until my contract rolls over to upgrade to a 6 or whatever follows.

Tell us what winning the Mobile Device Terry O’Neill Award means to you.

Winning the Terry O’Neill award meant that the images I shot and chose to be a series were put in front of a panel of respected professionals and deemed worthy enough to sit amongst images made by professional photojournalists. That alone has been extremely encouraging to me. The quality of the shortlisted images for the award was immense and I had to kick myself that I was among those considered. It has made me want to continue to learn and improve my imagery to get to the standard of those considered in the main category of the awards.

Every little helps

Every little helps

Do you shoot with any other cameras?

Once I’d gotten the bug for taking pictures through mobile photography, I thought that I should get a ‘big’ camera and see if I could emulate my passion for mobile photography in that different arena. I got myself a good deal on a Canon 7D, a couple of good lenses and set about learning to take shots with a ‘real’ camera. It certainly is a different kettle of fish and it’s a steeper learning curve than mobile photography, but I feel that I’m getting to grips with it. Using the 7D for street photography is massively different than using my iPhone. It’s very intrusive and noisy in comparison. You can disguise your intentions and really blend into the crowd with an iPhone but not so much with a big DSLR. Essentially you’re shoving a lens in someone’s face and alerting them with a big ‘clack’ that you are taking their photograph. I’m seriously looking at a mirrorless system like the Fujifilm X series as an alternative to the Canon. You can be ninja quiet and the quality of images I’ve seen from it has been outstanding.

How you do you shoot your work?  Do you feel this is something impulsive or is the element of planning?

Any time that I am out and about is an opportunity to shoot. My eyes are constantly scanning the area for interesting characters or situations. I find that I’m able to gauge things to the point where I can anticipate a certain outcome or capture a particular reaction. I like to be more reactive when shooting and not plan too much. I enjoy the spontaneity of street photography and the thrill of catching a moment that might go unnoticed. As I predominantly take candid shots, I get worried that if I work an area for too long, people will notice me more and that I’ll lose an edge. The only planning I’ll do is which location I might go to. Consistent or predictable weather or lighting conditions isn’t something that London does well unless you like greyness. Finding nice hard light for shadows and silhouettes is a random affair at best, which is why I tend to concentrate on people rather than environment.

Her voice echoed in his mind

Her voice echoed in his mind

When you are selecting your work, what do you look for?  Are there certain elements that you feel turn a mediocre photograph into a great photograph?

I’m looking for some emotional response to an image and the sense of a story behind it. Joy, sadness, humour or something completely mundane, it doesn’t really matter as long as it captures the human experience. If I think that a picture has a strong narrative to it from an expression, a reaction to something or a feeling, I’m much more likely to select it. If you can capture a sense of drama or tension to further the storytelling behind an image, then I believe that can elevate a photograph’s status above mediocrity. I love how some shots can really capture a mood or evoke a feeling where you can almost ‘smell’ the streets.

When you look at other people's work, what excites you?  Are there forms of mobile photography that you wish you could incorporate into your work?

I’m excited by how others view the world around them and what they chose to shoot. It gives me an insight into their personalities and allows me to be a virtual tourist wherever they’ve been shooting. I’m also excited by the imagination and editing skills of many in the mobile photography community. How they choose to edit something and the directions they take to turn a photo into something more artistic through blending and collaging is fantastic and is something I’d like to make more time to do.

Communication

Communication

Who inspires you?

Matt Stuart, Bruce Gilden, Martin Parr, Garry Winogrand, Robert Capa, Henry Cartier-Bresson, Joel Meyerowitz, Vladimir ‘Boogie’ Milivojevich, Vivian Maier and Helen Levitt to name but a few.

Lastly, can you list the places your work can be found on the Internet?

Website

Flickr

EyeEm

Instagram

Facebook

The Masked Mariachi

The Masked Mariachi

Is there anything else you feel we should know about you?

Last year I won ‘Best in Show’ for the second year in a row in the ‘Grunge’ category at the Brooklyn Waterfront Artist’s Coalition Autumn show and another ‘Best in Show’ for the ‘Apptastic’ category. The other day, I found out that I am a finalist in the mobile category of the Smithsonian’s annual photography awards. Fingers crossed! In the last three years I‘ve been lucky enough to be part of many exhibitions around the world and hope that continues. Apart from that people should know that I have an unhealthy obsession with gyoza (delicious Japanese dumplings), I hate fish and I love Ultimate Frisbee. If you want to buy me a drink, a Guinness would be lovely thank you.

The Royal Wave

The Royal Wave