Living in the Shadows: An Interview with Photojournalist Charlie Mahoney

Living in the Shadows: An Interview with Photojournalist Charlie Mahoney

Photojournalist Charlie Mahoney documented the lives of African immigrants living rough on the streets in Barcelona for his Living in the Shadows project. I asked him why.

Thousands of Africans enter Europe every day looking for a better life. Some of them end up in Barcelona’s streets, unable to be repatriated, but without residency or the legal permits they need to work. I saw photojournalist Charlie Mahoney’s story on these people – Living in the Shadows – on the BBC website and was immediately intrigued. I’ve been to Barcelona several times but knew nothing about the lives of these unfortunate people. I decided to ask Charlie some questions about his career and the thought processes behind the story. Here’s the interview:

Why did you decide to become a professional photojournalist?

I started later than most photojournalists. I actually worked several years in investment banking and investment management before I started working in photojournalism.

Three years ago I decided to do a Masters in Photojournalism in Barcelona.

Now here I am working as a freelancer doing projects that interest me.

Why? I have always been interested in the news and other cultures and what happens around the world. Even when I was working in investment banking I had to read a few newspapers a day to keep up with everything that was happening and the effects the news would have on companies and the markets.

Investment banking is actually a very interesting and intellectually stimulating profession, but the obsession with money and the horrendous working hours just burned me out after a period of time.

In 2002 I took a year off and came to Spain. I wanted to learn Spanish and have an experience in Europe. I never planned on staying so long. The nice thing, however, is that it gave me time to think about what I wanted to do next and travel. On a bit of a whim I decided to take the masters in photojournalism and here I am.

And why Barcelona? Is it a good place for a photojournalist to be based?

I actually first went to Madrid and was there for three years, but all of this is prior to working in photojournalism. I came to Barcelona, mainly because of the geography. It’s close to the sea and the mountains and France is just two hours away, so it seemed like a good fit at the time.

I don’t think Barcelona is a great place to be based. Today, magazines don’t send many photojournalists off on assignments. They, instead, look for a freelancer who lives in the area where they want to do a story and Spain is not big on the radar for most western news outlets.

Barcelona, however, is a nice city and within Europe not too costly, so photojournalism can be done here. I just have to do more stories on spec and hope I can get interest in the stories abroad.

So because of where you’re based you have to be very proactive. You’re shooting stories and looking for a market afterwards.

Absolutely. No matter where you are based you have to be very proactive. The old idea of photojournalists who are sent off around the world doesn’t happen too often anymore.

There are exceptions, but even if you do a story as an assignment, most photojournalists are the ones who come up with the story in the first place and pitch it to an editor.

What are the main qualities a photojournalist needs to succeed professionally?

First and foremost, you have to have an eye for photography. Secondly, you have to patient and persistent. Most good stories don’t come easily. Third, you have to have a way with people. If you can’t win over people, you won’t get the access you want and you won’t get the story.

And a good business sense and a flair for self promotion are important as well, right? There are a lot of very talented photojournalists out there chasing work.

That too. Absolutely. It’s very competitive.

What about diversifying? For instance, on your blog, you talked about the Foundry Photojournalism Workshop in Mexico City. Is teaching another opportunity for photojournalists to earn money?

That depends on each photographer and what they want to do. I personally don’t like to diversify too much. I want to do social issues, reportage and travel reportage.

I think it’s a big indicator of the sign of the times. Many famous photographers make most of their income from photography workshops. I have mixed feelings about it though.

Tell me about your first photojournalism assignments. I imagine that starting out and getting the first assignment must be difficult.

They´ve been mainly boring assignments. Shooting some entrepreneur or a foodie. Not too interesting.

I’m not at that point in my career where they call me to go to Darfur to do a story for Newsweek. I hope that changes soon, but I’m not there yet.

There are very few in depth commissions these days. The only exception would probably be National Geographic.

There, if they like your work, they allow you to propose a story with a written proposal and a photo list. If they grant you the story, they bring you in to Washington, firm up the story with their staff and then you have about 8 weeks to do the story. At places like Time or Newsweek, you might have a few days to do a story max.

‘Living in the Shadows’

Where did you get the idea for this story?

It came out of natural curiosity. For weeks I passed these African immigrants pushing shopping carts full of scrap metal and thought what are these guys doing? Then I started researching the story and found it to be really interesting.

How did you approach them initially once you became interested in photographing their story?

Did you work by yourself or maybe with an NGO or government body?

First, I checked with friends to see if they knew any African immigrants. Through one friend I met an owner of a shop where the guy sold African statues and decoration, but he didn’t know many recent arrivals, so I started looking elsewhere. I eventually found out where some of them are living and went to chat with them. Then little by little I got to know others. Some didn’t trust me at all, but there was always one person that understood what I wanted to do, so little by little I got access.

I tried approaching NGO’s but in Spain, I didn’t have much luck.

This sounds like a long-term project that would have been impossible for you to tackle if you didn’t live locally?

Yes. Fly in projects are that much harder. Because of time, obstacles to communication and know how.

How much time did you spend on the project altogether?

I actually started it as a project in a workshop I did here in Barcelona, so most of the initial work I did in the first week. Then I stuck with it, checking in on the people I had met and trying to fill holes in the story over the course of a few months.

Now recently I got interest in the story from a few other magazines and one of them asked me to add some other aspects of the story to propose it as an assignment, so I returned to work on it a few weeks ago with the idea of adding other elements of the story

Do you think that it’s a very marketable story? Immigration is a contentious topic in many European countries right now.

Actually, no. I think there are aspects of this story that people don’t know about, but immigration by itself doesn’t make the story. Immigration will always be a contentious issue, especially in countries where it is relatively new phenomenon.

Once you got to know the people in your story, how did you get on with them?

I got on well with most of them. I also informed some of the NGO’s about their whereabouts so they know that I was interested in helping them as well. That being said, there’s always a cynic in the group that doesn’t trust you or thinks you’re taking advantage of them.

I was kicked out of one house, because they thought just that.

They asked me how much money I could make and I told them that it depends on the story, the use, the size of the photo, etc.

I said if I published a photo, I could make about 50 Euros per photo published on the page. They didn’t speak much Spanish, so they thought I was making 50 Euros for every picture I took of them.

Imagine every snap, 50 Euros.

A fortune!

Exactly.

How do you handle the fact that you’re photographing people that don’t have much money, yet you’ll be earning money from the photos if you sell them? How do you explain that to people?

It’s not really an issue, because this profession is so low paying that you rarely face this type of situation.

Most photojournalists are not in this profession for the money. They are in it to tell stories and especially to tell the stories of those who are incapable of telling their own stories.

Were you ever in ever danger shooting this story? I imagine you were taking some very expensive camera equipment to some unsavoury places.

I suppose that I might have been, but I never felt in danger. In fact my biggest problems with the African immigrants was that they always treated me like a guest. I would show up, ready to work and they would want me to sit down, have a tea with them or eat with them. One would often even stand up and offer me his seat, so I would have to insist that they let me work and try to ignore me as much as possible.

Obviously that is not always the case. In other circumstances you have to work more quickly and be on the lookout.

Thanks again for your time.

No problem.