In this pro photographer interview we glimpse into the world of photojournalist Patrick Ward, learn how he got started, what inspires him and also what happened when he photographed a UK Prime Minister.

Patrick Ward - New York, 1981

Patrick Ward – New York, 1981


1. How did you initially get involved in photography and how did you cultivate this interest?

I’m just ancient enough that I was in the last batch of Brits who were called up for two years of military service. When not defending democracy I went on a photography course but, more importantly, my then girlfriend sent me the seminal book “The Family of Man” by Edward Steichen, which was a total inspiration. Over fifty years later I still measure my efforts against it, and fall short. It’s still in print and I’d recommend it to anyone considering a future in documentary photography.

After the Army I studied at the Regent Street Polytechnic, but learnt far more in my first three months as an assistant to John Chillingworth, who had already enjoyed a successful career shooting for Picture Post. After two years with John I went freelance, with a £500 loan from a dubious bank manager!


2. Can you tell us about your history as a professional photographer.

I was very lucky with my timing… my going freelance coincided with the birth of the Sunday colour magazines, and I found myself travelling through South America, Mexico and Sicily for the Sunday Times Magazine during my mid twenties. It really was the beginning of a golden age for Photojournalists and i was fortunate to be in the right place at the right moment.

I worked steadily for British and European magazines during the 60′s and 70′s and then spent a year in America in 1981 on a Bicentennial Fellowship, travelling some thirty thousand miles while covering eccentric American events. Some of these images were published in the Smithsonian magazine, and this project lead to further assignments from them and also the National Geographic Traveler.

In the 90′s I shot long projects for a little known company in Seattle, called Corbis, not realising at the time that I was helping to create one of the digital photo libraries that would come to dominate the photo market, with mixed results for us working photographers.

I think of myself as a documentary photographer now rather than a photojournalist—the difference being that I now tend to work on long term personal projects rather than being assigned by magazines. I should emphasise that throughout my career I have pressed on with personal projects and more than half of the pictures on my website, and possibly the best images, come from these projects.

One of the blessings of digital photography has been how it has reduced the costs of shooting the long term book projects I’ve been shooting in recent years.


3. What is the most memorable occasion in your photography career?

Well, at the risk of demolishing my reputation for ever, I could tell you of the occasion when I photographed Prime Minister Harold McMillan in Downing Street and failed to put film in my Leica. I won’t say he was understanding but he did give me an extra two minutes to get my picture!

The truth is that, in reportage photography, the last fleeting moment you captured that was well composed and expressed your feelings for the subject…that is your most memorable occasion, and that’s why you keep taking photos.


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4. Is there anything you want to photograph that you’ve not yet shot?

Yes, but I’m going through a spell of meditation on where to go next.


5. Have you ever found yourself in danger or a sticky situation while working as a photographer?

No. I’ve been privileged to know and admire two great British war photographers, but my personal interest has always been with the lighter side of life, for which I think I have more of an ability to cover.


6. How important is a website for your work?

I think it could become important in the future, especially if it leads to an increase in print sales, which in turn would give me more freedom and incentive to keep shooting.


7. What aspect or feature of Photoswarm do you most value?

The fact that the pictures come up big and instantly on screen, and the ability to upload and edit the images myself.


8. What kind of equipment do you use?

After a long loyalty to Canon I moved to Panasonic GH2 cameras, because they are so much smaller, lighter and much less obtrusive. This last factor is really important when you shoot close in to people. My favourite lenses are the two small pancakes, the 14mm and 20mm, which are the equivalent of 28mm and 40mm in old, pre digital, money, The 20mm is especially good, really sharp even at it’s full aperture of f1.7.


9. What is your favourite photography accessory, other than your camera?

Right now, in mid winter, it has to be my Brasher boots. I can keep going forever if my feet are dry! A close second has to be a back pack for my cameras—I tend use a small Lowepro backpack and occasionally, a small Domke shoulder bag. Carrying cameras all day on one shoulder is a guarantee of back trouble in the future.


10. How has the introduction of digital cameras altered the way you work and which format do you now prefer?

It’s been brilliant. For years I used to drop my film off to a professional lab, would pop in to edit the contact sheets, and then deliver their prints to the client. In many ways I was just half a photographer, concentrating purely on the shooting end. The whole digital process has got me much more involved in photography as a complete process, following throughout to beautiful prints and to producing and designing my own Blurb books and making my own videos. The added benefit, as mentioned earlier, has been the drop in the cost of tackling long term projects.


11. Can you tell us about your creative process?

Well, it really comes down to falling in love with a story idea and then sticking with it and refining it. It is about being single minded and working hard. The more I’m out there with a camera in my hand, the more I’m open to the opportunity of seeing great moments.


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12. Can you tell us about your technical process?

I keep it very simple. If I was a better photographer I’d shoot with one camera and one lens. As it is I use wide and long lenses to heighten my picture possibilities.

With regard to post processing, I always strive to get the picture right in the camera, in terms of composition and exposure, so that Photoshop is merely there to fine tune the image and not to change or distort it.

Photoshop is great but I use it merely to confirm what I saw, not to change or distort it. The documentary photographer should use it with great restraint.


13. What influences your decision to shoot black and white or colour?

Well, I think I’ve done decent work in both mediums, but I suspect that black and white best suits my personal vision of life and allows the content of my best pictures to shine through.

Although the digital camera allows one to make the decision to print in either colour or black and white I think one really needs to be thinking in the appropriate medium while shooting. I do know that when shooting black and white I stick with short lenses which bring me in close for deep focus, and more intimate images.


14. What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

  • Well, fifty odd years on, I’d still suggest “The Family of Man” because it is such a loving record of the human condition.
  • Henri Cartier Bresson’s “The Europeans” because he so brilliantly captured the “decisive moment”, that combination of the perfect moment, perfectly composed.
  • Philip Jones Griffiths for “Vietnam Incorporated“, a politically concerned and damning record, shot over seven years, of a wicked war.
  • Lartigue’s “Diary of a Century” for the childish innocence he retained over a long life in photography.


15. Tell us something about you that very few people know?

I still love roller skating.


16. What quick advice would you have for someone who wants to improve his or her photography skills?

Go to lots of galleries, and not only to see photography. Try to decide who you admire and bring their qualities into your own work, as a starting point to finding your own vision. You are what you shoot, even thought you are photographing what’s out there. Your decisions of what to shoot, where and when, how to edit and print… these are all decisions that begin to give your pictures a personal signature.

You are a unique human being and, if you work hard at it, some of that uniqueness will spread into your pictures and people will sense that and enjoy it.


Patrick’s work can be found on his pro Photoswarm portfolio and you can also read other pro photographer interviews.