Magnum photographer Alex Webb on research and collaboration

Magnum photographer Alex Webb on research and collaboration

By Lewis Bush 07/08/13

For the second in a series of interviews with Magnum photographers, carried out at the recent Magnum Photos AGM at IdeasTap HQ, we hear from photojournalist Alex Webb, who has worked in the Caribbean, Mexico, Turkey and the US. Alex talks to Lewis Bush about why he avoids doing too much research before starting a project and the difference between shooting at home and abroad...

What has the impact of being in Magnum been on your career?

I came to Magnum quite young: I was 22. That first year and a half was complicated because I was trying to resolve the relationship between making a living as a photographer and doing the work I cared. Magnum was tremendously helpful. I didn’t have a clue and in some ways feel I still don’t. Particularly now the photography world is changing so fast it’s really hard to know where things are going and the way I survived 10 years ago is utterly different from the way I survive now.


Image: A memorial for victims of army violence, Port-au-Prince, Haiti 1987, © Alex Webb /Magnum Photos. 


What advice would offer a young photographer starting out now?

There’s a big difference between taking pictures to make money and taking photographs because you believe in them. There are plenty of photographers who’ve done great work in their lives and haven’t been professional photographers; I think of Ralph Eugene Meatyard, who was an eye doctor. There’s nothing wrong with uncertainty about which directions to go in but you have to believe in what you’re doing because you’ll have to make sacrifices, and the rewards are generally so fleeting.


Image: Members of the public in Daytona Beach, Florida, USA, 1988 © Alex Webb/Magnum Photos.


You’re particularly known for your work in Haiti but you’ve also photographed in the US. Could you talk us through the making of From the Sunshine State, your book about Florida?

When I was working extensively in Haiti I often found myself stuck in Miami because riots had taken over Port au Prince. I started looking around at this strange state called Florida and got interested in photographing it. My first instinct was to photograph the new immigrant groups – Haitians and Guatemalans – but I realised that what I really needed to do was photograph the totality of Florida. Florida is a world of many different pockets that seem to have little to do with one another.

The final book, put together in 1992, was built in much the same way I generally build books. By playing with a few pictures the beginning starts to emerge and then the end, and somehow different pieces fall into place between them. Several publishers were interested but never took it; it was actually four years before it got published. In that time I made a couple more trips and a few more pictures crept in. Sometimes there’s a reason you can’t find a publisher – that’s taking the philosophical view.


 Image: Bar in Gouyave, Grenada, 1979 © Alex Webb/Magnum Photos.


You’ve stated elsewhere that you don’t like to begin a project with too many preconceived ideas. How does this inform your research?

When I work on a project for myself, I may read a guidebook to get the general lay of the land; I may read a novel set in the place, to give me a sense of what some writer felt. And then I go and start working. I come back, look at the work and then start reading, because I want my visual knowledge of the place to develop at the same pace as my intellectual knowledge. I feel with certain projects that if I read too much I start trying to force things. I look at things and say, “Ah well that’s symbolic of that and so it’s interesting to photograph,” whereas if I’m just there photographing I see things that might contradict those symbols.

You’ve worked in partnership with your wife, Rebecca Norris Webb. Would you recommend young photographers seek out collaborators?

If it works naturally. I’ve found it incredibly rewarding and exciting and fabulous to work with Rebecca. But one thing I will say is we almost never photograph in the street together. The times we shoot together we have to be careful to go to opposite ends of whatever situation it is. Two photographers together in the street transform a situation: people don’t respond the same way.


Image: Magnum photographer Alex Webb.


What camera and format do you use and how does this affect your relationship with your subjects?

I use a 35mm camera, a Leica rangefinder, and I usually use a 35mm lens. You have to work closer with a 35mm lens than a 50mm but not as close as with a 28mm. I personally find the way space recedes from a 35mm lens works for me and the distance I am from people feels right, I need to be that close, but a 28 is a little too close.

What’s the toughest situation you’ve been in as a photographer and how did you deal with it?

There have been a number of situations that have been dangerous. There was one during the election in Haiti; it was the only time I’ve been shot at specifically because I was a photographer. I’ve been in situations where there was shooting or bombing or violence but it hasn’t necessarily always been directed at me but this was one where I was directly shot at, and that was very intense. I resolved it by getting out of there as quickly as possible!


Read more insights and advice from Alex Webb and other Magnum photographers in our special zine. 


For more articles, jobs and opportunities, visit our Photography hub. 

Main image Mexicans arrested while trying to cross the border to United States, California, USA, 1979 © Alex Webb / Magnum Photos. 

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