Michael Freeman has written and illustrated more than 120 books on photography. A prolific writer and photographer, London-based Freeman travels seven months out of the year to places in Africa, Asia and South America. He is responsible for the distance learning courses in photography at The Open College for the Arts in the U.K. Freeman is traveling through the United States working on his next book and giving lectures on storytelling through photography.
In his new book, out this month, called “The Photographer’s Vision”, Freeman talks about the value of learning photography by looking at the work of other photographers. “One of the things I always used to tell people myself is one of the most valuable ways to learn photography is to look at images. When you find one you like, study it. Try to put yourself in the mind of that photographer. Why did he do what he did? How did he make it such a way that you like it? That kind of thought, trying to get under the skin of someone who has made a great image, is really one of the most valuable ways of advancing your own photography. It’s the understanding that there is imagination involved.”
Freeman’s other books from this series, published by Focal Press, focus on what he believes is necessary to master to become a better photographer. He knows that the bookshelves of Barnes and Noble are not lacking in titles promising to help you become a better photographer. But he felt that they were lacking in teaching the fundamentals of what it takes to make a great image. “It started when I realized that there was no sensible book about how you frame, design, compose an image. How are you going to organize the frame, just the frame?” Freeman had written a book called “The Image” many years ago on that very subject. After receiving emails from people asking where they can get a copy of the book, now out of print, he persuaded the publishers to let him rewrite the book for the digital age. “The Photographer’s Eye” teaches the reader about basic design and composition. “The Photographer’s Mind” focuses on creative thinking. The book he is writing now is about a subject close to his heart, storytelling through photography.
Freeman began is professional career in advertising. Despite his growing passion for photography, he was hesitant to leave a proper job. The advertising agency he was working for gave him a three month sabbatical, and during that time, he traveled to the Amazon to photograph. When he returned to London, he had an exhibition of his images. “Time-Life was just setting up a London office there, and they came to the exhibition and they said, ‘Could we borrow some of the images? We’re starting a new series and the first volume of the series is on the Amazon.’” A few months later he got a call from the picture editor at Time-Life. “I went over after work and they showed me the images on the front cover, double spreads, a whole chapter on them. I went home on the bus and thought that was probably the best encouragement I’ll ever get. So I resigned the next morning.”
His way of working is doing picture stories. He has shot over 40 stories for the Smithsonian magazine and has traveled all over the world photographing for Time-Life. Freeman’s first book was on an ethnic minority on the Thai-Burmese border, photographed in the late 1970s. “Southeast Asia was hardly known. This was in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. So it intrigued me. I thought this place was like Mars, culturally. At the same time, Southeast Asia was getting a higher profile among the general public. Magazines were more interested in doing stories, general stories first and then as it got better known, specific stories. And that’s the way it works, publishing follows mass interest.”
When talking about his travels, Freeman emphasizes the importance of doing research before traveling to photograph. “So much of the assignment is preparation. So much. You do all the research. You find the people who have the best knowledge of places and you talk to them. You have to make a big investments in terms of time, effort, and language.” Freeman also has a very democratic way of thinking about all the places he’s traveled. “I don’t have favorite places. Everywhere is interesting. It’s the subject, the location, the people, that fascinates, and if you get involved in it, and you’re not too concerned with comfort, there’s a world of interest out there.”
While many professional photographers grumble about the surge in people interested in being photographers, Freeman thinks this is a good thing. “Millions of people worldwide are now seriously interested in photography and creative expression. The good news is that in the old days when we had these wonderful magazines like Life, there were only a few photographers who ever got to work for them. So now what’s happened it that there’s a free for all, and it’s very difficult when you start out to get noticed, to stand out. So in order to make it in something that a lot of people what to do, you have to be really good and work hard and not give up!”
On his photo shoots here in Los Angeles and throughout the US, Freeman has been accompanied by a student selected from the “Picture Your City” contest hosted by Focal Press. Though he teaches at The Open College for the Arts, his contact with students is limited. “When I do meet students, I learn. That is why I am keen to it. I am always quizzing them asking, ‘What do you think about this?’, ‘What are you learning from this?’, ‘What would you like to learn?’. It helps me in writing for people when I can get a more immediate sense of what they see, what they don’t see, what they thought about that I didn’t think about.” Freeman knows, as evidence by the number of books he has written, that the importance of learning throughout your photography career cannot be emphasized enough. “The day you stop learning is the day you should hang up your camera.”