We interview world renowned photojournalist Chris Hopkins to get his ‘Photojournalist’s View of Our World.’ He shares his journey in photojournalism and the key to capturing portrait photography that truly captures the story of the sitter. Result, poignant portrait photography that beautifully showcases the challenges of our current reality.
Hi, thanks for having me. I am Christopher Hopkins, a freelance photojournalist based in Melbourne, Australia. I predominantly work for Australia’s major media outlets such as The Age, Sydney Morning Herald, The Guardianand Getty Images as well as taking commissions from international publications such as Al Jazeera and The New York Times.
Your portrait photography style is intrinsically Australian, why you are passionate about portrait photography?
Much of what I do for said media involves portraiture. So you have to be passionate about it because it is so much of the job. In saying that though, it becomes about more than just a visual representation of a person. From a journalism perspective the image becomes that persons point in time. To have their story told. The photography I take becomes the vehicle through which they get the chance to be seen and heard. That is a privileged position to be in. There is a certain weight, a duty if you like, so I feel I owe it to the subject to make the best picture of them that I can. You can tell from an image whether or not the photographer is invested in it. So I bring that passion to every project.
As a Photojournalist what are some of the power moments you have captured that sum up 2021 for you?
Compared with 2020 – bushfires, international travel, the pandemic. 2021 has been a harder one. We have generally been confined to lockdown. There have been no large ‘events’ for us as photojournalists to cover domestically. And by domestically I mean Melbourne, where I am based. Travel is non-existent. That comprises a large part of my process so I guess I have been looking locally for inspiration and stories.
The growth of the Anti-Lockdown movement and the violence at their protests sticks in my mind. It represents the fatigue and frustration of society. And although I don’t agree with their actions it can make for strong news imagery.
There’s a project I worked on for The Guardian. Residents of the housing commission towers were locked down harshly last year is strong work that resonates. The toll that hard lockdown has taken on the residents mental health is unquestionable. It’s been a seriously misguided decision by the government that will be felt for years to come in that community.
What’s the key to capturing powerful portrait photography?
Portrait photography is all about the connection between the sitter and the audience. When the audience is moved or have an emotional response when viewing the image, then my job is done. Much of my work is humanitarian based. For the images and story to work I need the viewer to feel empathy for the subject and their situation. It is easy to feel sympathy. To be able to have the audience empathise with someone they do not know. This becomes the challenge I am constantly trying to master. It’s definitely much easier to make someone smile!
What was your journey to wanting to speak through Photography?
I actually came to photography later in life. I finished university (where I did a degree in Accounting of all things!) and then started travelling. The six years of travel had no purpose other than curiosity. I grew up in a small rural town, isolated from world events. So being on the road and the experiences I had and the things I saw – poverty, injustice – opened my eyes. I came home and although I was working a dead-end job I was looking for a fulfilling career, I didn’t want to just eek through life.
Whilst in Africa I had enjoyed photographing wildlife so I enrolled at Photography Studies College with the misguided dream of becoming a wildlife photographer. It was put to me that my images had a knack of telling a story. So I began to pursue photojournalism. It was at this time that I saw the work of Nachtwey, Salgado and Eugene Smith. Their ability to use photography to engage the world with important resonated as it proved to me that as a photojournalist I could have some sort of impact that would benefit society. So I guess subconsciously I always wanted to help others in some way and I began to use portrait photography to achieve that.
Do you have tips for others wanting to try portrait photography?
I guess the best advice I can give is to make the subject feel comfortable in your presence. It is hard to conceive in a world where everyone has a smart phone and au fait with making a picture on it. But most people are uncomfortable having their portrait. Create a safe place – both physically and emotionally – for them to relax, the results will be so much more rewarding. It’s about breaking down the barrier created by the camera and lens.
While composition and lighting are components of photography and art that are of vital importance, the connection between the sitter and the viewer is critical. This also becomes important when finding a photographer to make your portrait. They are going to make a better portrait of you if you connect with them.
Do you have any tips for picking the right portrait photograph to frame?
To frame and hang art on a wall is to make a statement. It might be as small a statement as ‘This is an image Ilove’ or it could be as bold as saying ‘when you enter the room thisis what you should look at’. Either way the image should have some meaning to you. You have to remember that people are going to ask you about it, so you better be able to explain why it is up there!
What’s your favourite thing about being behind the lens?
Bearing witness to moments of history. Whether it is making someones portreait, telling a story or witnessing a moment in time, I get to be the one who records it for posterity. It’s a joy and a privilege.
Can you share some of your favourite shoots with us, and the stories behind capturing that portrait?
I have had shoots with people along the lines of Nigella Lawson and Hugo Weaving that have been a barrel of laughs – Nigella would tell me when to hit the shutter so she could eat in-between shots! And being able to meet and photograph stars like Shane Warne, Elle McPherson and Natalie Portman which were daunting yet fun. But I find my favourites come from shoots or projects where I am able to assist the subject in some way.
A project I worked on for SBS in 2018, for which I subsequently won a Walkley Award, called ‘My Name Is Yunus’ had me documenting Yunus, a Rohingyan refugee, and his life and struggles here in Melbourne. This story brought awareness to the Rohingyan refugee community and they relayed back to me that they now feel acceptance within the broader community in Melbourne, something they had never felt as refugees. More recently I spent time in Uganda on assignment documenting children living with disability witnessing the horrific circumstances they live under. Kids are still tethered and locked away, abused and killed. After publication, the publicity has meant that some of the children I photographed are now receiving treatment and medication. Being part of these processes is hugely rewarding.