Paul Sanders is the former picture editor of 'The Times'
Paul Sanders discovered photography when he was 12. At school the careers’ teacher told him that being a photographer was not a proper job. A few years later he was the picture editor of ‘The Times’. Here is his incredible story
LPM: When did you first get involved with photography?
PS: I first discovered photography when I was about 12 or 13. I heard my parents discussing heatedly the merits of my dad purchasing a Practika SLR for about £45. My mum was horrified but my dad eventually won the argument and the camera proudly purchased, along with most of the magazines about photography on sale at the time. The camera lived in its box or in a black and brown camera bag and, usually, one roll of film survived two Christmases. I kept sneaking the camera out of its box when my parents were away and pretended to take pictures with it. I fell in love with the way the point of focus added depth or a perception of depth at the time. My dad was always telling what I could not do with the camera. Eventually, after much nagging, I acquired my own camera when I was 15; a Mamiya ZE2.
At school the careers’ teacher told me that being a photographer was not a proper job and that I should lower my expectations a little. After that I knew what I wanted to be, a photographer. On leaving school I went to art college and got bored with the idea that I had to conform to someone else’s ideas of what worked and what did not. So I left, told my parents I was going to be a photographer, enrolled on a local Youth Training Scheme, and that was it. I worked in various darkrooms around the Midlands, in England where I lived, and tried to go out with the photographers who supplied us with the images to print. Eventually, I met a professional photographer who thought I was enthusiastic enough at carrying his bags to take me on. I worked with him as an assistant to start with but eventually as a business partner in his company, shooting glamour calendars at the age of 19. I always had a big smile on my face.
After spending more than I was earning, I ended up at a local newspaper and became a trainee photographer. From there it was a matter of my pushing aside everything else in life in order to get to the top. I only wanted to work in London, ideally at The Times; nothing else would do. From my start at the Daventry Express in 1991, I moved to News Team, an agency in Birmingham, and then took on the role of setting up their office in Manchester before being asked to become deputy picture editor of The Manchester Evening News in 1996. In 1998 I was approached by Reuters and hot-footed it to London to join the big league. After two years, I was asked to join The Times as assignments editor, a job that did not exist but had been created for me. It did not really work out, to be honest; I hated the way they used images and had so little time for their own photographers, whom I was sending out on assignments, only for the newspaper to use images from Reuters. This just infuriated me. After expressing my unhappiness, I went part time, moved back to Yorkshire with my wife and started shooting for Reuters, AP and Getty as a freelance.
LPM: At The Times you eventually rose to become picture editor at a time of great change. Can you tell us about the most significant changes you were involved in?
PS: Having gone part-time in 2003 I was asked back by the managing editor at the end of 2003 to help him with a project, even though, when I tried to leave, I was quite outspoken about the use of images and the control of images. He ushered me into a room with a handful of other Times’ journalists and designers and was asked to produce a new Times in a compact form. Within two weeks we had a smaller but more beautifully designed version of The Times which went live virtually straight away but ran in parallel with the traditional broadsheet. Each day it was my job to find better and stronger images than the broadsheet, which, once I had the Times’ staff photographers onside, was easy. They threw themselves into the challenge totally, shooting specifically for the new format and showing what they could really do. They were rewarded with images running across the gutter and filling double page spreads. Quickly it became the photographers’ paper. Mind you, with no advertisements, it was not hard to make good pictures look great and great pictures look amazing.
After being appointed Picture Editor in April 2004, immediately I was given the job of keeping the budget under control: read cuts in everything here. I did not want to lose photographers, so set about saving money by stopping the printing of 1-200 images a day at A3 size for the sub- editors; it saved a fortune. My insistence that the picture desk be given control of the cropping and layout of images worked perfectly, as fewer expensive images were used and less money was spent on copyright breaches.
We insisted also that our own photographers were used rather than the agencies, and this in itself not only saved money but improved the morale of the photographers, who kept improving their creativity. This resulted in us saving money on freelance fees, so I was the golden boy for a while.
None of this is possible without a brilliant picture desk behind you; researchers and a very good deputy are needed to help manage the volume of images and requests that come through a national picture desk. On an average day I saw 17,000 news images, 3,500 sports images and then so much paparazzi dross that it would make you scream. I stayed in the job for almost eight years, despite saying initially that five years would do, and kept trimming costs until finally it resulted in the quality of images and the money photographers were paid reaching the target. The sad thing is newspaper photography costs money, and maintaining a visual identity is not important to the accountants who run newspapers. Also, the deals made by the big stock libraries are driving down the value of photography to a point that makes it almost impossible to justify having your own team. The big stock agencies will send in pictures that work out, effectively, at £30 each, because of the deals they do with newspaper groups. It is sad really that, in the drive for efficient and cost effectiveness, some talented photographers are not getting their work seen.
LPM: A huge organisation can offer a big and exciting job but with it comes much frustration. To complete this circle, can you tell us about the best and worst moments with The Times? What has been engraved in your memory?
PS: There were lots of highlights, but I guess the wedding of Prince William to Catherine Middleton. We had such a carefully laid out plan and it all came together on the day. We used some new technology from Shootlive, a Swedish company, which enabled us to move images from taking to being published live on the website and ipad edition in under 30 seconds; it was stunning. That, and the fact we were the only newspaper not to stick with the predictable kiss on the balcony, but ran a beautiful moment caught by photographer Max Mumber of the couple laughing as they drove down the Mall in an open top Aston Martin, won us plaudits for being visually original. You could not buy a copy of The Times the next day; sales were up massively and the only thing on the front page was a stunning image. Pictures really do matter; there is no hiding that fact on a big day.
My worst memory was the very untimely death of one of my photographers, Richard Mills, while on assignment in Zimbabwe. Richard was a truly remarkable conflict photographer. I received a call from my night picture editor very early in the morning to say that Richard had been found hanged; sadly he had taken his own life. The reasons for this are still not clear, although it appears that stress from the number of conflict assignments he undertook could have been a factor. Since his death, The Times has worked hard to offer counseling to its photographers and journalists working in conflict areas to try to avoid the same thing happening again. This moment lives with me every day. I wish I had been able to hear and read the signs when on the telephone to him and to prevent his going.
LPM: Moving on, I believe you developed a highly successful annual training and development scheme for young photographers with Canon UK. Can you give us more details on this?
PS: It is really important to me that photographers coming into the industry are given the right training. I had lots of help and I am eternally grateful to those who pushed me, shouted at me, spent hours going through negatives and guiding me constructively through my early years as a photographer. I wanted to give something back, so The Times with Canon, latterly, and before that Nikon and Tabasco, gave one young photographer the chance to work at The Times on a paid contract for 6 months to learn the basics. I am really proud of the ten or so photographers who came through the scheme; they all work for national and international newspapers or magazines now. It gives me a tremendous boost to see their work on the front pages and hear of their triumphs. Personally, I think all experienced photographers should try to mentor a few young photographers, because not only do they get something out of it but, as a seasoned professional, it makes you think about your own work and just occasionally you can be inspired by a tiny detail your student gives you.
LPM: I think it is time now to move on to landscape photography. You eventually gave up your successful career with The Times to become a full time landscape photographer. What were your reasons for this?
PS: This is simple. From 2009 I started spiraling into depression: I did not realise it at the time, I denied it, letting work take over my life totally. I averaged 2-3 hours’ sleep for about 18 months. Add to this the fact that I started cycling the 26 miles to work every day; I pushed myself physically and mentally towards inevitable destruction. I turned to landscape photography to relieve my stress and to slow down. During my time attending hospital and through all the counseling I received, they encouraged me to pour my feelings and emotions into photography. Shortly before leaving The Times I knew I was lost totally and wanted nothing more than to end everything; I cannot tell you how dark things were. Others suffer far worse than I did, and each person who suffers with depression battles their own demons. Mine destroyed my confidence, tested relationships with my family and drove the woman I loved to leave me. In those times I went out with my Ebony 5x4 to slow down and to shoot landscapes: admittedly not great ones; all very dark and dreary, but they reflected what I was going through and I did not care who liked them as I was on a journey. I am still recovering from the stress/depression and I am not ashamed to admit I suffer with it. There is much stigma around any form of mental health issue, but the people who suffer need the same support as they recover, it is a slow process but, looking back, I can tell you I am a better, stronger and more caring person now than ever I was before.
LPM: I believe you are now producing calendars, greetings cards and fine art prints and also running workshops for training photographers. Can you give us an insight into this?
PS: I get great pleasure out of the workshops as I really enjoy spending time with other photographers, helping them and learning from them; no matter at what level a person is, we can all learn something. I try to give them my take on photography rather than getting them to conform to a formula, and who is to say that the man who takes blurry pictures is wrong; that might be exactly how he sees the scene before him and we should be grateful he is sharing it with us. But, if I can help him get better results, that is what I try to do. I do not want people to shoot like me, just to shoot, in their own way, what makes them happy. In that way they develop confidence and keep enjoying taking photographs. The cards and calendars, to be honest, are a self-indulgent folly. The prints, though, sell quite well and, although they only make a bit of money compared with the hours of work that goes into making a single image, I get a huge amount of pleasure from seeing them hung on people’s walls.
LPM: You are also an examiner and mentor to young photographers with the National Council for the Training of Journalists. What do you seek to achieve in such a role?
PS: This all stems from the same motivations that led me to develop The Times Young Photographer scheme into the success it became. It is really important to give photographers coming into news photography a real understanding of the law, how to operate and the processes that make newspapers happen. This all serves to make them more successful at their chosen profession, which probably is one of the most exhilarating jobs in the world.
LPM: My next question is about the “Camera Kids”. I believe this is a very powerful project and one you are proud of. Can you explain why it started and how it has developed?
PS: This stemmed from a party my son was attending at the age of 5. He asked if he could borrow my Lumix camera and ran off to take pictures; he and his friends kept coming back asking questions about how to …., why this ….., and what if I …. ? I approached the local infants’ school with the idea, to see what they thought, and suddenly we were flying; the class was full, children from the age of 5 attended and, through a series of hour long lessons, each with a simple theme, texture, colour, pattern, movement etc., we explored photography. The great thing about children is that they are not fazed by the technical side and do not think rules should be obeyed. As a result, the images they produce are fresh and exciting. I met teacher Rachel Riley last year and we developed specific learning objectives that used photography across various lessons, making the project more relevant educationally. Together we managed to persuade a school in Hampshire to put photography on the curriculum, so that each of the over 200 children received a minimum of an hour of photography each week. The project was sponsored generously by Fuji in terms of camera and prints. At the end of the term we held an exhibition that showcased the children’s work. Over 400 people turned up, not just parents but staff from nearby schools, and people from the local community, and on top of that we sold over £700 of prints to raise money for the school. It is a win-win project and really inspiring, or as the kids say “awesome”.
LPM: Moving on to Landscape Photography again, who is your favourite past or present photographer?
PS: That is difficult. I love the work of Ansel Adams, but then who does not. But I am a fan of the work of Japanese photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto; his minimalist long exposures just really speak to me, I love the sense of calm he gets in his work but also there is a tension in them. I shoot quite long exposures now because it reflects my state of mind, calm and clutter free.
LPM: Talking about master photographers, everyone has certain photographers who are some sort of influence and inspiration. Who are these photographers for you?
PS: Apart from the two mentioned in my previous answer, the artists, Turner, Constable, Monet, van Gogh, and Cuban landscape artist Maria Luisa Hernandez; then photographers, Joe Cornish, David Noton, Charlie Waite, James Rowbotham and Ole Salomonsen, all of whom have influenced me at some point during my photographic career.
LPM: And of course, my next question will be, what is your favourite image of all time?
PS: The image taken by William Anders in 1968 from Apollo 8, called Earthrise, without doubt is my favourite image. It is the ultimate landscape and one that cannot ever become clichéd like that tree on Rannoch Moor or any of the other hot spots a bit further along the A82.
LPM: Well, I thing that tree will remain a “classic”, not as a cliché. I loved that tree and its isolated position, many good memories around that location. Working as a professional photographer, what are the pros and cons about each day?
PS: The pros: I wake with a smile on my face every day, knowing that, whatever I am going to be photographing, it will be something different, and it will make me happy because I am genuinely doing something I love. Also, I get to say NO to things I do not want to do.
The interaction with other photographers too: whenever I am out and see another person taking pictures, I always stop and talk to them for a few minutes. Even just casually chatting to members of the public is inspiring, as they often end up buying the prints they see me take of the location at which we met.
The biggest pro though is in not having to introduce myself as Picture Editor of The Times any more. As much as the job gave me and has continued to give, being freed from that label has been liberating.
The cons: not knowing if you are going to earn any money next month, or spending more hours driving than taking photographs. And, of course, finding out that someone else has shot the same location as I have just done and produced a better image.
LPM: Having revealed some very distressful times and powerful emotions in my earlier questions, to what degree are your own emotions reflected in your images now?
PS: Totally: I immerse myself completely in the landscape the moment I take pictures. I find it hard to stand chatting with people once actually taking pictures. Although I enjoy the company of other photographers and like working alongside them, when I shoot I literally disappear inside myself to the point where I am unaware of anything else around me. I have to feel the landscape to get anything out of it; it is all about the emotional reaction I have when I am in the landscape and the effect the elements have on me too.
LPM: Time to talk about equipment. What are the reasons for choosing the gear you currently use?
PS: I have two Canon 5D Mk III cameras, a Zeiss 15mm lens, a Canon 21mm, a Canon 24mm TS-E, a Canon 50mm, a Canon 100mm macro and a Canon 70-200mm. I want to start shooting landscapes on a 400mm lens or longer, just to see what happens. I have a couple of tripods and various filters. All of this I chose because it works. I switched to Canon from Nikon in 1994 after an accident left the tendons of my left wrist severed. It could have been the end of my career as a newspaper photographer at the time, but Canon had just launched their autofocus EOS range so I switched and never looked back. I was determined not to like the Canon 5D Mk III but, after writing a review for a rival publication, I switched the very day. It is a beautiful camera and perfect for what I need; although, if Canon were to put in shutter speeds of up to 5 minutes, it would make life easier. The Zeiss lenses are so sharp and crisp; they leave everything else way behind, although it seems odd even to me that, sometimes, I then cover them in Japanese paper to get a particular effect.
LPM: Moving on to your own images now. Like almost every photographer, you must have a favourite image. Can you reveal what is your favourite image and the story behind it?
PS: This changes depending on my mood, but I do like the poppy fields at Bewdley. I had been searching for a poppy field like that for ages when a friend tipped me off about it. Somehow it all came together for me on day 2 of the shoot. I just stood there listening to all the walkers who came upon the scene uttering words like wow or beautiful; the scene made me hold my breath because it was beyond beautiful. I loved the way the clouds seem to fan across the image almost looking unreal and the little pools of sunlight. I used the Canon 5D Mk III and Zeiss 21mm f/2.8 lens with a polarising filter, plus a 0.6 Lee grad to bring the sky down a bit. It is not perfect in anyway, there is a glaring error in it but I can reshoot it later this year. No, I am not going to tell you what it is that distresses me about the picture.
LPM: What post-processing do your images undergo? Can you give us some details of your basic workflow?
PS: I shoot RAW and expose to the right, almost to the point of overexposure, then pull the exposure back in Aperture. I try very hard to get what I want in camera as I hate the use of Photoshop to add or remove details. Usually I do a high pass sharpening or, on occasion, reduce the clarity. If I want a certain effect I try to make a filter to reflect that. I shoot through stockings of various deniers, scratched glass, my Big Stopper and Japanese paper too. I convert my black and white in Silver Efex Pro; what a wonderful piece of software, which is as close to hand printing as I can get.
LPM: Have you gone through any formal training or are you self-taught?
PS: Yes, a little O and A level photography plus City and Guilds. But after that I have been brave enough to ask questions of the photographers I admire and make lots of mistakes.
LPM: Here is a question I’m sure you will enjoy. Is your love for photography a passion or an obsession?
PS: I am passionately obsessed.
LPM: Very good answer, not what I expected I must admit. Moving on to location philosophy next. When looking out for an image in the field, do you have a certain procedure for finding the subject. Can you share this with us?
PS: I walk, I listen, I read maps, check weather, tides, and then I use The Photographer’s Ephemeris to try to second guess the light. I think Joe Cornish has the perfect light in his pocket though. After that it comes down to my reaction as I stand there, usually with my eyes closed, just listening; I love to hear the wind in the trees or grasses, the roar of the waves; it is a sensory thing. I know it sounds a bit pretentious, but it works for me.
LPM: Talking of locations, do you have a favourite location and, if so, why is it your favourite?
PS: I love Dungeness, but have yet to get an image from there that reflects how it makes me feel; it is so dilapidated and barren and yet so beautiful. It is on my doorstep and such a challenge for me.
LPM: Tell me, Paul, if you could turn back time, what advice would you give to a younger Paul about landscape photography?
PS: Do not compromise on your goals; it will cost you everything but it will be worth it in the end.
LPM: If you had to choose a different genre to landscape photography, what would it be?
PS: Dance photography. I love the sense of movement and purity of line that gifted dancers can produce; look at the work of James Rowbotham and Lois Greenwood, their work is inspirational.
LPM: How do you see your photographic future?
PS: Hopefully it will be good. I have faith and believe that, although I lack confidence, I can get to where I want to be in a few years; I have done it before so I can do it again.
LPM: Finally, what advice would you give to our readers?
PS: Take your shoes off when you shoot; that way you can really connect with the landscape; and, just occasionally, take with you only one lens, the one you rarely use; it will challenge you beyond all belief but will make you a better photographer.
Read this article, and many more, in High Definition, inside Issue 25 of Landscape Photography Magazine.
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