Matt Mawson is an international photographer, working between London, Phoenix Arizona and México City. He started photography assisting high end London fashion and still life photographers, before moving into documentary and reportage photography. He’s contributed to a number of European press agencies, covering many of the world’s conflicts in Asia, Africa and Eastern Europe.
There’s a wonderful sense of movement and energy in your photos, what’s your secret in taking such photos?
Working in fast moving and potentially dangerous situations you soon develop a quick eye for placing the subject in an interesting composition as you can have only seconds to figure out your course of action before danger goes from being a potential to imminent threat. Obviously chance and serendipity comes into it, and the occasional unexpected object appearing in front of the lens can add depth to an otherwise mediocre picture. So when working on a purely commercial assignment I unconsciously employ those techniques. I am always positively surprised at the results. Having a love of cinematography and a head full of cinema imagery also helps.
How did you get started as a photographer? And have you got any advice for those starting out?
As a kid at boarding school in Central Africa, I was the founder and only member of the photographic club because it gave me permission to leave the strict school bounds and have fun in the country taking pictures. It developed from there and once I arrived back in London, the world of photography opened. I always had a desire to return to Africa and document human rights and social issues. Luckily my images were picked up by some picture news agencies and my horizons consequently expanded. My living partner, who is also my agent, has a background in marketing and she saw to the rest and moved me out of reportage to commercial ad and design work at a time when design agencies were producing innovative work.
I am not one for handing out advice to photographers but this is how I see it. Make your work personal, different from the next photographer. Otherwise pursue a different career. Don’t work for free. They are only trying to exploit you. Unless it is for a charitable organisation who does work you believe in. Photography is a voyeuristic medium, you are always on the outside looking in. Try to develop the ability to see the world around you differently. It comes in time. But you tread a lonely path getting there. However, today, with mobile phone technology, everyone is a photographer
Your work in London, México and Arizona. What takes you to these places? What advice have you got for travelling and working on location as a photographer?
I have clients and a base in all three places, less so in London now. I spend most of my time working in México and the USA from my base in here in México. This country has such a creative buzz going on in film, photography, the arts and dance that it is hard not to be inspired by it. Again I cannot offer advice except describe my methods. I insure the hell out of my equipment and myself. I was actually relieved of my camera by armed youths in Mexico a couple of months back and Williamson Carson sorted me out promptly as they did when a similar thing happened in Malaysia a few years ago. I backup my day’s work on four different hard drives. I exchange camera SD cards frequently during the day just in case someone steals your camera off you. I take three cameras: one for taking pictures, one I keep at the lodgings and the other I use to shoot video. I do not sleep and eat much and use every opportunity to take pictures as you may never find yourself back there again. Most importantly, smile a lot, be polite and respect the people and the customs of the country you are in.
We love your images of México! How do you meet the people you shoot? Are they friends? Or do you approach them as you go?
People who have the same interests tend to gravitate together going to the same places to eat, drink and be seen. And now, as friends, we combine projects in experimental film, drama and photography helping each other and swapping our creative ideas. Many of our friends have come through the internationally known dance school here in the city and bring with them their individual unique Mexican way of seeing the world: happy to be seen and act in front of the camera and, of course, willing to follow your ideas however strange.
Occasionally I meet someone in my daily life and that leads to an interesting project. A few instances: our butcher here invited me out to his ranch; while driving in the country I encountered a farmer ploughing with a horse and we got into conversation; I got drawn into a travelling circus in a dusty village; I became friends with a nature photographer and conservationist who does work in the sometimes dangerous cartel inhabited sierras. Projects developed and are developing from those encounters. México is a country of friendly people who more often than not welcome you into their lives.
In the ever changing world of photography and during a pandemic, what do you find is the most effective way of marketing yourself?
Marketing I presume, is all about getting your work out there and obviously during this pandemic the internet is the path to it. I upload almost daily to Instagram and from it gauge reaction to my images from followers. From there I move to my main image showcase to Behance: a platform for professionals in the global creative world. It is through BeHance that most of my interactions with creatives around the world take place. I use WhatsApp to stay in contact through messages and video chats and occasionally receive clients’ briefs. Google for video conferences. I make 10 second and three minute marketing videos for Instagram. I do not use Facebook and have not got into Tiktok yet. Occasionally I’ll use Zoom and I am thinking of moving from WhatsApp to Signal as WhatsApp begins to mine, share and profit from your personal information more widely.
How do you stay inspired as a photographer?
Simply being curious about the world around me and interacting with creative people. I am greatly inspired by Japanese photography past and present and most everyday I swipe through the microblogging site tumblr.com for added inspiration and ideas. Anything goes on that site.
Tell us about some stand out projects? How did that come about?
It is the season of chilli picking in Sinaloa state México, where I am at the moment, and women and their children come from all over to pick the crop. They are accompanied by their children. They labour in the field alongside their mothers under the strong sun and live harsh lives in itinerant worker camps with no chance of a formal education. All part of the life of one of the most important ingredients in Mexican cookery. This one came about by simply stopping roadside and asking to be directed to the jefe or boss.
When the opportunity arises I spend time down by the railway tracks photographing José Mario, a man who lives under a railway bridge near the fishing harbour. I met him and his itinerant friends on one of my early morning bicycle rides around interesting parts of the city that I like to explore. I find it interesting to know how he survives by living in his present conditions. I imagine he has developed a cast iron immune system and he has friends in the same situation along the track who tend to pool their meagre resources. I give him unused clothes, antiseptic cream and coffee and he gives me access to his life. Drink and drugs seem to smooth out the kinks in their lifestyles.
My friends from the dance academy are a very inspirational source of experimental film and photography. They are very photogenic in their youth and energy and willing to go places that are a delight for any photographer or filmmaker. We get together often and make surreal short films and photos. I am also working with a client and friend entrepreneur from New York City who developed a tequila brand that is constantly in the top ten in the USA. That means trips to blue agave tequila country around the town of Tequila in Jalisco state. A beautiful relaxed cobbled street town languishing under an overlying smell of tequila distilling. The pandemic, however, has caused disruption.
What’s next for you?
Hopefully I will be able to safely return to London via Phoenix Arizona when the frontier to the USA opens and vaccinations for the virus become available. An assignment filming and photographing young tree planters in the north of Canada has been postponed but a desert trip in Namibia and a project in Zimbabwe is in the works after which I return to México.
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