Jason Edwards, National Geographic photographer

Photographer Jason Edwards on assignment in Greenland. © Jason Edwards National Geographic.
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"Being compassionate and patient is incredibly important when trying to tell the story of people who are suffering. It’s not about you it’s about them." For National Geographic photographer Jason Edwards, photography is a way of life. He talks to Derek Schlennstedt.

When did the passion for photography start?

I was about 15. I woke up suddenly one morning and just went, ‘wow, I want to make images for a living’. Two months later my grandmother went off to Hong Kong for a holiday. I had $250 in the bank which I gave to her and she came back with a 35mm film camera, 50mm lens and a flash for my birthday. At Melbourne High School we had year books and it was there where I began shooting my friends in swimming, athletics, football and all sorts of competitions. That very first year I got my pictures published in the annual Yearbook. It was great and from there on in I was addicted.

You eventually became a keeper at Melbourne Zoo. How did that help your photography?

I started shooting for myself at the Zoo and would have been 18 or 19 when a science journal contacted me and asked if I had shots of this animal or that animal and they were my first wildlife pictures that I got published. I started shooting more and more and began supplying pictures for the zoo guidebooks and different publications. All the money I earned from my time at the zoo funded my equipment, my film, my developing and my travel. I didn’t have a day off for 10 years! Every smoko, every lunch, every night and every morning I spent working towards the photographic career. It was an addiction and because there was no digital, you had to shoot and develop to see how you were going.

Do you think technology has allowed people to become lazy with their photography?

Completely! As much as technology is marvellous and wonderful and we all love it, people don’t know why their photos are turning out the way they are, they don’t know what an F-stop is or how it’s affecting the depth of field. Once you would be given 200 rolls of film, a couple of 100 AA batteries and that was your quota. Now it’s unlimited and so people just shoot away and they’re not learning anything. They’re not looking at what should be in the frame and what shouldn’t, they’re thinking I can clone it out or crop it in post edit.

When you’re photographing anything controversial such as sick people, how do you deal with those people who say you’re exploiting individuals?

Being compassionate and patient is incredibly important when trying to tell the story of people who are suffering. It’s not about you, it’s about them. Unfortunately the world isn’t a completely happy place. I’m not there to make the news, I’m there to document it, so if we don’t highlight the fact that these terrible things are happening in the world then no one knows about it and that problem gets worse. It only gets better if people and NGO’s find out about it.

How do you know when a shoot has finished or when you have the perfect shot?

Never! It’s the insanity of it, I’ve never had closure, I’ve never been good with closure and that’s simply part of it. Every shot is going to be better than the last.

What advice do you give to aspiring photographers?

I love mentoring people and teaching people. And what I’m interested in is teaching people how to see the world differently through their photography. If I go on a hike, I’ll see shots left right and centre. Even if it’s just a 2km walk through a forest, I’ll do a story about that 2km walk. People would walk past all of this stuff, whereas to me everything in that walk leaps out. For example, if you find a leaf, the leaf’s shining, so you take a biological shot. But then maybe something is reflecting in the sheen or if you get really close perhaps it’s got cilia (little hairs) on the leaf so can you make something of that. Can you take an f16 shot where there’s lots of hair on the leaf or can you take an f2.8 shot where you’re only showing one of the hairs? Then, do you flick the leaf over and is there something hanging underneath? Do that and then scratch around in the dirt and there’s a worm that lives under the leaf and suddenly you have that microhabitat living under the leaf. You might be with an Indigenous person who says, ‘we chew on that leaf as it stops us from getting dysentery,’ so they start chewing on the leaf and you’re shooting them chewing on the leaf. Then you put the leaf into context. Is it a vine that’s attached to a 150 foot tree? Then you start examining and dissecting the tree and all of a sudden you’ve got this whole story about this tree that keeps an Indian people alive. You need to dissect the story; sometimes the least obvious or most boring elements tell the better story once you flip them over.

You can view some of Jason’s work on his Facebook here.