Born in Johannesburg, South Africa in 1965, Giles Penfound moved to the UK in 1974 with his family. He joined the British army at the age of 20 as an infantry soldier in the Royal Green Jackets. Once he left the infantry, he spent the rest his army career as a professional photographer working the majority of his time as a combat photographer. His last significant post was as a Warrant Officer (WO2) Chief Press Photographer in charge of all combat photographers in Iraq. After 22 years in the army, he left and set up his own commercial business shooting everything from weddings to major corporate annual PR campaigns. Giles semi-retired in 2014 and set up a new business, Pictures On A Page Ltd., in 2015 to produce his own magazine, conduct photo training courses and shoot his own family. Here, Giles presents images from a trip to India that fulfilled a life-long dream and what he purports to be his last documentary.
Q: What camera equipment do you generally use for your work?
A: I now shoot exclusively with Leica M cameras. The majority of my work is shoot on film with the M6 and M2 and occasionally I use the wonderful digital M8. I have a range of lenses from 15 mm to 135 mm though to be honest the majority of my images are made with either the 50 mm or 35 mm. I still work with digital but prefer the hybrid method of shooting with film (Ilford), scanning, and then printing onto inkjet, (Epson printer and Hahnemuhle baryta paper).
Q: How would you describe your photography?
A: With the exception my wife and two daughters, the most important part of my life is my photography. It is so much a part of who and what I am that without it I’d truly be lost. It’s a way for me to rationalize the world in which I live and to provide the most perfect way which to comment on what I see and experience. It’s part of me, a necessity, and I’d be pretty useless being anything other than a photographer.
Q: Can you provide some background information on these images?
“The People @ Jodhpur Junction” is part of a larger body of work I made last year in India. This particular story is really about my fascination and delight in meeting complete strangers from a country I had longed to visit. From the outset I shed all notions of the concerned white, middle class, western truth sayer, and approached my subjects with an honest and open desire to simply make contact with them and, in doing so, record the experience.
These images are a document of me as a tourist — one who delights in visiting places for enjoyment, and is not concerned with falsely imposed notions of monetary or social standing in those I met. The wonderful bonus for me was being photographed in return by some of my subjects. I had become the curiosity.
Q: What approach do you take with your photography or what does photography mean to you?
A: My approach is to make the best image I possibly can in order to tell the story that needs to be told. I believe that in order to make good images you need to make an emotional connection with what you are shooting. It’s not about becoming part of the story, but more about being very honest with how I as the photographer react to what is in front of me and how I represent it. My images have always been about this emotional dance between the subject, the camera and me—without either there is no picture or story, only a photographic reproduction.
I no longer make or would want to make conflict images and find greater solace and fulfillment in documenting the lives of my own family. Photography for me now is a way of recording my family and our time together. It’s no longer about making a comment on other people; it’s about providing a legacy to future generations, reaching out to my children and their grandchildren. The images, books and prints that I now make have a much greater value and importance to me than any of the negative conflict work that so defined my previous life. I spent far too long recording the worst of what man can do to his fellow man, realizing that nothing I did or produced made any real appreciable difference. I can, however, do something positive now by teaching others what I know and make images that make my heart sing.
Q: How do you think your Jodhpur Junction images fit into your overall work, and do you plan on shooting such inspired “tourist snaps” going forward?
A: Jodhpur Junction is for me the final chapter of the story of the photographer I used to be. It’s the last time I’ll do this type of documentary work, for want of a better description. It allows me to walk away from who I used to be and the work I used to make without any sense of guilt or sadness. The greater challenge for me personally is to find a way of working that doesn’t make me question my motives at the creation of every frame. I am happy to walk away from my past knowing that this is some of the best work I’ve done and the new chapter is filled with promise and hope of much more different and positive work, work that you would be happy to hang on the walls of your home and show your children.
Q: How would you characterize the images in this portfolio?
A: The images are a fulfillment of a long-held ambition to visit India and make a railway journey across the country. While they are documentary in style, they really tell my story and experiences during this remarkable trip. They are unashamedly my tourist snaps and more importantly they mark the end of one part of my photographic life and a start of a new part.
After spending all my working life making images and stories of other people, either in very traumatic situations or as a documentarian, I find that I’m just so tired of doing work that really makes no real difference at all, to either the subjects or myself. It was time to move on and create work that will stand a far better chance of being considered either important or meaningful. These images represent the transition from me looking outward to now looking inward.
Q: Why do you find the black-and-white medium so compelling and particularly suited the kind of work you do? What films do you favor, and do you develop and scan them yourself? Incidentally, do you ever shoot color film or print out color images shot with your M8?
A: I started on film so it’s in my blood, for want of a better expression. It just suits the type of work I now produce and lends itself to a much slower pace of life, which is of great importance to me. I like the fact that you can’t see the image immediately after firing the shutter; it’s part of the process that makes me really think about the subject, framing, composition and finally the moment to release the shutter. It’s part of a philosophy I try and hold onto — just make one frame if possible, a frame that really counts. It gives me a slower pace of life. I love the act of processing the film and waiting for that exquisite moment when you first open the developing tank, hold your breath, and check the density on the first frame. Yes, I know I’ve made a good exposure, but until I see the negative image nothing is certain. Scanning then taking time to spot the new digital/ film hybrid image while listening to a piece of music is like a meditation on the story of the image/images. It’s about taking time to consider what I have done and what I will do. I also love the imperfect nature of the results it gives me. The images I make are not reality, but impressions and interpretations, and the film finish is just perfect for that.
I have my own processing room in my office and work on as much of the process as I can from making the image to processing scanning, editing, and printing; it’s all part of the creative process. I have always used Ilford films, in the past it was mostly XP2 Super but now its either FP4 Plus or HP5 Plus. I don’t often make color images, but when I do it’s on the M8.
Q: I love the image that shows an ordinary urban street scene that includes the striking juxtaposition of a dignified chap astride an elaborately caparisoned horse. What do you think this image says about your experience in India generally and Jodhpur in particular, and what were you thinking when you pressed the shutter release? Please also give us the tech data including camera, film lens, exposure etc.
A: The image was made on my Leica M6 with a 35 mm f/1.4 Summilux lens using Ilford HP5 Plus film. I don’t recall the exact details, but I would guess it’s probably about 1/60 or 1/125 sec. based on looking at the horse’s hooves and scooter and probably at around f/8 given the depth of field. This image for me immediately summed up my anticipation and experience of India in Jodhpur. It’s combination of modern and traditional, noise and tranquility, and a myriad of contradictions. Also I just liked it for the contrast of the two forms of transport so evident in Jodhpur, motor and animal.
Q: This is a splendid close-up portrait of three men and it really says something definitive yet enigmatic about their individual personalities and their relationship to one another. The overall feeling is friendly rather than confrontational. Who are these guys and how did you get them to reveal themselves in such a natural and authentic way?
A: This is another image I just love because it’s all about communication and engagement with the subject. These men are porters for the trains and wait in between arrivals and departures talking to each other. They were so welcoming and happy to speak with me and I spent about 20 minutes sitting on the floor of the platform with them trying to make myself understood. They showed me their trade badges, which each one carries with great pride, and I had the feeling that they considered themselves important to the running of the station and to the passengers. I made this image on the M8 and was able to show them what I had done, one of the great benefits of digital, a real icebreaker and a good way of calming concerns. They were just lovely chaps who jumped up and disappeared to work as soon as the next train came into the station.
Q: This is truly splendid and iconic portrait of a woman wearing an ornate head covering looking directly at the camera, apparently through the barred window of a railway car. Her glance and serene expression are riveting and she seems to exude spirituality and emotional depth. Ironically the bars going horizontally across her face make the image even more compelling than it would have been otherwise. Did you get to talk to this person, and can you tell us anything about who or what she is? Also, since the technical quality of this image is superb, please provide the tech data including camera, lens, film and exposure.
A: I shot it with the Leica M8 with a 50 mm lens at f/2.8 add at ISO 320. This is why the M8 is just so brilliant! I first saw her when I made another image with the sun streaming over the top of the carriage. After that frame I made eye contact with her and gestured to my camera indicating/asking if I could make a picture. She smiled and didn’t say or gesture no so I moved in close and made just two frames, this being the second. I have no idea of who she is or was, or where she was going but was just left with the feeling of quiet serenity. I thanked her by placing my hands together in a prayer-like gesture and then moved on, shortly after the train departed.
Q: Do you think you accomplished what you set out to do in creating “The People @ Jodhpur Junction” portfolio, and in general how has it been received? Do you plan to exhibit these images in galleries, publish them in the form of a print or online book, or perhaps offer them as fine art prints?
A: Jodhpur Junction and the remainder of the work I made in India couldn’t have been better and, like India itself, it exceeded all my wants and expectations. I will make a book of the story and would like to exhibit it, though I haven’t considered this fully yet. I’m happy to sell the work as prints and will send a selection to the people I stayed with in India; who knows, maybe I can get the work exhibited there. The real importance of the work is the production and what it brought me personally.
Q: How do you see your photography evolving over, say, the next three years of so, and do you plan to explore any other genres such as portraiture, architectural photography, landscapes etc. going forward, or experimenting with other media such as color prints or video?
A: The next three years I believe will mark a major turning point for me in my work. In terms of overtly photographing people, I really only want to document my immediate and extended family. The real challenge for me lies in finding a way to make images that fulfill my need, desire and passion for photography while being free of the need to seek permission to make a frame, that permission being real or inferred. I have a feeling that I will make images exactly the same way as before with my Leica cameras, just of different subjects. For 25 years I’ve been making images of and about people and I’d like to find something different to say about the world I live in. The notion of documenting the everyday ordinariness and banality of the commonplace is very exciting. I have always only really been able to see and think in still images, my video work is as bad as my still images are good and color in general holds no real attraction for me. I have yet to fully discover the true possibilities of B&W. If you want to get an fuller idea of how I see my previous work please have a look at a new documentary film of my work made by Neale James of Breather Pictures.
Thank you for your time, Giles!
– Jason Schneider
Leica Internet Team