Interview with Michael Hughes
With the democratization of photography, there is a surplus of near identical images of popular tourist destinations. These photographs are akin to the mass-produced souvenirs sold at tourist destinations. Both have become overused cliches. Berlin based photographer Michael Hughes decided to make a composite photograph of the tourist destination and its imitation souvenir. The two cliches come together to create an entirely new and refreshing image.
Hughes project Souvenirs went viral on the internet. Ten years on he still gets an average of a thousand hits per day. We speak to Hughes about his journey that started as a photographer in the seventies to trending on the internet. Hughes shares his thoughts on the past, present and future of photography.
Your description of your childhood (we read on your website) seems angry, would you like to share something about that?
I only got angry when my parents decided to send me to a boarding school. Until the age of ten I was perfectly happy. The experience that even figures of authority which you trust and love can act not in your best interest was a lesson which was hammered home in the authoritarian environment of the school. Since then I have never trusted authority or people in positions of power. It has stood me in good stead because I had to learn to decide for myself and to stick to what I believed in. I consider myself to be an anarchist politically.
How did these early experiences lead to photography?
None of this lead to photography directly. I was quite talented in drawing and writing so the telling a story drive fitted well with photography. I am always interested in people although through my early experiences at school I was very scared of approaching people. It has taken years to reach my present state of being able to approach and talk to practically anyone. Hard work but rewarding for my soul. My father leant me his Praktika SLR for a holiday I went on and it was being able to see what I could get which turned me on to it.
You were associated with the Half Moon Collective and Cameraworks in the 70’s, it sounds like an exciting time, what was it like?
The Half Moon was funded by the Arts Council of Great Britain and consisted of an exhibition space, dark rooms and the magazine Camerawork. I had begun photographing with an artistic leaning but was growing frustrated with the obfuscation which seemed to go hand in hand with that praxis. I particularly loath to this day the combination of organic forms in landscape with the female nude. Camerawork was more in line with my analytical side and I wanted to be able to combine it with aesthetics. The discovery of Karl Marx and all the attendant literature; Saussure, Barthes, post structuralism and semiotics – this was just ten years after may 1968 – was heady stuff and indulged my interest in the text. The Camerawork Collective was a heterogenous group of young fired-up lefties and, in particular, feminists who came together exploring new ways to deal with the politics of representation. One of the aims was to help people take control of their own image by helping them document themselves. Now this has been largely made redundant by the advent of smart phones with cameras! It was very stimulating and we felt ourselves to be the cutting edge!
What was FDGO? How did political art impact you as a photographer?
The FDGO was a very different kettle of fish. Born out of the squatters movement in Berlin in the late seventies it was a media collective which tried to follow the situationist model of street theatre and thought of itself as “fun guerrillas”. It helped me earn my living in Berlin at the beginning.
Pretty soon in Berlin I started working for local magazines and customers doing journalistic and reportage photography. I was able to extend this and worked for many leading magazines and newspapers in Germany and beyond which got me travelling extensively.
How did you start work on Souvenirs?
I started Souvenirs by accident although the picture in picture idea had been flitting around my head for some years. It was an expedient basically. I was on a job for a Finnish daily at the Loreley cliffs on the Rhine. It was November and the light was bad and the colours really dull. This, when you are basically photographing a hole in the ground, is not ideal. But I suddenly recognised the place where I was standing although I had never been there before. Eventually I remembered the postcard I had in my pocket to send to my daughter, then five years old and heavily into princesses. The picture was of Miss Loreley in a princess outfit which had been photographed precisely where I was standing, above the river.
This was the answer to my problem and the beginning of Souvenirs. A few weeks later I was in New York and my job helped me to visit many countries and build up the collection.
Tell us about the discovery of Souvenirs. How it become a rage on the internet?
Souvenirs went viral about a two years after I had started using Flickr – so about seven years after I had begun it. I was fairly unusual amongst my professional photographer colleagues. The looked down at people who showed their photos for nothing and thought that it would put them out of business. As it happened they were right, but it was obvious early on in the digital revolution in photography that a new business model was needed, unfortunately none has been found which allowed the privileged and luxurious lifestyle analogue photography had made possible to date. I could feel the market changing but did not know where it was going. It was pretty obvious that the Internet was not going away so I started looking around for ways of getting my stuff out there. In fact Flickr started in 2004 and I joined and went Pro in May 2005 so I was early.
I got some reactions early on in Flickr but a combination of factors led to Souvenirs going viral: publication in a big magazine and being added to a big group on Flickr.
Sometime in September 2007, I was sitting at my computer and checked my Flickr account when I saw that the numbers had made a huge leap so I started refreshing the page every few minutes and it just kept growing!
At the highest point of this initial rush, I got almost a half a million hits in one day!
Once you work is out there, do you find unexpected reception, perspectives or reactions to your work? Have you ever felt particularly amused or annoyed by certain reactions?
The nicest thing about it was how supportive and friendly everyone was who commented on the series. It underscored another important aspect of Flickr; the contact to an audience. I was used to producing in isolation, people who commissioned me only contact you if they are unhappy with the work (seldom, seldom!), on Flickr people comment very positively.
Your work is a very interesting example of dissemination of art on the internet. As an artist, how important do you think it is to make accessible work and chose mediums and platforms that are democratic? Were you making a conscious choice?
As to the dissemination of art: let’s not kid ourselves, people who want to make an effort to enjoy art are few and far between. Souvenirs has the advantage of working at many levels. It is a photographic meme using forced perspective and replacement, often described as an optical illusion online. So for many viewers it is just a game, a trick which they enjoy easily and this is which makes it so popular. The other aspects, the irony, historicity and post modernism are hardly ever seen, if at all. There is a perception that there is something else going on but – have had no comments on that. It is a democratic praxis but the only people to actually use it have been the advertisers! Nikon, Sony, Mattel, all these and more have used the idea of combining the real world with the sign or the producer of the sign in extensive advertising campaigns. Unfortunately, none of them sought to recompense me for the idea! Apart from that there are a few websites which have concentrated on the historical aspect of the idea who do reference me. So it’s nice to know that the idea has grown legs and has a life of its own.
The world of photography is expanding with new technology and platforms to disseminate, what do you think is going to make an important image? Do you have any thoughts on the future of photography?
The market for photography has changed so much since everybody has a phone/camera. I have no idea where it is going. I imagine that video will eventually replace the still image, but there is always room for a good idea which is why I am still pretty confident and still in business. I think it is a misuse of the word democracy to apply it to everyone having a camera or to social developments. Populist is a better word and does not contaminate the political meanings of demos. In that sense, then, the victory march of pictures of happy people in immaculate environments, the selfies with duck-face or tongues out, the people in front of the Mona Lisa with their smartphones out, are examples of non-critical image-making, a kind of souvenir, a way of fixing oneself in the world which have more to do with the self and the social than with art – the society of the spectacle has come home, the commodification of the world and the reproduction of commodities in pictures and the pictures of the self – because the self in social media has also become a commodity, have become the single source of pictures. Anything outside of that is only really interesting when it can be modified to make something else interesting to sell. Despite being an artist I still have to sell to live, and this is what I am working on:
What are you currently working on?
Getting my Black and White images of Berlin and the fall of the Berlin Wall into museums.
Book on Souvenirs.
Book two Black and White work.
Teams photographing entire organisations and hanging the results on huge posters.
Combining photos made 25 or more years ago with present day photos often using the same lens.
All images (c) Michael Hughes
- Stay up to date with Hughe’s travels, follow him on Flickr, where he generously shares his work: www.flickr.com/photos/michael_hughes
- Read About Hughe’s photo-making experience in India here: www.michaelhughes wordpress.com/2010/09/22/the-making-of-the-gateway-of-india/sporttherapie-berlin/