Winning first, second, and third place respectively in categories including Professional Aerial Photography and Professional Nature Category in the 2014 International Photography Awards, and shortlisted in the Landscape category for this year’s Sony World Photography Awards, Simon Butterworth is a force in the world of photography who really needs no introduction.
With projects including a lengthy study of his childhood home in ‘Searching for Yorkshire’ and an exploration of the human cost behind Shanghai’s rapid modernisation and development in ‘Domicide Shanghai’, there seems to be no landscape too big, small, desolate or distant to escape Butterworth’s discerning eye; we got in contact to find out a little bit more about the man behind the lens.
B: When did you first pick up a camera, and what initially inspired you to become a landscape photographer?
SB: A love of the great outdoors is in my blood. My father and grandfather were both keen outdoorsmen. From an early age I was taken on long hikes in the English countryside, particularly the Peak District and Lake District. I admit that sometimes my participation was reluctant, but nevertheless I absorbed the atmosphere and grew to love the mental and physical freedom a day in the hills gives.
As an adult much of my holiday times became devoted to exploring the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. It was a dream come true when I relocated north of the border fifteen years ago. I now had the opportunity to visit the most remote parts of Britain at all times of the year...this was the catalyst for buying my first camera. It wasn't long before the focus of my trips into the wilderness was to take photographs rather than climb as many mountains as possible. At first I was satisfied with gathering images of majestic Highland scenes in glorious light, but my ambitions soon became more sophisticated. I discovered the camera was the perfect tool to pose important questions about how we live and what we do to the planet we live on. Since then, much of my time behind the camera has been spent looking at social and environmental issues as well as capturing the beauty of the natural world.
B: Your projects have taken you to various stunning locations all over the world; is there anywhere you have particularly enjoyed photographing?
SB: I am particularly fired up by Hong Kong at the moment. Hong Kong is the city of the future - but happening now! It's a place of huge contrast, high density living at its most extreme with a backdrop of jungle clad mountains and island studded seas, a mind blowing visual mix. It's also nice to work there, you can get around easily and it's safe. I like to work alone, so personal safety is a big issue. To absorb a location and get under its skin you need time to stand and stare without constantly looking over your shoulder. Also, I can work in short trousers - don't underestimate how utterly wonderful that feels after enduring a Scottish winter!
B: It has recently been postulated that “photography is the most essential task of art in the current time”; please comment on this idea, and how you feel about it in relation to your own work.
SB: As a photographer whose work contains a large element of social documentary I agree completely. The world around us needs recording, not just big physical things but also the small things, things that are important to individuals. Photographers train themselves to observe the world in a special way, searching for motivations and drivers that can ultimately shape society. These things aren't always apparent or easy to see at the time but with hindsight become vital to our understanding of who and what we are.
B: Please give us a little insight into the general process of choosing a location to photograph, and how you go about deciding what projects to undertake.
SB: The decision to commit to a photo project is a big one. The kind of questions I ask myself before embarking on something which could quite literally occupy me for years are...
Has this idea been covered by someone else?
Can I afford the necessary equipment?
Do I have the resources to get the shots I need?
Does it interest me sufficiently to spend the time necessary to complete it?
Is the end result going to be interesting to other people?
Is pursuing this idea going to end in divorce from my partner Lauren?
Am I going to be able to negotiate access for the shots I need?
Is it going to entail risking death or serious injury?
Ideally a project can be slotted into everyday life, as with the Yorkshire series. This was a double plus for me, it not only provided the motivation to visit my family, it gave me good outdoor exercise when I got there!
B: Have you got any projects in the works at the moment? Is there anywhere in particular you have yet to photograph that you feel would make for particularly interesting/compelling subject matter?
SB: It's important for my motivation that I have several projects on the go at any one time. At least one of these must be local to where I live and be something that I can pursue in free moments at home, ideally it should also provide some serious exercise (I hate going to the gym but like to keep reasonably fit) - as with the Full Circle project, I walked many, many miles looking for circular sheep folds!
This time next week I will be in Hong Kong following some ideas I've been working on for shooting various aspects of high rise, high density living. I can't wait to get my short trousers on after the wettest 'summer' of all time in Scotland! Later in the year I want to revisit India to follow up on a trip I did eighteen months ago. India really got under my skin in a big way, sensory overload hardly describes the assault on your mind and body that this amazing country provides 24/7.
All images © Simon Butterworth