Sean Gallagher Podcast Episode 18

Storytelling That Changes Lives - Sean Gallagher on Photojournalism

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Sean Gallagher

In Episode 18, Joe interviews Sean Gallagher, an independent photographer and filmmaker based in China. A fellow of the Royal Geographic Society with a passion for environmental issues, Sean is a multi-award-winning photojournalist whose work has appeared in National Geographic and on CNN. 

After studying zoology, Sean stumbled upon photography by discovering an old family camera. His growing passion led him to teach himself how to develop his own prints and inspired him to seek out an internship at Magnum Photos. His time there fuelled his interest in photojournalism and gave him the opportunity to learn from some of the best in the field.

Sean tells us how he came to live in China, driven by a fascination sparked by his father’s stories of the country. He shares the challenges and rewards of building a career telling stories through images. Discover how he builds key relationships with both local communities and potential buyers. This isn’t just a job for Sean – we get a real sense of passion for the stories he tells and a deep belief in the difference photojournalism can make to international issues.

Joe and Sean delve into the ethics of photojournalism, the role of awards, and the impact of storytelling through visuals. Sean offers insights into the technical and emotional aspects of his work, emphasizing the importance of being in the moment and the power of photography to cast light on global issues such as the climate crisis.

Whether you’re an aspiring photojournalist or simply interested in what goes into creating compelling storytelling images, Sean’s story is educational and inspiring.

Examples of Sean’s work:

All images © Sean Gallagher (Used here with permission)

To see more of Sean’s work, please visit his website: You can also follow him on Instagram.

For photography tips check out his educational YouTube channel, where you can also find his podcast “The Camera Doesn’t Matter,” featuring interviews with other photojournalists.

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Transcript of Sean Gallagher Interview

Joe Lenton: Welcome to the Focused Professional podcast. Today, we’ve got a guest from China. This is Sean Gallagher. He is an independent photographer and film-maker. He has spoken at universities around the world, won many awards for his images and films. He’s a keen cyclist. He cares deeply about environmental issues. He’s a Fellow of the Royal Geographic Society, and his work is featured among many other places in National Geographic and CNN. Welcome. Sean!

Sean Gallagher: Hi, Joe, thank you for having me.

Joe Lenton: It’s a pleasure. Thank you very much for coming on the podcast to talk to us today.

Sean Gallagher: No, I’m really excited to speak to you, and hopefully share some things that will be of interest to your audience as well.

Joe Lenton: Fantastic. Thank you. So I read that you started out as a scientist. Does that mean that photography came later? Or is that something that’s always been a passion alongside your scientific work earlier on?

Sean Gallagher: Well, I trained as a scientist. I studied zoology at university in the UK. I graduated in 2002, and at that point I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with my career. I knew that I was interested in the sciences. I knew that I was interested in environmental issues, but at that point photography hadn’t really come into my life very seriously. It was only actually, during the third year of university that on one return trip back home during holidays I discovered my mother’s old little canon camera when we were cleaning out some boxes, and I asked her if I could borrow it and use it, and I took it back with me to University and started to play around with it started to shoot photos in my spare time. And it was really that was the very beginning of my photography career. 

But at that point it was really very much just experimenting with photography, but quite quickly. I started to really fall in love with photography and started to really see the world through the camera, and it kind of awakened something within me. But at that point, having just graduated from university, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with my life for my career. But I at that point I had a degree in zoology, and I had this very early interested in photography, and so at that point that was the beginning for me. But I didn’t know what the future held for me at that point.

Joe Lenton: So did you have any photographers that you looked up to? That you drew on as an influence at all? Or did you just completely find your own way?

Sean Gallagher: Well, at that point I didn’t really know too much about photography. It was very typical in the sense that all I really knew about photography at that point was National Geographic. We had, you know, like everybody, a whole stack of National Geographics at home. My mother liked Steve McCurry. So she had some of his books in bookshelves at home. So those were my very first early exposures to photography that really classic travel, photojournalism, National Geographic style of photography.

And so from though those early exposures, I actually got quite interested in photojournalism after I graduated university. And so that was my first idea about what photography might be. That classic travel, National Geographic photojournalism. So I started to look into how I could go about maybe thinking about a career in photography in photojournalism, perhaps in travel photography. I mean, I had absolutely no idea about whether you could even pursue this as a career. I knew that people must do it because they had their images published in these separate magazines, but I had absolutely no idea how I might find a path forward into into that type of career at that point, and at that moment, in time I was in Lancashire, in the Ribble valley where I grew up.

Returned home after university, was staying with my parents, and I’d actually just bought myself a little dark room and started to teach myself how to print black and white photos. And so I tried on my own to start making those first little steps into learning about photography. But I was completely self-taught, and I have been throughout my career, and that was the very beginning, really converting my younger brother’s bedroom while he was away at University into a dark room and staying up late and falling in love with printing my own photos.

I’d go out into the Ribble Valley, a very beautiful part of Northwest England, taking black and white photos mostly. And I’d take books out from the library about how to develop and print black and white photos, and I would teach myself, and I would stay up until 2, 3, 4 am in the morning learning how to print black and white photos. And so very quickly I really started to fall in love with photography, and started to take the idea of pursuing it as a career a little bit more seriously.

Joe Lenton: It sounds like it really did get hold of your heart and drag you forward with passion, then! I mean, I related to the – to things like National Geographic as well, in a way, for my early influences. I know with the style of stuff I do now that seems less likely. But a guy, called Joe McNally whose images I’d seen regularly and his expertise with creating interesting lighting wherever he was just using little speedlights carefully placed around a scene just fascinated me. So yeah, reading his books with the humour, and that in there it kindled something in me as well.

But so you’ve got this all passion with your photography and you’d been studying zoology, and so on. Did you find a way, then, that they naturally could come together, that you could create something that could draw on both?

Sean Gallagher: Well, at that point I didn’t really know how to do that. I had obviously the background of my studies in environmental issues in zoology, and I had this new interest in photography. But at that point I hadn’t put the 2 together. And it was actually after I’d done an internship at Magnum Photos in their London office that that’s finally started to formulate. And that was very happenstance. How that came about, I mean, as I mentioned I’d been spending weeks and months teaching myself how to print black and white photos, you know, in my younger brother’s bedroom. And I thought, well, perhaps I can do something like an internship or an apprenticeship.

And so I went on the very fledgling Internet in 2002-2003 and found this agency called Magnum. And I didn’t really know very much about them. And so I found a phone number on their website, and I called them up, and I said, “hi, I’m a young photographer. Do you have any job openings or internships?” And very luckily they just had an intern cancel that week, and they said, “can you come down to London on Monday morning and do a month-long internship in the office?” And I said, “yes, absolutely!” And I still didn’t really know very much about the agency. I knew it was about photojournalism. I knew very famous photographers were represented by them. So I jumped on the train and went down to London and slept on my friend’s couch for a month.

And for a month I basically made coffee and I handled the mail. I returned all the prints that were coming back to the office, because at that time, obviously they were dealing still with prints and slides.

Joe Lenton: Yeah.

Sean Gallagher: And so it was my job to file them back in the boxes and file them back in the filing cabinets. And really that month my brain almost exploded. Because, the photography, the level of photography, the quality of photography, and the type of photography that the photographers that I’m sure most of your listeners know the photographers that produce that type of work. It’s in a different realm, a different level of photography. It was the type of photography that I’d seen in those copies of National Geographic, and after that month, long internship, they invited me to do a year-long internship. So that was really my education, and during that time I had the chance to obviously meet a lot of the photographers. Assist them. Do a lot of work in the offices and helping on assignments, these type of things. And that’s when I really fell in love with photojournalism. And I really decided by the end of that year that becoming a photojournalist was what I wanted to do. 100%. There was no doubts in my mind.

Joe Lenton: It’s an interesting sort of set of coincidences there you happen to hit on probably the best company that you could have rung without knowing who they really were, in a sense, when you got in contact with them, and then that opening being there right away, right place right time it was an absolutely ideal start for you in many ways.

Sean Gallagher: Yeah, I think my naivety helped a little bit. But also I like to think I seize the opportunity, and I think that applies to many of us in our careers. Whether it happens at the beginning of your career or in other parts of your career, there are always those opportunities, and it depends whether you are open to those opportunities and whether you grab them or not. And I like to think that that was one of those moments in my career that I took the chance when it came up.

Joe Lenton: Well, you picked up the phone and you got in contact. So often, people think you just – that things fall into people’s laps, but they don’t. You’ve got to be active. You’ve got to go out there, and in a sense make a little bit of your own luck, go after these opportunities when they arise. So yeah, when you were working then with with Magnum, was there any part of that where you would say it was actually deliberate tuition? Or was it more sort of learning on the job as you get experience to the various different aspects of the agency and the photographers?

Sean Gallagher: It was learning on the job. It wasn’t a formal program. For most of the year I was actually on the front desk. So answering phone calls dealing with the mail still making cups of coffee when I needed to, but also it offered me the chance to like, I said, be an assistant for the photographers when they needed help on the shoot, so I’d help photographers like Peter Marlowe, Stuart, Franklin, Philip Jones, Griffiths, Ian Barry. Some of the best British photographers, obviously, who are based out the London office, and I had those chances to to meet them to see them, to watch them work, and sometimes just literally to be a fly on the wall, and to observe. And I would just try to be a sponge, and just try to soak it all in and try to store away all those memories of how they worked. What they did, that, I think was good, what I didn’t think suited me as a person, but worked for them and just log all those experiences away, because I knew that they would all be incredibly useful in the future.

Joe Lenton: Absolutely, I think, even just being in an environment where you’re immersed in good quality imagery, your brain starts to get a handle on what “good” looks like. You know, what composition is, how images can can tell stories that little bit better. So being in a sort of a photojournalistic environment there, is that where you felt your storytelling side of you started to develop?

Sean Gallagher: Absolutely. I mean having over a year’s worth of exposure to that type of photography almost brainwashed me to loving photojournalism in in a good way. I just during that year I just realized just the power of photojournalism and the ability it had, and still has in order to tell important stories about what’s happening in our world. Whether that’s related to environments or politics or health or any other social issues. It just made me realize that photojournalism has a place to really help people understand what is happening in the world and about really important issues that affect us all, whether those issues are happening in the UK or halfway around the world here in somewhere like China. Photojournalism has that power to be able to help us understand what is happening in the world, and it inform us about what is happening in the world.

Joe Lenton: So what was it then about China that drew you out there? Was – did some passion about something in particular make you want to go? Was there a job opportunity?

Sean Gallagher: Well, at the end of the Magnum internship they actually gave us a small grant, which was just enough money for us to buy a plane ticket really, to wherever we wanted to go in the world. And so, so it wasn’t a large amount of money. But it was just enough to give us a kick-start to our career, and that was the aim of it. And in the past my father had actually been to China many times on on business. He was a businessman, and he travelled to China during the eighties, nineties, early 2000s, and he was a very well travelled man. He travelled all around the world, and actually China, out of all the countries that he’d visited – China was his favourite country, and he always used to come home and tell us stories about China. He’d bring back little knickknacks and gifts and photos, and so that had a very deep effect on me.

So when I finished the internship and I had this basically blank canvas in terms of my career to paint, I thought, you know, I literally opened up a map. I took out an atlas at home, and I said, “well, where shall I go?” Which like? Let’s try and pick a spot in the world and go there and try to, you know, start my career as a photojournalist. Because one of the pieces of advice that one of my colleagues at Magnum had given me was to pick my spot and to pick the kind of issues that I wanted to cover, to try to carve out my own little niche in the world of photojournalism. They told me that that was key to find your niche.

And so I thought, well, you know, I have no responsibilities holding me down in the UK. So I thought, why not buy a plane ticket and go to China? And let’s start taking photos, start trying to work on photojournalistic type stories and see where it takes me. And so I literally booked a ticket to China and packed my cameras. I didn’t know anybody in China. I didn’t know the language. I bought a ticket to Beijing, and I just went. So it was that bravado of youth.

Joe Lenton: That’s brave!

Sean Gallagher: Yeah. That bravado of youth – not knowing any better.

Joe Lenton: So, how did you sell your first photo, then? I suppose so if you’ve gone over there and you’ve not got the contacts you’re not working for Magnum you’ve you’ve left them at that point. 

Sean Gallagher: I’d left them. Yeah.

Joe Lenton: How do you – how did you then go on to start selling your images and thinking, “yes, I can make a living out of it” and not have to, just, you know, fill a fill a book with some nice pictures and go home? You know at some point that you gotta sell. You gotta sell stuff, haven’t you?

Sean Gallagher: Sure. Well, the first trip to China that I made after the internship was for just over a month, so I spent about a month in Beijing, doing a couple of little stories, and after that trip finished, I returned to the UK. And I had a couple of little stories and I went to to London. I, you know, just jumped on a train and went down to London, and I’d managed to find some email addresses of editors that I found online. And so I’d emailed some editors. And I’d said to them, Look, I’ve just been to China. I’ve got a couple of little stories. Would you like to see them? I emailed them some pictures, and then I followed up by meeting them in London and sharing some of those pictures with a physical portfolio and trying to meet to make some connections.

And I actually managed to sell a couple of photos. I managed to sell some to a travel magazine, and I actually managed to sell a small gallery to the BBC. They had a little online gallery, and they ran a little portrait series that I made of people posing in front of the Mao Zedong picture on Tiananmen Square. And that was my very first little photo essay that I ever sold and had published with BBC online on the very early version of the BBC website. So it was from that making a couple of hundred pounds from selling those photos that I thought, “wow, maybe I can actually potentially make a living out of this in the future.”

So after that I made a plan to return to China and I told those editors I was going back and I wanted to keep the connection with them. Send them some more stories. And very slowly I started to build up a network of contacts, of editors in the UK, and also then starting to meet some of the other photographers working in China, other journalists working in China. And very slowly I started to build up my network. And I was able, then, when I did make a photo story, I could then approach my network of editors and try to sell them the story, build that relationship. And then after that, slowly, they would then start to contact me when they had a need for certain photos. Whether that was a, you know, a photo I said that they needed, or a particular portrait of somebody they needed for their latest magazine. They would think of me because I was based in Beijing. They knew me. They’d met me and develop that connection and those contacts.

And that’s obviously something that is still now, very, very important is that network that you have, and no matter what kind of photographer you are, whether you’re a photojournalist or based in the UK doing a a different type of photography. A lot of it still comes down to your network. And those quality relationships that you have with the buyers of your photographs, whether they’re editors and magazines, or whether they’re your clients. It always comes down to those networks, I feel.

Joe Lenton: It certainly does. Yeah. It’s – people say, you know, business is about people selling to people at the end of the day. So it is very important to have those relationships. So speaking of relationships, then, how long did it take you to start to develop relationships with the local community? Cause you were saying when you initially went out, you didn’t speak a word of the local language. So were you effectively like living like an expat in an expat community, almost? Or how quickly did you find you were able to integrate and, you know, live with the locals?

Sean Gallagher: Well, to be honest at the beginning, I couldn’t afford to live in the expat communities because the expat communities are quite exclusive to the business people or the diplomats, these type of things.

Joe Lenton: Ah, right!

Sean Gallagher: So I had to live in more local, more suburban communities. And so over the years, I mean, now, I’ve been in China over 17 years, and now my Chinese is pretty good, but you know it took a long time. I’m not a natural linguist, but I knew very early on that I needed to get up to a certain level of Chinese if I was going to be able to just communicate, both for professionally, but also on a, you know, daily life. Just be able to communicate with people and make friends in China. So my level of Chinese kind of just developed over the years. But obviously, when you’re living in a different culture, and your daily life depends on it. It gives you extra motivation to learn the language and make sure that you’re integrating.

However, saying that, sometimes I do often work with a local translator, a fixer if I need a different level of access to a particular community, for example. Or if I need to make sure that I’m getting 100% accuracy in the translations. If I perhaps – because obviously with photojournalism and journalism in general, we’re producing stories where accuracy is very important. So you need to work with someone who’s able to give you that information very accurately, and especially in the form of translation. So, depending on the situation, I will sometimes work with the local translator as well, if needed.

Joe Lenton: Presumably they have dialects as well of different types of Chinese, because I mean, you know, within the UK we can easily lose sight of how extreme some of just the accents are, never mind dialects. And that, and I certainly found when I was at university, and I learned French and German, and of course I was learning High German, which all the foreigners learn. And then I met the lady who was to become my wife and I heard her talking to her mother on the phone. And I thought, “what on earth is that?” Its this really strong dialect from the south of Germany. So, I suppose sometimes, when you, when you’re going around different villages, do you need this translator, this kind of connection there to help you with A) more extreme dialects, and B) also to just be accepted because they know them, and otherwise you’re a bit of an outsider, and they’re not too sure about you?

Sean Gallagher: Absolutely a hundred percent. Because China, you have to remember is a huge country and it has lots of different provinces. And it has lots of different types of geography, and there’s not only different accents, but there are completely different languages in different parts of the country. So you’re absolutely right. If I had to travel to a remote part of China, for example, there might be a chance that they speak a whole different language. So all those years I’ve spent learning my classic textbook Mandarin is absolutely no use, almost no use. And of course, like you mentioned as well, sometimes hiring a local person will actually help you break down those barriers much quicker than if I took someone say, from a translator, or fixer from Beijing and if we travelled halfway across the country to a small village in rural southwest China. That person from Beijing is going to be just as much of an outsider.

So, sometimes I might actually have to try and find someone local to that place which is obviously a lot more difficult sometimes. But it has to be part of the equation when you’re thinking about where you want to work, because in some very remote locations you can’t just turn up as a non-Chinese person and start taking photographs. You have to find a way to kind of break into the community to find a way for those doors to be open so that you’re first welcomed into the community so that you can then make the type of photos that you want to. And that’s been true, not just in China, but I also work in many other countries in Asia and that is always the case when you’re trying to, especially with the type of work that I do in the photojournalism space. You’re working on stories about people about families, about communities, about how they are being affected by these big issues. So you need often need to find a way to get into communities and often working with a local person, a local fixer is one of the best ways to be able to do that.

Joe Lenton: So I wonder as well about sort of cultural differences. When I first started going out to Germany with my wife and meeting family out there, I horrified my mother-in-law one time by asking for pepper in a restaurant so I could put salt and pepper on my chips. She’s just sort of staring at me, saying, “you can’t do that. It’s not the done thing!” And as you may know as somebody who goes through airports on a semi-regular basis, the Brits like to queue – not everybody else does, though! So, the Germans kind of often just rush to the to the desk rather than forming an orderly queue like the Brits. So I wonder was there anything that for you made you suddenly become aware that actually, oh, yeah, I am a bit different to this culture?

Sean Gallagher: Oh, well, I realize that pretty much every day living here in China. I live in a, like I mentioned, I live in a very suburban kind of area, with not many expats. So I’m acutely aware of being different. And you know, I’ve made the conscious choice to to live here in Asia, and unless you live in a really multicultural Asian city of which there aren’t too many, maybe somewhere like Singapore. That’s a very multicultural city where you have people from all over the continent living there. But even in a city like Beijing there aren’t a tremendous amount of foreigners if you say broke it down by percentage. So you always feel like you’re a little bit of an outsider. So that’s always something that you have to deal with both personally and in a professional sense, when you go to different places.

But you know, dealing with different cultures dealing with culture shock dealing with these nuances of different culture – that is a constant thing that you have to deal with living in Asia. And one of the hardest things is when you when you go into the communities and maybe you’re given new food that you’re not accustomed to eating. But you know, as I was told by my mother brought up in the Northwest, you eat what you’re given when you’re a guest in someone’s home. So that’s got me into some trouble here in Asia a few times when I’ve been presented with a few odd things. But of course, if you’re a guest, you know, you have to eat them, and you have to be polite to your host because you’re trying to ingratiate yourself to the host and the communities that you’re in. But overall the 99.9 9% of experiences of going to new communities of whichever country it it happens to be in, I’ve found it, the overall welcome is entirely positive, in in most cases.

You just need an open mind. You have to have an open mind, and you have to be open to cultures and to be almost, you know – It’s hard to explain, really, because you can never become completely part of the cultures that you embed yourself in.

Joe Lenton: No.

Sean Gallagher: But you can adapt a little bit of your own sense of behaviour and your perception of maybe space and how people interact with one another. And people’s behaviours with one another. And you have to be acutely aware of that. And you have to be very, very adaptable. Because when I go into these communities, I’m often spending a lot of time with people. So you don’t want to be the one that stands out. As a photojournalist you’re trying to be that fly on the wall.

Joe Lenton: Yeah.

Sean Gallagher: You’re trying to embed yourself in, although you never will completely. And perhaps it’s a mild delusion that you are. But you’re doing your best.

Joe Lenton: Yeah. You don’t want to be the one person that’s being awkward for everything – “oh I don’t wanna eat that. I don’t wanna drink that!” And I think it’s one of the great things about moving into different cultures is just learning that there are different ways of seeing things, and that there isn’t always this kind of black and white that something’s right and wrong. Initially you get this culture shock that you think, “oh. Oh, that’s different.” And then you start to appreciate, perhaps, the more nuanced way of looking at things.

I wonder whether perhaps – Western culture is often very individualistic. I wonder whether the Asian one, I sometimes got the impression that it’s a little bit more relational. A little bit more of a group culture, would you say that’s right or not?

Sean Gallagher: Hmm! It’s hard to say, really, because it depends very much on the country. It might depend on the place within the country, because, take China, for example, like I mentioned before, it’s such a vast and diverse country that the – China’s gone through some huge changes over the past 50, 60 years, both politically, economically, socially, and so life has changed for many, many people within the space of one lifetime.

But also there’s a big difference between life in the cities, the big modern cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Shenzhen. But if you go into the foreign interior of China, I mean you could be stepping back in time, almost. If you go to some places where you feel like you’ve gone back a hundred years. Now, people may still have their IPhones tucked away in their pockets.

Joe Lenton: Yeah.

Sean Gallagher: But the general feeling of the culture is very much from from the past. So it’s hard to – sometimes it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what that culture is, because Asia’s changing so fast and there are so many developing nations in Asia that are changing fast and mindsets are changing. So places and countries that might once have had the stereotypical image of being very communal actually, now, in the modern cities many younger people are changing to that more kind of individualistic mindset. But then that sort of that’s in contrast and clashing with their parents or grandparents generations. And different countries are changing at different speeds. So, to be honest, this is part of what makes Asia especially endlessly fascinating because you have all that different mix of traditional and modern cultures. And Asia’s obviously changing so fast that you’re constantly trying to keep up with what’s happening and how cultures are changing and how attitudes are changing, and how individual people’s attitudes are changing. And the young people are different from the older generation. So you’re constantly trying to keep up.

Joe Lenton: I think that’s one of the things that is just so fascinating about about cultures and so on, is that it’s so easy to paint everything with one brush and broad brush strokes and think, “oh, everybody’s like that.” But it just isn’t true, and the more you look, the more nuances there are, the more people are changing, growing, and in different directions within the same country, within the same area. So it’s yeah, I find that sort of thing is really interesting.

I often sort of joke, though, about Norfolk where I live. If you’re getting off the train and they go, “you’ve now arrived in Norwich, where it’s 1915.” And I think, yeah, that’s probably about right we’re only about 100 or so years behind everybody else!

Yeah, but when you’re going out into some of the perhaps more remote communities where they’re perhaps not used to engaging with somebody from the UK, or someone from Europe on a regular basis, do you find you kind of have to go in almost without the camera, to begin with to get accepted? Or how do you – do you have a, if you like, a process that you go through before you’ll start shooting? Because I can imagine there to see someone turn up on the street and start taking images… Well, for a start, the body language is not gonna be great because they’re gonna be thinking, “who on earth are you?” But you know, they might start to get suspicious of you and think, “well, what do you want? What are you doing here?”

Sean Gallagher: Sometimes. Yeah, the type of stories that I work on, I tend to go to, I tend to try to pinpoint specific communities that I think are representative of the story that I want to cover. So with environmental issues, I cover mainly issues surrounding the climate crisis. So I cover different issues surrounding climate change, deforestation, desertification, species disappearance, all these different types of environmental issues. So what I will try to do to represent these big issues is try to find good examples of small communities that are being affected by these large issues. So that might mean I might focus my attention on a town or a village, or even try to tell the story through one family. So, of course, if I turn up in a random remote town or village, which is normally not on the tourist path, then, of course, people are going to be a little bit suspicious about someone, not from that community turning up.

Joe Lenton: It’s natural isn’t it, really? I think we’re all that way.

Sean Gallagher: Absolutely, very, very natural. So the only thing that you can do is to first is to explain yourself to the people that you feel you need to explain yourself to. For example, if I – I worked on a story about a drought in India during a particularly bad drought back in 2016 and with the help of my local fixer we identified this one village that we thought would be a good example of local people being affected by these terrible drought conditions. And so my local fixer had managed to find a contact within the village.

And so we went out there one day, and we didn’t know if we would be accepted. But we turned up in the village and we were led into a hall because they’d been forewarned that we were coming. A little village hall and in the village hall were a group of elders, and they all sit around, sat around very solemnly looking at us. And for 5 or 10 min I sat there, and with the help of my translator, explained what we were doing there, and why I wanted to visit that village and take pictures. And they listened very carefully and very attentively. And then they started to ask me questions, and when they started to ask questions, then we had a conversation, and we started making some rapport, building some rapport and making some small jokes. And I mentioned I was from the UK. I mentioned I was a football fan, so we started talking about football, and suddenly the ice is broken a little bit. I find that someone supports Manchester United, and I tell them I don’t like Manchester United but we laugh about it.

Joe Lenton: Yeah.

Sean Gallagher: And suddenly, you know, you have to be very personable. And you know you’re trying to make people realise that you’re not a threat, and you’re there to highlight what’s happening in that community from a journalistic perspective to tell tell people what is happening. But it’s that relationship building at the beginning and breaking down those barriers and building up trust at the beginning that’s really the key. And so for that particular story, we went back every day for about a week and a half to the same village, meeting the same people again and again, and actually, after a few days, they kind of all the villagers lost interest in me. They were like, oh, here’s that that crazy guy from England with a camera who’s just like hanging out in our village taking pictures. And after a while they lost interest, which was great for me, because then people started to act much more naturally and I could get those much more natural, photojournalistic images.

Joe Lenton: Do you tend to share any of the images afterwards with the communities that you’ve been in? And do they have any kind of a sense like when you leave that they understand that you’ve been sharing some of the story that they might be struggling with. Is there any sense that they’re grateful about that or how do they tend to feel about it? How is it normally left? You just disappear? Or is there any contact maintained?

Sean Gallagher: It depends on the story really and depends on the community. If I’ve built up, you know, really good relationship with the community, then I might stay in contact with, you know, a couple of people or the community. But for that particular story that I just mentioned it was quite a good example, because at the end, on the last day that we were visiting that village the night before, I’d actually – during my time in the village I’d done a portrait series of people from the village collecting water. So, during one of the times where the Government was delivering water, people were queuing up to collect water in these large like little canisters, and so I made a portrait series of lots of different villagers, and the night before the day we were due to leave I actually printed them all off and we had a little pop up exhibition in the village.

Joe Lenton: Nice.

Sean Gallagher: So on the walls of the village hall where I’d met the elders at the beginning of my time I actually stuck up all the prints of the portraits of the villagers. Nobody knew about it, so they just everybody turned up and saw us putting up these pictures, and then people were able to take those pictures back home with them. So if they saw themselves they could take them home with them. And so that was my little kind of thanks to that particular community for them welcoming me and and being so kind to me while I was there. And so hopefully, that gave them a sense of you know me as a photographer, the type of work that that I was doing, but also left them with a a good impression of myself, and also with photography and photographers in general. So I wasn’t just going to that community and then disappearing without saying anything. It was much more of building a respectful relationship between me and that community.

Joe Lenton: I think that’s great, because that gives you potentially the opportunity to go back, but also for others. You haven’t gone in there and behaved disrespectfully, and then they think, well, we’re never having a photographer in our village again after that.

Sean Gallagher: Absolutely, of course.

Joe Lenton: It’s an important sort of thing. So when you’re telling these stories, a lot of what what you said was about environmental issues, climate change issues and so on. So, we get quite used to perhaps seeing statistics and things being flung around and scientific reports about climate change. So convincing us with the – or trying to convince people with the numbers, with the scientific analysis. What role, do you think, then, that these sort of photo stories have alongside these more scientific reports? What role do they play? What can they do that’s different to help change people’s minds?

Sean Gallagher: Well, I think, photojournalism has an incredibly important role to play in reporting issues around the climate crisis. Because, as you said, I think most people, when they think about the climate crisis, tend to think of statistics and numbers, and sometimes get a little bit overwhelmed in terms of the scale of the issue, the fact that it’s a global crisis. And sometimes it’s hard for people to actually visualise. What is the climate crisis? What does it actually look like? And how does it affect communities in different parts of the world? And so I think photojournalism, just the nature of photojournalism – telling stories through photos – has a really special power in being able to do that. And by getting my stories published with international media, that’s my small way in trying to play a part in this in raising awareness about the climate crisis, which is obviously such an important issue.

Now, I mean, when I started my career, it really wasn’t reported very much in the news. I mean, maybe some people learned about greenhouse gases or the greenhouse effect in their school book at University or at school, but no one was really talking about it in the mainstream media. But that has really shifted in the past 15 or 20 years. So I’m glad that my work has been a small part in helping that shift in perception of climate change issues.

And I think photography, not just in the classic sense of classic photojournalism, but in different types of photography as well through portraiture and art photography, many different photographers and artists are using the medium in different ways to raise awareness about climate change, about other environmental issues that are affecting us all. So I think photography is incredibly important in helping us visualise these big global issues and perhaps sometimes focusing our attention on important issues of the times, making us think a little bit differently about these issues through photography in the way the artists use photography to communicate these issues. And I think all of this is really important in playing into this overall dialogue about and making us realise why the climate crisis is so important to know about and understand.

Joe Lenton: Yeah, photographers approach it from different perspectives. I mean, there’s Benjamin Von Wong who does it from a very sort of artistic perspective. Like actually collecting thousands and thousands of bottles and things, and making like a sea of plastic and all this kind of thing. Clearly, that’s deliberately stylised, and they’re often quite highly edited. Now, when we think of photojournalism and when we think of images in the media and we think about ethics of those images. So when you’re photographing real life rather than trying to create a piece of art as such. What do you think, then, is appropriate, if anything, for actually editing images? Do you just take and it comes straight out of the camera, and off it goes? Or is there room for any editing, do you think, in your sort of style of photojournalistic photography?

Sean Gallagher: Well, I’m a little bit old school in this approach. I don’t think there should be any editing done to images, and in that I mean, you know, the basic editing in terms of adjusting contrast, brightness, little bit of saturation, maybe a very bit of light cropping that’s pretty much all I’ll ever do to my photos. I mean having come from that background of doing the internship at Magnum and learning about photojournalism in that respect is very much the unaltered image. And I think that’s really important for photojournalism. Now, obviously, in other types of photography, photographers have a little bit more freedom. And at the end of the day there are no hard and set rules out there. But I feel for photojournalism I think it’s really important to preserve the integrity of photojournalism, especially these days in the days of AI. And the fact that everybody has Photoshop and everybody can do anything to a photograph. I think it’s actually really important now for professional photojournalists to be open with the fact that they don’t alter their images and be proud of the fact that they don’t change their images. Now, you know if you again, if you work in a different field of photography, where you have more creative freedom, where you are more of an artist, then, of course you can manipulate and do whatever you want to your photographs. But I feel for photojournalism and documentary photography, reportage photography, whichever you want to call it -I still think that “manipulate” quote unquote manipulating an image should be kept to you know the very minimum of just adjusting the basic parameters of an image, and of course, never adding anything to an image, and never taking anything out of an image.

Joe Lenton: Do most of your clients that you’d send or sell these kinds of images onto, then do they have a policy about that that these should not be edited in that kind of way? Because especially with AI and so on I think there’s beginning to become an issue of trust with people when they see an image. Is it genuine?

Sean Gallagher: Yeah, very much so, you know, with the clients that I tend to deal with, because again, they’re in the editorial space. So we’re talking magazines and newspapers. They all, on the whole, adhere to those classic rules of photojournalism, of not editing photographs, of not adding anything, not taking anything away of not now creating anything in AI or with Photoshop. So most of those publications still have a strict policy on that.

But you know it’s interesting, because I think this is now becoming more in the public eye. Obviously, with what happened recently with the royal family and the images that were released by the royal family. The idea, the notion of trust in images online is now something that people are actually thinking about. The general public are thinking about it, whereas before it might have been something that might be just in the professional photography field. Now, it’s becoming something that is a bit more generally thought about, which is quite interesting. And but it’s important for people to think about that, especially in this day and age, where we’re all being fed news and images in our little echo chambers online and news literacy and the ability to critically think about the news. And that news also includes photos, I think, is really important for people to think about. So just seeing that dialogue now appearing in the public sphere, I think, is, I think, is a good thing.

Joe Lenton: It’s been quite slow developing in a way, because it started to come through in aspects of beauty photography a while back about how much retouching is acceptable. Are you creating something which is physically impossible that’s therefore potentially making children ill as they look at that as something that they’re supposed to aspire to – a perfection that can’t even exist? But we still in like, in a lot of my world, with product photography things have to look kind of unrealistically perfect, you know. If you do an image of a sandwich that you might buy from a store it’s never gonna look like it is in the photo. If you’re buying a nice, shiny new product any little tiniest bit of dust or anything that’s on there’s got to be retouched out. So we’ve got this weird mix where, on the one hand, we almost know, and like being lied to, because we want to see perfection. But, on the other hand, in other areas we’re beginning to kick back. It’s it’s an interesting dynamic, I think.

Sean Gallagher: It is. And you know again, that’s the interesting thing about photography in that, you know, those fields are very, very different, and I certainly wouldn’t apply the kind of quote unquote rules that we have over image manipulation in photojournalism to say, product photography, I think, and fashion photography is just complete, completely different.

But you’re right. It’s interesting as people start to think about these things more and talk about them more and try to find, “okay, where are the lines?” What is acceptable? You know what’s acceptable for a professional? What’s acceptable, for you know your grandma, who just wants to send out a nice picture of her grandkids? It’s a yes, it’s an interesting, maybe never-ending debate.

Joe Lenton: Oh, I don’t think there will be an end to that one, no. I think, and everybody will have their own idea about what manipulating means. Some people will say you can’t add any sharpness in afterwards. You shouldn’t change contrast. You should get the lighting as you want it in camera, and so on and so on. It’s a yeah, I think a potentially endless debate there.

But if when you’re taking a photo, then you’ve got these kind of technical considerations, because, yeah, they’re not going to be using other effects afterwards to create the look of the image. You’ve got the technical considerations. But you’ve also got the storytelling considerations. Which goes through your mind consciously? Do you think about technique, still? Do you think about the story? Or is it – has it become a kind of subconscious process, where you just engage through the lens?

Sean Gallagher: The primary thing I’m always thinking about is the story, because I think by now, in the stage of my career, technique has – the majority of those techniques have become innate. Really, when I’m out shooting, I’m not really thinking about the principles of photography or the rules of photography. And I’m not really thinking too much about my equipment, either, because I know my equipment so well, and I use the same camera on the same assignments all the time. So I know the camera inside out. I don’t use a wide variety of cameras. I try to stick to a small number of cameras I know incredibly well. So I can use them without thinking. I can use them in the dark halfway up a mountain where there’s no electricity, and there’s no lights. And for photojournalism, that’s what you need to be able to do.

And so yes, it is a balance. But the technical aspects have, like I said, have become largely just ingrained within me, so that when I’m out shooting I’m really primarily thinking about the story. And I’m thinking, okay, I need to make a photo essay about this story. I need to tell the story about this issue, about climate change, this community I’m photographing. I don’t want to be thinking about my camera. I want to be thinking about how am I going to use the camera to communicate the story and what things do I need to capture to help tell that story? And so am I getting the images that I need to tell that story? To create maybe a photo essay that might appear in a magazine or online. Or maybe I’m shooting a short documentary. And I’m trying to get certain shots that I need. Those are the things that are primarily running through my mind.

However, all the things that I’ve learned from my career, and all those days when I’m back in my studio, playing around with equipment or learning how to use the latest piece of software, you know I’ve done that while I’m not shooting, so that when I am shooting and working on a story I can focus just on the story itself.

Joe Lenton: Yeah, that makes sense. That time that you could spend thinking about technical aspects of it could easily mean you’ve missed the moment in some cases. So you gotta be focused on the right thing about what you’re doing. But I just wonder whether there’s ever that bit in your mind that goes, “this could make a nice double page spread, and if I leave some room for copy over here, I better make sure the subject’s not in the middle, otherwise they’ll be in the fold.” Does that ever go through your mind that kind of thing? Or do you let that sort of thing work itself out afterwards?

Sean Gallagher: Normally, I let it work itself out afterwards. Definitely. Yeah, I leave that to the editors to worry about.

Joe Lenton: Yeah, it’s sometimes one of those weird things when I’m shooting advertising that I’m trying to think, well, what space do I need to leave around this?

Sean Gallagher: Of course, if you’re doing advertising photography and you have that freedom to think about copy and things absolutely that must go through your mind.

Joe Lenton: The thing is, it can almost be paralyzing when you’ve got too much to think about. If you can be engaged in the moment it’s almost more – well, more of a mindful kind of process of photography, rather than can you go around and tick all the boxes technically and say you’ve got everything “correct” if you like. Yeah.

Sean Gallagher: Yeah, with photojournalism you do have to be in the moment. But really, you know, out of all the time that you’re perhaps working on story, 95% of your time might actually just be the logistics of getting to the place. So preparing and setting up the contacts, doing all the groundwork to be in the right place at the right time with the right people to make photos. And so when you have that 5% of time you’ve got to make the most of it.

Joe Lenton: Definitely.

Sean Gallagher: So I’m not saying that photojournalists don’t have any technical things to deal with like other types of photographers. It’s just the balance of it, and when you do it, it’s just it’s just different.

Joe Lenton: Yeah, I think it’s important for people to remember that as well, because sometimes some photographers like to sort of lump photojournalists and sport photographers in one camp, because they know they tend to have the the very fast shutter speeds on their cameras, and they sort of joke, “oh, they go in there, and they spray and pray,” and that sort of thing. And you think well, you know, when you’ve put that amount of preparation in to get a story, and you’ve only got that opportunity. You’re gonna shoot as much as you can, and be pretty darn sure you’ve got it in the bag. You don’t wanna shoot one and hope for the best. You understand the way that people work when you think about what is actually involved in the job. It’s not just you’re going from place to place to place with your finger on the trigger the whole time.

Sean Gallagher: Exactly. And you know, it’s really interesting to speak to other types of photographers and to, you know, learn about how they work and what they do, because these are even within the field of photojournalism everybody works in slightly different ways. Everybody has different approaches. And so, you know, speaking to other types of photographers, listening to a podcast like yours, which you know, you interview and speak to so many different types of photographers. I think it’s really very useful, because there’s a lot that we can learn from one another.

Joe Lenton: Definitely. I think so. We get so – you can get blinked if you stay within your own niche, and you don’t look elsewhere.

Sean Gallagher: Absolutely.

Joe Lenton: I think that is, that is the danger. So for you, then, are you somebody who likes to look at the latest kit, and look and see if there’s a new feature with the new cameras that might help you do your job better, that somehow you could justify it to yourself is worth the expense? Or are you someone who’s very happy with what you’ve got, and you only buy something to replace it when it’s broken?

Sean Gallagher: I really don’t like camera reviews, and I don’t like looking at all the latest equipment, the latest lens that comes out the latest camera, by whichever manufacturer. It drives me a bit crazy to be honest. And and that’s why my own podcast – excuse the plug – is called “The Camera Doesn’t Matter” because I don’t feel that the camera determines how you are as a photographer. I really think it’s about you and your personal vision. And I think there’s a lot of content online that really focuses on the latest brands, the latest models, the latest lenses. And I think it actually overly distracts people from, you know, what really matters. And you know, that’s the vision of the photographer – the person behind the lens, behind the equipment, and how they’re looking at the world. And I think that’s the most important.

Joe Lenton: Well, and how you tell a story visually, the kind of visual language that we all speak in almost without realizing it. And how you deal with lighting all these things if we’re not careful, just get subsumed under – “do you shoot mirrorless or not?!”

Sean Gallagher: Exactly!

Joe Lenton: you think, “oh, come on!” 

Sean Gallagher: Yeah, I just think there’s more joy to be found in photography, in the process of shooting and finding your particular vision. Again, whether you work in photojournalism or product photography, surely the goal should be to find your personal vision, your individual vision about how you photograph what you choose to point your lens at. I think that’s more of an interesting journey for me personally. But I’m fighting against the masses of camera reviews.

Joe Lenton: So with you, a lot of what you’ve been talking about – you can really sense that there’s a lot of passion that comes across there, and different people are motivated by different things. Some people mistakenly go into photography thinking they can earn money through it, you know. It’s a bizarre notion, I know.

Sean Gallagher: Very Strange!

Joe Lenton: that they can become rich by being a photographer. So what about for yourself, then? What – can you identify what the heart of your motivation is for what you do? Why you get out of bed in the morning and do what you do?

Sean Gallagher: I think it’s a combination of different things. I think everyone has a different personal motivation for why they do what they do. I think I’m yeah, a lot of my personal motivation comes from family and from, you know, I have a very positive, a generally very positive outlook on life, and, as I explained earlier, my my interests came, you know, from my family – photography came from my mother. The interest in China came from my father. So I feel like these things are part of me, these interests. They’re part of who I am. They’re part of my identity, and again going back to the days at Magnum and falling in love with photojournalism and really learning about the power and importance of photojournalism. It’s never really left me.

And there’s something really magical about that day when you’re about to leave for an assignment, and you don’t know what you’re going to discover. You have your idea of this story that you want to cover. But you don’t know what you’re going to find. You don’t know what pictures you’re going to discover, and that feeling of butterflies before you leave. You have your camera in hand, your bags are packed, and you’re ready to go, and you’ve got an exciting assignment or an exciting personal project. And you know that what you’ve chosen to shoot on that particular project is something that you want to shoot.

Of course I take jobs where clients assign me subjects and assignments. But the ones that really excite me are the ones that I personally found. That’s the story idea, or a place that I want to go to, and it’s I guess it’s always come down to that natural curiosity I have about the world, and photography for me has just been this way for me to understand the world. And the camera is like this little magic ticket that allows you to gain access to all these incredible places. And without the camera I don’t think I would have been able to get access to half of the places that I’ve been to. And because of the camera it’s allowed me to have a very, very rich life of discovery. All these different places and and people that I’ve been lucky enough to visit, and people who I’ve met. So, how can you not enjoy doing that? I don’t know what else I want, I would want to do.

Joe Lenton: So you you don’t find sort of day-to-day motivation for work, a problem? You generally get up and get on with it.

Sean Gallagher: Well, I no, I’d be lying if I didn’t, because freelancing life is difficult. I’m not going to lie. I mean, there are lots of ups and downs of being a freelancer, especially being a freelancer in a country like China. Being in a still in a different culture, you know, even though I’ve been here approaching 20 years, it’s still a challenge sometimes. And of course, you know, the pandemic was very difficult for everybody in photography – very difficult time. I know many photographers who had to change careers. It was a sense of survival for many of us for many years and I was no exception.

So, of course, there are ups and downs, but I think generally on the whole, the motivation comes from the importance that these stories have, and especially around the climate crisis. And you know I have children, and I want to do work that they will be proud of to look at in the future, and to be able to say that, you know, “look, this is what our dad was trying to do. Our dad was trying to document these issues and try to bring people’s attention to these important issues.” And for me, that gives me great motivation to think about it from that perspective on a personal level.

Joe Lenton: Yeah. So, what qualities, then and what kind of a mindset would you say if someone was thinking of getting into photojournalism, they were thinking that that might be their thing – what would you say that they should look out for in terms of their own sort of skill set their own mindset that might reveal to them whether it’s a good idea, or perhaps not the genre for them?

Sean Gallagher: Well, I think first you’ve got to be quite self driven. If you’re going to be a freelance photojournalist, especially. Because, like we mentioned before, there are lots of ups and downs. You’re constantly hustling. You’re constantly chasing. You’re constantly coming up with ideas, the stories, pitching stories. You’ve got to have a thick skin. You’ve got to get used to being rejected, and people telling you that that’s not a good idea. But then you have to be a bit pig-headed and sometimes pursue a story when other people are telling you that it’s not going to work. So all of those qualities you need.

But I would say mainly, you’ve got to have a curiosity about the world, an open-mindedness about the world. And you know a sense that you really feel that photography has a role for good in the world about helping people understand these important issues that are affecting our world. And, like I mentioned before, I think photojournalism has a very special place in our media landscape to be able to do that.

However, it isn’t an easy career, and it’s not for everyone. So you have to really decide if you are really passionate about telling those type of stories, whether that’s environmental issues or other issues in the field of photojournalism. If you don’t have that passion, then it’s probably not going to work out in the long term. So you need to find out about what issues in the world that you’re really passionate about learning about. And you’re really determined to try to communicate with photography. And I think that’s the most important thing. If you’re able to find that then you might have a chance.

Joe Lenton: Yeah, yeah. When you’re thinking about – when I look at your website, for example, you’ve got quite a lot of awards on there quite a lot of publications that you’ve been with, places that you’ve spoken, and that sort of thing. What sort of a role does that play for you in your business? Is it partly about sort of establishing trust with potential future clients? Or does it give you reassurance that you’re on the right track? What what sort of role do you feel the awards play for you?

Sean Gallagher: I think it’s mainly really – well it’s 2-fold really. Like you mentioned it gives your clients a little bit of trust in you if they see that you’ve worked with other clients and maybe have won some awards. It might give them a little bit more faith that you’re able to do a job. But also on the other side of it. They – if you are able to get some of your work into awards, especially with photojournalism and the type of issues that I cover is actually an opportunity to get your work out to a bigger audience and get the story in front of the bigger audience and get more attention.

And so I’ve actually had a lot of opportunities come from – while I’m not chasing the award, specifically, I know that if the story picks up an award it will open more doors to getting that story published and getting more people to see that work. And to learn about that story, and it might lead to another publication. And sometimes I’ve had stories kind of snowball a little from picking up one award to then pick up another publication, and then another publication, because it’s a little chain reaction. So in that respect that has been the most pleasing thing about getting some awards is the fact that it leads to other opportunities and other chances for these stories and these issues to be to be seen.

Joe Lenton: That’s an interesting perspective on it. Because I think you don’t necessarily get so much of that in other genres, where it’s more about sort of a pat on the head for how well you’ve done as a photographer, almost. Whereas here there is obviously that aspect to it. But you’re also then thinking, “yeah, but if it gets more credibility,” if – that might not be the right word for it. But you know more “oomph” behind it as a story that others are then perhaps will pick up on it and share it when they might not have done before. And so you’re getting your message through. It’s not just then about the image itself. So, yeah, that’s a, that’s a very interesting perspective.

So speaking about these stories and your website, and that, where’s where are good places for people to go and look if they want to see some of your work, if they want to follow along with what you do?

Sean Gallagher: Sure. Well, my main website is Gallagher hyphen photo .com. And so that’s got all my main stories on there. I’m also very active on – my 2 main social media platforms are Instagram. I’m on there as Sean underscore Gallagher underscore photo. And I’ve also got a YouTube channel now, which I just started in the New Year, where I share lots of tutorial videos, actually. So it’s a little educational branch of my work sharing how I work on assignments sharing breaking down some of my photographic techniques from my photo stories through YouTube videos. So people can find me on YouTube as well. And as we mentioned before, I’ve just started a new podcast called “The Camera Doesn’t Matter” where I’m actually interviewing other photographers, mainly in the field of photojournalism, to to learn about their work and speak to them how they do photojournalism.

Joe Lenton: Right, ok. So, plenty there for people who are interested in your genre. But people also outside of that learning different aspects of photography through your video tutorials and the podcast as well, then.

Sean Gallagher: Yes, absolutely. The YouTube channel is aimed towards amateur photographers and also some aspiring professionals. But there’s a lot of general photography concepts in there, but also a heavy sprinkling of photojournalism as well.

Joe Lenton: Excellent. Well, it’s been really interesting being able to talk to you. Thank you very much for sharing your story with us. And really do look forward to seeing what other stories you unearth next.

Sean Gallagher: Oh, it’s been a pleasure. Thank you very much for having me, Joe.

Joe Lenton: Thank you, Sean, and thank you everybody for listening. This is the Focused Professional Podcast.

Text & audio © Focused Professional 2024

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