The British Magnum photographer Ian Berry is counted among the most important representatives of humanistic photography. It was the pictures he took in South Africa that first drew the attention of the general public. He had emigrated there in 1952, where his photo journalistic work was published in various newspapers and magazines, including the renowned Drum magazine. At the same time he began working on his own, personal projects. He left South Africa in 1962 and moved to Paris, where Henri Cartier-Bresson invited him to join Magnum Photos. He became a full member of the agency in 1967. In 1964 he moved to London, where he became the first commissioned photographer for the Observer magazine. It was at this time that he began to focus very intensely on his homeland, resulting in the publication of the photo book, The English, in 1978. We spoke with him about the series.
Your book The English was first published in 1978. How did the project start?
I had lived out of England for more than 10 years and it seemed a good idea to have a look at the English through fresh eyes when I returned. I was fortunate to be awarded the first Arts Council Grant given to a photographer, and at the same time was asked to photograph a district of London, Whitechapel, for the Whitechapel Gallery. The gallery had never previously held a photographic exhibition and wished to bring in local people rather than just the usual West London clientele.
What do you think about the series today – forty years later?
The income from the two sources mentioned enabled me to spend about three months shooting. Of course, the country has changed enormously since then and, from a photographer’s point of view, not always for the better. During the period shooting The English, I can’t remember one aggressive word or action. Sadly now, people have developed a much more anti-photographer attitude, perhaps because we have become one of the most surveillance conscious nations in the western world.
Looking at the series again, what do you notice in particular from a distance?
My primary interest wherever I am in the world has always been the people and how they react to the environment and each other. Hence my choice of a quiet camera and wide lens to enable me to work close to them.
How did you prepare the series back then – what interested you most?
My preparation for the project was simple: to cover as much of the country as possible geographically, but more importantly, socially. As is known, England is not a classless society.
What do you think about the current political changes in your country?
The country now has changed politically and dramatically, with neither of the two main parties drawing their followers from the usual social divides, but rather from their attitude towards the European Union. I’m not a strongly political person. A lifetime of world travel has taught me tolerance of differing views, but as a photographer I’m against anything that impedes free travel.
What topics are you still interested in photographically?
I’m still very much a working photographer and have a couple of personal projects always on the go. Now, of course, my main projects involve world travel, but the lack of magazines to offer financial support limit this.
In your opinion, what about photojournalism has changed in recent years?
As I’ve said, the disappearance of new magazines and other types of public support works against photojournalism. This certainly limits the possibilities for young, aspiring documentary photographers or photojournalists. This is equally true for agencies like Magnum, which has moved a long way away from the aspirations and ambitions of its founders. I have been lucky to have lived and worked through the heyday of magazine photography, because today, as they say, ‘We live in interesting times’.
Born in Preston, UK, on April 4, 1934, Ian Berry moved to South Africa in 1952, where he worked for the Daily Mail in Johannesburg from 1956 to 58, and the African magazine Drum as of 1959. In 1962 he went to Paris, where he connected with Henri Cartier-Bresson, who invited him to join Magnum Photos; he became a full member as of 1967. Berry moved to London in 1964 where he became first photographer for the Observer magazine. His assignments took him all over the world, to places such as Czechoslovakia, Israel, Ireland, Vietnam, Congo, China and, time and again, South Africa. His work has been published in all the major, international magazines. He has had numerous publications, exhibitions and awards. Berry lives in Salisbury, in the south of England.
To see more of Berry’s photography please visit his website.
A portfolio with Berry’s work just appeared in LFI 7.2019.
The exhibition, The English, will be on display at the Leica Gallery in Vienna, from September 6 to November 23, 2019.