By Quince PAN
Every year, the British Journal of Photography organises the Portrait of Britain photography award. A hundred portraits that best showcase the diversity of the UK are selected as winners. In January this year, winners of the 2021 award were announced.
Michael Farra (b. 1999) was one of them. His winning portrait, “The Call to Worship”, depicts a nonagenarian man sitting alone in Bournemouth Central Mosque — to which he walked every day for prayer. Since he was first drawn to photography as a child growing up in Essex, Michael has wholeheartedly pursued photography: at art college, as an undergraduate at Arts University Bournemouth and now as a master’s student at the University of Westminster. In February, I caught up with Michael to discuss his work, his inspirations and his photographic philosophy
How did you get into photography?
I got into photography because it was my dad’s hobby originally since he was a teenager. And then you know, when you’re growing up, your dad’s hobby is also your hobby, so I had a camera in my hand pretty much from when I could walk. And I think he enjoyed teaching me everything he’d learned just as a hobby. And then, you know, I took particular interest in it and then when it came to choosing something to study, I thought maybe there’s some potential here, I’ll go after this, and it has worked out. So I’ve been taking pictures for as long as I can remember. Even when I was extremely tiny, my dad would hand me his SLR with a massive lens on it and let me walk around taking pictures with it. I’ve had it my whole life, really.
Give me a sense of how old you were. 5 or 6 years old?
Earlier, probably. Yeah, I remember the first camera I ever had was a Bob the Builder wind-up camera. You just put 35mm in and it takes just a single exposure. You know, it’s for children. I remember that camera, I probably had that maybe [when I was] four years old, and then I was always playing around with whatever my dad had. He always liked to have SLRs and big lens kits and that sort of thing. We used to go to Duxford Airfield a lot for air shows. So my introduction to photography was going with my dad and taking pictures of planes and all sorts. He’d let me use the camera and that’s how I learned really.
That’s really nice. I think a lot of photographers have formative first experiences with the camera that lead them to do greater things. Did you know what you were doing when you were a kid playing with the camera? Retrospectively, when you think about the pictures and the angles you sought back when you were a kid, did you already see the potential in yourself then?
No, I don’t think so. I don’t think I saw the potential until I was maybe 15. I took photography as an A-Level originally, and that’s when I started to think of photography as art. Before that, I didn’t, really. I just thought of photography as a hobby and something you do just automatically, I guess. So once I started thinking about photography as art and its potential and started researching and realising there are all these practitioners who are doing this as a living and creating extremely profound work that influences societal change. That’s when I started to think that, you know, there’s something in this.
Do you think that you have this mission to influence society’s views?
No, I think the mission now is not so much to influence society’s views but to educate on things that are underrepresented. That’s why I go for demographics of people: culture, religions, society, industry, that sort of thing. It’s all the little things that I think don’t get the mainstream representation that they deserve. And I feel like, revealing that side of the world to people opens the eye a little bit, just provides a bit more insight into something that people don’t really think about.
Where did you grow up? Does that influence why you choose more underrepresented topics?
I don’t know, I just gravitated towards it! I grew up in Essex, just a small town just outside of East London, and I spent a lot of time here in London as a teenager, pre-adolescent years. I still spend a lot of time here. But I don’t know really, I think I just gravitated towards that. I think maybe because of the photographers I was interested in, I was always looking for something very specific — a subject, a character, a topic — to photograph and to try and build a narrative around, and I think that’s where I began doing what I’m doing now.
On your website, you talk about being a documentary photographer influenced by canonical role models within the documentary tradition. At the same time, looking through your portfolio, I would say maybe around 75% are portraits. Where do you see the balance between the canonical documentary, maybe street photographers, and portrait photographers? Unless you’re talking about Bruce Gilden, who is both.
Somewhat Bruce Gilden. I mean, whatever your opinions about him are, he is a very influential person. I have photographed like him in the past. You get a lot of looks, a lot of confrontation. So, as much as I like the work, no, he doesn’t really influence me. My documentary hero is Don McCullin. If you look at his photographs, he exercises every principle of composition, exposure, setting a subject, and finding that perfect moment as described by Cartier-Bresson. Everything I do is very modern. I don’t shoot film very often anymore. I’m primarily a digital photographer. I use a lot of location lighting. I think it’s key to keep in mind those who came first, the very classical practitioners — Don McCullin, Sebastião Salgado, Bresson, Brassaï — all those people who were working with analogue and created all these aesthetics that we now associate with a good documentary image or a good documentary series.
On that note, what do you think about colour and black-and-white?
I think it’s a matter of preference. I don’t think one is better than the other. I think there are certain things that you can communicate by using different mediums of photography. You know, it’s the same argument with analogue and digital. Really, there’s no difference. It’s all about the eye and about how you communicate a certain moment. Yeah, maybe you can change how an image is read through the colour tonality or the harshness of the black-and-white, the contrast. At the end of the day, it is a matter of preference. You know, at the moment I’m shooting black-and-white, I’m just doing local street photography, as a bit of an exercise while I’m doing my MA, just so I’m creating something, and it gets things going a bit.
Back to your subject matter. You tend to gravitate towards portraits, especially of underrepresented people. What do you think made you gravitate towards the format of portraiture? What is the role of the portrait in making them seen?
I came to portraiture originally because when I was studying photography before university, my interest was fashion photography. So I was pretty much entirely producing portraits. I found that when I was making the shift over to documentary photography, I found that I could communicate a lot more through those portraits. I found I had a way of composing an image and communicating with people, getting them to… project some sort of honesty? But there is no honesty in photography. It’s not objective at all. I just found that that was my go-to way of telling a story about a person, or their culture, and what it is that drives them. I think I manage to communicate what makes people tick through portraiture best.
Your portrait of an imam sitting in a mosque was one of the winners of the BJP Portrait of Britain 2021 photo competition. What’s that series about?
That series is about rising secularity in Britain. Britain’s becoming a far more secular country. It has been, well actually since the 1940s, but in recent years it had the most rapid rise in secularity. I wanted to explore that not by necessarily photographing people who were devoid of religion but actually photographing the leaders of religious institutions, primarily Abrahamic religions. So I was doing portraits of priests, imams and rabbis, and doing video interviews with them as well. On that particular day, I was photographing in the mosque. I was doing interviews with the imam and I saw that as a moment and I thought, wow. It was very relevant at the time because it was during the second lockdown. I had permission to go in there because it was for educational purposes, so it was completely empty. That wasn’t just about the mosque, but that was about the landscape of religion in Britain.
Is that series complete? Is it still ongoing?
It’s being re-edited at the moment. You’ll see that there’s not much of it on my website because it’s all being re-edited. I shot digital and analogue for that, and I’ve decided to omit most of the analogue work and re-edit everything from the digital files. It will be available to view at some point but not yet, because it needs quite a good edit.
Why did you join BJP Portrait of Britain 2021? How did you hear about it? Did you already have the series before sending it in, or did you shoot this project because of the competition?
No, no, I had that picture anyway because I did it as part of a project for university. I knew about the award. Everyone knows about BJP, or they should, at least. I joined BJP because I think it’s a very important platform for putting out these bodies of work that would probably go unrecognised, unnoticed otherwise. I think it’s a very good platform for that. And I think the award system is very good because it helps people to project themselves, put their image, even if it’s just one image and their name in one place. This year, they were on the digital billboards! So I knew about it for a while. I’d done it in previous years. I even got shortlisted for another image as well, which was a bit further back in the catalogue. I didn’t seek to make something for Portrait of Britain; this was born out my own initiative as a documentary student.
How did you feel when the results were announced?
I was sat at work and I nearly fell off my chair! I was sat at my desk at work when I saw the email. I didn’t get it originally because it had gone into my spam folder, so I nearly missed it. I was very happy. I took a minute to sit and think, wow, I’ve done something that’s ended up in a BJP publication, and it felt good. It felt like a big achievement.
Did you link up with other awardees as well?
No. I’ve got a few followers on Instagram; followed each other and whatnot, but no, didn’t meet up with anyone. Although one of my fellow students from my undergraduate course at Arts University Bournemouth (AUB) was also a winner so we had a conversation about it, which was nice.
Are you still in touch with that coursemate?
A little bit.
On that note, let’s talk about your education journey. You said you did photography at A Level and decided to pursue it all the way till now, at Master’s level. What was the process?
What happened was that originally I did A Levels and didn’t finish them, but I knew that I wanted to study photography. So I went to art college in Essex to study just photography for two years, and that’s how I ended up at Arts University Bournemouth studying commercial photography. And then, going in there, I thought that’s what I was going to be doing — fashion and advertising — and I did that, but I started experimenting with more editorial-type work, looking at telling real stories and trying to put some sort of fashion edge on it. But I just found myself gravitating more and more towards producing very real stories, and that’s how I ended up as a documentary photographer.
What are your plans after graduating from your MA course? That will be coming soon, in June or July, right?
No, this course started in January. It’s a one-year course, so it starts and ends in January. After that, I’ll have to start taking it very very seriously, trying to find a way to finance my life so I can make my documentary series. And I think that’s going to be through commercial and editorial. I have a freelance business already. I do assisting and portrait photography and editorial photography, so I’ll be looking to expand that whilst working on my documentary practice. As well as that, the Master’s gives me an opportunity to potentially teach. So, I think teaching on a part-time basis would be of interest to me, and I need to put a bit more thought to it. But the aim is to be out there in the world as a documentary photographer, which in this day and age does not pay particularly well. You can’t really hope to have any sort of very high-profile career as a documentary photographer or photojournalist anymore, unless you’re Alec Soth or something. So I’m looking to be working in the photography industry elsewhere and creating my own practice as well.
How has your approach to photography changed as you progressed through formal photography education?
I think it changed the way that I research photography. It changed the sort of photographers I look to for inspiration as well. As a fashion photographer, I was very much looking at Rankin and Nick Knight and these very very modern commercial fashion photographers. Going to university pushed back where I was looking by decades almost, looking at these far more classical practitioners. So it has changed how I research, and I try and read more into the history of what I am doing — the philosophy, the psychology behind it — trying to create images that semantically communicate as well as just looking like a nice image.
I think we can talk about your research process behind every assignment or project you take on. How do you go about the background research and what’s your methodology?
The first step is to think: What is interesting me at the moment? What am I interested in? And then make a list of it. If you’re looking for people who are associated with what you’re interested in, in this day and age with social media, it’s quite easy to find them. So my first step is to go for social media, look for Facebook groups. I can look for points of contact or email addresses, and then I will sit with photobooks that I think are related to what I am doing and look for ways I can approach the subject. Every project I do, aesthetically, is different. I never carry over the same style. It’s always different. So it’s about finding: How do I want to shoot this? Do I want to do film? Or do I want to do digital? Do I want to use lighting, or natural light? Maybe I’ll shoot in a studio? You need to really really sit and read about what it is. Because, say, I’d gone into the mosque to photograph the local Muslim community and I knew nothing about Islam. Really, that would make me an intruder. And you don’t want to be in that position as a photographer. You need to understand your subject and you need to have empathy with your subject. Otherwise, you are just taking advantage of them. So with researching, it’s reading, it’s watching documentaries, it’s sitting with photobooks also related to the subject and seeing how these people made this approach before. Would I do it like this? Would I avoid doing it like that? Aesthetically, how I do I want to honour the reality of what’s in front of me?
You talked about every project you do having a different style or aesthetic. Is this a conscious decision?
It’s a conscious decision. Depending on what you do, there’ going to be a style that’s going to complement it best. Say, I go from photographing Druids who live in Dorset to photographing Holocaust survivors and I shoot in the same style. It’s not going to communicate the individual messages in the right way. Also, I look at photographers who shoot everything in the same style and it doesn’t, for me, make their work any more interesting. In fact, it makes everything look the same: very saturated, aesthetically. Part of the fun of doing this is experimenting with different aesthetics! Why do the same thing every time?
I foresee some kind of tension here. Within the documentary tradition, there are so many different sub-disciplines, and you have these masters that you look up to and refer to, but at the same time, you think that the subject matter deserves an individualised, customised style and approach that best represents it. How do you draw this balance between your inspiration, the canonical masters — this was how they shot, this was their decisive moment — and the realisation that “oh well, I have to change my approach every time on the ground”?
I suppose I just try to have fun with it. As I’ve said, for me, it would be quite boring to carry over the same style into everything I do. But that doesn’t change who I am inspired by. Between projects, I might start looking at entirely different sets of photographers. Then I think, let’s look at how they’re shooting, and start experimenting with that. You don’t need to be set in your ways about who you’re taking inspiration from. And it is about having fun with it, really.
Are you working on any projects at the moment?
At the moment, I’m obviously doing the Master’s, and for my current unit, I’m in the experimentation stage of coming up with a new project; I have a few weeks to do that. What I’m doing here now in Liverpool Street is diving back into where I started with street photography — I haven’t done it in a long time — and then trying to see if I can build some sort of narrative out of it. So I think I’ll be spending a lot of time here in Central London just taking pictures and trying to find a narrative with it. I think, at the moment, I’m interested in the lack of communication that the world has. You know, you walk around and I’m sure you can count how many people you see in a day staring at their phones rather than engaging with the world, and I think I’m trying to see where people are missing out. Just looking up from the phone for a minute and experiencing what’s going on in the world around them. So, I’m trying to put something together at the moment. I have a few ideas for what to shoot on this course.
Will this street photography series end up as your Master’s thesis?
No, this is me trying to engage with the Master’s, really. At this stage, I have to really decide where I want to be as a documentary photographer. This is, for me, very much an exercise in trying to engage with the course. I am now reassociating myself with being back home. I lived in Bournemouth for three years (for uni), so this is partly about re-engaging with where I’m from and building a narrative around it. And also, it’s an opportunity to experiment with something new; just break away from the heavy editorial stuff for a short time and have fun with it.
How long do you think this project will take to finish?
Until it feels done. I mean, you can never really say there’s a definitive point at which to end a project; you can carry on shooting it for ages. I think I’ll just do this until it comes to this unit’s deadline and then start working on something else. It’s sort of a push to get me into the mome