Tuesday, 19 May 2015


Is Humanity Defined By Its Images?

In this exclusive interview series, we speak to David Bailey CBE, Albert Watson and Peter Lik (three of the world’s greatest photographers), HRH Prince Constantijn of the Netherlands (Patron of the World Press Photo Foundation) and Professor Francis Hodgson (Co-Founder of the Pictet Prize). We discuss the powerful role of photography in culture, arts and communication; and examine the true nature of the photograph, the photographer and- in the process- ourselves.


Vikas Shah, Thought Economics, May 2015

The history of human culture is a paradoxical epic, flowing in a series of ebbs, spurts and leaps, yet tied together with a singular narrative, hooked around two significant plot twists. Firstly, the invention of linear writing, and secondly, the image… This connection between writing and the image is perhaps why it is no accident that the word photography itself is derived from the Greek words ‘phos’ (for light) and ‘grapho’ (for writing).

Images are significant surfaces…. Images signify- mainly- something ‘out there’ in space and time that they have to make comprehensible to us as abstractions (as reductions of the four dimensions of space and time to the two surface dimensions)” writes Vilém Flusser. “Images are mediations between the world and human beings. Human beings ‘ex-ist,’ i.e. the world is not immediately accessible to them and therefore images are needed to make it comprehensible.” (Towards a Philosophy of Photography, 1983). This may seem overly philosophical, but we cannot underestimate the cultural significance of a picture. “When we look at a photograph,” writes Dawn Phillips “knowing that it is a photograph, we have a distinctive kind of experience: a visual confrontation with remote but actual objects and events. We scrutinise a photograph with a sense that we are scrutinising the actual objects themselves, although they are distanced from us in time and space. In this way, photographs enable us to gain information, to recollect details, learn new facts and correct mistakes. They can stimulate feelings of delight and disgust. They can cause us to react with shock or sympathy, surprise or recognition. They often sustain attitudes of curiosity, nostalgia and desire; but also an attitude of indifference. These experiences have special epistemic and affective status because they can legitimately be understood as responses to real objects and events.” (Fixing the Image: Rethinking the mind-dependence of photographs, Postgraduate Journal of Aesthetics Vol 6. No.2, August 2009).

It was c.1826 when the first known photograph was taken, as an experiment, by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, of the view from an upstairs window at his estate. This experiment has been succeeded by billions of deliberate acts of recording moments, from the utterly mundane to the unquestionably significant (such as pictures we receive from conflicts and from explorations). Each one takes us on a journey, from an insight into someone’s daily routine to the sense that we are standing right there, on the surface of the Moon, being one of the first two human beings to observe Earth from another celestial body. Each experience is different, but neither is more or less significant than the other.

If ever you doubted the importance of photography, it is estimated that humanity conservatively generates and shares over 700 billion individual photographs per year on the Internet alone. This mix of images manifests as cultural ephemera, art, science and journalism but each represents the fact that “…photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event.” (Henri Cartier-Bresson). So how then, can we define the role of photography in human culture?

In this exclusive interview series, we speak to David Bailey CBE, Albert Watson, and Peter Lik (three of the world’s greatest photographers), HRH Prince Constantijn of the Netherlands (Patron of the World Press Photo Foundation) and Professor Francis Hodgson (Co-Founder of the Pictet Prize). We discuss the powerful role of photography in culture, arts and communication; and examine the true nature of the photograph, the photographer and- in the process- ourselves.

Considered one of the pioneers of contemporary photography, David Bailey is credited with photographing some of the most compelling images of the last five decades. He first rose to fame making stars of a new generation of models including Jean Shrimpton and Penelope Tree. Since then his work has never failed to impress and inspire critics and admirers alike, capturing iconic images of legends such as: The Rolling Stones, the Kray twins, Damien Hirst and Kate Moss, these simple yet powerful black and white images have become a genre in their own right.

Albert Watson has made his mark as one of the world's most successful fashion and commercial photographers during the last four decades, while creating his own art along the way. Over the years, his striking images have appeared on more than 100 covers of Vogue around the world and been featured in countless other publications, from Rolling Stone to Time to Vibe - many of the photographs are iconic portraits of rock stars, rappers, actors and other celebrities. Watson also has created the photography for hundreds of successful advertising campaigns for major corporations, such as Prada, the Gap, Levi's, Revlon and Chanel, and he has directed many TV commercials and shot dozens of posters for major Hollywood movies. All the while, Watson has spent much of his time working on personal projects, creating stunning images from his travels and interests, from Marrakech to Las Vegas to the Orkneys. Much of this work, along with his well-known portraits and fashion photographs, has been featured in museum and gallery shows worldwide.

Peter Lik has spent over 30 years pushing the boundaries of fine art. A self-taught pioneer in the field of landscape photography, he has become synonymous with pristine images of cascading waterfalls, ethereal mountain peaks and peaceful desert canyons.

In 2014, Peter shattered all world records by selling the most expensive photograph in history. "Phantom," his black & white masterwork depicting a ghostlike image at Antelope Canyon, was acquired for an astounding $6.5 million. To accompany this sale, Peter's images "Illusion" and "Eternal Moods" were also acquired for $2.4 million and $1.1 million, respectively. Along with his sale of "One" for $1 million in 2010, Peter now holds four spots out of the top twenty most expensive photographs ever sold. These historic acquisitions not only gained Peter international acclaim, they secured his position as a leader in the field of fine art photography. Amongst the hundreds of prestigious accolades and merits garnered over the years, Peter has been awarded the title of Master Photographer from both the Australian Institute of Professional Photography (AIPP) and Professional Photographers of America (PPA). He has also been awarded fellowships from the British Institute of Professional Photographers (BIPP) and The Royal Photographic Society (RPS). Lik's masterworks include "Pele's Whisper," "Sacred Sunrise," "Eternal Beauty" and the highly acclaimed "Ghost." He has sold upwards of $500 million of artwork to his many valued collectors, including royalty, presidents and celebrities. Peter's images can be viewed in luxurious hotels, prominent estates, leading corporate offices and in all of his galleries around the United States.

Constantijn Christof Frederik Aschwin Prince of the Netherlands, Prince of Orange-Nassau, Esquire of Amsberg was born on October 11, 1969 in Utrecht, the third son of Princess Beatrix and Prince Claus. Prince has two brothers, King Willem-Alexander (1967) and Prince Friso (1968-2013). Since 2008, His Royal Highness Prince Constantijn of the Netherlands is the royal patron of the World Press Photo foundation. World Press Photo is an independent, non-profit organization based in Amsterdam, Netherlands. Founded in 1955 the organization is known for holding the world's largest and most prestigious annual press photography contest.

Francis Hodgson is an internationally recognised critical writer on photography. He studied history at Oxford before completing an MA in Museum and Gallery Management at the City University in London. His dissertation was on UK photographic institutions. Hodgson has separately held a number of senior posts in businesses centred upon the photograph: he has been the Head of the Photographs Department at Sotheby’s auction house and creative director of Photonica and Image Source (both large commercial photo-libraries). Hodgson is a co-founder of the leading photography prize the Prix Pictet (on which he has twice served as chairman of the panel of judges). He has also been the chairman of judges on the Sony World Photography Awards, judged the Jerwood Awards, D&AD, British Journal of Photography Awards and AoP awards among others. He has recently been appointed as Professor in the Culture of Photography at the University of Brighton, his first academic position.

Q: Why does photography matter?

[HRH Prince Constantijn] Photography has brought the world closer and at the same time widened our horizons. It can be highly aesthetic as well as troubling and confrontational. And whereas the images we see are reflections of a frozen moment in time they are also universal, and make us stop, look, and reflect.

Q: Why do we take photographs?

[Prof. Francis Hodgson] We take photographs because we can. Photography is a simple technology, a refinement by hundreds of actors over time of a magical piece of Victorian tinkering. In essence, photography freezes vision. That in turn allows us better to contemplate the world at the human speed which is quite slow. I read somewhere that certain hawks have vision as good as 20/2, some eight times more acute than human sight. Goshawks probably don't need to freeze vision in order to make sense of it. Humans do; and once the technology was available, we availed ourselves of the ability whenever we could.

The magic, by the way, is not necessarily that certain materials are light sensitive. The magic was being able to freeze that. If your kids leave a tent out on the lawn for any length of time a pale shape will show where the sun was prevented from reaching the grass. Same with a watch-strap preventing the sun from tanning your wrist. That's not very exciting until you can find some way of freezing that effect after the tent or watch has gone. That's what the early photographers did. Once you had that – once, in effect ¬you had parcels of portable sight – you could compare one to another, you could compare one to real life elsewhere and so on. Photography allows us to think about the world. It starts with that most empirical of certainties: I can see that. Of course we know that not all photographs speak the literal truth, far from it. No matter how many times we see tricked or wrong photographic versions of the truth, we cannot shake the base conviction. I see it. It may not be right, and that needs explanation or solution. But I see it. And the particular trick of photography? I still see it, even though it's not there any more.

Q: What is the role of photography culture?

[David Bailey] Photography was the first great recording, allowing people to record the moment. The moment is the only thing you’ve got when you think about it… As we’re talking now, we’re already history, but a photograph can turn it into a moment.

Forget all the art sh** and all that nonsense, people keep albums to keep memories alive. Your brain can’t cope with all your memories, as you get older, your hard drive gets overloaded. If you see a snap from the 1970s or whatever, you might think ‘oh, I remember that moment!’ but if you didn’t have it? The moment would have been gone forever, and nobody would remember it.

Photography is a great moment-taker, much more than movies….

[Albert Watson] Asking the role of photography in culture, is like asking the same question of an art-form like painting. You can have pop-art and many other genres, and even see distinct differences between periods of the same artist like Gaugin, for example; and each of these will have a different emotional impact on you.

The one interesting thing about photography, and why I think it has such mass-appeal, is that it’s very easy to understand. You can take different things out of a photograph, and have different interpretations, but for the majority of photography you will find that the majority of people understand what it is. Regardless of whether it’s a Cartier-Bresson, Avedon, Adams or otherwise, people can still tell what it is, understand it and appreciate it very much. The average person can understand photography to a high degree. Obviously, the more information you have and the more knowledge of art you have, the more you may be able to take out of the picture… If you take somebody from the middle of nowhere and put them in a 3* Michelin, they may like it and say it was pretty good however, you can take a gourmet food-critic to the same restaurant and he will take something else out of it. There are different levels of appreciation and understanding in food, art, photography and all parts of culture.

[Peter Lik] Photography is like any other art form – it is all about communicating a message. It is there to remind us of something, teach us something and even create emotion. Taking pictures is also an important way to stay connected to something or someplace when we are elsewhere. We love the art form because it uses very real subject matter and translates an idea through imagery in a way that we could never experience with the naked eye.

[Prof. Francis Hodgson] The literate of today is literate in pop music and films and advertisements and design and food and maybe football, too. Among all that, photography lies at the centre. Photography, by its accessibility has been a great democratizing tool. Who needs a mandarinate with such a simple communication tool of such power to everybody's hand?

I suppose my view is that photography is our culture. There used to be three relatively large industries implicitly derived from photography : making cameras, making film, and processing and developing. Now, as those industries have atrophied, another group of even larger industries is unthinkable without photography, though photography itself is not their business. Pop music, so largely devoted to that word 'image'. Politics, vast swathes of the travel business, fashion, even publishing. Advertising, of course. For all of them, photography is not the prime product nor even necessarily a very important product. Yet all of them are unthinkable without the central role of photography. Apple does not ask us to think of itself as a camera-manufacturer; yet every smart-phone is a camera, as we know. Apple doesn't ask us to think of itself as a processing and developing firm; yet every smart-phone user distributes pictures through them. Photographs have always been regarded as culturally marginal – in my view quite wrongly. Here the phenomenon is repeated in its new guise. Photographs are central in these large businesses even though they are not photographic businesses.

It's a very odd fact that photography has remained very largely a cottage industry of many small producers, even as other cultural production has been rapidly agglomerated. In spite of Getty images (and its imitator, Corbis), brilliant agglomerators if ever there were, corporate control of photography remains slight. Think of newspaper reviewing, something I have done through all my career. If you review opera, or books, or the theatre, or dance, or pop music, or television, or films, you deal with a number of monolithic houses which exert a remarkable control over all production, even if they don't quite own it all.

In photography, that is not so. Photographs are produced everywhere, distributed almost by seepage. 'Famous' ones are not really distributed much more than vulgar or meretricious ones. See only the tidal waves that pass on the internet every so often, for cat-bearding, or hamuketsu if you doubt it. Very few photographs are produced as cultural artefacts and consumed as such.

They have become central to identity, memory, activism of various kinds. The desire to be clear about who one is and how one would like the world to be - these things are now articulated in photographic terms. Or perhaps in photographic terms first.

Q: Why has photography become such an appealing art-form?

[David Bailey] Photography has become appealing because it’s so easy! That won’t make you Ansel Adams or Richard Avedon, but you may think you are! People can mess-about with images on Photoshop, and kid themselves that they’re artists. Photography has to be art if it’s gonna’ be any good.

[Prof. Francis Hodgson] We're only really just beginning to shake the notion of art out of photography. The historiography of photography has largely been written until fairly recently in terms borrowed from art-history. One can say ( I do say ) that photography is at the very core of every development in art certainly since the latter third of the nineteenth century. Some artists have run away from it, others have embraced it. None has been able to ignore it or to remain indifferent to it. I remember a major exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1989, celebrating the hundred-and-fiftieth 'official' anniversary of photography. The Academy sent out press releases congratulating itself on its daring in showing photography seriously for the first time. In 1989 ! I wrote a snippy little article saying that every single one of the artists they had shown in those hundred-and-fifty years had been passionately, obsessively involved in photography even if they had never held a camera. The Academy was hopelessly late, not daringly early. Photography is the core of our visual culture. Ask not how it relates to art. Ask rather how art relates to it.

At the opening of that same Royal Academy show, the great English documentary photographer Ian Macdonald stood up and made a very plain speech. Among other good things, he said this:

"Two of the most obvious things about photographs intrigue me, their stillness and silence; these are for me also their major strengths. Photographs, being silent and still, preclude reality other than in that most superficial sense of the representation of an apparent likeness. In precluding reality they fall into the realm of myth, where everyone is free to invent by association as they see fit, for the meaning of each photograph is conditioned by those personal experiences the onlooker takes to viewing each image. This makes many types of photograph universally accessible. It follows that it is close to impossible even to contemplate the irrelevant notion, which is, are photographs Art? As Paul Strand so succinctly stated 'All painting is not art'".

The principal approach to photography has ignored that sound sense. For years, photographs have been shown in exhibitions and sequenced in monographs as though they were watercolours. Throw your mind back a few years to recall that news pictures or commercial pictures or scientific pictures or sports pictures or family albums used not to be considered quite respectable until the book or the exhibition had appeared; as though, in fact, photography had to borrow the old Victorian habit of the media it had so comprehensively blown out of the water as cutting-edge and modern. Certainly, vernacular photographs of every kind flew under the radar. The truth is that photography itself has taken our old notions of aesthetics and thrown them up in the air. As I wrote some time ago, ugliness and horror and pain and squalor slide onto light-sensitive paper just easily as grace and harmony. Who cares, in the end, quite how this Protean medium deals with the finer points of limited editions or sales to collectors or canons of star names? Photography represents visual thinking. In the end, it is not only aesthetics that photography turned arsey-turvey. Communication itself has been re-shaped by photography. We live in the post-photographic world.

Q: What is the purpose of the photograph (as an artifact)?

[Peter Lik] For me, the purpose of the photograph is to keep an image present and tangible. There are some scenes that just beg to be photographed – at least that’s why I do what I do. The beauty of Mother Nature needs to be shared. My role is to capture beauty in a way that will translate and hopefully affect the viewer. Everyone plays that game when they are a kid and you look up at the clouds and see all sorts of different faces and objects – but everyone sees something different. Part of being a photographer is the challenge of getting across what you personally see in a single frame. I think people are most drawn to the photographs that are very successful in that way.

[Prof. Francis Hodgson] To be interested in photography itself is by definition to be interested in everything. It's not just that everything can somehow be photographed. It's also that in photography we invented many of the ways of thinking which are characteristic of the era. For example, it was in photography that we first found that we could habitually experience something without analysis. The repercussions of that are huge. The modern political sound-bite, for example, is received as a photograph. It is aural, not visual, but it plainly traces its ancestry back to the photograph. To rub up against experience and to keep the choice whether to make something of it or to pass on by, that may be the true legacy of photography . All over the contemporary cultural map, we see ways in which we are exposed to experience without having to make sense of it. Video games and the cinema, of course have that, direct descendants of photography as they are. But even the modern experience of driving a car seems to be post-photographic. Many writers have noticed the distancing effect of driving along on one's own upholstery, listening to one's own music on the stereo, watching the world process silently by on a large screen ahead. Cars are the way they are for all sorts of reasons. But we experience driving them in ways of thought learnt in photographs.

The very odd thing is that nothing has proved resistant to photography. I know of no field which once photography had made inroads into it was not hugely altered by that fact. Indeed, a terrific recent book which came out of a project at the Smithsonian is simply called Photography Changes Everything. One of the examples there concerns ophthalmology. "When ophthalmic photography went from being documentary to diagnostic it changed the practice of ophthalmology and subsequently saved the vision of millions of people worldwide." That's a very photographic story, repeated often. Photography arrives somewhere a useful tool. Sooner or later the field is radically upheaved by photography. The history of photography is the history of a continuous uninterrupted expansion; constant boom, like the Big Bang. Photography is successful in the Darwinian sense. It adapts easily to new uses and roles. Every circumstance is a field for photography. New technology comes along, and for a while voices are heard, "That's it, photography is over…" It's still here, more than ever.

The photograph itself corresponds so well to all of that that it's almost uncanny. Small, cheap, light, portable, reproducible….If a camera can be pointed at anything, then a photograph matches that by being able to be shown to anyone. Photographs are as nearly as anything in the world transcultural, transnational. They slide onto screens more nearly unchanged than most kinds of imagery. Graspable by a four-year old or by a university professor, photographs remain around the world as a mulch of things seen. Of course many of them are probably not very interesting in their own right – until someone decides to be interested in them. When that happens, they all are. Anyone can be an editor with photographs. Increasingly, with the explosion in digital photography, everyone is. For a teenage boy to tear a picture of a model or a singer out of a magazine and pin it to the back of his bedroom door is an act of curatorship every bit as justifiable as for a major department head to go three times before her acquisitions board to ask for a huge sum for a masterpiece. The photograph respects no boundaries, knows no restrictions. It's an invitation to think (whether that may be to argue or dream or catalogue) from which no one is barred.

Q: What is the essence of a great photograph?

[David Bailey] Photography is not an art, like painting is not an art, and it depends on whether the person doing it is an artist or not. 

You need to have it in your genes, you can’t teach art. You can teach techniques, and with photography that’s the trouble- you have people that are technically good and that overshadows the art. There’s a snobbery about photography because it’s so easy to do, but people don’t realise; so is drawing. A bad drawing tells you more about the person than a bad photograph… A bad photograph is a recording machine, but a bad drawing is someone’s bad drawing.

There are many millions of people are out there taking pictures, and very few float to the surface… it’s always been like that. Even in something as superficial as modelling, there’s only ever 10 great ones in the world at any given moment. You can’t explain someone like Kate Moss… maybe she’s not the most beautiful girl in the world, but she’s the most photogenic girl in the world… but you can’t explain it, and that’s what makes it so interesting.

It’s like meeting your heroes, often it leaves you with regrets (well, I don’t do regrets!)… I slightly regret the fact that I never photographed Picasso, but on the other hand; suppose I walked into his studio and there he was, and he farted! It would be terrible for me, because he changed my life! Now this old, balding fat man farts! I didn’t want to meet him, I wanted to keep him where he was. My two biggest influences are Disney and Picasso

[Peter Lik] I don’t know. It is a question that is almost too impossible to answer. There are just certain images that people are drawn to for a variety of reasons. A simple answer is that if someone thinks it is “great” then it is – because it is to that person. Even with all the talent, timing, luck, experience and solid gear in the world, there is still no guarantee that you are going to come up with a shot within the realm of greatness. For me, I have literally put myself out there every single day for over thirty years. When you have that much dedication the odds start to swing in your favour and a few really good things have come out of that. Good old-fashioned hard work is the best way to get there. No doubt at all.

[Prof. Francis Hodgson] Photography does borrow solid old-fashioned habits. Composition, tonal range, 'interest' evenly spread across the plane, verisimilitude, legibility….these are not much different to those prevailing in much older imaging systems. But the fantastically effective message-carrying ability of photographs is not only bound in with those. We see photographs, but we also read photographs, if given half a chance.

For a long time I have struggled with the idea that the principal difficulty photographers must overcome if they wish to convey complex messages is that of holding the eye of the viewer on the page for long enough. Photographs, we know, can carry wonderfully sophisticated and subtle messages. But they can't do that if that the viewer sees them in one gobbet, and is gone. Photographs are swiftly graspable for their base content. As conveyors of one-liners, they are unequalled. Buy this. Hate that. Here's Nana. He did it… But a viewer once invited to linger upon them, can get much, much more through them. So a photographer who takes the trouble to use in a picture all the resources of his accumulated visual culture to lead a viewer around the elements of the picture in the way he wants them to be led can expect that viewer to follow an argument, be persuaded of a belief, be referred to a previous cultural position – and so on. There is nothing that words can do that photographs can't. Parody, description, wit, allusion and reference, different 'voices', narrative … all of it. If only a photographer can slow the eye down long enough, all of that is possible within photography. Some do it by making the surface less slippery: by building in surfaces of their own under the slick, skiddy, eye-repelling surface of 'normal' photographic objects. Others do it by composition. Others again by reference to what the viewer already knows. Greatness in photography does not lie only in great skill. It lies in great skill in the service of great messages. I suppose I think that a great photographer at the height of her powers is not merely a wonderful catcher of the world, but a great communicator. Certainly, a very fine photograph with nothing to say is not a very fine photograph.

Q: What is the role of the photographer?

[Prof. Francis Hodgson] If you follow the line that photography is a branch of art-history, the role of the photographer is easy and plain to describe: a specialist kind of (usually realist) artist, equipped with certain kinds of light sensitive equipment, and with a specific visual cultural background. There has for a long time been a peculiar slipperiness to photographs. We got used to the idea that the same picture might mean powerfully different things according to the context in which it was found. A news picture became something very different on gallery walls, that was the standard example. So then one asked about the original purpose of the photographer, and answered as one could.

If , on the other hand, you don't limit yourself to that art-historical line then the question is much more difficult. My own view, over a number of fairly recent years, has inclined towards there being a rift so huge in the middle of 'photography' that we need new language to describe it. For me, the number of practitioners who are actively concerned with the past culture of photography – who situate themselves in some line of development within it, whose work is in some way a critique of work they know to have preceded them, and who address themselves to audiences consciously interested in photography – is diminishing fast. For those, I propose to reserve the word 'photographer'. For the others, the millions and millions for whom photography is a rapid, effective transcription or message-passing system, essentially neutral and not really to be thought about in its own right except in so far as it serves the purposes it is applied to, I propose to use the phrase 'camera operator'. The distinction is borrowed from the cinema, of course, where the industry has had no great difficulty separating out the role of the imaginative, creative, cultured cinematographer from the technical, effective, role of the operator.

In Britain today, and I suppose pretty much elsewhere, it is standard for the traffic wardens who ticket your car for being wrongly parked to take many dozens of pictures a day to be used in evidence. They are not amateur productions: the job of the people making them is intrinsically bound to their effectiveness in making those pictures. In fact, those pictures have by definition to be good enough to stand up in court. Yet those traffic wardens are not remotely interested in photography, nor are they expecting their audience to take any interest in the making of the photographs they produce, but only in what they depict. In the jargon, they are making photographs to be transparent. In my coinage, they are camera operators, not photographers, even though their use of photography is so deliberate, serious, and professional.

It used to be that a top commercial photographer was definitely in the former category. She was trusted as a creative artist to represent the brand's purported values. The photographer was a kind of creative director or a design consultant whose style and manner were as much in the hire as her control of cameras and lights. But that has changed immeasurably. As commercial clients have become more anxious to control every detail of the messages they send out, and as the costs of error have multiplied enormously, so it has become more usual for the photographer's leash to be tightened and tightened. The commercial photographer won't be a photographer for long ( saving exceptions ). She'll be a camera operator, controlled by agency representatives and client representatives physically present in the studios, looking shot by shot at Mac screens.

More and more fields like that, formerly clear zones of photography, will become zones of camera operation.

But all photographs are interesting once somebody has become interested in them. So my construction goes one step farther. Much of the impact of photographs is not down to the photographer, but to the editors, curators, picture editors, picture researchers, designers … who use them, down to and including that boy who tore a picture of a singer to put on his bedroom door. We're all editors, now. If we are online, we wallow in a giant archive, all the time. I suspect it was always true that the great photographs were the ones somebody had described as great. Now, that's obviously the case. Put pictures together – any pictures – in a sensible way, and you have a communication package ( if I can call it that ) not dreamt by the photographer. Whether it's rescuing supposedly naïve vernacular photographs for sophisticated ethnographic or anthropological ends, or merely putting 'nice' kitchens on Pinterest, the grammar and syntax of picture-editing and curation are now available to everyone, as the vocabulary of making pictures has been for some time.

It may be that one day photography in the sense I've outlined will have reverted to a kind of museum art-form, practised by a few archaeologising specialists in vintage materials and processes. But the ability to archive ( the privilege of archiving ) will not cease to be available to wider and wider groups.

Q: What’s the role of aesthetic and beauty in photography?

[David Bailey] Of course photography has an aesthetic and beauty, if you’re an artist. It’s only a paintbrush! I paint, take pictures and make bronzes, there’s no difference for me… It’s making an image of something you haven’t seen before.

Copying is the worst thing you can do though; actually… there’s one thing worse than copying another artist, and that’s copying yourself. That really is disaster, it means you’ve got nowhere to go… Nobody knows how they’re going to continue inventing something new, if I did? I’d fu****g go to Samsung and bottle it!

You need the accidental to make art, and that’s why digital isn’t so good.

[Albert Watson] For me, a photograph is there to represent minimalism, memorability and simplicity. If I mention a photo that I’ve done, in less than a second you will register that image and remember it, and almost give me a description of that image. For example, the Steve Jobs image that I did for the cover of his book or a movie poster for something like Kill Bill with Uma Thurman and a sword!

Simplicity enables you to remember a picture carefully. It’s something I strive for, but I’m not saying it’s the essential ingredient. There is a photograph by Cartier-Bresson for example, of a family on a Sunday having a picnic by the Seine. It’s much harder to describe that picture, it was shot from the back, they were sat on a grassy bank with the river in front of them, I then start to wonder what they were eating, what the table-cloth was and so forth. There are complex photos that are important, but I’m saying that simplicity and power are something that I’m quite interested in. I don’t always achieve it, but I continue trying.

I have been involved in many different types of photography, and if you take one of my books such as ‘Cyclops’ you could be on a page looking at a still-life of Elvis Presley’s suit, and then turn the page and see prisoners at Louisiana penitentiary and then see Haute Couture in Paris. I’ve always had different projects. I’ve always done still-life, I’ve always done landscape, I’ve always done celebrity portraits, fashion and so on. The smallest component is maybe reportage, but I still have quite a lot of that also.

I trained firstly as a graphic designer at what used to be called St. Anne’s University in Dundee, which is now Dundee University, and at the time took photography as a craft project. After this, I went to the Royal College of Art in London in 1960s which- at the time- was a 3 year course, and attended film school. I had seven years of art training there, specialising in graphic design with craft subject of photography- and onto film school where I wanted to be a director. If you put these components together, you can analyse all the pictures I’ve done, and drop them into the category of film, graphics or a combination of those two.

A classic graphic piece for example, maybe a monkey with a gun, it’s not just pure graphics; but graphics combined with a concept. You have to come up with the idea to start with of portraying a monkey with a gun, and then come up with the solution- which is the graphic itself.

[Peter Lik] Photography does have its own beauty. Capturing the moment is important but how it is captured and then produced is what really takes it to an artistic level. After doing this for over 30 years I have learned so much about looking at a scene with the naked eye and understanding how to recreate it through the lens. You gotta consider light, shadow, colour, time of day, texture, angles, formats (panoramic or otherwise), and an overall unique perspective that sets it apart from any other photograph. Before I release any image, it must call back to the moment I snapped the shutter. It’s never about just capturing the moment – it’s also about capturing the feeling you had at the moment. The way you felt when you saw it for the first time. That’s the beautiful part.

Anyone that knows anything about me knows that I see Mother Nature and beauty as synonymous. There is nothing sad or ugly about her. Maybe it’s the ultimate innocence and that’s what beauty is to me. I’ve often said that she is the artist and I’m just there to capture her work. There’s also the old saying that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. That line has stood the test of time because it has always been and always will be totally true. There is no possible way for me to say exactly why any particular image or scene will captivate me – and even if I did know why, it would not be the same reason for the next one I encounter. If something has the right aesthetic it just speaks to me – to my soul.

[HRH Prince Constantijn] Photography is as rich as humanity. There are so many purposes, subjects, colors, angles. Endless choices make the medium so interesting. From pure aesthetics to raw depiction of reality. From a selfie to a staged setting. Digital technology and distribution now allow new layers of expression and communication, through the reuse, combining and manipulation of images. It has further widened the medium

Q: How can photography communicate the essence of a person?

[Albert Watson] After film school, I was involved in a lot of direction and did over 500 commercials. When Steve Jobs said, “what do you want me to do?” I said, “I have a very simple idea, I know you’re scheduled for an hour, but I can get you out in 35 minutes…. [which made him very happy].” I asked him to just give me one look, and asked him to imagine sitting across a table from 20 people that are against him, and don’t want to do what he wanted to do, but told him to remember that he knows that his way is the right way, and that he will win… He said, “I can do that, I deal with it every day!” Consequently, he did the look, and was unblinking at the camera, and didn’t hesitate; he was direct and that’s when I took the shot.

There’s some more background to this too. Steve Jobs challenged the fact that I was shooting on film and not digital! I was shooting on a 4x5 camera, which is quite old-fashioned and has bellows on it. It’s quite a long-lens and gives you a lot of compression in the shot. Telephoto lenses tend to bring a lot of aspects of the face onto the same plane by compressing the face; not so much to distort it, but somehow making it’s aspects more immediate to the camera. Part of the look of the shot was due to that. For elements like that, you don’t want the subject to be aware, that’s my job, but important nevertheless in capturing the essence of the subject.

[Peter Lik] Every time I look at a photograph, I learn more about myself. Even the photographs I don’t particularly like still help me understand my own tastes and style. When we watch a film or stare at a piece of art, all we really see is what our spirit wants to see. There is always some kind of message in there somewhere. If we take the time to examine what we are feeling and thinking at that moment we might learn volumes. A single image can change the way you view the world.

Q: What has been the relationship of technology to photography?

[David Bailey] If I go to Afghanistan, or somewhere a bit dodgy, I’ll take digital because I don’t want to fu** about getting rolls of film when I’m coming in and out of a helicopter. When I went to find the head-hunters, I wanted a camera that was serviceable and quick. That’s a different kind of photography.

If you’re going to learn photography, you need to learn film. Even though it won’t be used in the future, it’s still a good basic way of learning. It’s like the renaissance guys; most of them could draw very well… they didn’t need to! I’ve never seen a drawing of Francis Bacon. To be a great artist you don’t need to draw, but many do, it teaches you about shade and colour.

[Albert Watson] I remember many years ago when my son in the studio looking at one of my cameras. On the front of a camera you have shutter speed, f-stops, distance guides, depth of field guides and so on. He looked at me and very innocently asked if I knew what all those numbers meant…. Well, of course yes is the answer! However, for the masses; they didn’t know and weren’t quite sure what the relationship between shutter speed and aperture was. The advent of digital and mobile photography has taken all of that knowledge out of the users hands and onto the camera, it’s removed the mystery of photography and democratised it. Anyone can take a half-decent picture of the Empire State Building, Big Ben or whatever; they don’t need to worry what those numbers on the camera mean!

There is still however, a gigantic difference between amateur and professional photography. The difference is between somebody who drives to work every day, and somebody who is a grand-prix racing driver. There are many amateurs who are posting interesting things; but as far as someone who is working as a real professional, unless you are dealing with a Mozart situation (which people always like to bring up, even though there’s only been one Mozart, one Einstein, one Michelangelo, and so on…) it’s a huge gulf to cross. When you’re younger, 15,16,19,20,21 for example; you can use that argument and inspiration, ‘well, if they can do it… I can’ but an amateur photographer would have to significant work to get into the realms of a professional.

Artistically, there could be one component of an amateur that has a certain appeal without them realising what that appeal is. There are many books available, and collectors, that put together snapshots of amateur photography; and they’ve been curated with a good idea. A lot of amateur photography can look like fine-art pictures. Many may say this makes the argument null and void. You have here an amateur who can take something that a collector wants… but a lot of it is accidents and mistakes, and the naivety and primitiveness is part of the charm and appeal. With someone’s good eye who rescues that image from the garbage, they can put it on show! There was an exhibition a couple of years ago at MoMa in New York where collectors put together a beautiful exhibition of snapshots taken by unknown amateurs who didn’t know what they were doing!

[Peter Lik] Photography wouldn’t exist without technology. Without a paintbrush, a painter can’t paint. Without tools, a sculptor can’t sculpt. Without a camera, there is no photograph. Technology has advanced in every art form including photography and I totally embrace it. When I started out, there was no GPS or Google maps. I had to wait weeks sometimes just to see a handful of shots and I was lucky if I even had one good one. Now I can get a good understanding of the shot right there on the spot with my digital cameras. With modern technology I can also check weather patterns, moon phases and I don’t get lost nearly as much!

Q: What is the role of sex, love and the basic human traits in photography?

[David Bailey] I can’t see any difference between photography, art and sculpture…

You see equal sex in Caravaggio or Bernini. If you look at The Ecstasy of St. Teresa, it’s the sexiest piece of art in the world! It’s sexier than any photograph I’ve ever seen. If you’re gay? Caravaggio’s Boys is probably the sexiest thing you’ll see, he manages to make those boys look so naughty and sexy!

A woman climaxing is the most exciting thing I’ve ever seen in my life! It beats a fu****g sunset.

Q: What is the essential beauty of landscapes and cities that means we want to capture them?

[Peter Lik] Although I am more known for images found in the natural world, I am also amazed at mankind’s brilliant endeavors to decorate this planet. That’s why I love places like New York. It is this sense of awe that you get when looking at architecture on such a grand scale. Perhaps landscapes and cities are so attractive as art pieces because they are often expansive and very difficult to just grab a shot of or even see with the naked eye in their entirety. In all of my photographs, I want you to see every detail there is – whether it’s the Chrysler Building or Mount Huangshan in China. You can stare at them for hours – get lost in them. How often in your everyday life can you gaze at miles of the Great Wall or a Hawaiian coastline in total solace? These photographs take you there, to that peaceful and serene moment – away from the distractions of the day-to-day life.

Q: What is the role of photography in the press and journalism?

[HRH Prince Constantijn] The combination of photography with text, written or spoken is very powerful. One image can say more than words could ever do, but text gives context and nuance that may be missing in a photograph. A written testimony doesn’t carry the same weight of photographic proof. Together they make journalism what it is today. 

Great photos have many layers. The true skill is to capture an image that tells a whole story, that conveys a sentiment, a feeling, a sensation to those who were not a witness and do not know the circumstances. 

Q: What is the role of philanthropy in photography?

[HRH Prince Constantijn] Good journalism sells good newspapers. With digitization the business, the craft and the delivery are all changing, but there is still a huge need and reward for quality reporting and imagery. Philanthropy may help in this transition, to ensure good photographers get the support they need to adjust their practices and become more entrepreneurial. There are also projects and stories that may never sell but need to be recorded and communicated. Here philanthropy has a role to play, as well as in archiving, storage and digitizing images. By the way, WPP is supported by sponsors and philanthropists, but its not in itself a philanthropic organization. It is an organization that defends the highest standards in the craft and actively promotes and trains the most talented photojournalists. It is activist in the best tradition.

Q: Can photographs change the world?

[David Bailey] A photograph stopped the Vietnam War I think, the girl on fire… It’s just a press picture. That’s not art, it’s being there. Taking a picture and making a picture are two different things. I’m not saying taking a picture isn’t important, it is… if it’s the right picture, in the right place… but you can’t call it art, if there was 500 photographers stood next to you, they would all have taken the same fu****g picture. The other famous picture, of the bloke shooting a guy? Turns out it gave the wrong impression, because the bloke was a real ar** hole…

[Vikas: what about now?]There are too many people in the world. Politicians go on about petrol, but the simple thing- which is so obvious- is that there’s too many people! Eventually, the world won’t be able to take it… Scientists aren’t going to solve it, unless we can find a cheap way to go to other planets; and they’re not going to do that. It’s a bit like Easter Island, they cut down all the trees, burnt them and they were stuck on the island; and the Earth is just an island in the universe. The only other thing that could unite the human race is the discovery of aliens. [Vikas: do you think they exist?] I can only go by my common sense, which is very limited. If I met God, I wouldn’t be able to comprehend him anyway. I don’t believe in God, I believe there’s something else, maybe quantum maths, who knows, or maybe we’re the dream of Krishna, who knows, collective electricity, I don’t know what the fu** it is, and if someone showed me, I couldn’t comprehend it; my brain’s not big enough. We’ll never find out who God is, our brains just aren’t big enough! There’s a story that when Captain Cook first came into contact with Aborigines, they couldn’t see his boats because they couldn’t comprehend them.. That’s a bit like seeing God, on a lower level.

[Albert Watson] The speed of communication is growing exponentially, and photography is at the forefront of that. On a Friday night, a couple of weeks ago, I was at a restaurant in Moscow about 400 yards from where Boris Nemtsov was assassinated. I heard sirens and things like that, but assumed it was a fire or some other event. After the dinner, I got back to my hotel and put on CNN and saw the pictures of the bridge next to where I was!

If Jennifer Lawrence, in California, does a nude picture of herself and sends it to her boyfriend through the internet as little tiny electrons and pixels, a hacker can- within a few seconds can intercept that image from their computer in, say, Australia and spread it! It’s the speed of the communication that has an aspect of the power.

Photography has been around for about 150 years in it’s modern form, but never before have we had the speed of communication. It’s not just how the pictures affect you when you get them, but their immediacy.

I’m always amazed at speed. I can be in Paris reading my copy of the New York times before anyone in New York is; that’s because they publish at 4am New York time, consequently it’s 10:00am in Paris and I’m sat having breakfast reading the paper before New York has woken up. Of course photography can alter things dramatically, but it’s how fast those images disseminate across the planet that’s important.

[HRH Prince Constatijn] Not by themselves, but a photo can influence events, change behavior, make politicians amend policies, outrage a community. Photos raise awareness, expose abuse, and by doing so turn the public from unknowing bystanders into potential agents for change. They now have a choice to act or look away, but the photo disallows us to hide in innocence and ignorance. 

[Prof. Francis Hodgson] I have been involved since its very beginning with the Prix Pictet, a huge prize routinely described as the largest in photography. That distributes ( and awards ) some of the most moving photography you could imagine on the broad theme of sustainable development and the environment. Year after year, we have evidence that those pictures, edited and 'creative-directed' as they are, have an extraordinarily powerful effect where they land as they tour the world. There's nothing revolutionary about it. It's the old, old documentary impulse in a more contemporary guise: do but show something clearly as it is, and you very likely show the need to change it.

Q: What would a world be like without photography?

[David Bailey] A world without photography is beyond comprehension! It’s such an important part of our lives… thinking about it though, it probably wouldn’t make much difference…. If there was no Oranges in the world, or no Coffee, or no Bananas, would it make a difference?

If there was no art in the world? Would it make a difference? If there was no religion or flag-waving, I think the world would be better. I don’t like religion and flags…

You need poetry in the world, it’s as important as food; although you can’t tell that to someone who’s starving, they’d choose the food… They wouldn’t choose an Eliot, they’d say, ‘let’s have a cheese sandwich!’ [laughs]

We’re like ants, but we have art. Ants have practicality… Art takes us out of the norm in a way. Most animals don’t seem to be artistic, but I’ve never been in the brain of a chimpanzee. I think we’re collective animals, and what we imagine tends to happen- and that’s scary. There must be a collective consciousness to make that happen, and you need the ar** hole artist to come along and say, ‘I don’t agree with that…

[Albert Watson] I remember going to do the collections in Rome where I may have been for 2 weeks in the 1970s and early 80s. There were often a couple of days between shoots, and I was often on my own or with an assistant. On a few rare occasions, there was time to do some visiting, but after 20 years of shooting collections in Rome, you get bored of seeing the Coliseum! Sometimes you get trapped in your room, and back then you only had Italian television. Now, technology means that with sling-players, I can watch [nearly] live British TV in my living room here in New York! I have 120 channels of British Television and I can watch everything from Match of the Day to the 6 O’Clock News and record it if I want to. The difference in technology has made a huge change to availability meaning I can now be in Rome and watch whatever television I want, instantly. I can switch on and see live CNN with barely a second delay to anywhere in the world.

I remember what it was like before I had my television available to me 24/7! I used to take a lot of books with me, and was reading. I had several magazines that I’d read cover to cover. You adapt to what’s in front of you, and based on what’s available to you.

If you don’t have a smartphone to take selfies of yourself, then you don’t do it! Technology has altered our social patterns gigantically!

If you want to get a gauge of what life was like before photography? Read a Charles Dickens’ book! That was an era where photography was beginning but was still pretty brand new.

[Peter Lik] Terrible. Horrible. What would I do for a living? No one would believe the things I’ve seen in nature without the photographs to prove it! That sounds like a frustrating nightmare to me.

[HRH Prince Constantijn] I would like to rephrase this question. What will the world be like when no photograph can be trusted to convey the truth. All digital images can be easily manipulated. Where humans are inclined to believe what they see this may be a thing of the past. I don’t dare to speculate what this will do to trust in society, the legal system, politics, etc.

Q: What do you see for the future of photography?

[HRH Prince Constantijn] I am not the person to ask. All I see is that the trade changes. That the photographer becomes more important as a personality. That viewers and readers can be reached in many different ways and that there are a lot of opportunities in the traditional and new media opening up for photographers who dare to be entrepreneurial. There is always a market and an audience for creative ideas, imaginative storytelling and high quality journalism. I’d hope that the next generation and the ones that follow will continue to strive to deliver this to their audiences.

[David Bailey] I don’t give a sh** about the future of photography, if it’s not there, there’ll be something else… I don’t think photography or art is precious, the artist is precious. The people who made the gothic cathedrals are great artists, but nobody knows who they were! They were probably some of the most exciting buildings ever built, much more exciting than the pyramids… which were wonderful in their simplicity… but something about the gothic Churches is beyond imagination; a bit like in India, some of the temples are incredible, those sex temples are just breath-taking.

We need the rebel, the poet. Count Basie was asked; ‘what’s jazz?’ (it’s like asking what art is… )He replied, ‘It’s four beats to the bar and no cheating…’ I’ve lived my life like that ever since.

Q: What would be your message to the future creatives?

[David Bailey] If you want to be an artist you’re in trouble… You either are creative, or you’re not. My greatest advantage over most people is that I’m completely dyslexic, so I see the world completely different to the average person… If there was more people like me, my vision wouldn’t be so interesting!

When I was growing up, I wanted to be Chet Baker. I mucked about with photography, but I never thought it was anything to do with art, I never really thought about art. Being dyslexic, I didn’t have a choice. I had to be something to do with the visual world- movie making, or whatever.

You don’t have to be great… most art is boll***s, remember that. It’s that thing which makes us not be like ants. If you enjoy making art? Do it!

You can’t teach art. Artists should be like Shamans, they think outside the box. Most people don’t even know what the box is, so how can they get out of it?

[Albert Watson] I’ve always maintained an old-fashioned look at life. I was interested in diverse subject matter, that was personal to me. A lot of people challenged that and told me that people wouldn’t understand who I was, but I challenged that and said that it was about the photography, the work, and not me… People don’t have a problem understanding that they can switch on their TV and see the 6 O’Clock News, and that they can hit the remote and see football or an old-movie. They understand that each of those has a category and can be analysed for what it is. You don’t have to follow a convention…..

However…. Early on in my career, I would take a picture on a Monday that I thought was the Sistine Chapel, by Tuesday I wasn’t quite sure and by Wednesday it was in the bin. It was always interesting to me why I liked something so much on a Monday, and hated it by Wednesday. A lot of this was a lack of technical fluency that meant that I wasn’t able to get to the purity of what I wanted to say because I didn’t have the correct technical ability to make the image stronger. The analogy is really to make sure that people learn to drive the car before they decide where to take themselves.

Young people nowadays are faced with the difficulty of having a false perspective of age. A guy came to see me to get a job as an assistant. I saw him because someone knew him and I thought I’d give him a meeting. He turned up and was in shorts and a t-shirt and had a skate-board under his arm. It was summer time and I thought, fine I’m not expecting an assistant to come in with a suit on. By the end of the meeting he told me that he was trying to find himself, he wasn’t sure if photography was what he wanted to do, and that he was only 31! This was an astonishing statement for me. Here was someone that knew really nothing about photography, and they were 31. In our day, you could say you weren’t absolutely sure what you wanted to do at 14, and maybe that you were not sure exactly but have a rough idea at 19, but by 21 you were starting down a road towards something, you were heading in the direction of your goal. Young people today think they’ll be playing tennis at 120 years old! Its not going to happen unless there’s some ridiculous genetic breakthrough. I read an interesting article recently which said, “yes, people are living longer, but not really” it was pointing out that Ramesses 2nd was 94 when he died 3,000 years ago, Michelangelo was 84. You could say that we’re programmed to make it to between 90-100 and by eliminating a lot of problems down the line like bubonic plague, we’re allowing humanity to reach it’s potential based on what’s written in our individual genetic code. When is your life supposed to take place now?

[Peter Lik] If you truly want to be a successful photographer – start now. Start as early as you can and never stop. Immerse yourself in it and embrace and use every bit of technology you can get your hands on. The more you put yourself out there and the more you shoot, the more you will understand yourself and develop a style. You also need passion, talent and hard work. Take one of those elements out of the equation and you’re done for. And you must get enjoyment out of it! As hard as I have worked and with as many challenges that I’ve faced, I still find shooting Mother Nature the most fulfilling part of my life.


There is a beautiful alliance between the written word and the image. Imagine you were asked to explain the colour red. With the best of intentions, you could perhaps describe things that are red, maybe talk around the physics of light or even how the colour makes you feel. The only way to really ‘explain’ red is to show it, in an image. At a very basic level, this is the relationship between the text and image. They are both truths in different forms, one may consider the image to be the truth between the words. As Ansel Adams once said, “When words become unclear, I shall focus with photographs. When images become inadequate, I shall be content with silence.

The photograph however, is a primal and unique form of image. Assuming we put aside the drawn-out arguments in aesthetic circles about the artistic value of photography, we are left with something uniquely profound. As the philosopher Alexander Sekatskiy notes, “Despite all that has passed since the camera began its survey of the world, we remain unable to comprehend what it sees. The vision of the lens is closer to a kind of divine vision than to human perception. It shows what is permanent and hides everything accidental and temporary.

Sekatskiy continues, by using Plato’s classic cave allegory to illustrate his point, where Plato has Socrates describe a group of people who lived (from birth) chained to the wall of a cave, facing a blank wall. All they can see is shadows projected onto the wall by things passing in front of a fire behind them. For the prisoners, the shadows are their reality.

Perhaps,” writes Sekatskiy, “…to follow this train of thought, the photographic version would go something like this: imagine a camera in which we are imprisoned and that has the capacity of operating with long exposure times. This apparatus cannot register rapid movements such as facial expressions, which will disappear into a barely visible blur and, thus, might be thought of as inessential. Only traces of solid life would remain: a table, some apples, a harp, a pot, a pair of worn shoes. This camera could function as the eye of a less flippant being than you or I. Now imagine increasing the exposure by a thousand times and examine the resulting image. Not a lot is left. The apples have rotted away and only the seeds remain, though these may have begun to germinate. Given enough time, even the table will not survive. Increase the exposure again, by another several thousand times. Enlarge and position the camera so as to survey the world from all points of view at once. Now everything incidental has disappeared. The only thing left of the harp, one might say, is the idea of the harmonies it might have once produced, for only harmony is permanent but the vessels that contain it must perish. All becomes a blur, a thin fog on the face of the image. As we ascend through these photographic effects towards the idea of time, we might be able to see with more clarity those objects that appear to our mind’s eye when we turn our gaze inwards. We would be able to see the immutable, the universal forms: eidos. We would be able to have an unmediated experience of those things that we can sense only vaguely and of which we have the faintest awareness. For absolute knowledge is not an accumulation of infinite particulars, but this ability to see beyond the particular is what we value in the work of masters of photography. And if we increase the exposure on our camera to correspond to the vision of a god, an exposure equivalent to eternity, the subject of contemplation will be ‘being as oneness’. This omnipresent and omni-powerful eye is a photographic camera with an infinite exposure and an absolute perspective on all things.” (Philosophy of Photography, Vol 1, No. 1)

We know that the ability to see motionless objects is a fairly recent stage of visual-evolution, until then most creatures possessed only the ability to discern movement. Thus (in Sekatskiy’s view) human vision is planted squarely between ‘frog’ and ‘God.’ Photography moved this evolutionary development sideways, the ‘image’ moved from the imagination (based on the Latin ‘imaginari,’ – meaning picture to ones-self) to the tangible reality. This shift to tangible reality of the mnemonic (in the form of the written word), and (perhaps) everything else (in the form of the image) came with another profound ability.

Humans, as far as we know, are the only creatures that have a sense of their temporal relation with the universe. We don’t live quite so immediately in the world as other creatures, and have a sense of our existence in the continuum of time, and within the context of the past and future of our world. Writing is perhaps the first offshoot of this, allowing knowledge to exist independently of time and the dissolution of it’s cultural origins- but yet it lacks something, as we can only imagine in the context of our own history and experience. That’s where photography differs. It doesn’t require us to have a pre-existing context, rather it presents an instant of existence, truthfully, undistorted, for us to understand; whether that is a picture of a fashion model, a historic political moment, an image of space or otherwise.

Photography has given humanity its first true time machine, and that’s remarkable.

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Wednesday, 25 March 2015


In this exclusive interview series, we speak to Sir Richard Branson (Founder of Virgin Group) and Robin Li (Founder of Baidu). We discuss the fundamental nature of entrepreneurship, entrepreneurs themselves, and the role of entrepreneurs in society and the economy. We look at the key sources of entrepreneurial ideas, characteristics of successful enterprise and the role of wealth in the entrepreneurial journey. We also look at how entrepreneurship has changed, what the future holds and how entrepreneurs are addressing some of the world's most pressing problems from poverty and economic crises to climate change and health.


Vikas Shah, Thought Economics, March 2015
Updated from original edition, published January, 2013

"...Over 28% of all the 'history' made since the birth of Christ was made in the 20th century." noted the Economist in June 2011, adding "... Measured in years lived, the present century, which is only ten years old, is already 'longer' than the whole of the 17th century. This century has made an even bigger contribution to economic history. Over 23% of all the goods and services made since 1AD were produced from 2001 to 2010..." Google's Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt also notes that, "...every two days now we create as much information as we did from the dawn of civilization up until 2003."

The evident growth in humankind led early economists such as Thomas Malthus to foresee a future of doom for our burgeoning civilisation. "Extermination, sickly seasons, epidemics... and gigantic inevitable famine..." were considered near-certain as a result of an increase in human density on our planet. The truth is that Malthus (and his counterparts) were (largely) wrong. While the astonishing growth of our species' numbers over the past century has come at a heavy price (resulting in hunger, conflict and more)- it has also delivered incredible economic and social growth. As at March 2015, the combined market capitalisation of the 10 largest companies in the world was US$ 2.86 trillion- the equivalent of around 50% the size of the entire world economy in 1960 (and less than 4.5% of the world economy today).

"When conjectures are offered to explain historic slowdowns or great leaps in economic growth, there is the group of usual suspects that is regularly rounded up-prominent among them, the entrepreneur. Where growth has slowed, it is implied that a decline in entrepreneurship was partly to blame (perhaps because the culture's 'need for achievement' has atrophied). At another time and place, it is said, the flowering of entrepreneurship accounts for unprecedented expansion." (Baumol, 1990) There is historic precedent for this... "From the fall of Rome (circa 476 AD) to the eighteenth century, there was virtually no increase in per capita income in the West. However, with the advent of entrepreneurship, per capita income grew exponentially in the West by 20% in the 1700s, 200% in the 1800s, and 740% in the 1900s..." (Murphy, 2006).

Conservative estimates state that over 400 million people in 54 countries are actively engaged in entrepreneurship- (loosely defined as starting and running new businesses). This figure doesn't include the (potentially) hundreds of millions more engaged in forms of pseudo-entrepreneurship in science, medicine and politics- their contributions no-less important to our society's economic, social and intellectual growth.

So what is the role of entrepreneurship in society, economy and the story of our civilisation?

In this exclusive interview series, we speak to Sir Richard Branson (Founder of Virgin Group) and Robin Li (Founder of Baidu). We discuss the fundamental nature of entrepreneurship, entrepreneurs themselves, and the role of entrepreneurs in society and the economy. We look at the key sources of entrepreneurial ideas, characteristics of successful enterprise and the role of wealth in the entrepreneurial journey. We also look at how entrepreneurship has changed, what the future holds and how entrepreneurs are addressing some of the world's most pressing problems from poverty and economic crises to climate change and health.

Sir Richard Branson is Founder of the Virgin Group. Virgin is one of the world’s most recognised brands and has expanded into many diverse sectors from travel to telecommunications, health to banking and music to leisure. There are now more than 100 Virgin companies worldwide, employing approximately 60,000 people in over 50 countries.

Branson has challenged himself with many record breaking adventures, including the fastest ever Atlantic Ocean crossing, a series of hot air balloon adventures and kitesurfing across the English Channel. He has described Virgin Galactic, the world’s first commercial spaceline, as being “the greatest adventure of all”. Space travel has been a dream for Branson since he watched the moon landings on TV, and he registered the Virgin Galactic name in 1999. Testing for commercial service is underway, with Branson planning to join his family on the first space flight.

In 2004 he established non-profit foundation Virgin Unite to tackle tough social and environmental problems and strives to make business a force for good. Most of his time is now spent working with Virgin Unite and organisations it has incubated, such as The Elders, Carbon War Room, B Team and Branson Centre of Entrepreneurship. He also serves on the Global Commission on Drug Policy and supports ocean conservation with the OceanElders. Branson was awarded a knighthood in 1999 for services to entrepreneurship.

Robin Li is the Co-Founder, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Baidu, Inc. Since founding the company in January 2000, Robin has led Baidu to be China’s largest search engine, with over 80% market share. Baidu is the largest Chinese search engine globally and the second largest independent search engine in the world. China is among the four countries globally—alongside the United States, Russia and South Korea—to possess its own core search engine technology.

In 2005, Baidu became a NASDAQ-listed public company and in 2007 was the first Chinese company to be included in the NASDAQ-100 Index. In 2007, The Financial Times listed Baidu as one of the Top 10 Chinese Global Brands, with Baidu being the youngest company as well as the only Internet company in the top ten.

As one of the pioneers and leading figures in China’s Internet industry, Robin’s achievements are widely recognized. In 2013, Robin became a member of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference. He currently acts as Vice Chairman of the All-China Federation of Industry and Commerce and Vice Chairman of the Internet Society of China (ISC).

Q: What does ‘entrepreneurship’ mean to you?

[Sir Richard Branson] Entrepreneurship is about taking risks, pushing boundaries, and not being afraid to fail.

I tend to go with my gut feeling and by personal experience- if I relied on accountants to make decisions, I most certainly would have never gone into the airline business, most certainly would not have gone into the space business, and I certainly wouldn’t have gone into most of the businesses that I’m in. In hindsight, it seems to have worked pretty well to my advantage!

[Robin Li] I have a strong desire to do what I like to do. I think that happens to be a necessary quality for entrepreneurship. For me, entrepreneurship is about doing what I can to positively impact people’s lives through technology. I come from a technology background, so naturally I feel that I can make the most meaningful impact through tech, but depending on their background and their abilities, others might choose other approaches. I also believe that whether it’s innate, or it's an something that wells up later in life, the urge to entrepreneurship only bears fruit when you plant the seeds at the intersection of passion and ability—the overlap between the things that you love, and the things that you’re really good at.

Entrepreneurship means a constant willingness to keep learning. It’s about maintaining that start-up spirit—where you’re forever young, and forever in crisis. It’s about always having your mind on the business: Lying in bed and constantly asking yourself, “What should I do?

Q: What is the role of entrepreneurs in an economy and society?

[Sir Richard Branson] It's my strong belief that those with the power to help should be encouraged to do exactly that: It’s important for entrepreneurs to nurture talent, to provide advice and to provide investment where required. Increasingly we are hearing more about how big business needs to play its role in society for the greater good. We all have a role to play and it makes business sense. In fact, consumers demand that business be responsible.

[Robin Li] Entrepreneurs have been absolutely essential in the transformation of the world we live in. By creating new businesses and new markets, they’re real change agents in history. This is something that’s been happening for many hundreds of years. As an entrepreneur you have a certain perspective and real motivation to see what’s in store for the future. And in trying to anticipate the future, entrepreneurs are chief agents in bringing the future about. It’s really been the role of the entrepreneur to take the measure of what people will want in the future, and to change the way people think and behave. They are and will continue to be a vital force in defining the world of the future.

That’s a lot of responsibility, and entrepreneurs need to demonstrate a consciousness of their importance and the potential they have to do both good and evil. They have to have a greater sense of social responsibility, especially in times of crisis, whether we’re talking about economic, environmental, or social crisis. Entrepreneurs should be focusing their efforts on creating a more equitable, just, and sustainable future

Q: What are the key drivers for an entrepreneur?

[Sir Richard Branson] It’s a combination of passion, vision, creativity and a sense of adventure.
I have said on many occasions the reason to start a new business should not be about making money! You need to have a passion for the project and want to make a difference.

At Virgin we enter into new markets to stir up the competition and offer a choice and transparency to the consumer.

[Robin Li] I don’t think that those who set out to create companies with nothing in mind other than making money are apt to succeed. That’s not going to get you out of bed, eager to get to work. It has to come from a higher place. In my case, I knew that I had the ability, through these technologies that I understood well and could confidently implement, to make a real difference in the access ordinary people had to information. And I knew that connecting people to information in the easiest, most convenient way would make a tremendous difference in the world. It wasn’t an abstract desire to create. And money is just an afterthought. What drove me to it was this desire to make a difference in an area that badly needed it, and my recognition that I was the right person to step on and take on that challenge.

Q: What are the characteristics of a great entrepreneur?

[Robin Li] I think that only a very small handful of entrepreneurs are “born” with all the requisite abilities they need to succeed. Most of us have many skills that we’ve needed to learn along the way. In an incredibly dynamic industry like the Internet, you’re faced with the constant possibility that you, the disruptor, will quickly become the disrupted. You have to be ready to embrace change, and to be ready for it not just in terms of your business, but psychologically ready for the kind of change—excited by, and attracted to, change itself. I think an entrepreneur needs to have finely tuned sensitivity to what change is coming. You have to have almost a precognition of what’s around the next bend. But you need to balance this with an ability to shut out noise, to avoid distraction and to stay focused on what you’re doing. It’s not easy in such amid the great clamor and the rapid change.

Great entrepreneurs thrive and feel truly alive when they’re in the heat of competition. They have an intense desire to do everything they do to the best of their ability. They are not afraid of losing. They take risks, but informed, calculated risks, neither heedless nor needless.

Q: What are the sources of entrepreneurial ideas?

[Sir Richard Branson] There are many things that can inspire an entrepreneurial idea - for example if you receive poor customer service you may be inspired to create a better product or experience.

Listen to friends and family - they often have great ideas and can offer invaluable advice.

I always carry a small notebook to jot down thoughts, ideas and conversations I have with people when travelling or working. The idea to start an airline came when I was stranded in the Caribbean and decided to charter a flight out - I sold seats to the other stranded passengers to pay for the charter.

Have an open mind as you never know when an opportunity or idea might present itself.

In the next 10 years, we will all head into unknown territory as we face a vast increase in our demand for energy, yet remain worryingly over-dependent on oil. If entrepreneurs go into the field of renewable energy for the right reasons, along the way they are likely to create some very exciting new technologies and successful new businesses.

[Robin Li] Opportunities generally arise from landscape change. But entrepreneurial ideas can come from anywhere. They can come from recognizing where the pain points, the bottlenecks, and the inefficiencies are. They can come from late-night conversations with friends, or from random eureka moments. But for me and for Baidu, one source of entrepreneurial ideas has been the need to serve the underserved population. Serving the underserved is a real impetus for innovation. Making technology accessible to people who aren’t inherently tech-savvy, and who might be far from fluent with technologies that educated and wealthy urbanites now take for granted, isn’t about making simplified, dumbed-down versions. It actually poses technology challenges. A great example of this is speech input for mobile phones. Speaking is the most intuitive interface of all, but there’s a real challenge in being able to capture words accurately—and an even greater challenge in actually understanding the meaning of those words, and their intention. I think that in today’s world, looking to serving the needs of the next billion Internet users—or even the next three billion—will generate many of the greatest entrepreneurial ideas.

Q: What do you feel are the characteristics of a successful enterprise?

[Sir Richard Branson] I believe that success in business can be measured by if you enjoy what you are doing; create something that stands out; create something that everyone is really proud of.

A great company needs to have an excellent product or service at its core; needs strong management to execute the plan and a good brand to give it the edge over its competitors. It also needs excellent people who really believe in what they’re doing. People are at the heart of all Virgin businesses. Often entrepreneurs can create a good product and a brand but need to bring in management to help expand and create a truly great company.

[Robin Li] From my own experience, I think success comes from focus and persistence—in my case focus on and persistence in technology. I’ve really done one thing for well over 20 years now. I’ve always believed that hard work and the ability to stick to it can overcome almost any differences in natural intellect among people. Success comes not from IQ but from values, passions, willingness to learn, motivation to improve, and dedication.

Focus is not at all easy. There are countless temptations along the way, and often an entrepreneur will waver and be tempted to pivot to another opportunity. For Baidu, in our crucial years, we resisted the siren song of things like wireless value-added services and games, which many of our Chinese peers were seduced by. It may have meant good short-term revenues, but it took them off mission while we continued to stay very focused on search.

Every company is going to experience the ups and downs, and be plagued by all manner of troubles and problems. But if you hew to your ideals and believe in your future, that can go a long way toward getting you through the difficult stretches.

I would also add that a strong core company culture is really important. It’s the glue that can really hold a company together. For us, that core culture has always been about “simplicity and reliability.” Simplicity means that we encourage a real directness and candor in speech. We don’t use any honorific titles, and we keep the organization very flat. There’s an abhorrence of any office politics. Reliability means that every Baidu employee brings a spirit of professionalism and we expect and deliver nothing short of excellence.

Q: What does wealth mean to you as an entrepreneur?

[Sir Richard Branson] Money is not my first priority - I have always pursued what I am passionate about whether that will make me money or not, my fascination is learning and discovery more than being rich and powerful. I believe that success in business can be measured if you enjoy what you are doing; create something that stands out, create something that everyone is really proud of; be a good leader and be visible.

Wealth may improve aesthetic aspects of life in terms of being able to over indulge and travel to luxurious locations however, true success in life can only be gauged by something which is priceless; how much love you have in your life – I am truly fortunate to be surrounded by extremely loving and fun family and friends and nothing beats spending time with the people I love.

[Robin Li] I didn’t start with anything, and I do the things that I do because I believe profoundly that they are of tremendous value, and because I’m good at what I do. That’s why I stay up late and get up early, excited still every morning when I wake up. A lot of people work through the week just waiting for the weekend. Not me. I’m exactly the opposite: When the weekend comes, I can’t way to get back into the office. I see change happening in the world every day, and every day I see that things that we’re working on impacting people’s lives. This is what gives me a sense of fulfillment. So no, I don’t work for money. My personal definition of wealth and fortune are very broad. Money is not nearly the most important piece of it. What matters is that you’re doing something that you love and finding fulfillment in that.

Q: What is the role of philanthropy in entrepreneurship?

[Sir Richard Branson] I’ve always regarded business as a powerful tool for delivering positive change in the world; so in my opinion entrepreneurship has a crucial role in addressing these Global challenges and many others besides. Public funding and open-ended research is absolutely crucial for coming up with better ideas, novel technology and progressive policy, but it seems only the markets are capable of pouring resources into truly scaling things up; and those markets began with entrepreneurship.

Prizes can be a real catalyst for moving an idea along, especially if it’s a novel but profoundly important area. The X Prize foundation are a shining example of how prizes can incentivise innovation, and we liked the concept so much we even have our own equivalents, like the Virgin Earth Challenge, a $25m prize for ways of removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere to help tackle global warming and help people and the planet.

[Robin Li] Naturally I support and encourage philanthropy on the part of entrepreneurs, and I’m very glad to see that engagement with broader social issues, giving generously to worthy causes, and working for a common good are now things very much expected of corporations. I would add that the best thing an entrepreneur or company can really do is to build in a real nobility of mission from the very outset. If you set out to do something where your company’s success also means bringing tangible benefit to society, that’s really the highest form of philanthropy. Baidu’s a great example of this. When our business does what we set out for it to do—to provide the best and most equitable way for people to find what they’re looking for—then we’re doing great good in the world.

Q: How does entrepreneurship manifest in the arts?

[Sir Richard Branson] I think within the arts and entrepreneurship you have to show a desire to be creative, to stand alone and follow your passions, even when those around you might not share your idea or vision.

I believe we need to encourage all young people to consider an alternative to the traditional career path, and I think entrepreneurship offers some hope. I identify with these young people. As a young businessman, I faced my fair share of difficulties when I was starting up. Our music mail-order business was almost brought down by postal strikes in the early 1970s, but we adapted, and that prompted me to start Virgin record stores.

Q: What is the role of education and mentoring in entrepreneurship?

[Sir Richard Branson] In 2010, we launched Virgin Media Pioneers, an online community for young entrepreneurs, with the aim of helping young people realise their potential. By championing a cause that is both close to my heart and vitally important to the future of the UK's economic recovery, we are providing easy access to peers, practical advice from experts and tangible support for young entrepreneurs

I still find it strange that you can access money as a young person to go to university but that level of funding or even a fraction of that amount is not available to people with good ideas to set up a company. We must try to make early stage finance more available and ensure the banks do look at micro-financing or low rate long term loans for aspiring business builders. Together with Virgin Media Pioneers, we are campaigning for a fund for young entrepreneurs on similar terms as student loans.

Q: What are the key differences you see between entrepreneurship across cultures (e.g. USA vs. China)?

[Robin Li] One thing you notice among the more successful private enterprises in China is that their CEOs tend to be their founders. It’s not like any of them are doing it for the money: These are all people who are already very well off by any standard. They continue to work hard because of a kind of idealism. While in the U.S., founders often either cash out or are moved aside by their boards in favor of professional managers at the first sign of difficulty, in China that’s not often been the case at all. I understand this very well, personally. I doubt that many professional managers would have made some of the decisions that I’ve made as Baidu’s CEO over the last 15 years—decisions that have proven to be the right ones for the business.

We’re starting to see convergence, especially in culture, between U.S. and Chinese companies in the Internet space at least. I often travel to the U.S. and always meet with leading Internet companies there—from founders and CEOs down to ordinary engineers—and I’m finding that they’re increasingly interested in what’s happening in China, and much more receptive to working together with Chinese companies like Baidu. Despite the well-known obstacles, I nevertheless see communication and cooperation across the Pacific growing, and that’s very encouraging.

Q: What is the role of government and policy in entrepreneurship?

[Sir Richard Branson] Governments and policymakers usually have an important role to play in creating the fertile grounds for entrepreneurs to succeed. Many of our Virgin businesses wouldn’t be able to operate without the rules and regulations that govern their sectors. Though as with many instances in life, one must generally find a balance between enough policy and regulation and not too much.

An analogy I find useful is to think about entrepreneurship like a game of football. There are certain rules of the game which you must follow, such as there being two halves, running for 90 minutes and not being able to use your hands, but when it comes to how you arrange your team, and what strategies you use to score goals, it’s completely up to you. The same should be true for business: policies and regulation can create the pitch and the rules and then entrepreneurs can play how they like.

Many democracies go hand in hand with entrepreneurship, though I’ve seen many examples of people building successful businesses in less democratic political regimes. Like nature, even if the environment isn’t ideal, entrepreneurship will find a way.

[Robin Li] Speaking here just of our home market, China, the government obviously plays a supervisory and market-regulatory role. At the same time it can and often does play an important role in providing support to companies. The government should create an environment in which companies can foster innovation and grow. It should create systems that are conducive to creativity and fair competition, including a legal system that safeguards the rights and legal interests of entrepreneurs. I believe that innovation flourishes best under a system that gives maximum free play to entrepreneurship.

Q: How do you feel entrepreneurship has changed over the last quarter-century, and what do you think the future holds?

[Sir Richard Branson] The big change to entrepreneurship over the past 25 years has been technology. Now, more than ever, anybody can create their own business and be up and running in the time it takes to register a website. The growing start-up community has fostered a spirit of creativity and collaboration where everyone feels they can become a successful entrepreneur. And they’re right – they can! In the future I think entrepreneurship is going to become even more widespread than it is today. More and more people are realising the way to get ahead in the business world is to get out there, be brave and make things happen.

Q: What would be your message to future entrepreneurs?

[Robin Li] This is something I speak about quite often, and I always emphasize that entrepreneurs should focus on what they believe is worthwhile, exercising their own judgment without blindly following the crowd. Find that sweet spot at the intersection of what you do best and what you love to do the most, and your odds of success are immediately much higher. If you do what you excel in doing, you’ll be better than your competition. And if you focus on what you love to do, you’ll be doggedly persistent even when faced with strong competitors, reversals of fortune, and beguiling distractions.

Not everyone makes it. There’s no small amount of risk, and failures large and small along the way are inevitable. But if you really have the ambition to become an entrepreneur, if you’re someone with a dream planted firmly in your heart, if it’s something you want so badly you can taste it, if you believe you can make it, and if you’re sure that you’ll be bringing something great into the world that will benefit society, then you shouldn’t let anything stop you, and you should just reach for it.


"The essential point to grasp is that in dealing with capitalism we are dealing with an evolutionary process...." wrote Joseph A. Schumpter in his seminal work 'Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy' (1943). He continues to write that "Capitalism... is by nature a form or method of economic change and not only never is but never can be stationary. And this evolutionary character of the capitalist process is not merely due to the fact that economic life goes on in a social and natural environment which changes and by its change alters the data of economic action; this fact is important and these changes (wars, revolutions and so on) often condition industrial change, but they are not its prime movers. Nor is this evolutionary character due to a quasi-automatic increase in population and capital or to the vagaries of monetary systems of which exactly the same thing holds true. The Fundamental impulse that sets and keeps the capitalist engine in motion comes from the new consumers’ goods, the new methods of production or transportation, the new markets, the new forms of industrial organization that capitalist enterprise creates."

Schumpter also noted that entrepreneurship (as the engine of capitalism) cannot be studied in isolation from time or context.

"First," he identifies "..since we are dealing with a process whose every element takes considerable time in revealing its true features and ultimate effects, there is no point in appraising the performance of that process ex visu of a given point of time; we must judge its performance over time, as it unfolds through decades or centuries. A system—any system, economic or other—that at every given point of time fully utilizes its possibilities to the best advantage may yet in the long run be inferior to a system that does so at no given point of time, because the latter’s failure to do so may be a condition for the level or speed of long-run performance." He continues to explain that "...since we are dealing with an organic process, analysis of what happens in any particular part of it—say, in an individual concern or industry—may indeed clarify details of mechanism but is inconclusive beyond that. Every piece of business strategy acquires its true significance only against the background of that process and within the situation created by it. It must be seen in its role in the perennial gale of creative destruction; it cannot be understood irrespective of it or, in fact, on the hypothesis that there is a perennial lull..."

Humanity is quick to forget the context by which it moves forward ‘on the shoulders of giants’. Our rationalistic and reductionist thinking mean that we see phenomena (such as economies) in isolation, and break them down into components. This process may help an observer understand how a thing or a system works (at any given moment in time), but will give you little indication of what led to its being, or the context in which it exists. Understanding- for example- what makes Sir Richard Branson successful is not a matter of analysing the performance of each component of his businesses now, but rather requires an understanding of the cultural, social and economic contexts leading those businesses to emerge from the abstract space of the mind into reality… in other words, their story.

In much the same way as its biological counterpart, entrepreneurial evolution is a story of the success of good ideas. Billions of iterations occur, and those which add value to the system of humanity flourish, and become part of our culture- and increasingly quickly. The Wright brothers made the first powered flight in 1903 (over a distance of 120ft). Just 66 years later in 1969, two humans were stood on the Moon looking back at earth - and in 2012, almost 3 billion air passengers were carried a combined distance of over 5 trillion kilometres (enough to get to the sun and back over 16 thousand times). In a similar feat, our species progressed in less than 70 years from the first basic digital computer in 1941 to having the total sum of human knowledge in a globally connected amorphous cloud of computers.

Our innate capability to generate ideas is potentially the most powerful faculty our species has at its disposal. Entrepreneurs are simply those who take a gamut of resources (capital, knowledge, tools, infrastructure) and transform their ideas into physical or virtual assets which can then be absorbed into society and wider culture.

Put simply, "We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts, we make the world...." (Buddha)

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