A conversation with Neville Elder-Photographer and Film-maker

Neville Elder is a photojournalist and portrait photographer from Somerset. He’s based in New York and counts The Times, Independent, The Guardian and of course Bizarre magazine along his regular clients. Neville started his photographic career shooting for local news in Somerset, graduated to the Nationals and became an Englishman in New York. His portraits have seen him photograph such luminaries as Donald Sutherland, Bill Clinton and Boris Johnson. His documentary work has taken him all over the place, from covering anti-capitalist riots in London to Hamburger Eating Championships in Tennessee. Lately he’s moved into film-making and is currently looking to secure funding to finish his photographic take on the 9/11 tragedy. He is a rather talented musician as well, being the frontman for the folk band, Thee Shambles.

I first hired Neville in 2007 to cover a Rockabilly festival in Las Vegas for Bizarre magazine and from there, I ended up using him on numerous assignments all over the USA and Canada as well. Neville came to London recently and we chewed the fat for a couple of hours.

Neville is what I would describe as one of my go-to guys. If there’s a portrait or a story that needs shooting and shooting well with no fuss, he’s the man.

I’m trying to remember the thread, how you ended up shooting for Bizarre. Because I remember thinking when I first came across your work, I was thinking God he’s a bit good.

The thread was I was in London and I was the picture editor and chief photographer at City AM and I quit because it crushed my soul. I went back to New York end of 2006 and just before I left I spoke with a friend who said I should speak with Tom at Bizarre. And I called you up and you were very nice.  I started pitching you ideas until I got the idea of what you wanted. I think the thing that got me was I pitched you an idea about Roller Derby and you said “sounds good but if it were a bizarre story it would be domantrixes on roller-blades” And it was a case of “Oh” and the penny dropped. Then I pitched you the idea of a Rockabilly festival in Las Vegas and for some strange reason you sent me there.

By the pool, Viva Las Vegas, Gold Coast Hotel, Las Vegas, April 2007

After that I sent you on some really bizarre assignments, let’s see Fangoria in Texas was one. We used to do a two-page spread called the Parties page and we wanted to open it up to more than just fetish parties. We wanted to push it a bit and do conventions and festivals

Ah yes, the Fangoria Weekend of Horrors, it was a horror all right. It was raining and there were twelve people there and I thought oh god I’m going to have to pull something out of my arse here. That was a wet February in Austin.

I spent three days there trying to make a single picture, and it was only until the last day when they had a costume convention and 30 people turned up. I made all the pictures in the space of two hours. Which is exactly how it always works, you can never tell who’s going to show up.

Fangoria’s Weekend of Horrors

When you covered Comic Con in San Diego in 2008, it was a totally different story. Tons of people, tons of great outfits and it was a time where it was a lot more underground than it is now. This year, and last year photo agencies are all over it as well as the mainstream press. So when agencies send me pictures of this, I’m like whatever mate,  we’ve done it and we did it ages ago.

I think that was always about Bizarre though, Bizarre always had an ear to the ground on stuff like that. Whether it’s tattooing or burlesque or whatever it is, it just felt like we were a little bit ahead of the curve, just far enough so that we could lead it. People saw Bizarre as a source.

Optimus Prime and a Stormtrooper swap notes, Comicon, San Diego 2008
Comicon, San Diego, 2008

And then after Comic Con you did Roswell UFO festival

Roswell was great, it was beautiful there. It wasn’t our usual thrusting young freaks. It was overweight midwest bipolar disorder. People who thought they’d genuinely being abducted and abused by aliens with tubes and probes.

When I did these events, I’d always look down the list of what was going on and if there were a costume contest, we’d be all right.

UFO enthusiasts descend on Roswell, New Mexico

I had this thing with photographers that I’d send then on smaller shoots like news, like parties before giving them full-blown features.

We shot a lot of news I remember that, but it’s definitely the right way to go. Bizarre has a house style and it takes a while before a photographer understands that. There was a lot of looking for that picture and it’s not someone smiling in a funny costume, it’s someone going mad in a funny costume!! So you had to gee them up and I remember doing a lot of that, fucking with them pushing them until they gave me some sort of decent picture. So especially starting with parties, I’d be there and it would be a bit lame. I’ve got to make them do something.

Black Diamond Annie performs a Kiss tribute, New York Burlesque Festival, 2007
A girl shows her tattoos at New York Tattoo Convention 2008 at the Roseland Ballroom in New York City

I reckon the first feature you shot for me was Pauly Unstoppable. What makes Pauly especially relevant for me is that we really really wanted to feature him in the magazine. He’d gone out on his own, he’s in his twenties and by all accounts, he’s completely out there.  He’s stretched his ears, stretched his nose, done his own tattoos on his face… and we wanted something real but weird at the same time. I remember it being a bit of a test in that I needed to find a photographer who could do it. I wanted someone to go in, do a really great job but also someone who understands the magazine.

If I hire a local photographer, go on a forum for picture editors, I’ll get some great suggestions but will that person really get Bizarre.  I’ll send the photographer pdfs of past features but more often than not, they’ll fuck it up. They just don’t get it and quite often, they don’t care either.

There’s a big difference between calling yourself a pro and being one.

So with Pauly I thought, I’ll send Neville. It’s just much easier. Here’s another thing. I call you up with the details; send them over and then you’re like, lovely I’ll let you know. No fuss, easy as pie.

Then I get an email a few days later saying here they are and you’re not too sure about the shots. But they are amazing and we struggle to squeeze them into six pages.

I don’t worry about the good pictures; I only worry about the average pictures or the ones, which didn’t really work. That job, I also hired a local studio. I wanted to commit Pauly into a studio environment. I wanted to do a traditional studio portrait of him because he looks so weird. The thing about Bizarre is that the content itself rules, you don’t need to do anything zany with the photography. You just shoot it pretty much straight as portraiture and photojournalism. Keep it simple because the content itself is remarkable. I got him in the studio and I wanted to do an old fashioned Hollywood portraits with a keylight…except he had a knife up his nose. I had two days with him, which was enough, the nature of dealing with these people is that they are delighted to be photographed but get bored after twenty minutes.

Pauly Unstoppable on a break from his hairdressing job
Pauly Unstoppable enjoying a coffee

Then you did Eak the Geek; he was working down at Coney Island, as the pincushion man wasn’t it? And the story was he’d gone off to law school so he could be the lawyer who represents all the freaks.

He was working at a geek and the geeks are the guys who do things like drive nails into their heads and put mousetraps on their tongues. Lying on a bed of nails was his big thing. He has very strange tattoos all over his body and his face. He was doing his law degree down in Lansing, Michigan. It’s a very working class, blue-collar kind of place.

Sideshow legend Eak the Geek is enrolled at Cooley Law School in Lansing Michigan, USA

Then you did Rick Genest aka Zombie Boy: a nice little assignment in Montreal.

I think that was the most successful, really. In terms of pictures, with Rick I had to work quite hard. He’s virtually living on the streets The thing was where do I shoot him and it just so happened that Montreal had the biggest graveyard in North America so I was like well we’ll go there then. I called the graveyard and they speak French so it’s a little bit broken. I asked if it was all right to take pictures and they said you had to get a permit and all this. So I was like bollocks to that.You can drive right in and we wandered about, I shot that shoot under an hour. We were in and out. We were moving through the gravestones finding really good spots. The thing is he’s not really arrogant; he’s a really sweet guy. He was working with me to make it work. I think that was the most successful set of pictures I did for Bizarre. We got in there just before he went big with Nicola Formichetti.

Rick Genest aka Zombie Boy

You did John Waters at his house. Except he had no idea he was going to be a feature.

That was the one I had trouble with, the pictures were fine. He was difficult because he wasn’t expecting a big feature on himself at home. He was pissed off about it, but gracefully consented to the walkabout.

He was expecting a sit down about the book he’d just written…which I hadn’t read…but I pretended that I had. But I knew enough about him anyway that I could get away with it. We both knew I hadn’t, but he didn’t throw me out. He was a sweetheart about it – never said a thing!  Also, I had a problem with my tape; it was one of those where everything went wrong…he wasn’t as freaky as I thought he should have been for Bizarre.

That was kind of a straight shoot and I thought if we’re going to do someone mainstream who’s weird, we should see them doing weird things. I would have liked to see him balancing stuff on his head but he wasn’t up for that.

John Waters at his home in Baltimore, Maryland

That’s always the test though; it’s making them look weird in a cool way. Not in like you’re zany here’s a funny expression, like you’d see in a local newspaper. A lot of times I’ve hired photographers, they just don’t get it. They get overawed by the occasion instead of shooting great pictures.

It’s funny because a lot of the photographers you’ve used were contemporaries of mine at The Independent and The Times, like Abbie (Trayler-Smith) and Tim (Allen). Do you think they had a better attitude to it?

I think they brought something different to assignments,  Tim Allen’s first assignment that he did for me was Custard Catfighting with Alix Fox, which was a bit good ( Look out for upcoming interview with Tim Allen)

I always used mainly photojournalists for features so there’s you, Tim Allen, Abbie Trayler-Smith, Justin Sutcliffe, Matt Writtle, Vicki Couchman. Then more portrait guys like Mark Berry, Joe Plimmer and Naomi Harris. All really strong photographers.

Back when I was commissioning you a lot, you were working for people like The Times and the Indy. What’s happened to them all in terms of commissioning?

Well they’re not. Ad revenues are down for everybody and that means they cut back on freelancers at home and abroad. I’m basically getting a third of the work I was getting two, maybe three years ago. All the jobs now are portraits but all in New York. I’m a local boy now. One of the things that works in terms of what I do I have is the Fleet St vibe, which is the ‘picture: no matter what’.  There are lots of photographers in New York who are cheaper than me but they don’t have that aesthetic, that drive that you learn just for survival when you’re freelancing in London. I was working mainly at The Indy and that was seen as a liberal newspaper. In London, shooting on the ground, I’m next to people from The Sun and The Mirror and you’ve got to work really hard.

Cajun speaking Aswell Domangue, 42, in front of his shrimp boat on the Bayou – Chauvin, Louisiana

So what I was doing in New York was shooting US stories for a British market. They (The Independent) wanted English photographers. When I went over there in early 2001, Justin Sutcliffe and Stuart Conway had just left New York to come back to Britain so I replaced them. There really wasn’t anyone left. There was David Howells, but he worked almost exclusively for The Telegraph and The Mail. So it’s like there was a gap and I filled that gap. I still do in fact.

I took that English newspaper attitude out there and that’s why I got hired. But I was also a fixer as well. So I was making the story happen. It wasn’t so much that the picture editors said: “Go there at 6pm and don’t be late, get a picture and come back.” It was more like “Here’s the number; we need you to set this up”. You really needed some nous.

What was the first job you ever got in photography?

The first job I ever did was for Today newspaper; it was a sports story doorstep in Taunton in Somerset. This was 1994. I was stringing for the local agency, the Somerset News Service. It was a cricket story and it was South African cricketer for Somerset who broke the face of a West Indian cricket player with a fastball.

I had to try a get a picture of the injured player at the hospital. I went down on my bicycle with a Nikon F2 and a Metz flashgun the size of a suitcase. and I waited and waited and waited. I kept calling the picture desk saying, “What do I do now?” “Just get the picture” What I didn’t realise is that sometimes the picture desk will just send someone so they’re covered.  So that they don’t have to listen to any nonsense from the news desk. They put someone here, here and here. And they won’t expect a photograph. The number of doorsteps I’ve done over the years, the pictures I’ve actually got is maybe one in ten. Most of the time nothing happens for days on end.

And did you get a picture?

No, I got some pictures of the other players leaving the hospital. When I lifted the camera to take a picture, they shoved me away and said, “Fuck off picture man”

It was a good experience. I must have been 24 or so.

When did you make the move to work for the nationals?

I did my post grad in photojournalism at the London College of Printing with Patrick Sutherland. That place was a breeding ground for a lot of great photographers like Paul Lowe who teaches there now. After that I just walked in to The Independent. What I used to do is follow stories. It’s no good just going in with just a portfolio; you’ve got to go in with something they actually want. Like: “This is a project I’m doing now, do you want it? “

Just after college I went to see Ray Wells who was at the Sunday Times. He looked through my portfolio, flipped through it and said very nice.

I said: “Well what do you mean? What was very nice?”

I wanted some proper feedback and he was a very nice man, very patient.

He went through it again, saying things like “that doesn’t work”. He came to a picture I’d taken of the fans at Reading Festival of the fans in the pit by the stage. “This one is good but they’re not going mad enough. That’s why they’re all nice pictures. I want to see extremes. I want to see them carried out, bleeding. I’ve seen books like yours a hundred times, bring me something I want.”

That 15 minutes with Ray Wells was probably the best teaching I’d ever got, “show me the extremes”. He was talking about the highest point of the arc in a photo session if it’s a news story. Like a demo, I used to shoot a lot of these. So you start taking a few pictures of them marching, then them shouting, get a good mixture of the crowds. Then you get them going mad and the police are punching them and that’s the picture you need. The one with the fists and the shouting. That’s the money shot and that’s what the news photograph is. It’s not a photo essay, a news photograph in a single moment in time and it needs to be the most intense picture. That’s what I learned from Ray Wells and working at The Independent.The Indy encouraged you to take beautiful photographs, to look for the other side of the story.  The classic Independent story was always the picture of the media scrambling around the one person they’re photographing. It’s a cliché now. But that was the story beyond the story.

Jake La Motta ( The Raging Bull) in his apartment

Sometimes you got it right and you got screwed. I did another one for AP that I got fucked on. It was Diana’s funeral. I figured out where the route was, I thought I’d never get a shot of the abbey, I’ll never get a shot up at Kensington Palace, Maybe there’s one up at the M1 but I doubt it.  I sat on a window ledge on the Finchley Road and as it turned out, people lined the streets. Nobody was expecting that, none of the agencies were anyway because there were no other photographers there. And I got a picture of the hearse coming through and they (the people) were throwing flowers and confetti. I honestly didn’t think I had a picture.

I took them to Associated Press when it was down in Chancery lane. And I remember the picture editor on duty at the time was like “Did you get the flowers?”What I hadn’t really seen was the flowers on the windscreen on the car because I was too busy focusing and making the picture. I only had half a roll of film, that’s was it. He circled one and they put that out.

And it was on the front page of the New York Times, beneath the fold, .It was a double page spread in Time Magazine and Newsweek and the rest. I gave them ( AP) the front page of the New York Times and never heard from them again!

You can’t expect anything as a photographer; you can’t be sensitive because it’s literally fish and chip papers the next day.

Donald Sutherland

Now the new world is digital and it doesn’t disappear now, although its old news the day after, it exists elsewhere

More so than that it’s old news within the hour. There are no deadlines now; I had to be back in the office by 6pm to develop the film. Now you send from wherever you are, then you send again, then again. There’s a state of paranoia in the newsroom. They’re watching everyone else, they’re watching the Mail, and they’re watching the Telegraph, who’s got what?

And nobody’s shooting original content anymore because they’re watching each other. And when stuff turns up on online, quite often people won’t do the story.

I was talking to a journalist who freelances for The Times in New York and she said that if it’s been on The Mail Online, which in America is the second biggest most viewed news site, they’ll dump the story. Even if the Mail hasn’t really done anything on it. Just a picture and a by-line.

You mentioned about commissioning editors, well no one is commissioning me anymore. They’re expecting me to shoot on spec and then they can haggle a price.

Ralph 'Sonny' Barger

The old days of commissioning out content is changing, I think specialist photographers like food and cars are fine. But editorial portrait photographers and photojournalists have to look at a different way of working. It’s not necessarily a better way of working.

Well quality is down because of ‘citizen journalism’.

But then if you look at events in history, if the citizen journalist had been around would those events been as severe as they have been?

If you look at for example Tiananmen Square in 1989, there were only a handful of photographers who got pictures out. Stuart Franklin for Magnum, Jeff Widener for AP,  Charlie Cole for Newsweek and Arthur Tsang Hin Wah of Reuters and with all of those cases, their films has to be smuggled out of the country.

If there had been citizen journalists with camera phones showing all the other brutality and uploading pictures instantly to social media sites , would it have been as bad as it was?

Well at the time the Chinese government did not give a shit. These days they do worry about it because they’re got more invested in the rest of the world. So I think you’re right, you’d see a more rounded picture of what was going on so that’s the great thing about it.

Unfortunately newspapers rely on the citizen journalist too much because it doesn’t cost anything and they look at it as a way of trimming costs.

If I pitch a story that’s fine, I’ll go off and do it. But I won’t go off and shoot something on spec just because you want me to. Then there’s no guarantee of being paid at all, that’s just daft in my book.

But it’s all about respect for the photographer and respect for the photographer’s craft.

You’re now a filmmaker as well; tell me about A Return To Ground Zero, the 9/11 film you’re putting together with Jason Florio, another British photographer in New York.  What inspired it? And when are we likely to see it?

We still need funding to edit it but just finished shooting last month.  We retraced our paths from  September 11th 2001. Basically, It’s a detective story: we track down the people in the pictures and talk to them about their experiences as we photographed them. It was really amazing meeting people for the first time that I known for years in a single image I took on the scariest day of my life. I think the pictures I took that day were the best of my career.

Brian McCrick from ladder 168 surveys the the attack on the Worlsd Trade Center 9/11/01
Firefighter Brian McCrick displays Neville Elder’s photograph of him in the ruins of the World Trade Center, ten years after the terrorist attacks.

documentary: 9-11 film
photography: www.nevilleelder.com
music: www.shambels.com