Ben Roberts is a British documentary and travel photographer based in Madrid. He shoots globally for international magazines and brands. Roberts is represented for syndication worldwide by Panos Pictures.
La Pedriza is a dramatic valley that climbs into the Sierra de Guadarrama, the range of mountains that lies to the north of Madrid. During the summer, Madrileños make their way to La Pedriza to escape the heat of the city and bathe in the Rio Manzanares. I started going there with my wife 4 years ago, and slowly started to document the landscape and the way that people interact with the space. Titled ‘El Rio’, the series is a work in progress – over the last 3 years I’ve limited myself to photographing in the summers as that is when the valley comes alive, but moving forward I’m planning on photographing during different seasons to show how the landscape changes throughout the year.
In La Pedriza, I shoot the portraits using a Mamiya RZ67 camera. It’s a heavy, cumbersome lump of metal, with a waist level viewfinder meaning that I can make eye contact with the sitter before I release the shutter. The shutter itself is loud, the camera an object of interest, that in itself can act as an icebreaker. Most of my assignment work is travel and reportage – I photograph a lot of features for in-flight magazines, with the occasional political or sporting story for the likes of the FT Weekend Magazine and Monocle. When I compare the way that I work commercially with my personal projects, it can sometimes feel that I have two different photographer personas – one who is perfectly happy making a handful of photographs over a weekend in the mountains, and another who has to lift the energy levels and work quickly, efficiently and deal with constantly changing demands.
Looking beyond the actual shoot, technology has really changed how a freelancer like myself operates. I can’t believe that just 10 years ago I would deliver images to a client by post on a DVD! Now I have clients on the other side of the world that I have never actually met in person, I deliver my edits online, and my office can be anywhere with a decent wifi connection. Technology, and in particular the internet, has made my profession way more fluid. It’s undeniable that the rise of digital has made photography much more accessible and the mystery of film is now no barrier. It’s a strange paradox, but technology has made photography less technical.
I’ve used social media since I was at college. I had a photoblog where I tried to post an image each day, eventually migrated my everyday output to Flickr, and now Instagram is (of course!) my main social media platform. I have to admit it’s a constant challenge adapting my use of social media to fit in with my professional practice. I’ve always been a big ‘sharer’ on social networks, but now that I am married with a kid, I’m reassessing how I mix my personal life with my profession. I’ve never been scared of taking online interactions into the real world, and have made solid friendships in unlikely places through social media and photography. The biggest effect that social media has had on my life would be meeting my wife after I rented her spare room on AirBnB while on a holiday in Madrid! She has become subject, partner and collaborator in personal projects and even occasionally while on assignment.
My work in La Pedriza is ongoing, and honestly I couldn’t tell you when it’s going to be finished. Right now, I’m striving to make photographs that are less formulaic and predictable – quite a challenge! I’ve also been shooting plenty of assignments recently – I just got back from a road trip through the Anti-Atlas mountains of Morocco, and I also spent a week shooting a travel feature in the Dominican Republic.
When I was in high school, I really wanted to be a painter, so I started taking photographs as resource material for paintings. I studied Fine Art at the University of Edinburgh – I was enrolled in the School of Drawing and Painting, but over time I became more enthused with the
immediacy of photography as opposed to the longer process of producing a painting. I think that photography is a great medium for communicating stories. While I like to find fresh ways of looking at a subject with my work, I wouldn’t regard my photographs as conceptual. The images I make are quite direct, reflecting my outlook, thought processes and the relationships that I build with my subjects.
I recently joined up with the London-based documentary photography agency Panos Pictures. I’m hoping that this affiliation will help me to branch out into working with charities and NGOs on projects that are trying to effect change. I want to be able to look back on my career in 30 years time and be able to say that I at least tried to do something constructive with my photography. I don’t think that photographs on their own can change the world and I don’t believe in the idea of the ‘hero photographer’, but I do think that it’s possible to collaborate with other like-minded people to place social and environmental issues in front of a broader audience. If I could contribute to bringing meaningful topics into mainstream conversations, then that would be great.
I hope so. If they don’t, then they are fantastically talented liars! Seriously though – I’m the first and only person in my family to have pursued a career in the arts, and my parents have never swayed in their support. I’m really grateful for this.