Pro-photographer Ben McKechnie’s introduction to photography came when he received a camera as a birthday present when he was a child. He started taking it everywhere he went on family holidays in France and Italy. But despite the early start with cameras, before becoming a photographer, he was a writer. In fact, he didn’t truly start taking photography seriously until 12 years ago when he was 23. He says “I’d decided when I was a teenager that I was going to be a journalist. I was involved with my secondary school and university’s student newspapers and then had my own full-page entertainment column in every Friday edition of a regional newspaper for a year after graduating.”
Twelve years ago, he bought what he describes as his first “proper” camera (a Sony A350 DSLR) in Seoul, South Korea before switching to Canon a couple of years later. Ben taught himself photography on numerous backpacking trips around Asia for about 5 years. Then, in 2014 he enrolled with MatadorU—the American travel platform Matador Network’s old travel photography, writing, and film-making education platform. Over 2 years he did their Fundamentals and Advanced Travel Photography courses, mentored by Canadian professional photographer Kate Siobhan Mulligan. He says “She and the courses really inspired me, taught me a great deal, and set me on the right path. In particular, I learned how to communicate with and pitch to editors as well as how to develop my brand. From there, I got my first BBC photo essay published and everything took off from there”.
Ben, where are you from?
I’m from Salisbury in the south of England.
Where do you currently live?
I recently moved to Tbilisi, Georgia.
What genre of photography do you specialise in?
I specialise in travel, portrait, and documentary photography.
Describe your style of photography?
Although I’ve worked on photojournalism assignments for BBC Travel, the photojournalism style is not my natural setting when I’m travelling—I can turn it on and off when required. Recently, Up & Coming Art described me as a ‘fine-art travel photographer’, which I hadn’t considered before but I have grown quite comfortable with the title since. My photography focuses on fleeting moments of human interaction, unfamiliar cultural customs, and remote landscapes because those are the things that interest me. I’m endlessly moved when I sit and watch the ebb and flow of daily life around the world and try to create works that reflect this. I take intimate portraits and place great weight on the initial interaction with my subjects—getting people to open up and warm to me first is part of the challenge. My photos are a reflection of how I travel the world; I do not pay people to pose for me and I shun staged scenes – I always strive for authenticity and I hope that it shows.
What are you working on at the moment?
Settling into life in my new apartment in Tbilisi and getting back on top of everything as the vaccinated ‘new normal’ begins.
What is your next project or assignment?
I’ll be documenting Georgian culture and landscapes and aiming to publish photo essays and written pieces about the South Caucasus region and beyond. I’m also teaching myself video editing and I’m planning to buy a drone since there are no regulations on their use here.
Are there any photographers whose work/style you admire?
My favourite Instagram account that I’m currently following is probably that of Indian street photographer Vineet Vohra—he is endlessly creative, surprising and playful, and it’s fantastic to see India through the eyes of a talented local photographer. I admire the work of GMB Akash, David Guttenfelder, Simon Urwin, Gil Kreslavsky, and Taylor Weidman, among many others.
What is your favourite memory of your experiences?
In Taiwan in 2018, I walked the first half (5 of 10 days) of the Dajia Mazu, the world’s third-largest religious pilgrimage. The full 10 days is a 340-kilometre hike along roads, stopping at hundreds of Taoist temples along the way, all while following a wooden statue of the Goddess Mazu carried in a palanquin (wooden box on poles) by four men. You sleep in temples, in parks, or at the side of the road, and 24/7 there are nonstop fireworks, firecrackers, fascinating scenes, interactions with interesting characters, and incredible photo opportunities. At the start, I thought the long hike would be good for me, but by the end of my last day I felt 10 years older because of the lack of sleep and smoke inhalation – but it is unbelievably worth it if you’re into intense cultural experiences that haven’t changed much in hundreds of years.
What’s the biggest photographic challenge you overcame?
When I was working in Manipur in Northeast India for the BBC, I had to photograph some powerful women who were the bosses of a famous market as well as leaders of large-scale political protests in the region. They were very unfamiliar with both foreigners and being photographed. They gave me a day to conduct interviews and another day for photography, where we walked around the market together and I could shoot away. Whenever they noticed me raising my camera towards them in what I wanted to be a candid moment, they would either flash a cheesy grin, flick me the peace sign, or look like rabbits in headlights. Therefore, I had to be stealthy, see the shot in my mind, and raise my camera up to take the shot within a second and back down again before they noticed. It was a lot of fun actually.
What’s in your camera bag?
What’s in your camera bag? A Canon 5D Mark IV. A Canon 25–105 mm f/4 L series lens. A Sigma Art f/1.4 35mm lens. That’s it. I’m a gear minimalist.
What photographic equipment would you never leave home without?
My sling camera strap—it’s a game-changer.
What advice you would give anyone who is starting out?
Study the basics of composition and exposure and be patient. You’ll probably take quite a lot of bad photos to start with, perhaps for a few years. If a more experienced photographer or one that you admire offers you constructive criticism, then accept it graciously and learn all that you can from them.
Any pitfalls they should avoid?
Avoid oversaturating images, especially oranges and blues. Find an experienced mentor rather than allowing your ego to grow from unabashed praise from thousands of fellow amateurs on photography websites – the mentor’s advice and critique will be many times more valuable to your development and growth.
Lastly… if you weren’t a photographer what would you be doing?
My other line of work is academic proofreading. I edit articles for international academic journals as well as PhD students’ dissertations. I don’t just travel for work – if I wasn’t a photographer, I’d still be travelling and exploring far and wide.
All images by Ben McKechnie. All rights reserved. No usage anywhere online or in print without permission.
Interview by Kav Dadfar.