Pro photographer Tim Bird first got really interested in photography when he arrived in Finland 40 years ago. For Tim, Finland was “a completely clean visual slate where everything was novel and alien.” He says “Finland then felt as close to its eastern neighbour, the Soviet Union, as it did to western Europe. So I started to see things through the 50mm lens of my first film camera, a Russian Zenit, totally manual, built like a little tank, ideal for learning the basics. So I was completely self-taught, except for a few very instructive courses and workshops later on.” But it wasn’t photography that first pulled Tim to Finland…
Originally from the South East of England, Tim moved to Finland to work as an English teacher. But what he really wanted to do was to work as a freelance journalist. He says “I made contact with English language outlets in Finland, including the magazine of the Finnish Tourist Board and the inflight magazine of Finnair, Blue Wings, the latter being my most regular outlet for travel material over the last three decades.”
But rather than just supplying copy, he found that he could accompany his articles with his own pictures, although in his own words “it took him a long time to feel confident enough to call himself a photographer as well as a writer”. Since then Tim has had several coffee table books published and contributed words and photos to dozens of books and magazines. Finland and the Baltic and Nordic regions are his specialities, but he has also had the chance to travel widely on commissions, to Southeast Asia (especially India), right across Europe, Africa, and North, South and Central America.
Tim, where are you from?
I’m from Southeast Kent in England. I haven’t lived there since I was in my early 20s (I’m now 65) but I visit my family there whenever I can.
Where do you currently live?
I’ve lived in Helsinki, the capital city of Finland, since 1982.
What genre of photography do you specialise in?
I’m a travel photographer, and that covers portraits, landscapes, wildlife, food, festivals and events!
Describe your style of photography?
Hmmm, I think that’s up to others really! But I realise that I am increasingly following the concept that photography is an art of exclusion, consciously and subconsciously trying to leave out superfluous detail from shots. I love shooting people, including children, and I think it’s a great shame that we can’t do that without attracting suspicion anymore, although I understand the reasoning. I like to make a connection, however fleeting, with the people I shoot, trying to make sure they are not intimidated by the camera. I’m attracted to extremes, in events, in climate and weather, in cultures, but also to extreme calm, and I love the escapism, the thrill and the total immersion of shooting the Northern Lights, for example, or foggy mornings on the river near my Helsinki home.
What are you working on at the moment?
My ongoing Women of India project, telling stories of women from different Indian regions, cultures and backgrounds, has been interrupted by Covid! But I recently held an exhibition on that theme in Helsinki. I’ve been rediscovering Finland with my camera over the last 18 months, not having been able to leave because of travel restrictions.
What is your next project or assignment?
Things have been very quiet on the commission front, so I’m trying to use the time to do some archiving and to make and maintain contacts for when things – hopefully – return to “normal”. I continue to contribute articles and photos, including ‘slide show’ galleries, to a website called This Is Finland, published by the Finnish Foreign Ministry.
Are there any photographers whose work/style you admire?
The Indian photographers Raghupir Singh and Raghur Rai; Sebastião Salgado; Steve McCurry; Tiina Itkonen, a Finnish photographer who specialises in Greenland.
What is your favourite memory of your experiences?
The first time I saw the Northern Lights on a frozen lake in Lapland. Jumping around and yelling like kids with a couple of mates, not quite believing that anything so incredible could be possible and not knowing in which direction to point my camera.
What’s the biggest photographic challenge you overcame?
Escaping the crush at dawn on the main bathing day of the Kumbh Mela Hindu festival in Allahabad, India in 2013, when untold millions gathered to bathe in the Ganges. I managed to escape to a pontoon on the river from which I could get a view back towards the banks of the river. Terrifying.
What’s in your camera bag?
Fujifilm XT3, 18-55 zoom, 55-200 zoom, Zeiss 50mm macro, Samyang 12mm, Sirui travel tripod, ND500 filters, polarising filters, several spare batteries, several spare SD cards.
What photographic equipment would you never leave home without?
What advice you would give anyone who is starting out?
Look at as much photography as you can but follow your own instincts and develop your own ‘voice’. Experiment. Know the rules, break the rules. Get to know your camera. Be bold and persistent if you want to sell or publish your photos. Identify the best competitions and enter them. Don’t give up!
Any pitfalls they should avoid?
Try not to get sucked too deeply into social media! Instagram is a great way to show your photos, but it can become too time-consuming and too much of an end in itself rather than a means of raising your profile – at least, that’s what I think. Be careful about what rights you give away if your pictures are published or entered into awards. It’s not always possible and it’s getting harder, but try to stick to the general principle of getting paid for your work!
Lastly… if you weren’t a photographer what would you be doing?
Not an option. I’ll always be a writer but I can’t imagine not doing both!
To see more of Tim’s work visit www.timbirdphotography.com.
You can follow Tim on Instagram.
All images by Tim Bird. All rights reserved. No usage anywhere online or in print without permission.
Interview by Kav Dadfar.