Photographer Focus

Paul Taylor

@thisispaultaylor

Paul Taylor's catalogue of photography is an incredible collection of different places and faces, different scenes and different stories. Paul has travelled far and wide with his camera in-hand and has captured deep and immersive biographies of the highest quality. We wanted to learn from Paul, see how he works on the street, and hear some stories from his time photographing.

First of all, let’s talk equipment, what do you use to shoot with?

I shoot with a Canon 5D Mark III, and have the 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II, 50mm f/1.4 and the 17-40mm f/4L Canon lenses.

The telephoto is great for festivals – you can get close really easily and it’s amazing in low light.

For street, recently I’ve been shooting exclusively with the 50mm. For me, a prime is perfect for street.

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Your style of candid street photography is often a style that people have to build up a lot of courage to begin doing. What did you do to overcome that initial fear?

I don’t know that I have overcome that fear, or if I ever will, but for whatever reason, when I’m in these situations something instinctive kicks in that gets me over that line, that pushes my finger down on that button. That’s a process that I’m still learning and exploring myself. It’s a learning curve but it’s still enjoyable to have that part of the process that has a little unpredictability, compared to when I take the shots to the studio and then I have that control. For me, my real confidence comes in the studio more than on the front line necessarily. When I’m in the street I worry too much, not so much that I’m overstepping boundaries – because I don’t think I do, I think I’m conscious of that and respect that – but that people might misunderstand my motives or situation. I don’t want anyone to think they’re having their privacy violated or that I’m watching them. In fact that’s the very thing I want to avoid! It’s like the observer effect, or the panopticon – people’s behaviour is inherently affected when they feel they’re being watched and I try not to influence the things I’m trying to capture. At the very least you get an unnatural shot, someone posing or screaming and at the extreme end you’ve got a Moroccan man screaming at you to delete any and all photographs that might have caught him in frame, I can tell you that from experience! But of course it’s fair enough. If anyone’s unhappy or uncomfortable being in a shot, that’s more important than the shot in most cases.

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Have you ever faced any problems with this style of photography?

Not yet! Obviously as I said there are the ethical hoops to navigate but by and large so far I’ve largely been able to do my thing. The biggest challenge realistically is keeping a low enough profile to blend in with your surroundings, so as not to attract any unwanted attention or influence the environment and the people in it, in order to catch those more natural shots that I’m after. I try and keep the camera hidden behind my arm, it’s not the most inconspicuous of objects (maybe I’m gonna have to work on my arms more!). I think that’s another reason the 50mm is great because it’s a lot smaller than the 17-40 which is harder to camouflage and also still walk around with my head out of the viewfinder and take in the city myself, in many cases a part of the city for the first time.

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How do you approach people to ask for their photo?

I try to be polite and friendly; explain that I’d like to take their photo and would be happy to send to them if they wanted it. It’s the least I can do – they have given me their time and trust – it’s only right I offer something in return.

That’s another reason I’m going to make some stickers to give to people with my information that still looks good – something for them to take away and feed them back to Instagram where they can maybe find the finished product. Just little things like that to try and give back a token gesture. It’s funny because when you’re at somewhere like a festival, or a gig, it’s hard to move anywhere without someone asking for you to take a photo, asking for your information about how they can get this picture, where they can find it and so on, they’re very insistent (maybe I could learn a thing or two from them!) So we know that in the right circumstances people love having their picture taken, it just comes down to what I said earlier about people being unsure of why you might be taking their picture.

You’ve also travelled a lot, what are some of the best places you’ve been and which photos capture your experience perfectly?

South East Asia definitely. Then probably North Thailand, and specifically Chiang Mai. For me, that was the real Thailand. First of all, it’s beautiful, and the people have this incredible character there. Without wanting to sound too much like Leonardo DiCaprio in The Beach, it was much more authentic than the westernised islands in the south, less claustrophobic and not just one big tropical party. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t party though!

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This is one of my favourite photos – the little lad cleaning the fighter (which I assumed was an older brother) after round one in a Thai boxing match. You can see the emotion in their relationship – admiration, aspiration, two different points on the same path – which to me says a lot about tradition and the things that connect different generations, especially out there. A great thing about travelling and seeing different cultures is you get to see how even just the act of cleaning the gloves or wrapping the hands before a fight, these kind of rituals are the first steps for the younger ones in these traditions. One day, with time and dedication, the younger guys will be the ones in the ring. Out there that continuity is essential and you get that from following tradition I guess. It shows the difference in cultures to where I’m from in England where lifestyles change so much from one generation to the other that traditions are either lost, or irrelevant and so each new generation must either make their own path or try and stick to ideas and traditions that just aren’t compatible with modern life; never mind life in 20, 30 years when we’ve got self-driving cars and voice activated TVs! My favourite thing about visiting new places is exploring the culture – seeing how things are done and trying to understand why.

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A real culture shock came when in Borneo where I took a trip to visit the ‘Sea Gypsies’ – the Samah. The Samah live in the Sulawesi Sea off Malaysia’s state of Sabah. They live in wooden shacks that stand above the water on wooden stilts. Although I’d seen this kind of thing on Planet Earth, it’s incredibly humbling when they’re paddling over to your boat asking for Ringgits wearing no clothes.

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I loved Vietnam. The traffic is hectic everywhere in SE Asia, but there’s nothing quite like Vietnam. In this photo you can see two people casually having a chat surrounded by motorbikes. They have this incredible ability to find moments of peace in what we’d consider chaos back home, and that’s what I was hoping to capture here. I got to experience it first hand whilst riding the Hải Vân Pass – an amazing route from Huế to Hội An, through mythical countryside, small villages, up and down mountains (can be seen on Top Gear in the final episode of the twelfth series) – and luckily escaped pretty much unscathed. There was one touch and go moment where I forgot how to turn and ended up skidding into a ditch on the side of the road – thankfully nobody saw and the only thing broken was my flip flop.

How did you begin to get involved with music photography? Any stand-out shows and moments? 

I started by reaching out, there are plenty of sites that will get you a photo pass if you can get them shots and it quickly became apparent that half the people doing that were on little digital cameras, or phones, but it’s something I enjoyed so I wanted to get the best shots and was rewarded for doing so.

I’ve always loved watching live music, whether it be raving at Sidewinder when I was 17 or feeling my bones shake at Subdub from the Iration Steppas sound system, whilst at university in Leeds – if there was ever anything I was going to shoot it would be that. The whole festival phenomenon took off when I was growing up, when I got to 20 it all ballooned so I rode that wave.

I love shooting my favourite artists, and capturing their energy and the relationship with the crowd. I also caught a little buzz off being back stage. Being at a festival though I still spent time in and amongst it, drinking by the campsite, hanging on the beaches, meeting new people and enjoying the spectacle. It’s important though to have the right balance, especially when you’re essentially there on someone else’s behalf, to ‘do a job’. I’ve definitely improved at that and preparation is key here. Planning who you want to see, how you’re gonna get to that stage, what lens you’re going to take, what kind of shot you want and the general timing and logistics of doing that. Trust me it’s a lot harder than you might think! Especially for someone like me anyway. It’s completely different to shooting here in New York or any of the other places I’ve been lucky enough to visit. Here I’m taking candid shots because I’m on the other side of that line.

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A stand out moment for me would have to be when I was in Croatia – just finished shooting the first of two festivals, but on the last night there was a kind of storm I’d never seen before! We were all stood under a gazebo at the campsite, the sky went black, thunder, lightning and it just started coming down, then pop, the gazebo was a goner, found it the next day wrapped around a barbeque about 200 metres away. Anyway we still had to go out and shoot and I’m not sure how or when it had happened but I went to take a shot and the camera was basically useless – this was on the first night! I thought I was going to go home without being able to cover any of the second festival we were due to shoot, until I was rescued by Polly, a Slovenian angel who I had met for five minutes – the generosity and trust she showed in me was remarkable, she leant me – a stranger – her camera, her personal camera worth a grand easy, and let me go and do my thing. You cannot bank on that kind of humanity but it was incredible to have experienced, and really the kind of love that festivals can throw up, which is why I rate them so much. So thank you Polly

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Do you have any planned trips coming up soon?

I’ve not long arrived in New York so plan on spending a long time exploring on every level. It’s a photographer’s dream. It has everything - there is so much fascinating and varied culture on every corner. So much character everywhere, from the subway to the sky. We are all familiar with the iconic Manhattan skyline but it’s the streets that interests me and that’s what I want to show. There are characters as big as the Empire State, communities as strong, proud and colourful as the Statue of Liberty.

Although if anybody reading this wants to send me to Japan - I’m ready, just say the words.

Thank you very much

Photographer: @thisispaultaylor