Conversation with Greg Funnell
Greg Funnell is a photographer who can equally look into the soul of a person or the spirit of a car. His work might look casual but is shot with extreme precision and love for detail. He shoots in a signature documentary style with great commercial sensibility, capturing the often unseen in both black and white and colour.
From a background in war and history studies at university to photojournalism, Greg now works globally for an impressive range of clients, from big brands to high profile charities.
He says inspiring people through his photography is really important to him and he loves capturing the heroic: often in sport and adventure. Yet whatever the subject, Greg’s work always bursts with extraordinary elegance.
While at university you were also a contributing photographer to the student newspaper, eventually becoming its editor. You then had a bit of a baptism by fire.
After graduating, I ended up going out to cover the Israel–Hezbollah War with a friend. We were heading out to do some work in the West Bank anyway. Then war broke out but we still went, buying flak jackets off eBay. We spent a month there, shooting around the northern border, bluffing our way through checkpoints and even sneaking onto an army base.
The experience definitely gave me bit of the bug but I also realised I needed to think about whether it was something I was cut out to do. You cover something incredibly political, then come back home and people aren’t even aware of it and it makes you feel very disconnected. For the next couple of years, I did anything from weddings to PR and portraits. But I was still travelling, in situations with that kind of buzz, for example, covering the Kosovo Independence.
After a few years, things kind of changed: I started shooting travel and also started working for Action Aid. I ended up working for charities [later including Save the Children and Peace Direct] all over the place, from Malawi to Sierra Leone. I also started shooting for big commercial clients.
Your photojournalism background and breadth of experience must mean you can offer something extra in commercial shoots.
In some ways it’s good to be bit of a generalist in the photography world, as ultimately every situation is different and you have to react differently. My background enables me to be a bit more Chameleonesque. Quite often you are trying to very quickly get to grips with a situation on a shoot. A lot of it is the psychology of dealing with people but I think my diverse experience helps me out.
You’ve obviously worked in unstable environments and have done hostile environment training. Describe some of the more challenging situations.
The last one where I was in the thick of it was in the Central African Republic. I was there with Save the Children but flew in with a Channel 4 team. We couldn’t even retrieve our passports from the airport at Bangui, where we’d been made to leave them before flying off to Bouar, because fighting had broken out nearby. Everyone had fled into the bush because Séléka militia had started shooting the place up. We ended up stranded in Bouar. There was a Séléka militia base in the jungle between us and the airstrip, so we were holed up in this catholic mission with a bunch of nuns and some African Union troops. With Channel 4 doing live satellite feeds, it could make us a bit of a target. Every couple of nights we were briefed to be ready to go because there’d been intelligence reports we’d likely be attacked at dawn.
We were covering the story of a doctor who was the only one for 50,000 people and were shooting in a hospital where he was trying to operate on children with no electricity. That was quite a full-on story and when we finally got back into Bangui there had been some massacres. It was a very surreal place to be and was deathly silent. Somehow it’s the stuff you don’t shoot that almost sticks in your mind more, like seeing a children’s play area with dead bodies just scattered around.
Fighting broke out again in the capital while we were there. We were staying in a compound and if we felt it was safe enough, we would go out in a convoy to shoot footage. It was obviously a very intense experience. The following week I was shooting Italian ski wear in the Dolomites, trying to direct models down a slope, wondering what I was doing.
It’s hard to imagine how you switch between such extremes. But at the end of the day, you have a job to do. With the commercial and ad sector, travel, lifestyle and adventure are often your focus. What are some of those highlights so far?
I did a really good story for Vanity Fair in Tanzania on the Hadza. It was a real privilege. They are one of the last hunter-gatherer tribes in west Africa. I spent some time getting to understand that way of life – a way of living that is being lost. It was a real highlight for me.
I like doing the travel stuff because I get inspired by being somewhere new and fresh. I quite like being in unfamiliar territory, I find it’s when I’m most creative. Travel photography also plays to my various strengths. You are quite often shooting portraits but also shooting quite documentary style. Or it might be food and interiors. But it means you are constantly challenged.
Working for Red Bull has also afforded me some great stories. I’ve covered cliff diving off the west coast of Ireland, crashed ice races in Finland and travelled to Senegal to shoot [singer] Youssou N’Dour. That was a mad experience. He had to be hunted down at a festival on the edge of the Sahara. I hired a car with a writer, with just a basic tourist map to go on. We weren’t meant to take the car out of the capital but drove nine hours, did two river crossings on a floating barge pulled by a donkey, got pulled over at three different checkpoints and paid at least one bribe to armies standing in the middle of an empty desert road with an AK47.
Eventually we got there just as the sun was setting. It was the maddest festival in the middle of nowhere on a riverbank, with people arriving in canoes or walking for miles to see him. I spent the evening shooting, climbing a lighting rig four storeys up. We then slept briefly in the car before driving nine hours back. All for a couple of pages in a magazine!
Wow, what a crazy, incredible experience. You have so many stories to share.
With editorial assignments you often have situations where you have a cover shoot that’s supposed to take all afternoon but are suddenly given less than three minutes. I think this pressure helps me on the commercial side because I’m so used to these parameters that I’m very flexible when it comes to shooting on set.
I love the kind of stories where there is something exciting happening, where I have to work around the event, capturing people who are in some way heroic. There’s normally drama, there’s passion and there are people who care about what they’re involved in.
I think that’s my real forte – creating heroes, in a way, often in more obscure sports or shoots.
Would you say what drives you as a photographer is seeking out those kind of people and situations?
I think it’s seeking out the extraordinary. People going the extra mile, people who are willing to really be living life to the full in terms of what they are capable of. I have huge respect for that, so am naturally attracted to trying to capture it. I want my images to inspire other people to get out there and try things, to be the best they can be. It’s about trying to capture accomplishment and beauty, in all its forms.
I think that’s where I moved away from photojournalism – as it always felt like I was trying to bully or shock people into caring. I would rather inspire people to do something than force them to confront something they may not be comfortable with.
Tell us about your personal project, Gauchos.
Teaming up with a writer friend in Argentina, we shot in the north, The Pampas and down in Patagonia. I wanted to see for myself a way of life that is slowly disappearing. There is a mystery and myth surrounding the idea of the gaucho: to some they are heroes and to others they are villains. These self-reliant, somewhat lonely figures, who exist and survive, forge a way of life that seems somehow from a bygone age. The idea of the frontiersman is something I find intriguing and I think has, in Western culture always been revered. Yet it’s normally in North America that we see it because of Hollywood and the Western genre. I was interested in finding it in the South and exploring that side of things.
What about Palio di Siena, another personal project focusing on culture, in this case such a historic horse race?
Palio is full of drama and emotion and is a very colourful event but I chose to show it in black and white because I wanted it to be timeless. People seem to say that about my work in general: that it feels timeless. I guess that’s on purpose as I want to create something that can stay culturally relevant.
Palio is historically full of tradition, so it’s naturally relevant, culturally significant and heroic, in a way.
Documenting disappearing ways of life or skills is obviously important to you.
Definitely. I enjoy celebrating those skills. With Gauchos, the competence of these guys as horse riders, the way they understand the animals and their self-sustaining lifestyle all appeals to me. Similarly, with the Hadza hunter-gatherers, I liked working with them because there is so much to learn from these people. Someone who saw them in a flash could be quite prejudiced; see it as a backward way of living. But they have lived like that for around 3000 years and maintained a way of life that is sustainable.
Going out with these hunters, I got to see how they use a Honeybird to find honey and communicate with a bird that literally flies from tree to tree and leads them to a bees’ nest. The hunter will then climb, get the honey and the bird dips down and takes the leftovers. That’s why the relationship works and it is kind of insane in this day and age.
What a privilege to enjoy that kind of access to something so wonderful.
Yes and it’s something we should be celebrating – the fact that these skills exist shows the beauty of how humans and nature can interact in a way that’s being lost. In the UK, many of us have so little interaction with wildlife and yet I think it’s really important to maintain our understanding. Unless you understand something, you don’t respect or care about it.
So I guess with photographing disappearing cultures and traditions, it’s exciting to celebrate something we should care about, that we shouldn’t be quick to forget. The moment we forget about it; we risk losing it.
The reason I’m so drawn to shooting people who are worthy of some sort of praise is because society needs proper heroes to celebrate and look up to. It might be something bizarre like a cliff diver, which isn’t fashionable or trendy, but that person has worked really hard and is passionate.
First and foremost, you are a photographer but you also direct and produce motion. Tell me more about that.
What I love about working on films as a DOP is you have a team to collaborate with, to really bring a greater good out of it. It’s also about being 100 per cent able to focus on visuals when DOP-ing, as opposed to directing; being able to focus on how you draw people in through the frame.
Photography is weird because what we do is put boxes round things. We’re saying look over here, not over there. What you choose to frame, you’ve also chosen a lot to exclude.
This is why I quite like working with a Widelux camera, for side projects. Shooting with that 140-degree panoramic camera is the antithesis of photography in some ways. You don’t have as much control over what’s in the frame, so it almost speaks a wider truth.
With moving image, I love the way it introduces sound to further your vision, to make it more emotive. With a photograph you need a stellar picture, a very strong frame to a tell a story. It is less forgiving. But with motion, you can get away with a close up of a hand, as your brain fills in the rest.
How do you think your background in stills helps when filming?
I think because photography is so disciplined, it helps me when it comes to moving imagery, as it has taught me how to really concentrate on the frame and understand its importance.
What makes you happy when you’re shooting stills?
Photography has all these different elements that need to come together in a decisive moment. You can see when one is looming and you just know it’s going to be a great shot. That’s my biggest high.
I often shoot quite complicated compositions. I could opt to shoot very simple, quiet shots but I like the complexity of taking all that chaos, capturing it for split second and making it make sense. That’s what a camera is; a little time machine, a little magic box.
As a photographer, you are freezing one moment over another, as aesthetically it works. You can be wrong and miss that moment and be a split second late or early, or a slight step to the left would have given you a shot 10 times stronger. But that’s what I love about it. I don’t like fishing but I can understand why people like it, as it’s the thrill of the catch. And that’s what photography is – you are constantly trying to capture a moment. You know it’s there but it may be eluding you a bit. There’s always the thrill of the chase.
Greg is represented by Tea & Water Pictures