The Decisive Moment: Interview with Photographer Mark Leaver

The Decisive Moment: Interview with Photographer Mark Leaver

In this interview with photographer Mark Leaver, he talks traveling the world, working with highly tattooed people, and passion projects.

Mark Leaver travels the world taking poignant photographs of deeply interesting people and moments. Preserving the ever changing landscape of tattoo culture, and beyond, Leaver was kind enough to give us some insight into his working philosophies. 

How did you get into street photography and why was that the medium you were most interested in working with?

If you go to art school and can’t draw, photography is your friend. People who say otherwise are lying.

Like the majority of young photographers, I got into street photography when I was pointed in the direction of Henri Cartier-Bresson. I used to take to the streets in search of my own ‘Decisive Moment’. I was young and inexperienced at this point and still learning the fundamentals of photography so it was a slow and often tedious search. The very few photos I did like I remember more the faces and the expressions rather than the moments. This is essentially where my insight to making portraits began.

There’s a certain thrill to asking someone for a photo, they’re granting you access to their stories, essentially.

How has your style evolved over the years? Who are the photographers, artists, films, etc. that you look to for inspiration?

When I was starting out with photography and getting to grips with portraiture I favored studio lighting. It slowed me down and made me consider the image more, essentially what I was trying to do was get rid of the snap-shot aesthetic.

I had to take my studio lighting all the way to India to realize that it’s not always needed for losing the snapshot aesthetic and that it was slowing me down a bit too much…

Photographers I look up to: Steve McCurry, Pieter Hugo, Don McCullin, Joey Lawrence. Basically anyone who makes raw portraiture that makes you think.

Can you tell us a little bit about what draws you to certain people?

They say pictures say 1000 words, a face can say 10,000 I reckon. I’ve always loved looking at portraits and thinking about that person and the things they’ve seen and done. The camera is a great tool to go and talk to people that otherwise you wouldn’t, it opens doors that otherwise would be locked, see Diane Arbus. There’s a certain thrill to asking someone for a photo, they’re granting you access to their stories, essentially.

I see portraiture as a platform for viewers to create stories, the photographer can lead the viewer to a certain mindset but at the end of the day it’s down to how the viewer perceives characters. I’ve always been drawn to a good story.

...these are the characters who embody what tattooing originally was meant to be.

Why do you think many people are enamored with body modifications and tattooing? Can you describe some of the people you’ve worked with, and the unique things they have to say?

We are now inundated with tattoos in society, they have become mainstream. Once exclusive to criminals, bikers, outlaws, freaks and other counter cultures, tattoos are now endorsed by celebrities such as Justin Bieber. This has created a paradox for the counter cultures who used to get inked. Its pushed out some pretty gnarly responses to David Beckham sleeves, these take place in the form of: tongue splitting, scarification, heavy black work tattooing such Cammy Stewarts, Brutal Black Project,  and even eyeball tattooing!

The people who I’ve included in my body of work on facial tattooing I believe are representative of the old school, these are the characters who embody what tattooing originally was meant to be.

One thing I noticed about your portraits, is that they seem natural, but powerful. How do you get the people posing for you to let their guard down so that you can capture their essence in such a distinct way?

Taking a portrait of someone is a sensitive thing to do; no one in this day and age really wants their photo taken by a stranger, especially the people I tend to photograph. There’s lots of ways in which you can go about taking portraits. I’ll just talk briefly about this in relation to my work on facial tattoos. It’s not rocket science. A lot of it comes down to common sense, manners, being polite, knowing what you want and being good at what you do.

In your opinion what makes a great photographer and what advice do you have for photographers trying to get a foothold in such an over-saturated, fast paced industry?

The great photographers in my eyes are the ones leaving their comfort zones. A good photographer brings images of otherwise unseen worlds, one of the main appeals of photography since its invention has always been making the invisible visible. Don’t misinterpret this as a way of saying you have to travel to far flung places to be a good photographer. There’s an infinite amount of stories right on your doorstep, you just have to find them.

Part of your work obviously includes a lot of traveling, and meeting a very diverse set of populations. What have been your favorite travel stories, or favorite places/people you’ve visited, and why?

India remains one of my favorite places on this planet, the culture and the diversity are unparalleled. Coming from an entirely western background, India’s a place that will question everything you know about yourself and the world around you. 

I could write a separate article on this story, but I’ll just keep it brief. In 2015 I lost my passport on a bus. One thing lead to another and I was sleeping in a slum in the Himalayas, in which I ended up making a series of portraits based around people suffering the consequences of a nationwide fuel crisis. This experience really shaped a new approach to photography for me and made me realize the importance of being involved with what you're photographing. 

What do you wish you had more time for? Any projects, events, or collabs coming up in 2019 that you’d like to share?

I wish I had more time to shoot for the fun of it! And to make bodies of work just for what they are and not thinking about meeting ends to pay rent! The problem is that photography can be an expensive game; equipment, travel and all adds up so, understandably, you have to limit and ration passion projects.

I made a photographic series exploring the world of Indian bodybuilding a few years ago. I’m excited to share that this year it will be getting released as a feature length film focusing on the upcoming career of one of the characters. See the trailer below.

Lastly, it’s really early stages but we could be looking at another documentary on some of the facially tattooed characters and looking into how the tattoo scene has changed over the years and what it's now become.

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