The Interview Series: Ten Questions With Official Fujifilm X Photographer Spencer Wynn

It is safe to say that photography changed my life.  It gives me purpose, it feeds my family, it brings me joy.  I have been lucky to meet many wonderful people through this journey that I wouldn’t otherwise know:  new friends, new students, new peers… I am truly blessed to be surrounded by so many talented people.

Spencer Wynn and I met through our shared role as Official Fuji X Photographers for Fujifilm Canada.  We initially spent a few hours together on a photo walk here in Vancouver, where he was creating images for his Canada 150 project.   It is easy to like Spencer:  he is talented but modest, confident but gentle.  Spencer spent decades working as a visual journalist and this is reflected in his work, which is diverse and beautiful.  Plus, he cooks an amazing steak.  Seriously.

As Spencer and I spent more time together we realized that we both share a love for education.  This lead to the recent creation of a travel photography workshop series we are calling “The Story of a City”, which is launching this summer in Toronto.  I am excited to be teaching with Spencer and I know I will learn a few new things from him too.

So, settle in and learn more about my friend Spencer Wynn.  Be sure to follow the links to his portfolio once you are done… you won’t be disappointed.

Thank you for being a part of this interview series.  Could you start by telling readers a little bit about yourself and your photography?

I attended the Ontario College of Art – before it was known as OCAD!  There, I specialized in editorial design and documentary photography.  Both those disciplines come together in my love of visual storytelling.  My career since then has been with Toronto Life magazine, various studios and the Toronto Star working with other visual journalists.

After leaving the Star as Deputy Art Director in 2014, I have been free to explore photography even deeper on my own terms.  As a Fujifilm user and brand ambassador, I have taken my cameras into the First Nations community of Attawapiskat to document the housing crisis, into the high Arctic, on ice flows, in caves in China, into Inner Mongolia, Tibet, India, Greenland, Turkey, Czech Republic and other visually exciting locations.  Story telling and locations go well together and combine to create a picture of a place.

You have had a lengthy career as a photojournalist, working for various publications as well as being a freelancer.  What is it that drew you to photojournalism as one of the main genres that you work in?

I have always been interested in the lives of people and cultures.  We are all connected at some level – we can harmonize our lives by learning more about each other.  Combining compelling images, narratives and emotions visually is a powerful way to draw people together as a more local global community.  In these challenging days of division, it is more important than ever to see and read about others and how their lives are as meaningful as our own.

I think it is fair to say that many photographers work to create one single, compelling image at a time.  Photojournalism is often different though as you are required to tell the story of your subject through a series of images.  Can you talk a little bit about the storytelling aspect of making images?

I also teach photography at Humber College and one of the first assignments my students have is to write a story proposal and follow that with a five-image documentary.  A story of a place, an event or a person can be a challenge to photograph well.  It is even more challenging to do this in five images.  When I look at a story, I want to experience it – that may mean living in a slum in India or yurts in Inner Mongolia.  But regardless of where I am, all stories break down into five elements:

  1. An establishing wide shot;
  2. A medium shot;
  3. A portrait/close-up shot;
  4. An action shot;
  5. A detail shot.

If these images are photographed well and at appropriate times of the day and night, then the viewer will comprehend the essence of the narrative without requiring a written statement to get the concept across.

Telling stories can be incredibly rewarding.  Are there any specific projects that you are especially proud of working on?

Two stories come to mind :

  1. The housing crisis in the Attawapiskat First Nation in northern Ontario was one where I travelled to twice over a year to document and live in the community.  Establishing trust and a rapport with the residents was important to getting access and stories of the conditions in the troubled community.  One of the periods I was there went over Christmas which added another layer to the story.
  2. The other story was to cover the world’s worst industrial disaster that few remember.  It is the Bhopal Gas Disaster in Bhopal, India.  My writer and I spent two years working on this project – telling the story of trans-national corporate negligence and death.  We were in India where we lived with and experienced the horrors of the lives left behind after tens of thousands died.  “The dead are the lucky ones”, we were told.  Being able to tell their story visually and in virtual reality was both demanding and emotional.  This sort of story leaves a mark one one’s soul.  It is a story to be told forward to educate a new generation so this never happens again.

Of all the experiences I have had, those two embedded experiences are ones that were pure story telling, both written and visual.  They are also stories which I was proud to pitch and to see through to the end.

As a working visual journalist, especially when you were doing it full time, what gear did you use?  Is there certain gear that is a “must carry” for photojournalists?

Before making the huge shift from Canon DSLRs to the Fujufilm X-System, I had to contend with a lot of weight and volume.  Air travel is always a nuisance but with the smaller form factor of the mirrorless system, my gear shrank in size & weight by half!  With smaller cameras & lenses and less obvious gear, I can go about my shooting and look more like a tourist and be left alone – which is perfect, especially in a country where I am an obvious foreigner.  As for the gear I find essential:  A couple of camera bodies, a few lenses, a good audio recorder with external mic, a note book, lots of batteries and a computer.  All of this fits neatly into a small shoulder bag – one that can easily fit in an overhead compartment or under the seat in front of me in an airplane.

You shoot many other genres… I believe I have seen landscapes from you as well as cityscapes, wedding work, portraiture, astro photography, etc.  Is there a common thread to the way you approach these diverse genres, or do you approach each genre differently?

Haha, yes, I am cursed with a wide range of curiosities!  I do love wilderness and remote landscapes from the Arctic to deserts.  I am, as I mentioned interested in people, so portraiture is an art form I love as one can tell a story of someone by having all the right elements in the portrait.  As well, weddings – these I approach as a news feature, creating a visual narrative of a wedding day rather than the trends of Pinterest-like events that are so common these days.  All the genres of photography that I enjoy can also tell stories if approached thoughtfully and from a story telling point of view.

Let’s talk more about gear: I know you through our shared work as Official Fuji X Photographers for Fujifilm Canada.  When did you first discover mirrorless and what drew you to it?

My second trip to India, and the first of the trips to tell the Bhopal story was when it was 114 degrees fahrenheit.  I was wilting in the heat and at about the same time the DSLRs just stopped working as they too were over heated.  Before that trip, I had picked up my first Fujifilm camera, the X10.  I chucked it in my bag and sort of forgot about it – that was until the DSLRs stopped working.  I pulled out the X10 and continued to shoot raw images with it.  It was only at home that I discovered the beauty of those images.  I then purchased the X100S and fell in love!  That was the beginning of the end of my DSLR days and the exciting times ahead for the mirrorless system.  I can honestly say that I have never once looked back.  I am just glad I sold off all the DSLR gear before the market is flooded with the stuff!

What is it about the Fujifilm system specifically that you love?  I am asking in terms of usability, handling, image quality, etc but also in regard to specific pieces of gear.

For me, the Fujifilm system is elegant.  It is beautifully designed, fits my hands well and the ergonomics are perfect for me.  The Q menu is brilliant as I never have to go hunting in the deeper voluminous menu.  This means that I can alter settings on the fly without wasting time on a busy day such as a wedding.  A game-changer is the incredibly bright and accurate electronic view finder.  When you are shooting on the run, you do not have time to stop, look at the images and make adjustments, it is all in the eyepiece and ergonomically, you never have to take the camera away from your eye while your muscle memory makes fine adjustments.

Though I have two brilliant X-Pro2 cameras, I must say that the X100 series is and always has been a favourite.  I am well known to say that I would run into my burning condo just for that camera.  Sure it has no zoom, it has no interchangeable lenses – but for me, those limitations challenge me to be a better and more creative photographer.  It is THE storytelling camera.

Mirrorless technology has advanced rapidly in the last few years and sales figures show us that the growth of mirrorless has been huge compared to DSLR sales.  Is there a specific area that you think mirrorless still needs to mature in, or do you think it has “arrived”?

I am never satisfied with anything, I am always trying to push my skills.  I like knowing that Fujifilm is also doing this for me in terms of their hardware and firmware updates and upgrades.  I appreciate that they listen to end-users like me and are always improving with us.  I am less concerned with the whole full-frame craze – I once had a five-foot print made from my X-Pro2 and it was tack sharp.  I have used these cameras in the rain, in searing heat and in -43 degree weather with no issues.  The only area I would like to see improved is extreme low light focusing. I have workarounds for these rare situations, but would love to see an improvement in that area.  I am not a big video guy any longer, but see video as an important art of storytelling – so seeing that Fuji is improving that end of things is comforting to know.  Its not there yet, but its coming.

You and I are collaborating on a few different photography education projects and I know that you also teach photography in a variety of venues.  What is it about education and working with other photographers that you love so much?

I have been blessed with a thirsty curiosity and my teachers in school tapped into that by challenging me, never accepting anything but perfection.  My biggest influence was my teacher, Ken Bell, who among other things was a WWII war photographer who landed and survived the Normandy landings, documenting one of the bloodiest campaigns of the war before going into teaching at the Ontario College of Art.  Ken is never far from my mind when I teach my own students – trying to give back all the experiences, reveal all my mistakes and excite my students with the thrill of seeing an idea burst into reality though compelling and beautiful images.  I see the look of amazement on my students faces and smile, remembering the same feelings I had.  It is through sharing freely that we all become better.

Thank you so much for participating in this interview. Where can people find out more about you?

I have two websites:

www.spencerwynn.com

www.wynnphoto.ca 

I am also on Twitter and Instagram as  @spencerwynn and on Facebook @aspencerwynn

WORKSHOP NOTE:

If you would like to learn more about the travel photography workshop that Spencer and I are teaching in August, please click the following link:

The Story of a City – Toronto Edition

Until next time,

Ian

8 thoughts on “The Interview Series: Ten Questions With Official Fujifilm X Photographer Spencer Wynn

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