Lecture Notes, Marcus Bleasdale (13/11/13)

Marcus Bleasdale

Marcus Bleasdale

Marcus Bleasdale’s entrance into photography is very different to most photographers. Bleasdale studied business, economics and finance leading him to a successful career in the bank. He worked as an investment banker for 7-8 years. However, the idea of being confined within the same four walls filled with computers and telephones wasn’t enough, Bleasdale wanted more. It saddened him to think he would be stuck there. One day he picked up a camera. The camera had been bought as a present from Bleasdale to his ex-girlfriend but after the split she left the camera behind, “I think she threw it at me actually”. Naturally Bleasdale began to play around with the camera, just like all of us do. He began taking images of sunrises, cobwebs and other idyllic scenes and really enjoyed the creativity photography offered. Bleasdale had always enjoyed art in school but never found the chance to focus or follow through with it as a potential career. His father encouraged Bleasdale to follow in his footsteps and focus on more intellectual subjects.

After being inspired by his initial experience with photography, Bleasdale bought a Leica M6. He began to take black and white printing lessons and developed a passion for the image, all of which he pursued whilst still working at the bank. During a crisis the Balkans the banks were having a terrible time and Bleasdale pondered over what the crisis would do to the banks currency. This one insensitive thought in regard to how a crisis would impact the dollar sign, as opposed to its people and country, inspired Bleasdale to quit his job at the bank. It struck him so significantly it forced Bleasdale to re-think his entire life and being. 3 days after quitting his affluent job at the bank, Bleasdale travelled to the Balkans with his camera and began taking photographs there. At the time Bleasdale didn’t understand his place there and had little understanding of the roles of a photographer. He had no concept of narrative, how to represent all aspects of a place and to share their stories. He came to learn that photography can be so much more powerful than just the decisive moment. Once Bleasdale was back in the U.K he studied a post-graduate course in photojournalism as he was used to learning in a more formal manner.  Studying photojournalism defined what Bleasdale wanted to do as well as a passion, a thought process, and an interest in human rights and why he was taking photographs.

Is there a body of work which defined you (Bleasdale)? It was a gradual process and Bleasdale took little steps just like most photographers. Photographers don’t just step onto the scene with a great definitive project or work, it happens over time. The work in which Bleasdale feels his work thereafter radiated from was his time spent in Sierra Leone whilst he was at college. He focused on the diamonds in Sierra Leone and the diamond mines, documenting the people, their world and the RUF impact on all these things. This was Bleasdale’s first experience of natural resources, population and how they finance and engage conflict. This triggered an interest in other places where natural resources were being used and abused.

'100 Years of Darkness' by Marcus Bleasdale

‘100 Years of Darkness’ by Marcus Bleasdale

Between 2000 and 2001 Bleasdale travelled and documented the Central Republic of Africa which is just as significant as the Democratic Republic of Africa. Bleasdale is a deeply inspired and interested in literature. He read Joseph Conrad’s, ‘Heart of Darkness’ and found that all the images in front of him were described in the book. Has anything changed? This question influenced him to go to the Congo River to find out the answer to the question. Bleasdale ended up documenting the river for 4 years. The Congo River was separated into 3 parts all governed by corrupt force. One part was run by the government, the other by a powerful war lord and another by the Rwandan force from the east. Bleasdale had to section off between the sections. The photographs taken during this time resulted in the project, ‘100 Years of Darkness’. Bleasdale feels this was his first significant body of work. The project was not about natural resources. ‘100 Years of Darkness’ is about the history, population, government, democracy-or rather lack of it and dictatorship. It just came to be. Bleasdale never intended to do such a project and had no prior thought. The project exposed him to natural resource issues in eastern areas which inspired him to explore the issues further.

From 2002-2013 Bleasdale has been documenting natural resource exploitation in eastern parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Gold was one resource. Bleasdale focused on a province that had been devastated by conflict between tribes, tens of thousands were killed and hundreds of thousands were displaced, all of which was financed by gold. Bleasdale partnered with Humans Right Watch to use the work from this project to spread the message that the conflict was being financed in this way. European companies were profiting from this illegal importation of very cheap gold from a conflict region. Bleasdale wanted to encourage people and companies to stop these transactions and purchases. He wanted them to re-think their processes and operating ideas, “Over time we did that. One company who spent millions on gold from Uganda, which was illegal, completely stopped”. This gave Bleasdale motivation that with these partnerships would give him more power, impact, influence, policy and engage companies in illegal transactions and decision making. This was the starting point which allowed Bleasdale to get to the point his is in today. Bleasdale has moved on from gold and now focuses on other resources in eastern Congo. Materials used for phones, computers, cars and other modern technologies are now being used. The conflict now is our unsatisfiable appetite for electronic products.


© Marcus Bleasdale/National Geographic e Images are from the October issue of National Geographic magazine.

Bleasdale believes how you build up a technique and thought process is an evolution. There’s a developmental process when shooting, especially human rights. Photography is about understanding the concept, the issue, the conflict, the people and how their lives are impacted by others. If you get the process right you’ll begin to absorb the feelings of the people and reflect them through your work which is necessary is making powerful images and produce poignant work. It is important to be involved, passionate and engaged to make it strong enough to motivate people. The photograph is secondary; passion and thought are primary in creating significance and engagement.

Have you (Bleasdale) ever done anything wrong? Bleasdale feels a sense of regret after every job like not completing or following through on a question, a time, a person, a topic and so on. You are still imposed by time. Limited time means limited work. How do you manage these regrets? Bleasdale remains positive, ensuring to make the most of the images to fulfil their full impact. One has to be persistent. Photographers are suppliers and publishers. “Photographers should consider themselves authors” An author of an idea, we simply document. Photography is like writing a novel. Hopefully we can eloquently define the issue, the story and the people with skill and truthfully.

We can now publish anything and everything. Before, photographers would have to convince someone which isn’t so anymore. Online platforms allow us to engage with the masses. Magazines are no longer the only resource which Bleasdale thinks is great. Bleasdale, like many of us, thinks the photographic industry is in a very exciting time. There is so much opportunity to reach people. Bleasdale is now thinking or new and alternate ways of sharing his previous projects to gage new and wider audiences. Previously, Bleasdale would be preaching to the choir, showing his work with people who were already engaged. Bleasdale hopes to reach people who are not engaged and don’t know about these issues and topics. Bleasdale’s niece and nephew looked through Bleasdale’s images and were not the least impressed. This inspired Bleasdale to think of ways to get them engaged more powerfully.

Bleasdale has teamed up with Paul O’Connor to build a comic book from Bleasdale’s images. It’s relevant and will reach a new audience. It’s taking something old and making it new. Bleasdale is also working on making a video game based on his images titled, ‘Blood Minerals’.  The game will teach and engage younger audiences that everything we used is made from and sourced from conflict zones. However,” the game isn’t just educational it will be entertaining!” which is extremely important to Bleasdale.

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