Documentary photographer Ed Gold takes Affinity off-grid

Armed with his camera equipment and an 11 inch MacBook loaded with Affinity Photo and Publisher, social documentary photographer Ed Gold captures the lives of people and communities living off the grid.

He talks to us about his work as a photojournalist and the production of his self-published magazine—Positive Futures—where he shares stories about alternative living and the people and communities he meets.

How did you become interested in photography, and what led you to become a documentary photographer?

Something about my interest in being able to capture a moment in time led my father to give his 1950s Ilford Sport camera to me when I was eight years old. I had it with me for the first time in the back of my family’s car in 1977, on the way to Scotland on holiday, and was told to wait until we got there to take a photo. I couldn’t wait, though, and took a photo out of the back seat window of low clouds, a brown hillside and a white car up ahead. The next photo was of fishing boats in a harbour, and I still have copies of them, taken from a 10-exposure roll of 120 medium format colour film.

Ivan—Issue 4, Positive Futures

I think it was the mechanical process of making an image as if by magic that made me interested in photography, but it wasn’t until 1992, aged 23, after all of those years of full-time amateur picture taking, that I took my first good photo—and found a reason for taking photographs. While working for my next-door neighbour, a farmer in north Essex, I became interested in the local people—rural retired men and women who lived in old fashioned ways and had interesting faces. Back then, I didn’t interview anyone, which I bitterly regret, as I wasn’t trained as a photojournalist or told what one was, so my work has been evolving ever since.

My interest in Essex Folk then took me to the north of Scotland to learn how to build dry stone walls and photograph those people, and then onto almost everywhere that I have been since.

Ed Gold
We read that you embed yourself within the communities that you document—sometimes for years at a time. What appeals to you most about this kind of work, and how do locals typically react to your presence?

My trip to Patagonia is a good example. I went to the town of Gaiman in Chubut for one month in 2006. Such was the amount of incredible Welsh history in the Chubut valley and the inaccessibility to the farms via gravel roads out of the town; that I had to extend my stay to three months and then to a year. I was fortunate to have the free time to be able to stay for that long. I made the most of every day by taking photographs of the Welsh diaspora and then went back to the county Wales to exhibit this first year’s work at Oriel Ynys Mon, Llangefni, on the Isle of Anglesey. I then returned for another year and a half to complete the project, by which time I had taken 16,000 photos of just about every aspect of the colonists’ lives there since 1865 when they first arrived. Living in the community and becoming a part of it meant I gained access to everything. I taught myself Spanish from scratch, so I was able to move around independently to interview, and that amount of time meant I could do a thorough job to document as much as possible. It paid off, and Gomer Press in Llandysul, Wales, published a book of this work in Welsh, Spanish and English in 2012 titled ‘Patagonia: Byd Arall/Otro Mundo/Another World’.

‘Patagonia: Byd Arall/Otro Mundo/Another World’ by Ed Gold, published by Gomer Press

Initially, locals reacted indifferently to my presence and sourly joked that they had originally come to Patagonia to get away from the English. But after putting on my first photography exhibition, out of four, just a couple of months after first arriving, it was enough to convince the locals to accept my sincere ambition to document their history and take me seriously.

For the last 15 years, you have documented people and communities who live off the grid in the UK and other parts of the world. How did this long-term project come about?

I’ve never viewed it as a ‘long term project’ because it is how I have chosen to live my life. Photographing off-grid people and communities is an interest that runs alongside the way I live, so it ties in naturally. It was a case at the beginning of my career when I realised that in order to be a ‘social documentary photographer’ full-time—which never pays well or is properly respected—I would need to drop out of society and live on its fringes. So I left my rented apartment and lived in a caravan on a farm on the Isle of Anglesey to start with for £10 a week where I built my own three-wheeled motorbike, The Bonzo Trike, and rode around the island taking photos of local people with an old film camera, developing the film myself, then printing the images and exhibiting them. I later left the caravan to travel worldwide. Not having the money to stay in any type of fixed accommodation meant I had no choice but to live in a tent, and this roaming nomadic lifestyle gave me a firmer insight into how other people live this way, which after all, is the future.

“I’ve never viewed it as a ‘long term project’ because it is how I have chosen to live my life. Photographing off-grid people and communities is an interest that runs alongside the way I live, so it ties in naturally. ”

Marietta Nambajinba Hargraves—Issue 2, Positive Futures
Image—Issue 2, Positive Futures
Can you tell us more about your magazine Positive Futures? What inspired you to create it?

I had been supplying my ‘speculative’ photo essays as a freelancer to the BBC News website for ten years, about my work in Patagonia, Alaska, Canada, Afghanistan and the UK, but this ended, so I decided to publish my work myself. Initiating ‘on spec’ projects is too risky as they might not get used—though that was never the case, and it was becoming too hard to get published by mainstream media, so I decided that my own magazine would be a sure way to get my work seen and appreciated.

I made the first Positive Futures magazine back in 2005, inspired by a rural artspace community in south Wales with yurts and tipis. Later I put together five more Positive Futures up until 2018.

In 2019, I wanted to produce the magazine more regularly, and that was when I first started to use Affinity Publisher. I made six black and white monthly Positive Futures Magazines, which sold for £5 each and had 36 pages. But it was too much work to take on by myself and I wasn’t earning enough from sales to pay for printing, so I then produced a colour quarterly magazine that was ‘Print On Demand’, which meant I didn’t have to pay for the printing myself. Rather the money from the sale did, but instead, this meant the magazine became too expensive.

Anais Hall—Issue 4, Positive Futures
Dave Cottrell—Issue 4, Positive Futures

Next, I made another quarterly version—the current commercial issues—because I love the quality of ink and that it is so tactile and pleasurable to hold in your hands to read. These were printed using the old technology of lithography. It is so much easier to show people your work than to get them to buy a PDF file, which ironically is what I am having to do now, as again, not enough people are buying the magazine to allow me to print it. I cannot afford to pay a marketing company to promote the magazine as they are prohibitively expensive, so I hope sales will increase somehow.

I urgently needed to make the magazine because I literally had work bursting from the seams of my many hard drives and so was inspired to get it out into the public in a beautiful and affordable way for the reader to enjoy.

Ninety-nine percent of the people I discover and approach is via word of mouth, and one percent is from news and online features. Many people I visit tell me about somebody else who I should feature, and occasionally some details will be mentioned fleetingly by chance or overheard in a conversation between others. It is then up to me to research, ask and track people down. Sometimes I phone or email ahead, or just cold call. Less than five percent of people turn me down.

“Ninety-nine percent of the people I discover and approach is via word of mouth, and one percent is from news and online features. Many people I visit tell me about somebody else who I should feature.”

Scott McLean—Issue 4, Positive Futures

Right now, I am in an ‘ultra faith-based community’ in Devon, and it has taken two weeks of working for them six days a week for free to earn their trust to gain permission to document them. Working for people and having the skills of a factotum, who can do all kinds of things, enables me to get by and fit in, so I can gain access to the interesting subjects.

What equipment do you use when documenting their stories?

I always carry a small 11 inch MacBook Air laptop in an armoured case with Affinity Publisher and Affinity Photo. It is a light laptop but powerful enough to create my magazines on the road wherever I am. I do have a storage locker with a 19-inch external monitor I received for free via Gumtree, which I use connected to my laptop for desktop publishing if I ever have the time to work in the same place for any length of time.

I travel with a Honda CRF250L motorcycle. It allows me to journey off-road to find people who are way off-grid and rough camp down the edges of fields at night, and it achieves over 90 miles per gallon.

Despite having taken great photos with digital cameras, I have a love/hate relationship with them as the results feel too plastic, so I carry 3 x 35 mm Olympus OM40 Programs from the 1980s, with both black and white and colour film, 21 mm lenses/flash, and a relatively old digital Canon 5D Mark 1 with only a 24 mm lens and flash. A small digital Canon S90 compact makes up the total kit I currently carry and covers every aspect of what I document, which is always at wide-angle.

Tom McClean—Issue 1, Positive Futures
Matt—Issue 4, Positive Futures
What are your thoughts on Affinity Photo and Publisher, and how do they help you achieve the results you need?

Initially, I learned with Adobe InDesign but could not afford to buy their ridiculously priced software. A graphic design friend suggested Affinity Publisher, which is similar to InDesign and sensibly afforded. Affinity Publisher is intuitive and very fast to learn. I felt immediately at home with it and soon after bought Photo to compliment my needs. Occasionally I will find Affinity Photo is missing some features that Adobe has, but a fast reply from the excellent Affinity Support team (thanks, Dan!) produces answers and workarounds that result in the solutions I need, and for the price, I cannot be happier.

Maren Freeland—Issue 4, Positive Futures

I admit to not ever having the time to explore all the features that both programs offer, so instead use the tools I already know to produce my work simply and efficiently every three months. I created a template for the magazine pages which means I can easily place images, and I like the linked text boxes as I can copy and paste all my interviews in one go, then spend some time tweaking the font sizes and leading. Both Affinity Publisher and Photo just ‘feel right’ to me, and their dark mode user interfaces are a joy to use.

After pre-flighting the Publisher document, I produce a PDF for print or web use. I use Photo to import digital images to be ‘developed’ when using RAW digital files. I love all of the many controls that Photo gives me when working with RAW files, and which give me total control over every aspect of post-production, from exposure to highlight/shadow correction, clarity, vibrance, contrast and saturation.

Image—Issue 4, Positive Futures
What are your usual steps for post-processing your images?

I like to use analogue because I rarely have to spend a lot of time post-processing because what you capture on film is what you get when digitising it. With digital cameras, I always take a RAW file and high-quality JPEG as a backup just in case, but I only use the RAW files for publishing. This is where Photo excels as the program quickly allows me to open images, adjust them, develop and then export them as hi-resolution TIFFs. I usually wait until I have a few hundred images to process, then set aside one whole day to open ten photos at a time and go through them individually, adjusting each one separately with what they need. I never batch edit as every photo is different, and the results are astonishing.

Can you describe your process for creating the magazine in Affinity Publisher?

It is a simple process because the adding of material for the magazine takes so long. The last one, issue 04, took from February to July this year to design, some 2000+ hours.

I begin by duplicating a previous magazine, opening it up and then deleting all of its content, so I have my template with set page numbers and sizes. I opted to use 210 mm by 270 mm, which is shorter than A4 and custom size. I have also imported a third party typeface for the magazine title font, which is easy to do.

I tend to choose the best photographs for use and place them all into the pages first to give a pleasing feel to the layout and make sure there is enough variation so that it doesn’t get boring for the reader or too repetitive. When all the photos are carefully measured and set in place, I paste all the text around them. Page numbers and colophon information with barcode and prices comes last.

What is your ultimate goal for the magazine?

To have it for sale both online as a downloadable PDF file and available as a printed magazine. The main aim is not to make money for the sake of it, but rather to sell enough in order to pay for the next issue’s printing and allow me to keep on documenting, with the costs of only food and fuel. My goal is to educate, enlighten, inspire, encourage and restore people to any place where they feel they can live better by being simpler, kinder, more mindful and caring of the planet’s resources and each other.

“My goal is to educate, enlighten, inspire, encourage and restore people to any place where they feel they can live better by being simpler, kinder, more mindful and caring of the planet’s resources and each other.”

Hairy Cabin—Issue 4, Positive Futures

Positive Futures is available to purchase in digital format on Ed’s shop and Readly. Printed copies are available from mmslondon.co.uk.

To follow Ed’s travels, check out his Instagram and Facebook accounts: Ed Gold and Positive Futures, for behind the scenes videos and insights about life on the road and content featured in his magazine.