Street photographer Grant Ashford: ‘I see myself as someone documenting life as it is now for future generations’

Grant Ashford is a street photographer based in Sydney, Australia. His history with photography first began in high school, when he discovered the magic of developing his own film.

Since then, Grant has dabbled with a variety of photographic genres including landscape, documentary and glamour, but on a trip to Tijuana, Mexico, in 1995 he discovered his true passion—street photography.

‘100% relaxed’

In this interview, he talks to us about his work, his unorthodox shooting methods and reveals his top tips for capturing fleeting moments on the streets.

Can you tell us a little about yourself and how you got into photography?

I grew up in the tropics of Australia in the small town of Darwin. Even as a kid, I was always interested in art, so my parents sent me off for oil painting lessons, but I got bored quickly as the paint took too long to dry. My first meaningful experience with photography was in my high school photography class. Even though we only took photos of trees and mundane schoolyard things, I was fascinated by the magic of the darkroom—watching black and white images appear before my eyes in the swish-swash of chemicals.

‘An ill wind blows’

Many years later, working as a firefighter and with a family, I became interested in taking photos of the sublime thunderstorms and landscapes of Australia’s tropics. I had already been following the work of popular landscape photographers of that time when I saw an ad for a Publisher’s Assistant for Peter Jarver—a well-known Australian landscape photographer, since deceased. I wanted to get to know him better, so I encouraged my wife to apply for the job. She worked there for a number of years, and over time I got to know him quite well and was fortunate enough to assist him on many of his shoots to remote outback locations.

Peter taught me a great deal and his motto was “Light is king”. For a landscape photographer, this meant heading out well before dawn and waiting for hours for the right moment. It didn’t take me long to realise that landscape photography was not my calling: I didn’t have the patience for it, and I found that my eye was always drawn to people. I decided to sell the Linhof 617 Technorama camera and kept the Canon EOS film camera.

‘Cast a spell’

The Top End of Australia is a unique place. It’s often regarded as the wild frontier of Australia, filled with unusual people with all kinds of strange habits and weird household pets (such as crocodiles and buffalo). I started documenting the people there as a side-living, selling their bizarre stories and photos to both Australian and international publications. I also earned extra money by shooting models for glam magazines, both in-studio and on location. However, after five years of doing stories and glamour magazine shoots, I lost my passion for photography. For years I had only been chasing the money, and I had become disillusioned with the photography business. It would be a long time before I picked up my camera again.

It wasn’t until a trip to Tijuana, Mexico, in 1995 that I fell in love with street photography. I was standing on a side-street in Tijuana, snapping away like a gawking tourist when a local hollered at me to “Put that big camera away or get mugged.” Not wanting trouble, I started shooting from the hip, hiding my camera under my shirt. Back in San Diego a few days later, I remember developing the photos in a darkroom, and my mouth hit the floor. These were photos of people unlike any I had taken before: people were unguarded, their interactions spontaneous, and they were much more interesting than the subjects who had known I was taking their photo. I’ve been hooked on street photography ever since.

‘Break the rules’
What attracted you to street photography?

When I stumbled across street photography in Mexico, I realised I’d found my niche. Street photography is an adrenaline rush for me. I love the feeling of walking through the streets of Sydney, Australia, my camera inconspicuously aimed, never knowing what scene might unfold in front of me. I have always loved seeing images from years gone by and feel that street photography is a time capsule—an incredible way for future generations to experience what life was like in any specific time.

“I have always loved seeing images from years gone by and feel that street photography is a time capsule—an incredible way for future generations to experience what life was like in any specific time.”

‘Gino’
What are the main challenges that you face as a street photographer?

I think the main challenge is to not be discouraged when things aren’t working out the way you want. I’m the sort of person who needs to be ‘inspired’ and ‘in the zone’, and so when the muse fails to turn up I can easily lose my mojo. Some days opportunities seem to appear around every corner, and it’s a buzz, while other days it’s hours of walking with nothing to show for it.

In the beginning, another challenge I faced was getting close enough to my subject. I’m often asked how I manage to get such intimate images but, truth be told, I’ve just learnt to be bold. I get much better pictures if I shoot first then talk later. You can ask for a few more photos afterwards, but I find these are never as good as my first capture.

‘The Pilgrim’
What elements do you feel make a really good street photo?

A good photo will have emotion, an interaction, or even something peculiar that draws you in. A person’s eyes, a sneer, a strange expression, or even the juxtaposition of their surroundings can say a lot more than words ever could. When I see a photo I like, I scan around the whole image, searching for the small things that make up the whole picture. It could be how the hands are placed, an item they’re holding or wearing, or even an item or person in the background. The reason I like black and white so much is that it puts the viewers’ imagination to work.

“A good photo will have emotion, an interaction, or even something peculiar that draws you in. A person’s eyes, a sneer, a strange expression, or even the juxtaposition of their surroundings can say a lot more than words ever could.”

‘Mirror image’
What photography equipment do you use?

I currently have a Fuji XPro2 with a 16-55F2.8 with a wrist strap attached however I just bought a Canon R5. I pretty much always shoot with the lens at 16mm. (24mm full-frame).

We were delighted to hear you use Affinity Photo for your retouching. How did you first discover the app, and what impressed you about it?

I recall reading about Affinity Photo on the web and then from watching a few tutorials and thought it looked interesting. I was really impressed an iPad version was made available, so I purchased it quickly followed by the desktop version. The layout is very intuitive and easy to adapt over from Photoshop. The real bonus was Affinity Photo’s price and not requiring an ongoing subscription.

‘Shadow racer’
What are your typical post-processing steps for retouching your photographs?

I shoot in colour and convert to black and white via gradient maps in Affinity Photo and fine-tune the blacks and whites to get the desired density. I use dodge and burn for enhancing areas I want detail in, and I do like a smidgen of HDR sometimes. The great thing about Affinity is there are so many quality tutorials, and the program being similar to Photoshop means there are a variety of ways to achieve the same result, so you never get bored of experimenting. For a bit more fun I Sometimes I run the image through Nik Efex seeing what it comes up. I highly recommend many of the excellent Affinity Photo tutorials on the web.

Do you have any top tips for capturing street scenes?

Ask yourself what is it you’re trying to achieve? For me, I want to capture a time and place of who we are as a society and preserve it for future generations. I often look at the work of street photographer masters of the past and wish I was around back then. They seem to have had more interesting subject matter in those days. But I also think photographers of the future will wish they were here where we are now. We are caught up in some amazing times at the moment. Great social change is happening—so get out and record it!

‘Selfie helpline’

The things I look for are strong characters, which can add volumes to your photograph. I really search for people doing something unusual, preferably while interacting with others. It’s a bonus if the background is an earthy rich tone, which works well in black and white. I particularly like the sandstone walls of the old buildings in the city. Light is also important. I love it when the buildings reflect the light back into a scene as it’s like having a giant softbox at your disposal.

I don’t get too hung up on the technicality of the camera. Photographers (me included) can have a tendency to desire the new and latest camera or lens thinking it will improve their photos. I think once you’ve grasped the main functions of your camera, spend time developing your style rather than focusing on the gear. In my early days, I used an iPhone and took some great captures but regretfully the file size is rather small to do much with if you wish to enlarge. I shoot in RAW now with 45MB photos so have eliminated that problem.

‘Downtown Hustle’
Do you have any particular rituals when it comes to taking pictures?

I’ve never thought about rituals before but suppose my shooting style could be a little ritualistic but I’d say unorthodox would be a better description. I hold my camera upside down with one hand and shoot without composing in the viewfinder. I don’t look through the camera to compose, I just seem to have the knack of getting it right. I suppose years of photographing like this has fine-tuned my hand and eye coordination. The reason I hold it upside down is to get my finger across to the shutter button. I’m pretty quick on the draw these days with the Fuji X Pro 2. The auto focus on eyes is an amazing feature on cameras nowadays and the Canon R5 is out of this world.

I’ve found if I take the time to compose in camera the usual way the moment is lost and the photos are usually boring.

‘Generation gap’
What do you hope people take away from your work?

A sense of place and emotion in the day-to-day aspects of everyday lives. I see myself as someone documenting life as it is now for future generations. I also hope it inspires them to go out and do likewise—be bold, to push the boundaries of their comfort zone and capture the present for the future. Street photography is very rewarding and an important medium—a picture is worth a thousand words.

“I see myself as someone documenting life as it is now for future generations. I also hope it inspires them to go out and do likewise—be bold, to push the boundaries of their comfort zone and capture the present for the future.”

‘Enter Sandman’
‘Things we do’
Where in the world is your favourite place to shoot and why?

I would have to say Tijuana was my highlight. I would love to return there but have been told by friends who work on the US border it is far more dangerous now. I enjoy shooting around my own city, Sydney, Australia. Cuba would also be on my wishlist. I also have a few photographer friends living in New York and LA who’ve asked me to come and visit, so they are on my wish list. London would be a blast too.

For me, at that time in Mexico was like entering a totally different world. When exposed to places quite different from your normal surroundings, it opens your eyes to see things that the locals would take for granted or see as mundane. It is times like these that the muse awakens.

‘ZZ Top final tour’
Do you have an all-time favourite photograph? What makes you so fond of it?

I have one photo, in particular, that is dear to me that I called ‘The Opera Singer’. I took that photo at an ANZAC day returned services military march in Sydney, where the streets were packed with spectators watching the old soldiers march by. Out of nowhere, a female operatic voice rose above the clamour, and I followed it. It led me to a flamboyant, albeit well-dressed, lady in her nineties. I approached her once she stopped singing, and we chatted. She had once been a professional opera singer who had incredibly performed at the Sydney Opera House many years prior. I asked if I could take her photo, and today it’s still one of the few street photos that I composed in the normal way. She was so glamorous in her 1950s outfit—very proper and yet full of life. That’s why it’s my favourite.

‘The Opera Singer’
If you could go shooting in the streets with another photographer, past or present, who would it be and why?

I spent many hours in the library, mesmerised by W. Eugene Smith’s photography. I analysed everything about his images to determine what I loved about them. I believe anyone serious about photography must absorb the work of the masters. To saturate the mind and build a repertoire of ideas to draw upon. I have read that he was a difficult person to be around so I don’t know how our little excursion would’ve worked out.

Finally, what advice would you give to photographers who are just starting out?

My advice is to study the work of those who inspire you. As I mentioned, I spent hours in the library studying the intriguing photographs of W Eugene Smith, Capa and Don McCullin working out why certain images appealed to me. I looked at their use of symmetry, composition and that special something that resonated with me.

‘If looks could kill’

You have to consume the photographs you love in order to build a repertoire of images in your mind. I heard a comment recently by Don McCullin, telling how his dyslexia led to him studying the images of other great photographers and he had a massive bank of images in his head. Although I’m not dyslexic, I can identify with this.

Dissect the photographs you love, questioning what it is that appeals to you. Study the light, the angles, the lines, and the emotion the image portrays. You can even try to replicate it in your own way.

Most of all, never be disappointed. Some of the best photographs are pure flukes. But remember, you have to be there to make luck happen.

“Some of the best photographs are pure flukes. But remember, you have to be there to make luck happen.”

‘Can’t stop cool’

You can see more of Grant’s street photography on Instagram and Facebook.