/ Charlie Bibby – working photographer
Charlie Bibby has worked as a photographer at the Financial Times since 1999. He is now their chief photographer. His pictures form part of the stories the paper is trying to tell – they complement and inform the text.
Charlie’s father was an engineer and a keen amateur photographer – ‘actually it turns out quite a good one.’ Charlie borrowed his dad’s camera as a teenager and was hooked when he saw the results. He started working one afternoon a week for the Yorkshire Evening Press, where he fell in love with journalism. Side-stepping his parents’ efforts to get him to read engineering at university he took a photojournalism course at the National Council for the Training of Journalists. They taught him to confront his insecurities, to get the shot and to deliver to tight deadlines. While subsequently working at a news agency he won UK Picture Editors’ Young Photographer of the Year award and was offered a job in PR in London. But he missed reporting the news and three years later he was introduced to the FT where he started working part time in 1999. He joined the staff in 2005.
Charlie likes photographing people. He enjoys articulating some truth about them and he believes that is what resonates with his readers. Famous people such as David Cameron, Cyril Ramaphosa or Gordon Brown do not sit for a portrait by Charlie, he has to catch them in a moment. Charlie’s shot of David Cameron straightening his tie was exhibited in the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery last year and is now in the permanent collection there. Charlie points out that most of the portraits in the exhibition were collaborations between the photographer and the sitter. Charlie’s work may be founded on consent – he always tries to seek some sort of permission – but it is more voyeuristic. The shot of the PM was taken for an interview shortly before the Brexit referendum. Cameron initially asked Charlie not to use it with the interview. The FT wouldn’t have wanted to use it then anyway, so Charlie asked if he could use it after the referendum and the PM agreed.
Charlie says that once someone asks for a portrait there is an implicit contract between photographer and sitter and he doesn’t like that. His duty is to report to his readers, not to the sitter. I tell him that when Irving Penn was with a sitter he got to the truth by ‘waiting them out’. ‘Well,’ says Charlie, ‘I’m not sure he was working to newspaper deadlines.’
One of Charlie’s favourite images is of George Osborne looking serene amid chaos on the campaign trail. ‘Everyone else thinks it’s a terrible picture,’ says Charlie. But Charlie knows Osborne and sees him as the still centre of the activity, very much in control. That, for Charlie, is a moment of truth. Charlie listens intensely during an interview and is not above making the truth happen for the photo. The FT interviewed Isabel Betancourt, a politician who was held hostage by Farc, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, in the jungle for six and a half years, before being released in 2008. Charlie noticed, during the interview, that Ms Betancourt was still visibly affected by being reminded of the experience – as well she might be. When it was time to take the picture Charlie guided her to a stark background and asked her what imprisonment had felt like. He got the shot he wanted, and then apologised. She forgave him and they hugged. It’s a great image, but the FT didn’t use it, preferring a rather saccharine shot with blossom. Charlie often argues with the FT picture desk about which image to include – ‘They are always wrong,’ he says with a smile.
I ask about his heroes. He mentions Sebastião Salgado. Like most of us he was blown away the first time he saw Workers: An Archaeology of the Industrial Age. Charlie loves Salgado’s aesthetic. ‘He owes a lot to the printing.’ And then he discovered William Albert Allard, one of the great National Geographic photographers whose photographs of the Amish were a landmark in the evolution of the magazine. Charlie thinks he is the best there has ever been. He sees in him a kind of quiet humanity and wishes he could describe the world in this way. As a photographer Charlie wants to be quiet – he wants to be unobserved in the background – ‘hardly there.’
I ask Charlie’s view of art photography. He acknowledges its value but says it isn’t for him. He is a journalist. ‘I can’t write well so I use photography as my way of communicating. My photographs are a means to an end.’ He doesn’t want to do a book. The Cameron portrait in the Taylor Wessing exhibition was the first time his work had appeared in a gallery. ‘It was weird seeing it there for more than one day. But kind of nice.’
Charlie’s ideal assignment is three days with a reporter on a story, trying to make the reader understand. The FT doesn’t just want to use the agency images everyone else has. They want to tell the story in their own way, and Charlie is absolutely with them on that. He doesn’t believe in the single killer image, and indeed he is happy to use video or any other means of communicating with the reader – unique content is the key. But he likes stills. He says he would like to see more stories like ‘Country Doctor,’ W. Eugene Smith’s landmark photo essay for LIFE Magazine. Checking afterwards however, I find that Smith spent 23 days with Dr Ernest Ceriani. I doubt that Charlie’s editor, or indeed Charlie himself, would be up for that.
‘So what next?’ I ask him. He is chief photographer at the Financial Times. What else is there? But what else does he need? Like other professionals Charlie is happy bringing his skills and experience to assignments which are different and new every day. The work is the thing. Charlie Bibby does the news.
-essay by Bill Knight
With thanks to the contributors:
Charlie Bibby was shortlisted for British Press Awards’ Photographer of the Year in 2006, 2007 and 2016. He has travelled to 42 countries on all 7 continents, reporting on issues ranging from famine and humanitarian crisis to environmental and political upheaval.
Notable assignments include trips to the Arctic and Antarctica, in Africa following MSF in the Congo during a typhoid outbreak and in the Central African Republic looking at how political fighting can affect the food security of rural communities. In Myanmar he was one of the first journalists to travel to the Chinese border. He has followed the growth of political extremism in Europe, looked at the use of land as a political and economic commodity in Ethiopia and Borneo and reported on every election in the UK for the past two decades.
His portrait of David Cameron was included in the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize exhibition in 2017 and is now in the National Portrait Gallery permanent collection. His work can be seen at www.ft.com and @charliebibby on Instagram
Bill Knight started in professional photography when he was 18, as a beach photographer at Margate. After a 35-year career break in the law he started again some 17 years ago. Bill photographs people – portraits, theatre, opera, events and the occasional wedding. His work is in the permanent collection at the National Portrait Gallery and has been shown throughout the country in Portrait of Britain. In a former life Bill was senior partner at international law firm Simmons & Simmons, President of the City of London Law Society, Deputy Chairman of Council at Lloyd’s of London and Chairman of the Financial Reporting Review Panel. He was awarded the OBE in 2012 for services to financial regulation. His photographs can be seen at www.knightsight.co.uk