Interview, no scratch that, burrito muffled conversation on 15th October, washed down with beer, at some Mexican restaurant inside Indigo Mall, Lido
KL: How about we go through your photos and I pick some that I like and you tell me a bit about how and where you took it?
BA: This is from when I first got a camera and I was just so impressed that I could get such photos. I didn't even stop, I just kept walking with the camera at chest height. I would barely adjust the lens just pause and snap and never stop.
KL: So that was your first experience as a street photographer? So you always try to get the photos when people don't know you're there?
BA: Yeah. Definitely. Ideally to get as close as I can, head on, without them noticing. Which is the new challenge. What I do now, rather than quickly snapping and leave, is sitting in the area for awhile, choosing a spot I like and just hanging out. Then eventually I'll take the camera out and take a few. You usually get people looking at what you're doing and asking you questions. I've got a few pictures on there of me being a teacher and if they see that, they know that I'm not up to no good. Then I'll show them some old photos and then they just start to ignore me. I'm just a guy with a camera.
BA: When I went to Hong Kong I wanted to try to develop more and think more as a series. And here I snuck into an apartment building to get on the roof. I had to break through the fire escape (Ha it was harder than it sounds) and was on private property. There were people in their gardens watching me as I was climbing over the gates. Just to try my best, because what I noticed about Hong Kong was the different architecture, the lines and its all very claustrophobic. But, any time I tried to take a picture looking up, it just never looks good. It never looks the way you need it to be so you need to get on a level where you can look through it. This one is still too high so I had to manipulate it. This was really my first attempt at taking landscapes because it's not something I'm really interested in.
BA: This one's funny, it's not a good picture but I went into the store, as I was walking by in Hong Kong and he was just sat on the bed like this and I had to take his picture. So I just went in and said, excuse me I work for a magazine called The Beijinger (I could of said anything and Beijinger was the first thing that popped in to mind) [LIES!] and I'm taking pictures of the different shops and architecture and you just caught my eye with the colours and style. And he said, no problem. So he sat there and posed. Afterwards he gave me his card and said, can you send me it when it's been published?
KL: And did you? No wait, of course not.
BA: Well, I'm hoping, if you put this picture in, we can kind of live that out and I'll send him the link.
KL: Haha! Alright, we'll do it.
BA: Yes! So not really the picture but I do like the moment that I'm capturing though I do like the colours.
BA: This one I love because there was just a group, they just appeared on a busy street, it was like a celebration. But no one else seemed to be bothered that they were there. So they look really intimidating but no one has noticed that they were there.
KL: They definitely look like they've been practising how to look badass though, don't they?
BA: Except for the guy taking the cheeky swig.
KL: It looks like Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five.
BA: This guy is just smoking and reading and doesn't even look at them. Can't imagine it would have been like that a few years ago but, then again, maybe it's always been like this. I didn't really get the clarity I wanted.
BA: This one I waited for thirty minutes for on a busy street but it was so bright, and the lights. Just as it cleared out and the traffic lights were done, the guy just appeared and it was perfect. I was there for twenty minutes just trying to get the lighting right. You can just see the back of someone here so it took that long just to get a clear path.
KL: It's like the Wong Kar-Wai film, Chungking Express.
BA: Again I'm seem to always be attracted to the solitary figure. The working man, the working woman, working alone at their tasks. Never anything moving or exciting just the slow pace of reality. Just in their moment thinking this guy is there day-in, day-out and all the hustle and bustle around him. This man is working away in this pharmacy.
KL: Isn't there a wonderful sense of order in that pharmacy, though.
BA: Yeah, everything is stacked so orderly but despite the street being so busy his shop was empty. So I'm guessing he's got all the time in the world to do it. So yeah, for some reason I'm drawn to older solitary figures who mostly look like they are in the moment of deep thought or expressing a feeling of either being content or a feeling of thinking 'how did I get here?'.
BA: Here I was trying to get a series of the lights and just how many signs you're exposed to. Again, I'm with Juno [girlfriend extraordinaire] so I don't have much time. I'm literally stopping for a second. I know it's a complete mess but, when I was in Japan, in this bookstore I found a book of just signs on every page. And I thought, I just want to try something like that. And there's not an empty space. The whole crop and composition of that is not what I anticipated.
KL: What is going on with this series that you took here? Are these posed?
BA: No, this is really cool. They are in Dalian by the coast there's this huge skateboard ramp. The thing's massive. And it goes up and the sky was completely white with pollution and the boys had gone to get a beer.
KL: That's the sky?
BA: Yeah, so she's at the top of this ramp and her boyfriend, and the contrast of her dress and the hazy sky drew me in. Her boyfriend was getting her to go to the top while he took pictures of her with his phone. So I just went behind him. The wind was blowing through, it looked like I was in the studio photographing a hair commercial with wind machines blasting. Yet, It's just a girl on the top of this ramp with the a white sky, a yellow dress and the wind. I just felt so lucky. Right place, right time. This is probably my favorite photo I've ever taken. I don't know why but there is just something about it. Also for some reason this photo makes me think of Björk.
KL: How did you go taking photos on a beach where people feel more vulnerable or exposed?
BA: You've obviously got that big rock that is the centre point. So they all think I'm taking a photo of that. They don't really know that I'm interested in the guy with the beer gut crawling out of the ocean.
KL: Oh that one's excellent! How long did you stand here waiting for these shots? Are you in the water or on the beach?
BA: I'm right down low because Vega [photography mentor] told me, every time you take a horizon shot, the horizon should not be over their head. We were next to the bar at the top so I just kept nipping down if I saw someone interesting. I'd run down and shoot them.
BA: Same as these guys. Just from nowhere this bunch of army guys came down. And they weren't there training they were just enjoying their day off. I was thinking are they not allowed to wear something more causal on a day off? They were just like, before me, Andy and Scott were throwing rocks in and next thing you know, these guys, who looked a little intimidating, just became playful boys, playing in the ocean.
BA: This is about five so the sun is shining through the trees. Again, I love that photo.
KL: Great reflection. So what's this guy's story? Had he been sitting there for awhile?
BA: He looks so stern and serious, he's uptight and everyone was out there doing something. It wasn't like a quite area. He was just on his own in the shadows and this light just came through and hit him, and I just thought, I've gotta get it.
KL: Again, how do you take that photo subtly without him noticing?
BA: I'm sat on the end. Most of the time he's looking the other way so I pretend that I'm taking a photo in front of me. I'm getting my settings ready based on something else so I don't have to waste any time preparing it looking at him. Then I just rested it down on the wall, tilted the screen and then just took a few.
KL: Oh my God. He's awesome as well.
BA: I had a really good day. I was buzzing off these guys. He's literally next to where we're eating now [as mentioned above, fancily decorated mall restaurant], these photos. You can see the two different worlds. But I just had some sort of confidence that day. I just sat and watched them dance. There was only one guy who told me to go away. I was right up close, it was really weird, I'm used to going up and taking a photo and legging it. But this time, I took a photo and no one said anything so I just stayed.
KL: This guy's like serious gangsta. What's he up to?
BA: They're all playing cards but the focus was him. Everyone seemed to be around him like somehow he was the alpha male in the group.
KL: You can tell in the photo, it comes across.
BA: The lighting on that day and the characters in that park. Just everything they're getting up to.
BA: I sat and watched these dancers for ages. It was strange because everyone else was just having a laugh but these two...
KL: They're in costumes.
BA: Really professional.
KL: Were they good?
BA: I don't know enough about dance.
KL: Did they seem to be graceful?
BA: Yeah, look at the body lifting out. It's like, where did they learn to do that? What do they do? Are they part of competitions? Is it part of their school programme, they've just always danced?
BA: He was my favourite. He looked like the Terminator or Sergeant Slaughter from WWF. His aviators, so serious, upright everyone was dancing and all you could see through the dancers was him with the light shining. I just took so many photos. Again and again. Just trying to get it. So there's all this movement going on around him and he's just solitary. Probably one of my favourite photos as well.
KL: He's got a kind of Nick Cave charisma about him. Like you get the impression that, if you waited, maybe once a year he gets up and dances and when that happens...
BA: Everyone gets off the floor.
KL: And it's the most memorable amazing experience anyone has ever had.
BA: I think this was the turning point. Juno just went off for the day and I went to the fish market. I thought it went all day but I got there late. So the thing is, to get there five in the morning, all hustle and bustle, everyone gets there. I get there just as it's closed. So all the public have gone now and I sneak into the warehouse. I shouldn't be there. I get round the back and I go through the worker's exit and now everything's been shut and I'm just in the biggest fish market you've ever seen. Fishermen cleaning up, counting their money. It's just the after hours. I think everyone else who's ever been there has just taken photos of the crowd. So I'm the only foreigner there and you can hear my footsteps as I'm walking through. And it's these big scary Japanese fishermen with their big knives cutting tuna for the next day. And I just felt spoilt because you see the holes in the roof. It's midday, it's sunny, there's light and there's shadows and there's no one else there and everyone looks so interesting. I just, I could have just stayed there for hours.
KL: Do you have some more of these?
BA: How close i got to them. I think as a photographer you feel like, the more you get in, the more adrenaline you get from it and then it's afterwards you feel rude. Maybe it's not morality right but at the time, it's like, I'm here, I hung around these guys for ages as they were cutting it. Can you just imagine in this scene, behind the camera, is a tall, white, foreign guy, in their world, taking their pictures as they cash up for the day.
KL: They explain it away in their head. If you were a Japanese guy, you would have probably got kicked out. You should definitely put these together as a series.
BA: Japan, you are just so spoilt. All the little restaurants. Japan felt like two different worlds separated by day and night. By day, it felt like a lonely place built for solitude and political correctness. You would see men dressed in the same white short sleeved shirts, black carry bag, working long hours , everything's designed to be fast. Even the McDonalds there, eating the burgers in solitary compartments. You eat quickly, you move on. This part I found fascinating. It's just off one of the subways, all the working men at the end of the day just getting these beers from the vending machine, sit, get drunk then take the subway home.
KL: So it's just a vending machine with an awning over the top?
BA: Yeah. As you can see, they're all sat round talking about their day.
KL: I've seen that in Japanese movies before. Isn't that weird, it's so incongruous, you've got this society where everyone's so go, go, go, no social interaction, eat, work. Everything's so polite.
BA: I think that photo sort of sums it up. Guy, black trousers, white shirt, brief case, going into a bar at the end of the day. And with the pink light it makes it look a bit...
BA: Yeah. Another one. Guy brief case, white shirt, black trousers, going to get a quick meal. Without even knowing it, there's a series there. The guys are just on their own from A to B every day. During the day it's everyone on their own, nobody talks. If you didn't have someone in Japan, it really must be one of the loneliest places on Earth. You see, I never really take photos of the fun or the rich side. I am generalizing but this was the feeling I got. However at night it became a different place and I look forward to going back someday.
BA: Oh I love that photo. It tells a whole story. She's with her boyfriend on a date, sees the cool skater, has a cheeky look over.
KL: You look at that photo and you go, your days are numbered, son.
Ben Ashley went from happy snapper to compulsively photographing the world around him. His work covers everything from nights out with the boys and tourist adventures to engaging series on the isolated worker and the lives of retirees in Beijing. He hails from England and stands out from the crowd with his height, blonde hair and Kettering accent. Ben is a perfect example of the artist who does because he must rather than he does because he's been trained to do it.