Gary Tyson is a professional photographer based in Hong Kong. When not shooting commercial work as the director and principle photographer/videographer at F8 Photography, he is shooting environmental portraits, travel and street photography. Gary's work can be seen on his site and FB page.
We sat down with Gary to chat about how he cut his teeth as a military photographer and what he does to stay out of the lunatic asylum.
Tell us a bit about who Gary Tyson was before he became a photographer.
I joined the army in 1989 as a ‘junior leader’ at age 16 and deployed shortly after to my first unit in Bosnia (Sarajevo). This was at the beginning of the Balkans conflict and my 6-month tour was a baptism of fire due to the nature of things we were exposed to. I was already carrying my camera around and shot a lot of different things in Sarajevo. It was a bleak time for that place but also a good learning curve for me. I deployed to many other places over the next 17 years, back and forth to the Balkans (Bosnia, Croatia, Serbia and Kosovo), Sierra Leone, Northern Ireland, Iraq, amongst many other places.
Why did you become a photographer?
I have been a very keen photographer since I was a kid. My father was and still is a keen photographer as well as being a soldier himself, which makes me an army brat as well as a soldier and I guess I got the bug from him initially. I always remember as a youngster he had some cool cameras that I admired but didn’t really understand, so as soon as I could get my hands on one and start taking pictures, I did. During my first 10 years in the army I deployed to many places as the ‘battalion photographer’, which allowed me to practice my skills and sometimes get dynamic images in places that may not have been easily accessible for others. These pictures got me noticed by the master photographer of the army, and he is still a good friend to this day. I attended the selection for the army photographer trade, which is notoriously difficult to get into due to the very small number of members. If you fail selection, going back to your unit having tried to leave is not seen as a good thing. I was lucky and managed to secure my place in the trade, which then gave me a year of training in photography and video. That was the start of my professional career as a photographer full time. I spent the remainder of my Army career as Media Operations photographer and deployed with Combat Camera Teams to the desert and other places. This was a very interesting time for me and I’m grateful for the opportunities and skills I learned during that time.
What’s it like being employed by the British Army as a photographer? What have you carried over from your Army experience to your current work?
Being a military photographer was awesome. You get to deploy all over the world, to conflict zones and also on adventure training trips, so it’s not all bombs and bullets. There are lots of cool photography adventures that are much less dangerous, such as climbing expeditions in South Africa, covering army teams rowing the Atlantic Ocean from Europe to Antigua, skiing competitions, etc. I think the overall diversity of that experience in the military helps me to this day. I engaged in some very different types of photography, from war, sports to taking formal portraits of the royal family - for sure it’s been diverse. On top of that, the training you receive as a soldier helps with being able to adapt quickly in any given situation. I believe this helps lots as a photographer.
How did you find yourself in Asia?
I had a chance to visit Asia in 2006 for a few weeks. I had never travelled East of the Middle East before, so the diversity of Asia was an eye opening experience for me.
After I went back to the UK and the military I knew it was just a matter of time before I was back in Asia. The British Army no longer has roots in this part of the world so the only option I had was to leave and start a new life in Asia, a big risk some might say, especially since I was well established in my military career. I decided anyway to take the plunge and just pack the biggest bag I could carry of gear and jump on a plane. No regrets. You only regret the things in life that you don’t do. That’s my mindset.
Tell us about your work with F8. What’s more fun – doing commissioned work or running workshops?
I love the diversity of both kinds of work, its great fun doing workshops and teaching people and nurturing their passion for photography, but I equally enjoy commercial projects.
I do a variety of things from portraiture, events, and even some wedding videos. About half our work is now video based, which is great. The more diverse the better as far as I’m concerned. I’m lucky to have good relationships with a variety of clients around Asia.
How has your style evolved and what’s driven that? Technology, your customers, aesthetic trends?
I’m not sure my style has changed that much. For me photography is about people. I love engaging people on every level with my camera.
I got into Leica cameras a few years ago and they help me for sure when shooting on the streets due to size factor. A Leica is not so intimidating and it’s easier to travel with. However, I’ve also been shooting recently with medium format digital which is a whole different beast and it’s slowed me down a lot. I usually just adapt to whatever kit I have, my vision doesn’t change too much, some cameras just make life a bit easier now and again. With regards to trends for work, I think the biggest thing that has happened for me is the requirement for video. Five years ago, about 10% of clients wanted video, now at least 50% of my inquiries are for video projects. This is cool for me as I was trained in video production in the military. I’m also lucky that I love editing, and even though it takes substantially longer to work on video projects the end result is always worth it.
As a teacher, how would you advise up and coming photographers to carve out a niche for themselves?
I feel from my perspective it’s just about being yourself and making sure you take images that mean something to you. I think if you open your heart and mind when shooting, and put some strong emotion into what you are doing, your pictures will reflect that.
If you just try to mimic others all the time, you may find less depth to your images. Social media is also a very important aspect of a photographer’s business, so you have to stay on top of that. Having a blog is useful. Basically a web presence in general is key as most enquiries, if not word of mouth, will come via the Internet. I don’t advertise anywhere, not in magazines or newspapers. All my work comes through word of mouth, existing clients and web searches. Reputation is everything, whether you’re established or just starting out. I would recommend whatever job you are doing, small or large, treat every client as if they are the only client, then you can’t go far wrong.
If you could have only one camera and one lens, what would you choose?
For sure it would be a Leica M9 and 28mm lens.
What would you be doing if you weren’t a photographer?
I would probably be locked up in a lunatic asylum, driven insane by not being able to have cameras to play with. In all seriousness, I can’t imagine doing anything else, I have absolutely no desire or envy to any other job. I feel very lucky to be able to do this job 24 hours a day. Without a camera I am a completely lost cause.