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Photography with social conscience

Photography has the capacity to raise awareness and change minds. Peter Caton has harnessed its power to throw a spotlight on the slowly unfolding environmental disaster that is global warming.PC4© Peter Caton

It’s so often a natural reaction to look the other way when a natural disaster strikes somewhere around the world, but it’s not too easy to tear your eyes away from the pictures that so graphically depict the human suffering that each of these events brings in its wake. By being brave and resourceful enough to reach the front line and bring back remarkable photographs of the devastation that’s been caused and the incredible hardship that’s being experienced by the survivors, photographers like Peter Caton are challenging others to step up their efforts to help, and maybe also think a little deeper about the reasons why the tragedy occurred in the first place.

© Peter Caton

Peter was aware from the outset of photography’s capacity to throw the spotlight into areas that others might not be aware of, and by doing so to then trigger debate and potentially change minds. When he decided to study for a degree in photography at Teesside University in Middlesbrough he produced a project that focused on the hardships of working life in northern England. On graduating in 1997 he moved seamlessly into a career as a photojournalist and headed out to Asia to look for stories to cover.

“Asia is the safest and cheapest of continents,” he says, “so if a young photographer wants to cut their teeth somewhere then it’s an obvious choice. During my time there I lived simply out of two rucksacks and took on work for a number of leading non-governmental organisations, such as Save the Children, CARE, Greenpeace, WWF, UNICEF, UNAIDS, Oxfam, The Japan Foundation and the Red Cross.”

© Peter Caton

“I was keen to have access to stories that were important to me, and working with the dedicated field workers connected to these organisations gave me the chance to get into the hospitals, clinics or centres that were relevant. We used each other in this way and it’s been a relationship that has lasted many years, as these charities seem to value my work.”

From the very beginning Peter saw the value of working with medium format cameras. Consequently, a Hasselblad 503CW made the journey out to Asia with him, along with a Canon EOS1D, and he used it regularly in his first few years, valuing its robust nature and ease of use. Traditional film always carried the caveat that somewhere needed to be found to process it, however, and as digital cameras became more freely available Peter made the leap to a Hasselblad in 2009, something that he describes as “a magical moment.”
“When I first decided to live my life on the road, I was one of the few photographers operating this way,” says Peter. “Moving to digital and being online in my hotel room allowed me to finally be totally nomadic as a photographer without reliance on labs with reliable chemicals. The change was accelerated by the improvement of internet services in developing countries: it meant that I could communicate with clients and be easily accessible, and it was a very liberating moment.”

© Peter Caton

Long term assignments:

Peter’s career has been defined by long-term projects, made up of many inter-connected smaller assignments. Topics that are close to his heart include the measures that have been put in place to combat HIV and AIDS and the push to eliminate the scourge of leprosy, and he’s also deeply committed to the need to feed the world and to raise awareness of the advancing disaster that is global warming.

On that latter front he’s been working for several years on a project called ‘After the Storm,’ which focuses on the devastating effects on communities that have faced terrible, often unprecedented storms. “Along with the HIV issue, climate change is the only story worth communicating,” states Peter. “It’s the story that demands my full commitment as a documentary photographer. I first started shooting the affects it was having back in 2004, and I was shocked to see first-hand the impact it was having on poor rural communities.”

© Peter Caton

To date Peter has worked on this project in India, Bangladesh, the Philippines and the UK, and his bags are permanently packed in readiness for that moment when a major weather incident takes place somewhere around the world.

Working with a digital Hasselblad brought with it many advantages, but still there was the question to address that shooting conditions were challenging at best, and the inevitable low light situations that occurred often meant that supplementary lighting would be called for. The quandary was solved by the arrival of the Hasselblad H5D-50c with its CMOS sensor and higher ISO speed capability, and this is now the medium format camera of choice for Peter.

© Peter Caton

“Now I don’t need to use my flash too often,” Peter says. “The CMOS sensor in the H5D-50c means that I no longer have to fear low light since I can work without noise to up to ISO 1600, a full two stop advantage over the H3D or H4D, and still come away with a file that’s big enough to blow up to an A0+ print (914 x 1292mm).”

Making a difference

Despite the fact that, by the very nature of what he’s doing, Peter is likely to be working in demanding conditions where there is a lot of water and mud about, he’s still able to focus fully on what he’s doing without worrying overmuch about cosseting the gear that he’s working with. On the lens front he works primarily with a 35-90mm, which covers most of the bases and ensures that he does not continually have to swap lenses over – something that would be potentially hazardous in dusty environments. In terms of the muddy conditions he often encounters, the biggest danger is the increased risk of falling over and possibly dropping gear in the process.



© Peter Caton

“Working in challenging environments with a Hasselblad is like travelling with a small child,” Peter smiles. “The safety aspect is paramount in your mind, and because I take care of my cameras I’ve never really had a problem. The H5D-50C features a thermometer symbol, for example, which warns you if it gets too hot. And if I’m using the camera like I would a 35mm model and am taking lots of images, then I know that subsequently I will need to rest it for a short period to let it recover. It’s just a question of being patient, and you get to know your gear after a while.”

© Peter Caton

Having experienced so much suffering first hand, the frustration for Peter is that he’s witnessing first-hand how the issue of global warming is accelerating, and he confesses it’s heartbreaking for him to see how it’s the most vulnerable communities around the world that are on the front line. “Photography has a crucial role to play in activism,” he says. “The stakes have never been higher and I want my climate work to play its part.”

More information:

The H5D-50c is currently available at a special offer price. Click here for more details

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