Charlene Winfred: Seeing the Ordinary with New Eyes

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Masterclass with Charlene Winfred


Charlene Winfred is a photographer after my own heart. She is a documentary photographer whose work reveals the extraordinary in the ordinary; she makes you look twice at what you had always taken for granted and shows you how photography can reveal the soul and spirit of people and places.

It’s what makes her work resonate with mood and emotion, that gives it a very human face. Charlene doesn’t limit herself to specific photographic genres. She loves her reportage, but shoots weddings and lifestyle, and has recently started a new project on motherhood and the migrant experience.

In this Masterclass, Charlene discusses her photography of life and work on board tug boats in Fremantle, a project she undertook as part of her participation in a Magnum Photography Workshop during FotoFreo 2010. For Charlene, the sea always beckons and, as she explains in this Masterclass, being able to join those working on board the tug boats was a dream come true.

Tug 13 by Charlene Winfred
Camera: Nikon D700, Lens: Tokina 12-24mm, Exposure: f4, 1/160, ISO 4000


Why tugs? And how did you manage to get involved in photographing the tugs for the Magnum Workshop?

A little background on me – I’m a tomboy. I like the sort of things that boys do: planes, trains, automobiles etc.

I have always watched tug boats from a far as a kid (I was raised in Singapore – a very busy port city), and wondered about these boats that brought the big ships in to shore. So, when I was selected for the Magnum Workshops, I thought I’d be cheeky and see how far the Magnum name would take me. I asked to go aboard a tug because I’ve ALWAYS wanted to. And it took me that far! It turned out there was a lot more to tugs and their work than I expected.


So you went in and said, “Hi, I’m doing a Magnum workshop”?

Well, no. I got in touch with the Fremantle Port Authority three weeks before the workshop, because I figured it would take a long time to get through the “beaurecrazy” and get to the right person. But I got lucky and was sent through to a sympathetic public affairs officer who was a former press photographer himself. He arranged to get me into the Port on a one day visitor’s pass, so I got to spend a whole day on the tugs. But that was all I got – one day. I had to make the most of it!


You got so much visually out of the one day.

Yeah I got heaps. It was easy though. It helps when you’re completely enthusiastic about the subject matter. Trent Parke, who was my mentor during the workshop told me to “shoot the shit out of it” and I did!


How did you prepare for the day? Did you have preconceived ideas of what you wanted to shoot? Or did you go in with a blank slate in terms of the story you wanted to cover?

Blank slate. I’ve never observed maritime workers at all previously, having no access to them. What I did when I got to there, at 4.30 am, was simply watch what was going on for an hour or so. The night shift crew (I was with them till 7 am) were more than willing to talk to me and answer my 475 stupid questions.


So no snapping in the first hour. You must have had to practice real restraint!

Yes, but I was so curious as to what they were doing and why, and there were all those cool big machines and shackles and thick towlines that I actually quite happily forgot what I was there for. That it was pitch black at the time probably helped a bit as well. While I was talking to them I was checking out the lighting and trying to figure out HOW to shoot something that was mostly dark.


So that explains you shooting at ISO4000!

Hahaha, yes. Trent Parke was horrified at the high ISO (he’d told me not to do it, so of course I went and did that), but I think it worked out pretty well.


Was the lack of lighting the only challenge you found when trying to photograph there?

In the wheelhouse, yes as there was only lighting coming from the instruments, and they had a MASSIVE spotlight for when the deckhand was handling ropes and stuff. But aside from that, it was mostly pitch black. I could get a lot of action that was happening on the tug itself, but it was a challenge figuring out how to get that plus some context (the ship, water and so on). I was asked not to use a flash as it might interfere, and I’m glad I didn’t, cause it would have produced quite a different feel to the images.

Lack of lighting was one big challenge, the other big one was simply user education. I had no idea what happened aboard a tug. Hence the hour or so I spent not shooting, just trying to get idea of the rhythm and pace of work and to get to know the guys a bit.


I think your decision to shoot natural light led to a very dramatic image, where the guy seems very much hemmed in by his darker surroundings. Very powerful and evocative. Tell us how you shot this.

After a while of observing them, I started to draw associations behind tug work and the variety of ropes and lines (i think the towline is called a hawser, if I’m not wrong) against the bulk of a massive carrier. When they start the tow activities, the only one allowed out from the wheelhouse is the deckhand (the subject of this photo). After watching him for a bit and catching him from every conceivable angle I could from the wheelhouse or the platform just outside it, I knew I had to be on the ground at the same level as him when that happened, to get the image I was after. From the wheelhouse, I could get the deckhand and the winch, or the ship and her crew, but not the whole lot. And also, from the wheelhouse there was a lot of clutter in the image, bits and pieces that accompany a tow, glass reflections, control panels etc.

So I begged Steve (the skipper) to let me out near the stern of the boat so I was away from falling lines and any other objects. I wanted a clean, simple shot that spoke of the scale of a big ship, and the work of a deckhand. The low angle and use of wide angle distortion conveys the sense of scale. To me, this speaks volumes of what I think is the essence of a tug – working vessel, working men, towlines, dramatic scale.

I was actually two steps down from the foredeck of the tug (the aft deck is lower) and lying on the floor when I got that shot, about five metres from the deckhand. I just let the shutter go and fired off about six or eight frames. This was the most perfect one.


Tell me a bit about the lighting here – what is it that is lighting the scene? Is it light from the wheelhouse above the deckhand?

I got the composition I was after, I just needed to get the right moment with the deckhand and the line they were throwing down from the ship to the tug. The light on the deckhand is that big spot light I mentioned earlier. The light in the sky and on the carrier is the sun. It was just starting to come above the horizon then.

Perfect moment, perfect composition. Talk about right time, right place.


There was definitely a lot of thought that went into nailing this shot – even if it appears “simple”. How did you obtain exposure? Did you use a particular metering mode?

I shot this in Manual exposure. The widest aperture on my lens was f4.0. I knew I needed to be shooting at 1/125 at the slowest, otherwise I’d get motion blur and I specifically didn’t want that for this particular shot. So, the only thing I could change was the ISO. I was shooting at 1/125 most of the morning, and only got to dial the ISO down from 6400 to 4000 because the sun was rising.


I noticed that you placed the deckhand at exactly the intersection of thirds in the rule of thirds. Was this a conscious decision?

Not at all. It just happened to be where I could get some tug, him in the right light, and that window on the carrier in view.


So you were composing to be able to include all key elements in the story – the deckhand and the portal on the carrier?

There was terrible vignetting at 18mm and wider, so I was stuck to a safe zone of 20 – 24mm. There was no cropping done on this image. I just moved around until I got it right in camera.


I’m interested in how you broke the ice with the workers on the tug. Did you have someone introduce you to them all, or did you just go and have a wander?

Ah! Well, that wasn’t too hard. The skipper met me at the port gate to escort me to the boat. there are three on a tug – master (skipper), engineer and integrated rating (deckhand). They were all curious as to what I was doing there. I gather there aren’t a lot of girls who are interested in boys’ work. They wanted to know all about why I was there and why I liked tugs, so I asked them all sort of questions back. I guess people like it when someone else is genuinely curious about what they do, and I was VERY curious. I am a bit of a rabid question-asker but I was outdoing even myself that day.


I think you hit the nail on the head there — people do like being asked questions and that is one great way to break the ice in pretty much every context.

Both crews – day and night shifts – were more than happy to answer any questions. They were quite amused at how enthusiastic I was, and they were super welcoming and very accommodating.

When they went back to berth, I was exploring in the many levels of the tug. I have to say, you look at a tug from the outside, you would not believe how much space – quarters, mess, storage etc – there is inside it. That one tug had four levels from wheelhouse to offices, to quarters, to stowage and engine room. I never got to see where the water and fuel storage tanks were either! – 21 tons of water, 300 tons of fuel!


Can you tell me a bit about your post-production on this image? The area where the deckhand is seems to really pop!

I don’t normally do a lot of post processing. I use Lightroom and post-production on this image entailed a bit of exposure manipulation, a touch of fill light, a touch of clarity, sharpening, contrast and a touch of noise reduction. That’s all. The deckhand pops because of the spotlight that was on him – nothing to do with post-processing. He was wearing high vis gear and the carrier is a bright, bright red.

If I had used the flash (if I had been allowed to), I would have lost the very subtle tones and the dramatic lighting. Plus high-vis vest would have been blown out by flash! I did wish at the time that I could use flash, because I really was struggling with the extreme low light, but for this image, I’m glad I couldn’t! Sometimes, it’s better to crank up ISO and shoot ambient light.


Now, you’re planning on exhibiting your tug photos as part of FotoFreo Fringe 2012

Yep. This will be a part of it.

Tug 4 by Charlene Winfred


You seem to have a particular love for reportage. I notice even in your wedding photos, that it’s documentary that you love.

Well yeah. In today’s world where everything moves so fast, documentary forces me to slow down, do nothing but pay attention. There is nothing else in my life that does that for me, so it’s special.


What do you mean “slow down, do nothing but pay attention”?

Well, I have a very short attention span. I’m sure if I was a kid, I’d be diagnosed and treated for ADHD. Photography is the only thing I do, that I can concentrate on singularly. Whether it’s because it involved concentrating on several things at once – the scene, the camera, the light, the situation, the anticipation – or the fact that I have to, to get anywhere with it, I don’t know. But in part, as a kid, I was one of those that walked around daydreaming and making up stories about everything around me. This is the adult continuation of that.


So what you mean is that photography makes you look “properly”?

Yes! That’s a good way of summing it up. I often think about making short films of the photos that I take, but I haven’t figured out how to do that cogently yet. I like ordinary stories, and the many ways you can tell them.


Speaking of ordinary stories, you currently seem obsessed with two everyday subjects: 1. The commute, photographs taken out of the window of the bus and 2. The night walk, where you snap what you see on your walk home at night. What is it about these two subjects that gets your attention?

Obsess would be about right – it’s how I do anything at all. If I don’t obsess, it never gets done. No work-life balance here!

There’s the singular thing that connects these two subjects – they are things I do everyday. If I only shot the things I wanted to shoot, I’d shoot two days out of a year if I was lucky. I make it a point to teach myself to see the ordinary with new eyes. Not to take my surroundings and mundane routine for granted.




How do you keep enthused about the mundane, the world outside the bus window, the suburbs as you walk home. Tell us what you look for.

It took me heaps of practice to get where I wanted to get. Remember when I said I walked around making up stories of everything and everyone? That’s how I started it. I look for different imaginary stories on the faces of the people that pass me by on buses. And after a while (a LONG while), I taught myself to make portraits of them in terms of how I imagined them. A bit loony, but it works!

On the bus, visual opportunities pass you by in a flash, literally, so it’s taken years of practice to get anything at all. I’ve learned that shooting from a bus, the seat is critical, the timing of the route, and the time of day, depending on the types of people I want to catch.

Nightwalking is about shooting to the music that happens to be playing in my earphones at a time. Shooting to the feel of the symphony. It’s shooting at a more instinctive level. Nightwalking started off with me walking (or limping, at the time) at night to walk off my frustration at immobility. When you walk with the shadows, with music in your ears, the usual environmental sounds are shut off, it’s absolutely AMAZING how different things look to the eyes. We don’t give our ears enough credit for influencing our thinking. The music shuts off a lot of the stimuli that makes us take what we see for granted, and it all becomes new again.


What kind of music?

Any kind, depending on what I feel like at the day. Classic, heavy metal, acoustic, new age. When I listen to Toad the Wet Sprocket as opposed to Red Hot Chilli Peppers or Bach, there’s a different feel.



And you have a new project: Migrant Mothers which is completely different to your usual reportage work.

Completely. For starters I don’t do a lot of portraiture work. When I have to do it for wedding shoots I find I want to capture something different to what I am being paid to do that day. You mentioned that I like reportage work, so this is sort of a more deliberate type of reportage.


So you’re saying portraiture is like reportage?

Well… yes and no. It depends on what you’re doing it for. Family photos, engagement photos aren’t reportage to me, because the situation is set up, and the artificial feel is deliberate. When I say “artificial”, I don’t mean in a bad way, just that it’s almost fantasy-like, cause that’s what the market wants.

With Migrant Mothers, I do set up shots, but I do tell the mums that part of this is to get their portraits in their home space, whatever, wherever and however their home space happens to be when I arrive. It’s interesting with kids, especially the young ones – you get mums who try and clean up and make everything look good, but throw in an active two or four year old and there are HEAPS of unexpected candid stuff you get. The photo component of Migrant Mothers is importantly about the relationship between women and their kids, and so far, I’ve gotten that without trying too hard at all in the photos.



Can you tell me a bit about your trajectory as a photographer? That is, how you started and if there was a “tipping” point for you when you went from being a “beginner” to someone who is so passionate and driven about the medium.

That’s a good question. Well, I was a keen photo-walker up until the stage where I started shooting weddings with Ed – my longtime friend, business partner, mentor, and collaborator in experimental photography. Pretty soon after I started shooting weddings, I realised I didn’t want any part of being a wedding or commercial portrait photographer as a job/business. It’s just not for me.

I still do weddings because they keep me sharp. There’s nothing like a wedding to hone your reflexes, technical skills, people handling skills, posing and so on. It hones a lot of skills that are useful to me in the other areas of photography I’d like to be doing.

To answer your question, the moment it clicked for me was when I attended the Magnum Workshops.

Before that, the only options I could see in photography were weddings or portraiture that everyone seems to be doing. After the workshops, I started to realise it didn’t really matter what pigeonhole I couldn’t fit in. I could still shoot seriously, if only for myself. You could say it freed my thinking. It was life changing. It took meeting someone I greatly respected, to hear him look at me quizzically when I asked in disbelief “You mean you’ve NEVER shot a job you didn’t want to?” for me to smack myself on the head and wonder why the hell I was so hung up on all these labels just cause everyone else was.


That was Trent Parke?

Yup. He’s very cool. It’s not everyday you meet a minor deity.


The labels can be a very strong influence.

Tell me about it, especially when it’s your only exposure to photography as more than a hobby, which was my situation until then.


So is Migrant Mothers going to consume you for the foreseeable future? Will you continue with your commute and night walking photography too?

Yes and yes. Commute and nightwalking are daily shooting activities. I do them while I get to and from work. Migrant Mothers is a “Project” project. It has goals, and I want to see them through.


And you don’t tire of of your commute and night walking photography, even if the routes are the same?

Nope. I can never get the same picture twice. Everyday is a challenge to see how much crap I can avoid shooting as well [laughs].



You certainly love setting yourself great challenges! Hopefully this will inspire readers to look for the extraordinary in the ordinary.

That’s where the extraordinary lives, I reckon. Right in the ordinary.


Now, before we close the interview, I have to ask you one very important question. What song best describes or represents your photography?

What song?! Jaysus! I have no freaking clue!

Okay, “Throw It All Away” by Toad the Wet Sprocket. I listen to it every New Year’s Day to remind myself to do just that.



If I only shot the things I wanted to shoot, I’d shoot two days out of a year if I was lucky. I make it a point to teach myself to see the ordinary with new eyes. Not to take my surroundings and mundane routine for granted.

This Masterclass with Charlene Winfred is about giving yourself opportunities to see the ordinary and familiar with fresh eyes.

As Charlene puts it: “That’s where the extraordinary lives, I reckon. Right in the ordinary.”

While we all like taking photos of new things (and the thrill and excitement that come with it), it can be more challenging and rewarding to look at the everyday and use our photography to remind ourselves and our viewers of the magic that can be found in the mundane.

As with Brett Morgan in our last Masterclass, Charlene discusses the role music plays in her photography — on her photography night walks, music becomes her companion, screening out any environmental noise so that she can focus solely on the visual.

Without the distraction of ambient noise, she then begins to see and photograph things differently.



For this Masterclass activity, you’ll need your camera, a portable music player and headphone:

  • Go for a walk along a familiar route: it might be the route you take when you go for evening walks, or the road to the shops, and so on.
  • Plug in your iPod and listen to your favourite tunes.
  • Don’t rush – “slow down, do nothing but pay attention” to what you see during your walk.
  • Photograph the things that catch you eye – things you suddenly notice which you have never noticed before.
  • Avoid the trigger-finger-syndrome. Look, look and look and then shoot.