Thursday, March 21, 2013

From the Empirical Archives: A Moment With Neil J. Spicer

A Moment With Neil J. Spicer
PHOTOS: Neil J. Spicer,

Originally Published in the August 2012 Issue of Empirical

This month, Empirical catches up with frequent traveler Neil J. Spicer, Ph.D., an international health researcher with a unique photographic perspective on our world.

Empirical: We were first drawn to your shots in Cuba. Then we noticed that you have a tremendous variety of international photography. How have you been able to travel so much?

Neil: I’m a geographer by training and photography helps me express my fascination with the world. For my Ph.D., I spent a year in the Jordanian desert studying how Bedouin tribes use traditional and modern healthcare, and one of my all-time favorite photos is of a herd of camels drinking at a water well.

London South Bankd

Empirical: Where was your training in geography done?

Neil: I got my Ph.D. from Glasgow University in 2000, and have worked as a researcher at different British universities since. Studying for a Ph.D. was one of the hardest things I ever did. But worth the pain–working on overseas projects is amazing!

St. Basil's Cathedral, Moscow

Empirical: How are you applying your geography training now? What’s your research about? Your photography seems to have fit right in with your work.

Neil: I now work as a researcher in global public health, and this means I travel to really interesting places always with my camera–including Ukraine, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, Trinidad and Tobago, Uganda, China, Nepalm, and Mexico, and I currently work on maternal and child health in Ethiopia and India. A picture I really love is of monks playing drums and cymbals in a monastery in Kathmandu, Nepal. It somehow captures that moment perfectly. 

Empirical: When and how did you get started in photography?

Neil: While I’ve never been formally trained in photography I’ve taken photos since I was young. My Dad was always keen on photography and I picked this up. I loved to chronicle family holidays, and the old prints we have of the English Lake District and Wales are precious. In my 20s when I started to travel in the Middle East and Africa, I always had a compact film camera with me–I loved to take travel pictures, which I did prolifically. I recently dusted off my old boxes of prints and scanned some of the really good ones of the desert in Egypt and Jordan–it was like unearthing treasure! My passion for photography has grown since I got my first digital camera around ten years ago and I’ve not looked back.


Empirical: Some of my favorite photographs from your collection are taken there in London, by the way.

Neil: I’ve always loved living in London. It’s really exciting to be in such a globalized city, and a great place to be if you’re interested in photography. I rarely walk along the Thames without my camera, and I love taking my daughter to see the flowers in Kew Gardens and to London Zoo to see the zebras and other animals. My four-year-old daughter has one of my old digital cameras. She’s following my interest in photography, and it’s really exciting to see what she comes up with. I think she’s the one in the family with real talent!

Empirical: I especially like the curled zebra shot from the zoo collection. Does your daughter ever get to travel with you on these fascinating journeys to other countries?

Neil: Yes, she has traveled a lot for a four-year old, including many trips to her mum’s country, Ukraine, and also Slovenia, Italy, Austria, and France. We are all travelling to the Greek islands of Naxos and Syros this summer. It’s a beautiful part of the world and I am looking forward to documenting the trip by taking lots of pictures.

Kew Gardens, England

Empirical: Maybe we’ll see her photographs here someday. To what extent have you been able to share your photography with others so far?

Neil: I’m a fan of Flickr, which is an amazing way of getting your work out there. I do a little photography work in London for a travel website where I take pictures of people’s homes for rent to visitors.

Water Lillies, Kew Gardens, England

Empirical: I noticed that you won an award for your photograph in Cuba.

Neil: For an amateur photographer it’s always flattering when my images are used and appreciated by someone. Many of my photos have been used by travel companies, magazines, and news websites as well as some books. It was a thrill to have a picture I took in Cuba featured alongside professional images in the Boston Globe’s Big Picture series–not an award but just as good!


Empirical: That was a great honor. As you know, we published two of those Cuban shots in our article about Cuba in the July edition of Empirical. What camera do you use? Lenses?

Neil: I’ve have had quite a few cameras over the years. My Canon DSLR is great, but top-end digital compacts suit my travel really well because of their size. While it’s always tempting to get the latest model camera, some of my favorite photos were taken with very basic cameras. Capturing a place or moment, and learning to use a camera well, for me, seem more important than having the best camera available. But the technology is very seductive–the Canon G1 X I recently bought is terrific for travel and allows for amazing creativity.

Lake Bohinj, Slovenia

Empirical: Yes, it’s amazing what you can do with some of the compacts available to us today. Do you ever find yourself waiting for the light to be just right, or having to do anything unusual to get that unique angle?

Neil: My non-photography work commitments mean it’s often difficult to dedicate as much time to photography as I’d like–such as waiting for hours or days for perfect light as many professionals do. But that’s not a problem. Often photography’s less about planning and more about opportunity–spotting a great picture and acting fast. Having said that it’s useful to have a few tricks to make your photos less ordinary such as shooting at low or high angle, using a reflection (puddles are brilliant!), framing a shot with a tree or archway, or using shallow depth-of-field.


Empirical: What are some of the biggest influences that people have had on you during your travels?

Neil: The biggest pleasure of travel–whether a work trip or holiday–is meeting people. I was really touched by the generosity of the Jordanian Bedouins I met, by the dignity of health workers in rural Ethiopia, the interest Syrians had in politics and literature, the warmth of Americans, the passion and determination of advocacy workers in Central Asia, and the friendliness of Cubans. Travel doesn’t broaden the mind if you follow a guidebook. You need to spend time with people and listen to their stories. One thing I’ve always found is that people are really interested in England–and of course whether I support Manchester United or Arsenal!

Red Fort, India

Empirical: What do you most like to photograph? Are there certain kinds of subjects that you find yourself drawn to more than others?

Neil: When I travel to a new country or city I love to take pictures. It’s a great feeling capturing the essence of a place, but being original isn’t always easy. For travel photography I think you have to capture a moment in time, find a new perspective, or shoot from a classic angle really well. It goes without saying that light is everything. I really like a photo I took of St. Basil’s cathedral in Moscow. The light and angle were perfect it’s such an iconic site but you can still marvel! A picture I took of children in Lucknow, India is really sweet, and they loved seeing the image on the camera screen.


Empirical: We loved the photograph of the Indian kids, too. Usually in a group like that, someone is frowning or unsure of this strange photographer taking a shot of them. But they’re all happy. How did you develop rapport with them?

Neil: Building rapport is important. But in this case it wasn’t difficult–these kids really wanted their photo taken. In India so many people now have camera phones that photography is everywhere and constant. Where I took that photo–Bara Imambara in Lucknow–I posed for people to take pictures of me. It was nice to be a celebrity for a while!

Empirical: Well, we admire your work greatly, and hope to feature more of it in the future. Thank you for sharing with us.

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