Creative Lives — Photographer Mathieu Willcocks on documenting sea rescues, staying driven and dealing with isolation

Posted 13 June 2017 Interview by Laura Snoad

Freelance photographer Mathieu Willcocks travels all over the world from his base on the Scottish Isle of Coll, reporting on conflict, globalisation and migration for the likes of The New York Times, Al Jazeera, CNN. Over the past year he’s spent a six-month period at sea, documenting the work of NGO the Migrant Offshore Aid Stations as they rescue refugees from the Mediterranean. One of his photographs from this intense stint – a shot of refugees crammed into the hull of a boat off Libya – even won him a World Press Photo Award.

Mathieu Willcocks

Job Title

Freelance Photographer (2014–present)

Based

Isle of Coll, Scotland

Clients

The New York Times, MOAS (Migrant Offshore Aid Station), Panorama, L’Espresso, The Sunday Times Magazine, Al Jazeera, CNN

Previous Employment

Intern at VII Photo Agency (2012)

Education

MA Photojournalism and Documentary Photography, London College of Communication (2013)

BA Economics and Business Management, ESAM Paris (2006-2009)

Website
Social Media

Mathieu

Mathieu's workspace

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Day-to-Day

How would you describe what you do?
I’m a freelance photographer. Over the past year I’ve mostly worked for an NGO that carries out the rescue of migrants and refugees attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea. Before that I was a freelancer in South East Asia, mainly working in Myanmar. There I worked for editorial clients such as The New York Times, as well as the occasional commercial job.

What does a typical working day look like?
When I’m home in Scotland and not out in the field, I wake up around 6.30am with my fiancée and we slowly get ready for the day, have breakfast and catch up on the day’s news. At 8.30am I start my day with a quick meditation session. I find that really helps me get on with whatever it is I have to do that day. I’ll sit at my desk and prioritise and arrange all the things I have on my to-do list into a ‘today’ list. Then I turn on a bit of software that disables access to any website or app that would distract me, and get cracking until lunch time. After lunch, I get another three hours of work done before my fiancée comes home.

Where does the majority of your work take place?
I’ll mostly be at my desk or out in the garden if the weather’s nice. But most of last year I was working at sea, on a rescue boat in the mediterranean. Over a six-month period, I would do 30 to 60 day assignments for the NGO, so I was gone a lot. While I was at sea, it was non-stop work from 4am to midnight every day, with some very intense rescue days, intense heat and emotions. We had some very bad days. It was full-on, all the time. I’d shoot all the morning’s rescues, then we’d usually have a lull of a few hours when everyone was safe and settled on board, during which time I’d go back on my cabin, edit and file my pictures. Then I’d head out again for either more rescues or collecting stories from the migrants we had on board. After I’d done a month or two of that every day, I was quite glad to come back home for a short break and take pretty pictures of the landscape here in Scotland.

“While I was at sea, it was non-stop work from 4am to midnight every day, with some intense rescues, heat and emotions. We had some very bad days.”

Mathieu’s World Press Photo Award winning project ‘Mediterranean Migration’

How do projects usually come about?
Mainly they come from personal relationships with editors and clients and from the exposure I’ve got from my previous work. In Myanmar I used to shoot a lot for The New York Times, so other editors would see my name under the pictures and contact me. I recently won a World Press Photo Award, so that has been a huge exposure boost. Most of the editorial work I have done in the past was commissioned, so the editor would approach me with a story and I’d have to illustrate as best I could. Now that I am back in Europe and relatively new to the editorial scene over here, I find myself pitching a lot more.

How collaborative is your work? 
Not very. Photojournalism can be very isolated. You might work together with an editor that you collaborate with to build a story, but that’s pretty rare. Most of the time I’m expected to come up with my own solutions.

What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job? 
Apart form a few festivals and events throughout the year, you can end up quite isolated, without a lot of contact with other photographers or people in the industry. Having that kind of support and sounding board for ideas is invaluable. The best aspect is getting to witness and document the incredible stories that I see unfolding before my lens. Having the camera as an excuse to peer into certain stories and the privileged position that that gives you is part of what makes everything worth it. Seeing a direct positive impact as a result of your work, as little that impact may be, brings me huge satisfaction.

What skills are essential to your job?
Self-motivation and not doubting yourself too much. The isolation and rejections can be crushing so it’s important to be able to push though all the crap and keep producing good work.

Dieppe, Remembrance series

Dieppe, Remembrance series

Umbrella Revolution series

Umbrella Revolution series

Umbrella Revolution series

Mobile Myanmar for the New York Times

How I Got Here

What did you want to be growing up?
A fighter pilot at first and then a National Geographic photographer.

What influence has your upbringing/background had on your work?
My family moved from France to South Korea when I was 10. I was very lucky and got to live all over East and South East Asia as a kid. I think that definitely helped create my desire to travel and explore and forged my curiosity. 

How (if at all) is the subject you studied useful to your current role?
I studied Economics and Business Management right after school. I always wanted to be a photographer but ‘did the sensible thing’, as per my family’s wishes, and went to business school. I ditched it all very quickly after graduating and eventually found my way back to photography.

What were your first jobs?
My very first proper job was as a intern in a big real estate management company in Hong Kong. I was doing all sorts of intern work, nothing very interesting at all. I quickly finished that and ditched it all, started working in bars and nightclubs for a few years.

Was there anything in particular that helped you at the start of your career?
When I finally decided to give photography a serious try, I applied for an internship at the VII photo agency at its Paris office. Being with such a great agency as VII, and supported by the amazing people there, gave my photography career a tremendous boost. It got me my first NYT assignments (photographing a remembrance ceremony in Normandy), a place on my MA course and a place at the Eddie Adams workshop.

“I have to remind myself that it’s a marathon, it’s about going the distance and believing that the work you are doing is worth it.”

Mobile Myanmar for the New York Times

Mobile Myanmar for the New York Times

Mobile Myanmar for the New York Times

Mobile Myanmar for the New York Times

Val Grande series

Was there an early project you worked on that helped your development?
At the very beginning I worked here and there on a multitude of stories. I was living in London and working in a restaurant and I used to go to every protest I could. The first assignments taught me a lot about working hard to 100% guarantee you’ll bring back great pictures. During my MA I worked on a longer term project on my ancestral valley in Italy and the dying pastoral culture there. That made me better at approaching people, getting to know them and working my way into their lives by being unobtrusive.

What skills have you learnt along the way?
I have learned to keep learning. Video and video editing is crucial these days, but so are good business practices, being good at taxes and all the boring behind the scenes work.

What’s been your biggest challenge?
Probably realising that freelancing, in photography at least, is a marathon and not a sprint. It was a challenge for me to stay being creative and passionate about my work in the Mediterranean when it’s been 25 days of the same horrible scenes every day and you feel your client isn't using your pictures to their full potential. It’s hard feeling unappreciated and isolated and frustrated for a very long period of time and to still keep going. So in the end I just remind myself that it’s a marathon, it’s about going the distance and believing that the work you are doing is worth it.

Is your job what you thought it would be?
Oh absolutely. So many people will love telling you all the struggles they go through. I was warned, and still decided to go for it, which must mean something’s not right about me.

Copper and Land Grabbing series

Val Grande series

Val Grande series

The Moustache Brothers in Myanmar for the New York Times

The Moustache Brothers in Myanmar for the New York Times

Thinking Ahead

What would you like to do next? 
I want to travel more. My soon-to-be wife and I want to get back on the road and visit countries where we can then work together on telling stories that we think matter.

What do you feel is the natural career progression for someone in your current position?
To keep producing meaningful work. I’d like to develop my editorial client base so that I have as wide an audience as possible when I eventually have a new story I want to shout about. And maybe a photo book down the line.

Words of Wisdom

What advice would you give to a young creative wanting to become a photographer?
Just remember, it’s a marathon, not a sprint. Don’t expect instant gratification and get used to rejection. If you ever think about working in a conflict zone, get yourself some medical and hostile environment training, some proper body armour, insurance and fixers!

Posted 13 June 2017 Interview by Laura Snoad
Collection: Creative Lives
Disciplines: Photography
Mentions: The New York Times, The Sunday Times Magazine, Mathieu Willcocks, Eddie Adams

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