Be there first. Leave last. Never give up. image

It’s official.  Getty Images news photographer Jeff Mitchell is one of the best ‘capture the moment’ professionals on the planet.

This man just can’t stop winning major awards for his work – most recently the UK Picture Editors’ Guild Awards’ News Photographer of the Year – sponsored by Fixation.  And he doesn’t even mind the now broadly used and somewhat pejorative term ‘snapper’. It doesn’t bother me a bit”, he smiles, “I rise above it. I may be a snapper but I think I am reasonably good at it.”

© Getty Images | Jeff Mitchell

The 47-year old Scot who lives with his wife and two children, just a stone’s throw from Loch Lomond, lives out of a suitcase – and a camera bag that hosts his two go-to Nikon D5s, an  assortment of Nikon lenses, including the 24-70mm ƒ/2.8, the 70-200mm ƒ/2.8 and the ‘must-have’ 500mm ƒ/4. The smaller Fujifilm X100T is another favourite backup and personal use camera.  He says: “It sits in my pocket and I can hold it with one hand. When I use it in the street, I often get people apologising for getting in the way.”

He adds: “When I won at the UKPEG Awards I was given a Fixation voucher and the office bought me a Nikon 300mm ƒ/4. I also bought a 35mm ƒ/1.4 – a lens I have coveted but have never had in my portfolio before.”

Jeff globe-trots seamlessly from one assignment to the next. It could be photographing unrest in the Ukraine; USA election conventions; mass demonstrations in Paris; A World Cup in Brazil; The Commonwealth Games in Glasgow; capturing international political leaders on the hustings (and the obligatory pictures of them kissing babies of course) tracking the refugee exodus from the war-torn Middle East – and most recently the post Manchester Arena (Ariana Grande concert) carnage.

© Getty Images | Jeff Mitchell

He confesses: “It’s often exhausting. What I do is physically draining. It’s a different type of tiredness. A guy digging ditches will go home and his body is aching all over. He is physically exhausted. But what I do is tiring mentally too. When I was driving back home after my stint in Manchester after the concert massacre I just had to pull off the road and sleep for a couple of hours in a layby. I had been out on the street from 7am until late night, constantly working.”

He added: “And of course there are occasions where I know I am putting myself in harm’s way too. I was on the front line for example in Ukraine. In these situations you have to be very careful because you can simply run out of luck, especially if you are covering a war zone over a protracted period.”

The flip side/antidote is his downtime photography: ‘I love taking pictures of nature and landscapes’ he adds.  Reindeer herds and peat cutter and tweed makers in Scotland. It’s a great way to put the brakes on.”

© Getty Images | Jeff Mitchell

News photography is in the Mitchell DNA.  ‘Photography has always been in the family’ he notes. ‘My dad had a darkroom in the basement and I loved helping him out. I used to rock the developer tray and thought it was magic when a print came out.’

Jeff rose through the local newspaper ranks in Scotland and then joined Reuters agency. ‘I had a ball there for ten years but then I fancied a change. I was shooting a lot of sport and I wanted to do more news, so I left and joined Getty.’

He adds: ‘I started on January 1st 2006 and they haven’t kicked me out yet. They seem happy with my pictures but they still have to suffer my bad captions and dyslexic writing. I remember one of the girls on the picture desk commenting: ‘Thank God you can take pictures Jeff because your captions are awful’.

© Getty Images | Jeff Mitchell

Of course it’s a truism that you’re no news photographer unless you can click that shutter at the right moment – an art form in itself.

Says Jeff: “Cartier Bresson noted that ‘photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event’. I know what he meant. I do get a strong feeling about a good picture. It’s more instant these days, thanks to digital technology…and I know when I’ve got a good one. I knew in Manchester that the shot I took from a high window vantage point of the silent crowd in the square that day was going to make the papers.’

© Getty Images | Jeff Mitchell

He adds: ‘I know I’ve won a few awards but I still think to myself…if only I’d got the pictures I’ve missed!  For example, in Paris during the May Day riots, another photographer a few yards away got a fantastic picture of a policeman engulfed by flames as he tried to kick away a Molotov cocktail. The other photographer was closer and so he got a better picture than I did.

It’s all about fractions of a second. That feeling of not getting the best shot stays with me for days.’

‘Our job as news photographers is to observe and record history. I am not recording these events for myself, I am doing it for the world to see….so I need to be the best I can be.

I think that this job is a bit like boxing…there is always going to be someone more capable than you. I don’t kid myself at all – and sometimes it’s amateurs that can capture great shots.’

© Getty Images | Jeff Mitchell

The harder you work the luckier you get

Says Jeff: ‘I think I am a decent news photographer.  I don’t know much but I know news. And these days the lightning speed of digital and the luxury of auto focus makes it easier to get good images.’

He admits that luck does come into the frame:

“I was covering the return of the Royal Highland fusiliers when two year old toddler Scott Boyle suddenly broke away from his mum to try and get to his soldier dad. That picture was pure luck….but you still have to be there in the right place to benefit from that luck. Someone said that the harder he worked the luckier he became. I agree. My mantra has always been: Be There First. Leave last. Never give up.’

Amongst a plethora of images captured across the world there are three key assignments that are still firmly resident in Jeff’s mind.

He recalls: “I won’t ever forget my time in the Ukraine, or the ongoing migrant crisis. And then there was the foot and mouth disease epidemic. My picture of a dead cow hanging out of a digger proved to be quite iconic and symbolic of that crisis. It actually made the front page of TIME Magazine.’

© Getty Images | Jeff Mitchell

The truth, the whole truth and almost nothing but the truth

Jeff craves honesty in his work.

“I don’t like setting things up. I don’t want to have to talk to people and get them to do things for me. I want to remain as anonymous as I possibly can. And for me images have to be honest. I don’t mind a speck of dust being removed with Photoshop but I don’t think in news photography you should either add to or subtract from a picture. Don’t add in smoke to make the image more attractive – it’s simply dishonest.’

Jeff is employed by Getty Images so he doesn’t ever own his work.

© Getty Images | Jeff Mitchell

He explains: ‘I don’t own the picture but I am its author.  Copyright ownership is a big deal of course for many photographers, but it’s not for me. I am never going to make a fortune  on a picture as perhaps I might as a freelance, but I know I wouldn’t have experienced half the things I have, or been to half the places I’ve visited if it wasn’t for the people I have worked for. It’s a trade-off that I have made my peace with. For me it’s not about earning sheds loads of money. I don’t have a boring life – and I would do it all again in a heartbeat.’

When it comes to mentors and iconic images shot over the decades Jeff  notes McCullin,Capa and Nachtwey – and  images such as the US soldiers raising the flag at Iwo Jima (although he acknowledges that some people think the image was too staged).

Then there are the news photography masterpieces: Nick Ut’s famous picture of the little girl fleeing the napalm bomb attack in Vietnam and the ‘Tank man’ shot by AP’s Jeff Widener in Tiananmen Square.

© Getty Images | Jeff Mitchell

But he admits: ‘I can use all these guys and images as references but for me it’s more about the priceless process of learning from the people I worked with in the past and those I work with now. They probably have more influence than anybody.”

So this multi-award-winning snapper has built a majestic archive of great work for his employers over recent decades. But guess what?  He never takes pictures of his own family.

“I know. I know. It’s a disgrace really’, he confesses. ‘I am afraid I am no different from the painter who never gets around to decorating his own house. There’s barely a photo of my own kids in the house. Not a wedding picture either. My wife takes all the holiday pix. If you want photographs of your kids, then don’t ever marry a professional photographer!’

At this point Jeff Mitchell had to put down the phone to go off and photograph Nicola Sturgeon and Scottish Tory Ruth Davidson (just before the election.)

He said he had no plans to quit the game and work in a supermarket any time soon.

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