Travel story and social documentary photographer Matt Shonfeld travels extensively, but not quickly. Typically, after being flown to an exotic location by a top publication, he’ll elect to stay in-country for weeks after his initial assignment, moving almost exclusively on foot, and shooting the locals with his standard gear: two Mamiya 7II bodies and three lenses.
First handed a camera at the age of six, Matt has been “passionate about pictures” since that day. In fact, there’s no lack of passion in Matt’s love of the work he does. In an increasingly digital world, Matt remains loyal to medium format film exclusively. “I’m Frugal. Each picture matters. There’s ten exposures on a roll. I’m very careful,” he declares. “I’m passionate about color and color diversity. We see in color. I only shoot in natural light—never in the middle of the day, and I never use flash.” His beautifully-saturated photos for clients such as Vanity Fair, Courrier International, and The New York Times bear this out. Self-proclaimed as “hopeless in Photoshop,” Matt insists of himself he get it right on film. As a rule, he always slightly under-exposes his Fuji negative film.
Matt’s sense of mission for photography takes him to extremes. He once walked 540 kilometers from Pakistan to India with a camel train, camera in hand all the way. He also spent one month in the jungles of Columbia with the FARC. Known for their habit of kidnapping foreigners, Matt narrowly avoided getting murdered near the end of his stay.
If his travel habits are extreme, his approach to gear is not. “I’m a real traditionalist. I travel light. The Mamiya 7II is like a big Leica, but it’s light. It doesn’t need a tripod. It’s as easy as it always was.” Without shooting digitally, there’s no need for a laptop or external hard drives to weigh him down or require power. “I can’t see myself going down the digital route.” He only develops his film after returning home. “It’s like Christmas when picking up film from the lab.”
To get his work in the hands of clients, Matt uses a Hasselblad scanner for a resolution of 32,000 dpi images, which are then reduced to JPEGs.
Originally a lover of Rolleiflexes, Matt spent a long time shooting with Canon, then Leica, before moving to Mamiya after someone at a photojournalist festival recommended the Mamiya 7II to him. “They’re tough cameras. They’re good in different temperatures and all kinds of climates. The lenses are great quality. The 65mm is fantastic, but I’ve fallen in love with the 43mm. For portraits I use the 65 or the 80. There’s not a better camera out there. It’s simple and easy to use.” He travels with two bodies: one for 400 speed film, one for 160 speed film.
Although modest about his process, Matt’s frugality and concern with “getting it” seems to pay off. Often on a contact sheet with ten exposures, his client will use as many as eight or nine photos, an astoundingly high rate, especially when compared to his digital counterparts.
Having lived in Poland, France, Italy, India, and South America, UK-native Matt is currently engaged in years-long personal project of documenting British seaside towns with his 7IIs. Treating his fellow countrymen the way he treats his subjects when a guest in foreign lands, Matt says, “don’t ask permission. If you ask permission, the picture’s gone.” This approach has only caused him problems in one location: the city of love. While once shooting on a Parisian street, he was chased a few blocks by a large man not happy to be photographed. Matt still feels fortunate he escaped.
When advising beginning photographers Matt says, “learn the traditional craft. Do it with film, not the computer. Learn about light and traditional processes. This is important. Look at other people’s work, both contemporary and earlier.” In a competitive industry, he advises, “cut your own way. There are many great resources available, both real and online. Get out there. Shoot. Learn to be confident locally first. Can you tell a story in pictures? It could be a mundane thing like making tea, but if it’s shot beautifully, then it works.”
Written by Ron Egatz