Mladen has worked as a photojournalist for Agence France-Presse (AFP), the world’s oldest news agency, for almost 30 years. The agency, renowned for bringing global stories to life through world-class photo and videojournalism, publishes up to 3,000 images a day thanks to its global network of 500 photographers. Its archive of 36 million shots dates back to the very beginning of photography. Yet, amongst all of this, Mladen’s work always stands out to me. So when I saw he was in town to cover the Vegetarian Festival, an interview was a must.
We meet at The Memory at On On Hotel in Phuket Town, just moments away from the colourful chaos of the festival’s street processions. My interest in him comes as something of a surprise, but he’s warm and gracious throughout, despite ringing ears and a sore rib from a rogue firecracker.
Mladen tells me that he’s been fortunate enough to be posted all over the world: to the Balkans during the Yugoslav Wars; to Paris, where AFP is headquartered; to Washington DC; to Moscow; and, most recently, to Bangkok where he takes on the role of chief photographer for Southeast Asia.
Nowadays, photographers looking to land an international posting like this, which typically lasts between two and six years, are up against a world of competition. But when Mladen was hired back in the ’90s, times were different. And there was another force at play.
“Chance. Most of the things in my life came by chance. Really,” says Mladen. “It was after the collapse of Communism in [my home country of] Bulgaria, and they were burning the headquarters of the Communists. I was on the street and a reporter came to me and said, ‘Did you photograph that?’ and I said, ‘Yes’ and he said, ‘Come with me.’ He was a Reuters journalist. The next morning, my photo was in The Guardian! I wasn’t even a photographer then. I was studying cinema.”
There’s an element of chance in the way Mladen works, too. Unlike many of his peers, Mladen isn’t weighed down by kit to cover all bases for the perfect capture. For the Vegetarian Festival, he’s carrying only his trusted Nikon D5 and Z6. No extra lenses, no spare battery packs or memory cards. And he doesn’t check a shot the moment he’s taken it either. Often, the first time he sees the fruits of his labour is after the event.
This confidence comes, of course, from years of practice, but also from his time shooting using limited rolls of film, manual focus and no motor drive – precision was key and there was little room for error.
“I still make mistakes because of how I shoot. Big mistakes. Underexposed, shaky, out of focus. But that’s how I work,” explains Mladen. “Younger photographers are often unsure of what shots to take so they shoot a lot and then can’t choose after because they have so many photos. They waste a lot of time editing.”
Case in point: I meet Mladen a mere half an hour after the procession has passed through town, and his images are already uploaded, edited, captioned and with his editor.
Mladen’s often unorthodox approach is the key to his creativity, too. During his time in Paris, he made a change that sent ripples through AFP and the wider industry. He scrapped the second sentence. Perhaps this needs some context. As standard at the time, AFP captions described the photograph in the first sentence – “A model takes to the catwalk at London Fashion Week” – and the wider context in the second – “The event has come under scrutiny for its use of fur and for promoting fast fashion”.
But this process was stifling creativity. Editors were killing beautiful images just because they didn’t fit into a wider story, and photojournalists were bending over backwards to find meaning in every image. Mladen saw his role as reporting the world as it is; using photography to create news rather than using news to create photography.
“That second sentence put chains on agency photographers. When we scrapped it, it changed the perspective of AFP and how we looked at the world. It broke the chains.”explains Mladen. “The fish photo [above] would have been difficult to pass back then,” he says, leaving a heavy pause as he think of a possible context for the photo. “Nope, I genuinely don’t know how I would have sold it!” he laughs.
Now, that same photo has been shared far and wide online and inspired an entire column about surrealism in American magazine Wired. Photography creating news.
But I’m still at a loss as to exactly what it is that makes his work stand out. Is it that, by chance, he’s always in the right place at the right time when he shoots? Is it nearly three decades of experience? Is it the magic of the single-sentence caption? Well, I have the man in front of me and so I ask him directly.
“If tomorrow I’m fired, I will stop taking photos. I don’t have an internal need or urge to take photos I’m using the camera as a tool as you use your pen to write a story. Maybe this frees me to do whatever I like, to be more strange. I’m not framed by the clichés or principles of photography.”
If it’s strange that Mladen’s looking for, he’s certainly been posted to the right place, and I for one can’t wait to see how he captures the quirks of this corner of the world.