David Yarrow

Acclaimed photographer starts new In Focus podcast series

Across an extraordinary career, David Yarrow has pushed the boundaries of what a simple image can represent. As such, his photography has become instantly recognisable with its ability to astound and captivate. 

An awe-inspiring shot from the FIFA World Cup Final in Mexico brought him to the world’s attention in 1986. Featuring jubilant Argentina football captain, Diego Maradona, carried upon the shoulders of an ecstatic crowd stretching across Estadio Azteca’s cavernous interior, this iconic image was the product of good fortune and a keen eye. “I was totally unprepared,” Yarrow tells me, with considerable modesty. “I didn’t really know what I was doing. But over time, you earn your luck.” He describes his craft as being a ‘numbers game’. To be in the right place at the right time, you’re going to have to suffer being in the wrong place at the wrong time. A lot.

In the years since that night in Mexico City, his attentions have expanded to subjects no less majestic, and inarguably more unpredictable. From photographing humans living in extreme circumstances, to close-up examinations of nature’s most exotic animals, he’s continued to tell vivid stories by capturing the briefest of moments. Now, some of his most celebrated images are being discussed in a new podcast series.

In Focus

Across six parts, In Focus expands on the tales from behind the lens, adding further context to some spectacular imagery. The idea of celebrating a visual art through a sonic medium might seem difficult, but it has the effect of forcing better articulation. “I think that’s a good thing because it puts pressure on my descriptive prose as a storyteller. I can see why it can be a handicap, but it could actually be a strength because there’s no room for laziness in your description.”

From wading through crocodile-infested Nile waters to setting up Cindy Crawford with a lupine playdate, Yarrow’s work is filled with proximity, intimacy, immersion and balance, engendering his subjects with a deep sense of romanticism. In recognition, his black and white shots can effortlessly sell for six-figure sums at auction. 

Taking in in a broad gamut of his adventures, his In Focus podcast sweeps from studies of the world’s most hidden societies to electrifying shots of diverse wildlife. We hear how he battled sparse daylight and icy conditions to find killer whales, or how you encourage a majestic polar bear to pose for a portrait. There’s also trips to see the fantastical staff and clientele at Virginia City’s Pioneer Bar, and an epic eye-opening journey to the beach resorts and table tennis tournaments of North Korea. 

Throughout, we hear of his trademark scrupulous preparation. Working in collaboration with the DPRK’s government allowed to him reveal new sides to this notoriously secretive civilization. “Keep your friends close and your enemies even closer, as someone once said. We worked in partnership with the North Korean government. I earned their trust.” The podcast similarly tells the story around one of his most celebrated shots, which took two long days on a South Sudanese road, and then several hours of walking. All part of tracking down a Dinka cattle camp for 2015’s Mankind, a startling depiction of chaos, dust, noise and nomadic life.

His response to photographing people is to remain emotionally intelligent and take each situation as it comes. There’s a commitment to not photographing people without their permission, particularly as an outsider. “Some cultures, such as the Inuit culture in Greenland and northern Canada, they actually see it as a sign of extremely bad manners. It’s something that they get very upset about, because they think you might be stealing their soul if you photograph them. So, you’ve just got to be aware of which culture you’re in.” 

Taking up photography fulltime took Yarrow around 20 years, but this career has taken him to some of the world’s most extraordinary places and circumstances. From being charged by an elephant to taking a selfie in the eye of a polar bear, his work has been filled with adventure and personality.

Cameras and technology

New technology has squeezed a camera in almost everyone’s pocket and established a wealth of editing tools. Although these advances enable greater control over images, techniques for manipulating reality are as old as the art itself. Darkrooms allowed you to bring out detail or boost tones. So, perhaps the leap to digital hasn’t impacted high-art photography in the way many believe. “I always think Photoshop is a reductive mechanism. It’s something which allows you to take things out of the picture that you don’t want. It shouldn’t allow you to put things into a picture. But it’s a useful tool.” He maintains he’s an artist and doesn’t work for National Geographic. If he takes a picture of a beautiful elephant, next to a huge pile of dung, he’s going to do some cropping. “People don’t want to buy a picture of an elephant and look at some shit for the rest of their life.” 

He doesn’t like to be categorised. Whether he’s shooting sports or wildlife, he regards himself as simply a photographer. Although the two disciplines do share commonalities of needing to capture moments, mass and power. “I think the key crossovers between the two genres is sharp focus. Sports photographs that aren’t sharp are not worth anything, and a wildlife photograph that isn’t sharp is not worth anything either. So, the connection between the two is precision, and precision coupled with a knowledge of what you’re photographing.” He possesses broad knowledge of the sports he shoots, which enables better work. He similarly develops a reasonable knowledge of animal behaviour, which allows him to be in the right place at the right time.

The key is the eyes

To grab that perfect frame, Yarrow will quite happily use all kinds of tricks to entice attention. Or strap the old piece of chicken to his head to attract a predator’s gaze. “The eyes are the window to the soul. It is always about the eyes. Whatever the animal’s emotion, it shows in their eyes. And also, to avoid compressing distance, because if you compress the distance, you compress the emotion.” Perhaps the things which make Yarrow’s work so compelling and unique is those efforts he puts into making subjects offer their best. A previous career in finance is not as alien to his current endeavours as you might think. Like photography it takes meticulous research and formulation, and an understanding of nature and primal instinct.

He’s devoted his career to photography at a time when it was undergoing a seismic cultural shift. Every day sees more frames captured than the first 280 years of the artform’s history. “You have to be very tough in your own personal edits, as to a picture the world wants to see. I think far too many people use their website as a kind of photo dump. If we can take ten big pictures a year – that’s our goal.” The way you address a huge volume of frames is by releasing very few pictures or just those which are truly transcendent. It’s harder to grab people’s attention. Modern life is so spoiled for content that bland doesn’t work.”

What provides him with the most satisfaction is getting that ‘complete picture’ – whether it’s perfectly staged or the random lucky shot. “Of course, if you get the perfect picture and it’s in the wild, inevitably you do look back very fondly on that. When you woke up that morning, you’d have had no idea that you were going to get it. The ‘cigar moments’ tend to be spontaneous moments that you’re just lucky to get.” Ever pushing his craft forwards, he maintains the best picture is in the future. “Photography is not about a camera, it’s about emotional intelligence or emotional baggage. So, the more experience you have, all other things being equal, the better equipped you should be.”

David Yarrow’s six part In Focus podcast series is available now, via Apple, Google, Spotify and your podcast player of choice.


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