(October 16,2019) David Knoble: You have visited over 83 countries in your career and so much of your work explores the human side of everyone, regardless of where or how they live, which you know is dear to my heart. You have worked with some world-renowned photographers like Maggie Steber, Sam Abell, and Eugene Richards and you have used all kinds of cameras – mostly Leica film and digital bodies. You have been published in a number of different magazines, won awards for your work and provided a lot of images for UNICEF. There is no question your photography has made a difference in people’s lives and I thank you for taking the time to talk with me about your career.
To start us off, tell me when you knew you wanted to be a photographer?
Tina Manley: I first started taking photos in 1971 after my grandfather died and left me $500 in his will. I bought a Minolta SRT 101 and started taking photos of my own children. I was fascinated with film and set up a darkroom to develop and print my own photos. That soon got too expensive to be a hobby and I started looking at ways to make money with my photos. I am a very shy person and not at all pushy about selling myself so many photography venues seemed to be out of my reach – wedding photography, portraits, graduation photos – all which required selling skills. Then I discovered stock photography. I went to a seminar in Wisconsin on “Sell and Resell Your Photos” by Rohn Engh. That seemed right up my alley. No personal interactions with buyers! Just reply to requests for photos and send out packages of slides for consideration. The first photo I ever sold was for a book cover. I was hooked!!
What was it like for you in the beginning?
It was much easier in the beginning. Even though I had to send out actual transparencies and worry about getting them back undamaged, I was dealing directly with publishers who valued my work and continued to contact me when they needed more for their textbooks or magazines. [At that time, print media was in demand.] Through the years, stock photography has gotten both easier and more difficult. Easier because I no longer send out physical slides but digital files. All requests come in by e-mail or through agencies and can be easily sold anywhere in the world in minutes. More difficult because everybody else can do the same! Today, every time you respond to a photo request, you are dealing with different people in agencies all over the world many who seem to have no interest in continuing a relationship. That makes the repeat part of the business much harder.
I agree, Tina, film work is more difficult and the digital era has opened up opportunities for many more people, making some photography venues more of a commodity. Would you describe the first moment you realized you had accomplished something great, something important to you that made you feel like you could succeed?
The first photograph I ever sold was of my two children on a swing for the cover of a book Between Brothers and Sisters. It was a pretty good-selling book and I was proud of the photo. Then I sold a photo for the cover of a medical textbook. The same textbook went through 7 editions and for every edition they bought my photo again for the cover. However, the most important photos to me have been the ones I’ve taken for Dimes for Hunger. Since 1988, I worked as a mission consultant for the PCUSA [Presbyterian Church USA]. I have been taking medical brigades to Honduras and Guatemala every year and conducting clinics in remote villages. I typically stayed with a family and took photos of their daily lives. I also photographed local hunger relief programs like Meals on Wheels. Over the years, the photos I’ve taken were used to raise money in our Dimes for Hunger campaigns – over $2 million in the 30 years I was involved. I’m retired now, but I regularly return to Central America and will be going back to Honduras during October to photograph the cataract clinic we are opening there.
So you reached a point where you had some focus and were producing images that made a difference. While you were climbing that ladder, what barriers did you see as a woman, that a man might not have? How did you break through those barriers?
Instead of barriers, I have seen being a woman photographer as liberating in many ways. I was allowed to stay with families in Honduras, Guatemala, Iran, Iraq, Syria and many other countries where being a male might have been a disadvantage. I stayed with widows in Guatemala where there were no men left in the village after the civil war. I photographed women in Iran and Iraq in homes where strange men would not have been allowed. As far as selling stock photography goes, as I tell photography students, the photography buyers don’t care if you are a woman or a man, if you have a degree or not, if you are young or old. They only care if you have the photo they need and if you will lease it to them at a price they can afford!
That is such a great perspective! How about a time you were really worried you might lose your work, or something wouldn’t come out the way you wanted (gear problem, mistake, etc)?
There have been a few times I worried about losing my work. In the early days, I would carry a backpack with 300 rolls of film. All of that film had to go through x-ray machines in the airports. I bought lead-lined bags to protect it. Of course, when you use the film, it doesn’t get any smaller. You still have to carry all of that film back home safely and develop it once you get there.
In Iraq after the first Gulf War, I was one of the first journalist allowed in the country and was required to stay in the Al- Rashid Hotel with all of the other journalists. CNN was on the 13th floor. After a week there, I got ready to leave but my bill at the hotel was over $3,000! The hotel would only accept American dollars – no credit cards at that time. I didn’t have near that much cash and they threatened to put me in jail. They suggested that I talk to the guys on the 13th floor. I did that and the CNN guys pulled a suitcase out from under a bed, gave me $3,000 and I got home. I will always be grateful to CNN!
Even after I switched to digital, I still had to worry about the photo files. In Honduras, I fell into a river with two M8’s on my shoulders. Both cameras went under water, but I dried them out by a fire and they continued to work for the rest of the trip!
Those are incredible stories – both receiving help to leave the country, and the durability of Leica’s first digital M well before the water sealing techniques used today. Along those lines, what has it been like going from film to digital?
I really didn’t have much of a choice. I had to switch to digital when publishers began requesting digital files. I was scanning film and sending that in for development, but it was a complicated process. Then, in 2005, I was involved in a photography project called Families of Abraham. Seven photographers followed Jewish, Christian, and Muslim families in the Charlotte, NC, area for one year. In order to be consistent, we all had to use digital cameras. I had used Leicas since 1980 and never wanted to switch, but Leica had not come out with a digital M camera yet. I bought a Canon 1DMark II and used it for the year-long project. The Canon was fine for that project but, as soon as Leica came out with the M8, I switched back! I could use all of my Leica lenses on the M8 and I loved it. I had all of the advantages of my wonderful Leica lenses without having to carry 300 rolls of film through airports and developing it when I got home. As far as I was concerned, Leica digital was the best of both worlds. I have never regretted switching to digital. I did regret switching briefly to Canon.
Are there some influences early in your career that pushed you to succeed?
The most important early influence that made me choose photography was the knowledge that I had the ability to make a difference with my photos. I have always cared more about using my photos to show the people of the world that we are all more alike than we are different and less about making a living with my photos. Since I have been able to work with NGOs and self-development programs all over the world, I can see the progress that these programs make in developing countries. I cannot imagine a better use of photography.
Tina, that seems to be one of the best uses for your talents and you have clearly been successful in making a difference. What advice might you give a young person today that wanted to get into stock photography?
I would never advise a young person to become a stock photographer today. In my opinion, photography, like journalism, has disappeared as a career. If you want to make a difference in the world, get involved with a cause that interests you – world hunger, pollution, climate change, homelessness, gender identity – anything that you care about. Use photography as a tool to inform, educate and affect people who might be able to make a difference. If you do what you love, the money will follow… eventually. Just don’t plan on making quick money as a photographer or a journalist!! That may change in the future, but I’m not optimistic.
With the volume and speed of images throughout the internet, I could not agree more that finding a focus and a passion is the best way to move towards a career in photography. I think technology today also allows us the ability to pursue a project and self-publish the results both as a hobby and a career. You have provided some of your most favorite images and I understand they all center around your experiences in Honduras and Guatemala. Can you tell me about a time that you think had the most impact on someone else, or a group, or cause and why?
I know that our medical clinics in Honduras and Guatemala have made a big difference in many peoples’ lives. The most memorable for me was probably 1997 in Acal, Guatemala. Dr. David Cowan was examining an elderly widow with dementia. She unwrapped her hand-woven scarf to reveal a tiny, tiny baby. The woman had found the baby abandoned in a cornfield and had kept her for weeks, thinking she was nursing the baby. The baby was very malnourished and only weighed 2 pounds. We rushed her to the nearest hospital where she stayed for several months. Back home, we raised money to pay for the baby’s hospital stay. When she got out of the hospital, the baby was adopted by Fabiana Ordoñez Perez, the midwife/dentist that we have supported for years in Acal. Cecilia is now a happy, healthy young woman and we have visited her often.
Tell me what you like most about shooting Leica cameras, film and digital?
My first camera was not a Leica, but that soon changed. In 1976, on a trip to Europe, I bought a Leica M3 double stroke at a flea market. I loved the small, durable camera and its wonderful lenses. Eventually, I carried four M6’s at a time, each one with different lenses and different films. My favorite lens was always the Noctilux (f/1.0). The small, unobtrusive cameras were perfect for the dark, adobe homes where I did most of my documentary photography. I have used nothing but Leica since then except for one project we mentioned earlier. I went on seamlessly to the M8, M9, Monochrome, M240, M246, and now the SL. The SL is the best camera I have ever used. As I get older, I am very grateful for the accurate and quick auto-focus of the SL. I still use some of my manual lenses on the SL and, of course, on the M240 and M246. The lens I use most often now, though, is the SL24-90.
Where did you grow up and who did you work for over your career?
I was born in Columbia, SC, grew up in Dothan, AL, have lived all over the world, eventually returning to SC. I have worked for the Presbyterian Church, USA, as a mission consultant, and for many NGOs around the world. In 1980, I started my own stock company called “Images”, and have been selling stock through it and various other agencies worldwide.
Tina, your work is spectacular and your passion for helping people really shows in your images. Thank you for spending so much time with me and sharing your stories! I understand people can see more of your work and how you have set up your stock agency at:
Tina Manley lives in the country with her husband, Tom, and loves her kitchen almost as much as her Leica! She loves to grow food and can it in old mason jars. Tina has true southern charm and graciously allowed me to interview her in October 2019 and then photograph her at home in early January. This is her story and her contributions to not only photography, but humanity. Thank you, Tina!