As photographers we’re all guilty of it, depicting ‘high-end photoshoots’ in ‘exclusive’ locations on Instagram.
Hashtag, shoot, hashtag, shoot, hashtag, stop.
Instagram channels dedicated to the premise of behind the scene shoots, #BTS #exclusive #studio #location; then we document our refined, edited and post-produced images on all platforms of social media.
I do this myself, every single day as a practicing photographer, but the one thing in learning this is that I’ve discovered this gives little relevancy or personality of the photographer to the viewer.
There is no personality, just other people or whatever might be your area of specialisation.
Yesterday I was speculated by a friend for posting pictures of rooms and anecdotes in my life, images which didn’t conform to the usual aesthetic of my Instagram feed.
“It isn’t professional”
“It doesn’t fit”
“They don’t fit within the context of your work.”
Time and time again I scour Instagram feeds to follow users with aesthetically interesting compositions, stories, and the more intricate side of their personality.
This doesn’t include selfies, drunken posts tagged from club photographers or hotdog legs taken abroad in two week piss-ups in Mallorca.
But I followe those who are able to narrate their lives visually via their Instagram feed. In a platform which is loud with shout-outs and follow-for-follow hackers; there is nothing more refreshing as a photographer to see users making beautiful compositions with fine details which give a clue as to how they see the world.
This is creating a personality on social media, and as many look past documenting the smaller things; people (more so clients) will look for this personal approach.
So regardless of whether that gum on the bin wasn’t as ‘cool’ (whatever that word means) as a Starbucks cup, shoot it, Rastafarian man stood outside of Mcdonalds? Shoot it. (I still to this day regret not taking that one).
Have a girlfriend?
Photograph her as much as you can, who else would let you do that?
When January rolled in, I was making small but marginal gains within my craft; my credibility as a photographer felt like a natural progression into what I will never describe as a job, but more so a lifestyle to which I was now submersed.
What began as taking photographs whilst travelling had instead transcended into photographing people which I would never had the opportunity of approaching in my past life as a police officer.
My work as a photographer had given me a new lease on life, a seemingly unending urge to never remain still, though I’m constantly told to slow down.
In a previous life I would take over 300 frames, with little knowledge as to why I was even taking the photographs.
The hardest question was at first being asked by my mentor(s) “It looks pretty picture, but why did you take the photograph?”.
This is one of the most defining questions I have been asked, as a photographer, and one of the most difficult to answer. The reason being that most simply take hundreds upon hundreds of frames each day with little knowledge of their intention in the first place.
You could take the most incredible photograph of the Empire Estate building, with the best camera (which is completely irrelevant unless you are a hobbyist photographer) with HDR filters and bracketing blah blah blah. But with a lack of intention or narrative behind the image, it becomes nothing more than another 1 of 100,000,000 frames on the Getty Images pile.
I write about this because the natural progression I previously spoke of was that I’m now able to confidently answer that question, of why I make visual decisions; whether that may be aesthetically with the backdrop, to the lighting used, colour tones, styling, props.
Beginning with no visual identity in photography, it’s hard to begin knowing where you will sit within the industry, or whether there is even a space waiting for you.
But this is the beginning in which you begin to draw on past experiences, as photography has an incredible way of prompting self-reflection like ‘what am I REALLY passionate about?’ or ‘What do I really do outside of photography?’.
This is why the first question of why you make certain decisions in your work can become so difficult to answer, and a process of continual self-perception ensues, from start to what will hopefully be the finish.
As I write this, alongside my work I read the work of Viktor E. Frankl and his book ‘Man’s search for meaning’; within the book the psychologist tells of his time being kept within the confines of a concentration camp.
Within the book, Frankl tells of how man will have much more chance of survival if he has a something to survive for. In this sense, the photographer must always find a reason behind his/her work, and when this is questioned; the courage to continue the lifestyle of being a photographer is questioned.
This is where many stop.
So in effect, the person’s very existence as a photographer is being questioned, which to me is the most devastating yet satisfying quality of living the life of a photographer as you are free to prove the odds wrong and create beautiful work, whether you choose to do so depends entirely upon you.
“He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.”
-Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche
With this in mind, I now process my photographs with the intention of ‘creating’ a moment or a scene, as opposed to capturing or documenting an occurrence.
Such consideration for subject matter has no doubt came through my education as a photographer and has since completely changed the way I see the world, in both a perceptual and visual sense, but why?
Because I drew upon my past, upon all of my experiences and anecdotes and eventually came to adopt a style in which is both surreal and contemporary, characterful but moody.
It’s a visual presence in which I am now recognised.
My photographs are a pure inner perception of how I want people to see the world which I do.
Past experiences and passions have brought me to a place in my career in which I could not feel more natural, a world in which has most recently brought me to meet the most incredible people, people who I would not have had the chance to meet had I only not taken the risk.
6:00am-6:30am: Omelette / Smoothie/ Supplements/ Cereal / Shower (not in that order)
(Burn toast again whilst taking shower which in the end saves no time)
8:00am: Ponder where the past 1hr 30 minutes has gone and scramble for equipment for shoot.
9:00am Prepare for shoot with client at 12pm after managing to upload quotations and photographs t0 both Instagram and Twitter accounts.
11:59am For sake of absolute accuracy, allow oneself to be spattered with coloured paints to test aesthetics and lighting.
(Coinciding with daily schedule ensure continuous research and response to emails and potential clients.)
Without hesitation, I can honestly say that this is an average day in my far-from-any-way-near making the big step in photography, though non the less I have progressed more than I would have ever considered just a couple of years ago.
But in return I have given many hours of my life into researching, funding, writing, blogging, emailing, promoting an eventually photographing.
Though since being a child given the nickname ‘forest gump’, I’ve forever been accustomed to remaining busy.
Through a brief history of being able to travel as early as I could, firstly across Europe, then eventually to the other side of the world on expeditions.
Since then I see no other way of living than spending every second progressing, pushing, exploring and researching to broaden the confines of my own perceptions and personality.
Creating photographs has became integral to that process, and integral to me as a person in order to move forward.
This demand to progress ( note that I don’t use the word succeed here in this blog, whatever that word means) comes under the demand to remain constantly focused and perceptually open to all things around me.
“You have to devote yourself totally to be successful at it.”
Photographer: Elliot Erwitt
At the start of this New Year I find myself captivated by the very notion of photography in my life and it’s power of taking me wherever I wish to go, a notion which I have always wanted.
This is another hectic year in my life I am eternally grateful to be embarking on and exhausted by, a life to which has never been far from adventurous. All the best and a Happy New Year.
This past month, I was assigned to fulfil a brief; the brief was specifically to document a subculture.
But in the society we find ourselves in today, what constitutes a subculture?
Is it because of how we dress, like the good old days of the new romantics, or the teddy boys or the mods?
Or is it now how we act as people which defines us as a ‘subculture’?
Does a subculture even exist anymore? besides the new age plague of health goths, Kardashian clowns, Vegans or wheat snobs (myself being the latter). I believe they do when you filter out the more ‘ahem’ contemporary subcultures, you just have to look harder.
Looking harder brought me to a point in my photographic career which broadened my aesthetics, my visual language, but most importantly; my perception of our society.
Last year I was commissioned to photograph an outstanding individual, a subject who has since became a good friend to me and my work; so aesthetically interesting with skin like a tattooed tapestry, the kind of human features that interests the likes of a portraitist photographer, but not in a Mickey Rourke kind of way.
But my work on the subcultures brief began with the help of my good friend David. During the last photo shoot, David had mentioned about his personal interests, beliefs and passions; at the top of his list was the subject of BDSM.
For those who aren’t in the know, BDSM can be many different things: Bondage & Discipline, Domination & Submission, Sadism & Masochism.
It means a lot of different things to a lot of different people, when David had first mentioned it, it meant nothing of the sorts to me. Until I began to push myself out of my comfort zone. It’s not until creatives begin to do this, that things really start to come to life.
I researched more about BDSM as a subculture, looking into the work of Photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, and his interest in the BDSM scene.
David began to tell me of the empowering qualities that BDSM had brought to his life, how dressing as domineering figures gave him that empowerment and excitement. Experimentation in his early 20’s had now brought David into the wholly into the world of BDSM and as he put it “I’de became part of both a community, and a family”.
There are thousands upon thousands of people who share this passion with David and his friends, and that’s just in the UK.
It’s just that people like you and I are unknown to this world of leather and rubber. Exposed to it only via mediocre media portrayals and cheap documentaries, not to mention poorly directed movies about it.
Yes, that means fifty shade too; sorry Sam Taylor-Johnson. But it’s films like these which provoke a negative public perception of BDSM in it’s entirety; I wanted to create a series of photographs which could help change this and bring exposure to the true nature of BDSM.
Before I could say oh my, I found myself in my studio space surrounded entirely by custom made leather suits (some of which reaching £700), rubber leggings, and a giant St. Andrews cross.
Each subject openly stated their interest in BDSM before the shoot, and their interest in doing what they could to expose their passion to the world.
I began with wanting to capture the subjects as individuals, in a series of portraits which would contrast them with their everyday attire, to portraying them as their chosen figure; as the submissive or the domineering.
Some had never spoken to their parents about it, some had openly written best selling books on their ties with BDSM.
But what really began to captivate me during the shoot became both the premise of the shoot, and the title of the series: ‘scene’.
When two partners interested in BDSM come together, whether that may be sexually, intimately or as friends; this can bee deemed as a ‘scene’.
“I’m passionate because we are so quick to class things as taboo when they really shouldn’t be. It’s fun, sex and sexuality and nothing to be ashamed of and if we were all a little more open the world would be a better place”.
During the shoot I would ask the subjects what is what about BDSM that attracted them, and keeps them passionate to this day and one word began to reoccur over and over again; trust.
It was clear that BDSM to these guys was all about trust, this became apparent whilst photographing each person, as an individual and as a couple. Both parties depending on who is the most dominant, sacrifices their safety in some scenes, giving everything to those they have chosen to take charge.
“There is a genuine level of Magic: of power and self-transformation in the exploration of self and archetype – of becoming what we image and desire. That’s empowerment beyond most other experiences in your life.”
After this the series quickly became focused on this interaction between the couples in this case ‘the handler and pup’ (above).
My usual dark and dramatic aesthetics fit well with this series in the sense that the choice of background was lycra, an animalistic element to shoot with the material contorting like skin.
Rustic elements like crates gave hint to a more traditional theme, which was my way of classifying this subculture as one that is not only a big part of our society, whether some may like that or not; but BDSM is one that has been around a whole lot longer. It became much more than a series, but for the BDSM community, it was a statement.
A statement to which as a photographer I’m proud to have help them make.
Whether it’s ordering a beer in French, toasting ‘prost’ in German, or proceeding to flatter a Spanish woman in broken Spanish; I can luckily say that my life has been enriched with these experiences all of which with thanks to my time spent with those from other countries.
More recently internationals.
Back in my late teens, house parties were happening two or three times a week, usually in dishevelled houses on council estates.
But for some reason that 17-year-old self felt the urge to partake in drinking a £3 crate of bitter 5 months past it’s shelf date on a gritty council estate.
Within that youthful British drinking culture were social standards which could have been emulated by chimps.
Winging it in somebody’s house party you hardly knew was social death, only last halloween did I attempt to be a plus one dressed as Jack Sparrow and got a pumpkin the size of a small child thrown at myself and a friend.
Only then did the same friend from Czech dressed as a Rastafarian pirate say ‘man let’s head to the internationals party across the street, it might be good there”, the pumpkin had snapped his polystyrene parrot in two.
Before you could shout guttentag, we were hitting the international parties every month, a society put together by the university for students studying away from home, it was a secret haven for travellers missing the road; without the need for solar powered showers, cheap goon wine and bug spray.
I compare British house parties to these international ‘gatherings’ simply because there are no conformations to ‘fit in’. Greetings with internationals begin with a kiss on either cheek, whereas a British gathering of the same nature I’ve been closely greeted with the broken side of a Stella bottle.
Why are these greetings like this? For one reason and one reason only, these gatherings BREED diversity; one second I’m taught the running man with Saudi Arabian, the next I’m discussing politics in photojournalism with a Polish student.
Alchohol hardly enters the equation, and is often simply complimentary for gatherings; but not relied upon. As there seems to be a strict rule in British drinking culture to fill your skull to the brim with cheap liquor and proceed to salivate all over that bouncer but he’s really nice because he didn’t kick you out of the club last time when you puked up on the bartender.
What I’m trying to portray in this post is that my life has, and will continue to be influenced by brushings with those from other countries, and I believe it’s something that far too few of us don’t do.
I’ve learned to cook South American dishes from old flames, learned Spanish, French, and how to shout profanities in Urdu. Some beneficial, some delightfully pointless; non-the-less they are anecdotes which influence my proffesion, my life and my passion.
Photography had brought me to a commission in Vancouver, Canada on March 22nd. With a meetup with a stranger so random, I hadn’t yet developed the photographs to prove it, until now.
The first thing you might think is that I headed straight to a Canucks game, drank copious amounts of maple syrup; or wander along photographing portraits of residents on the most dangerous street in North America (all of which I did).
But the rain had kept our lenses indoors, little time was spent in the sun; most time was spent hiding in the hotel room researching projects or eating as many $1 wedges from 7-Eleven whilst waiting to be called to the commission. Our room did have a great view of the BC Stadium though.
I had shared a hotel room at the YWCA with four of my colleagues for ten days, and then discovered this wondrous app known to west yet not to me; it was called ‘Tinder’.
For those not in the know like myself at the time, Tinder is a dating application which drags 20-somethings from all around your location into a convenient sorting system in which you swipe left to ‘dislike’ and right to ‘like’.
I have never felt inclined to use the app, nor have I ever intended to, as my preferences were to speak face to face with people, who weren’t likely to be serial killers or have fetishes for piercing my nipples for me (you would be surprised what goes on); but that stack of 7-Eleven wedges in the hotel bin were beginning to decay and nobody had tipped the maid, so I start swiping.
Filtering left through the foundation-clad clutter in Vancouver, I notice a friendly looking Asian woman named Michelle; ‘dictionary definition of friends’ says her bio; so I swipe right.
This is perfect for me as my whole concept of a photographer is to keep making new friends, one could say it’s a necessity in my skill set.
Before I knew it, I was stood at the apartment door within the building that Michelle had given me only hours before when we had started chatting. I had my disposable Fujifilm Finepix colour film camera with me, taking shots of the building almost prepping myself for forensics to develop the photographs and discover the place I had been lured into; after they discovered my mangled body. The hallway looked like the same dank, dark corridor in The Watchmen, right before the Joker is thrown out the window of the complex. Furnished but freaky.
But when I wrapped my knuckles on the door and primed my Fuji ready to strike, Michelle answered with an excited smile and invited me in. After that, she became known as ‘Girlboss’ after seeing a copy of the book by Sophia Amoruso when I first walked in.
Michelle has that Zen-like state, of freedom and all things cultural. I realised this when I was only one of three meet-ups via Tinder that day alone.She had pencilled me in between her 2:30pm coffee and her 6pm dinner. I felt privileged.
Our day involved all things alternative to a regular hangout with a stranger, like Tarot cards (to which I was dealt the worst three), then Yoga (to which she described I wasn’t very flexible, prompting the proceeding months to be filled with morning Yoga until the day a woman would deem me flexible again) finishing with her soloing the guitar; of course it wouldn’t be a hipster meet-up without a guitar solo.
That was when I began to learn just how generous Canadians were.
After I had told her about the insane week’s shooting in Vancouver, I told her about my even more hectic living arrangements with four other guys. ‘Sounds mad’, she said ‘would you like a bath?’ This strange request would prompt anything but friendship in British culture (or rom my personal experiences at least).
So I did the right thing, and kindly agreed.
Before I could ask for a towel, Michelle had taken the liberty to plaster me a mint face mask on; cooked me gluten free banana bread, and fashioned up a kale smoothie for me.
Michelle had confirmed every healthy lifestyle cliché box that I had expected from a city like Vancouver; and I was loving it.
I laid in the lukewarm water for the best part of half an hour, accompanied by Michelle’s relaxation playlist she had played under the door with her IPhone.
Not once did I protest, and as I laid there; eyes covered in mint scrub and feeling relaxed from my everyday grind of a routine I laughed at the notion that I had earned all of this, just by swiping right.
Of course by telling my room mates that days events, I ran the risk of being portrayed as some serial-healthy lifestyle freak who would break into strangers apartments to pamper myself.
So, that night I took them all for sushi.
I hadn’t ran the risk of meeting a friend like Michelle again, for safety reasons within the UK and have ever since swiped left; and proceeded to delete Tinder.
For now I will stick to mundane dates in restaurants or cinemas, the generic stuff…
Reece Pickering/ 11/07/15 Moscow circus had been continuing it’s tour throughout the UK in May. The Russian troupe made it’s way to the South West and hit us here in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire.
The ring-master had organised for me to meet up with the main act for promo shots with a bunch of photojournalists, snapping staged shots of the Russian ‘magic duo’ on the grass, in the rain.
But this wasn’t my approach, I planned to go behind the stage to shoot portraits of all the acts, to get to know each of them on a personal level. Maybe even have some interesting conversations with some internationals, being some of the first Russians i had ever met.
Two days passed full of reccy’s, organising equipment, assistants and logistics; then I was able to go behind the stage and begin shooting. The 20:30pm show was warming up, the ringmaster Vladimir (not the Putin variety) took us to the backstage where the acts were warming-up, and to introduce us to our site escort and translator: Angel. The same Vladimir had recently appeared on ‘Britain’s Got Talent’ just days before.
The two days spent researching before the shoot, I had chosen a backdrop that would compliment their story, creating a rustic, dramatic aesthetic which matched my approach in photography. The canvas of the big tent itself, a strip of which was behind the stage, in a small alcove where the performers would sit or warm-up and wait to be conjured.
All seemed well until Angel brought us to the same spot I had picked the to stage my shoot, two days before. But there was a prop box the size of a car sat in the same space; when I asked for the box to be moved Angel replied “no, box stays there”. Which is when I first realised the Russians didn’t quite share our British ethics of accommodating others.
As I processed how to recompose the setup, a collapsable pipe (the size of those ones you would jump on at bouncy castles to try and deflate it so the other kids would get stuck) began bellowing hot air into the alcove; the small alcove now filled with a giant prop-box, a dozen chairs for the acts, two perspiring Brits, and a cold, cold Russian.
I wasn’t deterred for my shots, and we continued to set-up cameras for both stills and moving image, tripods, shutter releases. Lastly to test the lighting, with a timeframe of 10-minutes before the acts came rolling in. Nor was I even deterred when one the portable lights struck me in the forehead after the immense hot air blew it over.
The process was hectic, but simple. Performers would finish their act on stage, and head to the alcove backstage to be photographed.
I didn’t plan for these to be stylised portraits, and as hot as that pipe made the room; it only worked in our favour to give the images my own preferred, dramatic approach in aesthetics and lighting.
By the time the acts reached my camera, they had the desired outcome of looking as though they had just came off stage, sweat dripping, make-up running, and minimal regard to posing for the camera; raw expressions were key; with an intetional flash flare to give the stage-feel.
I had spent the past two or three nights watching these guys perform in the ring, with their strenuous warm-up and cool down routines; and wanted that to show this in the portraits.
Angel would translate my instructions and we began to shoot all 21 acts. Each would pose accordingly, and some would laugh at the purple egg that had formed on my forehead.
Each subject had a shared, almost melancholic expression when told to relax, to get out of character:
Igor (top left), Maksim (top right) and Anatoly (bottom left) had the desired candid composition I had planned for the shoot. All three were from the same act known as the ‘RUBAN’ 13 people springboard troupe. Anatoly was their leader, and was the portrait I anticipated taking most. Anatoly had a flawless tactic of posing for the crowds whilst being authoritative, his role being to catch the smaller performers via a chair-top pole; strapped to his chest. He also shared the expression of snapping my tripod in two if I broke that mutual trust between photographer and subject.
This hidden temper was confirmed after I had packed away and walked home, and in the back of one of the trailers saw Anatoly beating the life out of a punchbag, for strength training I’m sure…
Though non of the acts spoke a lick of English, and when the pipe had finally stopped spilling hot air half way through the shoot, the experience was actually pretty damn extraordinary and I can safely say I’ve kept a few friends in Moscow to go visit, google translate permitting. Although me and my assistant didn’t get invited to one of Moscow Circus’ Infamous ‘big tent knees up’… Maybe next time…