A foot within the door

Graduating in the wake of a global pandemic throws one more hurdle in the path of talented people eager to forge a career in the creative industries. And for those from backgrounds that are already underrepresented in the business, there are already plenty of barriers in place.

Creative Review has partnered with Studio PI, an award-winning photography and illustration agency that promotes equality and celebrates diversity.

We’ve paired up three of the photographers on Studio PI’s roster – documentary photographer Brunel Johnson, beauty and fashion photographer Chantel King, and still life and conceptual photographer Martina Lang – with emerging talent keen to follow in their footsteps.

Their conversations are packed with advice to give a leg-up to the next generation and help address the ongoing issue of underrepresentation. We’ve distilled the best of it here.

DON’T LOSE FOCUS

Brunel Johnson was en route to becoming a mathematician before stumbling upon photography in 2017. Entirely self-taught, he identifies the lack of readily available information for minority communities to progress in creative careers as a big hurdle.

“No one says what’s needed to get from point A to point B,” explains Johnson. “People either stumble upon it by accident, or you never really know what’s going on.” Studio PI has been a highly supportive influence on this front: “They show you exactly what you need to do to build yourself in the industry,” he explains. “You’re not stranded.”

We paired Johnson with Tosin Goke, another self-taught documentary photographer. Having dropped out of school and begun training as a stonemason, Goke was tempted back to formal education to study Philosophy at Bristol University. After landing a job in marketing, he was encouraged to take photos – and a designer on the team taught him Lightroom. He now uses those skills to support emerging photographers from ethnic minority backgrounds through a platform called Tinted.

“It can feel very lonely as a person from a minority group, when you’re not surrounded by people who want to do the same thing,” reflects Goke. “There’s so much kept in your head. It can be confusing, and every day feels like it’s a battle. You often have to motivate yourself to take it on independently.”

“Being the only Black person on a set is tough,” agrees Johnson. “You learn how to deal with people who are ignorant, with preconceived stereotypes. Maybe there’s sluggishness when you ask someone to do something, or they look down their nose at you. But if you’re confident, it all changes when they see how you carry yourself.”

TAKE EVERY OPPORTUNITY

Before joining Studio PI, Johnson started building a portfolio as a street photographer. “It opens up so many fields,” he explains. “Someone comes out wearing a pink suit – that’s fashion. Someone with interesting jewellery or tattoos could make a great portrait shot. If you’re interested in sports, somewhere like Hackney Marshes is a great place to start.”

Despite a growing portfolio, however, Johnson didn’t have the knowledge to take the next step into making it a business. An entry-level job as a studio assistant was his first foot in the door. “You have to be willing to start at the bottom,” he says. “Some start at the bottom and stay there, trapped in that zone. Others are there because they want to ask questions and understand how things work. A shy student never learns.”

It was while sweeping the studio floor that Johnson met a producer for Adidas, who would become a long-term friend and mentor. “He said: ‘You seem too happy to be doing this,’ and I told him I was happy because I was learning,” recalls Johnson. Seeing the potential in his street work, the producer invited him to assist on an overseas shoot for Adidas.

“I was gassed to be flown out of the country to shoot with megastars, but at the same time, I was asking if this was really for me,” Johnson continues. Rather than commercial photography, his ambitions lie in charitable work – the potential to document poor communities around the world through a more positive lens.

“If you shoot photos that are degrading or lack human dignity, they may be amazing shots but only the photographer benefits,” Johnson explains. “You’re not showing the subject as human.” Thought-provoking stories shot in countries such as Egypt, Gambia and Sierra Leone are a case in point: “These people, despite having so little, are full of contentment and happiness,” he adds.

DEVELOP A STRONG WORK ETHIC

Chantel King is also largely self-taught. She studied graphic design, but a photography-focused final-year project sparked her passion for the discipline. “I had no experience, and knew I had to work with photographers to gain that,” she explains. After reaching out to some photographer friends she secured an unpaid internship.

“You don’t necessarily need experience, just to be keen and prepared to work long hours on your feet,” King continues. “I balanced it with a bar job and other assisting roles. There’s no timeframe on how long this’ll take – it’s all about your confidence. And once you’ve got a cluster of good names on your books, mention them in emails when reaching out,” she advises. “Other photographers are then more likely to say yes.

We paired King with Tilda-Rose Power, a recent graduate from the Digital Photography course at Ravensbourne. It was Power’s second degree: concerned about a lack of career opportunities in photography despite her passion for it, she initially studied Business. Long shifts in bars and restaurants built up a strong work ethic before she took the plunge and returned to uni.

“It’s so important to build up your skills,” advises King, who picked up various trade secrets while assisting on beauty shoots – such as applying Vaseline to the lens to enhance glitter, or gels in front of lights to add warmth. “Don’t rely solely on trying to get photography work after you graduate; push for assisting roles. You’re up against people who’ve been doing it for years. Most people assist for two or three years before going it alone.”

BUILD UP YOUR CONFIDENCE

As a female photographer at the start of her career, Power has already seen her male counterparts receiving a larger share of opportunities: “I think they just come into people’s minds first,” she says. “I find I have to work harder to get the same amount of recognition.”

Fashion and beauty photography is very white male dominated, and as a Black female King must overcome preconceptions on two fronts. “A lot of people are surprised: ‘Oh, you’re shooting?’ They might assume I’m the make-up person, or speak to my assistant rather than me,” she explains. “The most important thing is to show confidence and not let them get to you. Own your shoot and the space. If you start to lose control and confidence on the shoot, others will see through this – and you’ll lose their trust.”

King adds that some make-up artists and stylists still struggle when working with Black and brown features. “I’ve been on so many shoots where the model has had to do their own make-up or hair,” she explains. And there’s still inequality to overcome in the commissioning process, too: just two years ago, a magazine told her not to cast a Black model simply because one had featured on the cover the previous month.

BROADEN YOUR HORIZONS

After graduating, Martina Lang enrolled on a three-year technical apprenticeship in her native Germany to hone her craft. For her master’s degree at Central St Martins, she chose not to study photography, to develop her broader art direction and creative skills.

We paired Lang with recent Norwich University of the Arts graduate Emily Edwards, who shares her passion for stylised food photography. “Follow your gut, and allow yourself to get lost,” is Lang’s advice. “Some things only make sense in hindsight. I never intended to shoot food, but I was drawn to it. Create your own path.”

“Don’t believe in people who don’t believe in you,” she continues. “It’s great to go to portfolio reviews for networking and feedback but be cautious of what you take on board. If it’s not constructive, feel free to entirely dismiss it. Your work is not going to click with everyone: if everyone likes it, it probably means it’s boring.”

Lang advocates looking outside of photography for influence: “I find inspiration in the chaos of the real world,” she says. “Online, you find what you need; in a bookshop, you find what you didn’t search for.” It’s advice that chimes well with Edwards, who’s often inspired by architecture and drew on the Memphis design movement in her final-year project.

ALWAYS COME PREPARED

Edwards has been busy setting up unpaid assisting opportunities for the summer to hone her craft. “If work fluctuates, there are also places like Big Sky Studios in London, where there can be regular shifts as a studio assistant,” suggests Lang.

“To make the most of an assisting role, you have to be prepared,” she continues. “Be there 100%, all day. Come with an assisting kit: a Leatherman, fuses, gaffer tape, clips, a whole array of things that might come in handy.”

Lang also advises doing your homework on the call sheets: “It helps to already know people’s names, so you just have to match them to faces,” she adds. “Then open your ears, open your eyes, be a sponge and soak it all up.”

Follow Studio PI on Instagram and find out more about the artists on their roster at studiopi.co.uk


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