FEARLESS PHOTOGRAPHER EXPRESSES HIS VIEW ON IMMIGRATION IN HIS “BRITS ABROAD” SERIES: INTERVIEW WITH CHARLIE CLIFT

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1. Charlie, what motivates you to take photographs ? 

Photography is all about people for me and what makes people so interesting is their stories.

I think humans are natural storytellers and we all love a good story. The idea of telling a story through a photograph is always appealing and this is probably my primary motivation.

Curiosity also motivates me; my work gives me access to people, allows me to become a part of their lives for a moment. It allows me to experience their story for a moment and I can then retell it within a single image. 

On a more basic note, I cannot stay away from that adrenaline rush a good shoot gives me. That is definitely a motivation as well.

2. What would you say makes your photography distinctive ? 

I think each photographer incorporates their personality into their work, even if only subconsciously. So I guess what makes my work distinctive is my personality. Style is of course something you can work on, but ultimately your own “eye” and personality will always show.

I get on with people easily and I think this shows - I seem to be able to get my sitters to do things in front of the lens that they would not do for others. Pulling a senior civil servant in a wooden cart down the streets of London, putting a latex shark mask on a top lawyer - " I like my photos not to be too obvious; I like them to have a sense of fun. "

3. You seem to create personal projects often. How important is it for any photographer to have ongoing personal projects ?

Essential! Without creating personal projects, I would not be able to push my own boundaries. Working to a brief that someone else sets for you is fun and challenging, but being able to produce work just for yourself is a unique form of freedom.

A personal project should be your ultimate commission.  If you could do anything with a camera what would it be? Working to create a body of work for a project really gives you the time and conditions to experiment with new approaches, new ways of working.

" My Brits in Europe for instance, involved photographing over 70 portraits in 7 different EU countries across a huge variety of locations. No one would ever have commissioned me to do this. It took months to come together but I ended up in wonderful situations with some amazing characters and fantastic stories to capture. "

Another advantage of personal work (and again Brits in Europe is a case in point here) people will hire you to do more of what you love, but you have to do it first. I now get asked by clients to capture images similar to my personal work. Hopefully in the end you find yourself in a wonderful cycle where your commissioned work and personal work always bring you the same sense of satisfaction.

4. What project are you most proud and why? What inspired you to do it ?

It will have to be Brits in Europe. It is by far the largest body of work I have ever created. It took over 3 years to get the final project together. I loved being able to dive into other people’s lives and have the freedom to create images exactly how I wanted to. The project has also led to my first solo exhibitions, helped me start working for publications like the Sunday Times Magazine and has taught me a completely new way of creating photographs to investigate an idea.

I was inspired to do it because I did not like the way people spoke about immigrants in the UK – the narrative is all statistics and stereotypes. The media tend to leave out the personal stories.

" I wanted to do the exact opposite and to show a British audience that immigrants are people just like them - with lives not dissimilar, stories not too foreign. I thought the best way to do that would be to show people that Brits are immigrants too. "

5. What is the craziest project you have done? Just how far are you prepared to go to take a great photograph ?

Would pouring 150 litres of wine over a friend count as crazy? How about setting two TV presenters on fire in bathtub (complete with a rubber ducky)? If I feel some things are worth doing in the name of a great photo, I am prepared to do them and prepared to convince my sitters to do them. The most outrageous thing to be part of was probably the wine photoshoot where I soaked my friend Nik repeatedly in wine. It was a day of many showers for Nik, many outfits for the stylist and a lot of mess. Totally worth it though.

 

6. When choosing a subject to photograph, what is it you look for ?

" I am drawn to people with a passion for something - I do not mind if it is politics, pets or pizza. People open up when you get them talking about things they are passionate about and I love that. It makes the final image more honest. "

I also feel that once you get a good chat going, the passionate sitters are much more likely to be up for some of my more unusual ideas and I love working with people who are up for some fun. You can’t really go wrong with them in front of your camera.

7. If you could pick anyone in the world to take your portrait who would it be and why ?

Ha! Doctors are said to be the worst patients and pilots the most nervous of passengers. I have never given this question any thought! I love Martin Schoeller’s work. His well-known close-up portraits are brilliant (although I am not sure I could take the honesty of the final image!), but it is his humorous editorial work that really inspires me. I wonder what we could come up with if I said that I am up for anything to get him the best image.

 

8. In such a competitive industry such as photography, what is the key to success ?

I believe persistence is very important. Trying hard and not giving up is how you get to do what you want. To meet that picture editor you have always wanted to work with takes 20 emails, 10 follow up calls, another 5 emails, eventually a brief meeting, then a bit of pushing before he or she might just give you a small chance a year later. It can be discouraging, but if you want to get there, you have to be persistent.

Also - shoot what you love. Do personal work that is exactly what you want to do and enjoy doing – that way your portfolio can be full of it and people will hire you to shoot more work like it. Occasionally you will end up being paid to shoot your personal work – it’s the best feeling when that happens.   

CHARLIE CLIFT
AOP