Photographer Elena Heatherwick may be in the early stages of her career (she’s only 26) but she’s already accumulated an impressive portfolio. Her work has been published in (amongst others) The Sunday Times, The Financial Times and she is a regular contributor to The Guardian. She specialises in portraiture and documentary photography and has recently been given a year long commission photographing London gardens. In this week’s blog post we chat to Elena about doing what you love, freelance life and the best advice she’s been given and gives.
1. What’s the ‘six word story‘ for your career so far?
Plans will develop as events unfold.
2. Can you tell us about your career in a bit more detail? From your childhood ambitions, the studies and job(s) you actually ended up doing, and what you do now.
It was by chance that at the age of 15 I came across a book by the photographer Jane Bown. From that point on photography became something totally magnetic and all absorbing for me. Her method of working discreetly and simply, using only natural light deeply inspired me. I took photography as a GCSE and we were taught to use 35mm black and white film. I spent all the time I could in the dark room we had at school. It was a wooden hut in a field away from the main school building.
In my second year my teacher asked if I wanted to photograph an orchestra for a £100 fee. I felt like I’d won the lottery! It ended up being a difficult shoot: it was in a church and the light was pretty bad. I remember the pianist moving dramatically as she played and looking down at the 400iso films in my hand and thinking, ‘How is this going to work??’ I developed and printed all the films myself and somehow managed to get something out of it. But that was the first time I realised that I could do what I love and earn money. It might sound silly but it was a bit of a ‘Eureka!’ moment.
3. Did the popularity and competitiveness of the profession ever put you off photography? Nowadays it seems like everyone considers themselves a photographer…
I was quite naive about that until I got to university. Before that I was at a Steiner School in Hertfordshire. In our darkroom we had only a handful of books and we didn’t really use the internet. Henri Cartier-Bresson, Sebastião Salgado, Don McCullin and Jane Bown were the only photographers I really knew about.
However, during the first year of our A Levels my teacher invited Caroline Irby to come and give us a talk. She is a wonderful documentary photographer. She provided a window into her world at the time; she was constantly travelling and working on personal projects covering social issues. Very driven, very inspiring and very lovely. When she was leaving I asked for her card. She said I should get in touch if I ever needed anything. I got in touch and to cut a long story short she is now a very dear friend and mentor and I’m godmother to her little angel of a daughter.
I guess there could be a lesson there: to me it feels so important to look to and learn from other peoples’ work. And sometimes from admiration, friendships can blossom and it’s the most wonderful thing. As a freelancer you’re going it alone and in my case, my office is a corner of my kitchen. Hardly the most sociable of work places! It can be really reassuring to talk to fellow freelancers – I think we all actually have very similar concerns and insecurities. Having people who you admire and care for around you really helps.
So to return to your question: Not really. I’ve never had a plan B.
4. You’ve always worked as a freelancer. How did you establish yourself and do you have any tips for newbie freelancers about making contacts and working out how much to charge clients?
How did I establish myself? I don’t think I have! I’m still learning so much. I feel incredibly lucky for every job I get. There’s always a sense of ‘Really? Me? Are you sure? OK!’ And in a way I hope that never leaves me. But I know I’m very lucky to have been able to spend the last couple of years doing a job I love. What I love most about photography is that it gives you an excuse to be really nosy. To talk to who ever you want. To learn about the world, about people, about emotions. It seems that if that’s what drives you then you naturally ‘make contacts’. So my advice would be the opposite of what parents say to their children: talk to strangers.
As for charging, when you start out you seem to get a lot of enquiries that start with ‘We really need a photographer but we don’t really have a budget.’ At first I said yes to any job that came my way but you quickly learn that if you start saying yes to £50 jobs, that’s what you’ll attract. If you start valuing your own work and time you’ll see that £50 is not enough. People who really value your work will pay you accordingly.
5. You became a mother quite early in your career. What effects – if any – did this have/has this had on your work and career progression?
Two days after finishing university (I studied photojournalism at LCC) I found out I had a bun in the oven. In hindsight I call it a ‘lovely surprise’ but at the time it was very difficult to fathom. The next two years were spent in a haze of breastfeeding and sleepless nights. I did the odd portrait here and there and that gave me a lot of energy but I can’t say I really started working until my son was about 2 years old. But during that time one of my main coping mechanisms was photographing our time together. It allowed me to step back and observe the scene I was in, the emotions my son was experiencing and then put down my camera and act accordingly. Having my little boy did delay me starting work but it has also given me a drive and (the old cliché) sense of purpose that I didn’t have before.
6. What’s the best piece of career/life advice you’ve ever been given, and the piece of advice or wisdom you’re instilling in your son?
A few years ago I met a photographer called Roger Hutchings. After having looked at his website I was left with lots of questions so I wrote to him, thinking I might get a short reply, if that! However, his reply has become a piece of text I go back to time and time again. Here is an extract:
“There are characteristics which good photographers have in common. Taking pictures is easy but taking very strong pictures and consistently improving is hard. Some of these traits: ambition, an obsession to be good and a relentless inquiry into how to make one’s pictures better, tenacity, understanding that light is a key to great pictures and not something you switch on when it gets dark, an ability to get feelings into the picture [an alchemy hard to explain], critical shooting – opposite to the way people work today in digital [although there are occasions when you should shoot a lot of images], mastering the craft so that you can use your photographic tools intuitively to express the way you feel about the thing you are looking out, a mantra in the mind at all times […]
“What am I trying to say [is] practise – good shooters shoot all the time and edit critically and go back and do it again if it does not please them. I am baffled that photography students will not see that they have to practice as much as a musician, a dancer, a poet. You need to do it to create a distinct style which allows you to stand out from the crowd.
“You must photograph subjects you are passionate about and research to the point of becoming an expert. After that I think it depends on luck [which favours the prepared mind], innate ability and choosing the most visual subjects.”
As for the wisdom I’m instilling in my son, well, my heart does a little dance when I see how confident he is, every time we leave the house he talks to strangers and very quickly makes friends. I’ll encourage him to keep being open, to keep being interested and to follow his dreams.
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