Having studied at at Birmingham City University, Louise quickly moved to London to begin her photography career. After assisting for a number of years, she turned pro and now photographs celebrities, actors and even royalty for the likes of The Big Issue, Cosmopolitan and Time Out to name but a few. Here Louise tells us about her work and career.
How did photography start for you?
As a kid I was always making things and drawing or painting but I didn’t pick up a camera until I was 18. I’d done an A level in Art and figured I would continue to study it at Uni but to get onto a degree course in the arts you have to do a BTEC Foundation Diploma course first which I did. I specialised in Fine Art but it was way too conceptual and self-reflective for me so I didn’t really enjoy it at the time however in hindsight it ended up being one of the best things for me to do and completely changed my path by introducing me to photography through an optional 3 day module.
I absolutely loved being in the darkroom printing so I began to use photography within my final project. I think I took pictures of shadows or something really embarrassing now, and then started applying to photography degree courses shortly afterwards.
Why did you study at BCU in Birmingham?
I'm from a small town in the East Midlands so Birmingham was kind of a step up, close to home but a big city which I was excited by. It was mainly down to location rather than the course as I was still unsure as to what I would end up doing or even what genre of photography I might pursue whilst there. I wasn’t thinking of the future too much, I just wanted to enjoy the experience of being a student. Throughout the course most of my imagery was geared towards fashion but not in a commercial, studio way. In fact I barely used the studios over the whole three year period which I regret now. All that equipment on hand, free to experiment with!
The work I was doing was far more experimental which is ironic considering I had hated the Foundation course for that very reason. I had a great tutor there too who was very nurturing and would point me directions without being overbearing. His name is Nathan Tromans if I can name check him, he's still there though.
You moved to London from the Midlands very quickly, why London?
I was excited by the prospect of living in a big city and moving home would have felt like a backwards step career-wise, so I bit the bullet and headed straight down after my degree finished. I’d visited London loads whilst studying to see exhibitions and people watch in the markets and to be perfectly honest I still get the same excitement now even a decade later. There’s so much to see and do and be inspired by here and there's always the prospect of a chance encounter that might help you along in your career somehow. Also I was convinced most of the assisting jobs were here, which is what I’d decided to do for a while. There wasn't much of a scene in the Midlands unless you did weddings or corporate work, which I must stress I’m not judging, it just wasn't for me, I'm guessing that may not still be the case now.
Your first jobs were assisting other photographers, did that help your career?
Massively. I moved down naively expecting to do it for less than a year and ended up doing it for about 6 years. It made me realise how much I still had to learn. It's one thing doing a degree and having months to work on one project, it's quite another to develop skills that allow you to stand in front of a celebrity for just 5 minutes and get a good image. For me it was an invaluable experience and I assisted on pretty much every kind of shoot so I could find the right specialism. It's not for everyone, I know some people who barely assisted and now have photographic empires. It possibly depends on the kind of person you are I think because it's hard work and you don't get paid much, and you have to carry heavy gear around (not that that's any different to what I do now except it's my own equipment), in my case I needed someone to take me under their wing for a bit. Another great thing about assisting is that you pick up random skills, I can now fold a towel really beautifully which has come in handy on more than one of my own shoots.
What made you decide the time was right to stop assisting and become the photographer?
3 or 4 years in I was only really assisting two editorial portrait photographers because I'd decided that was the path I wanted to follow with my own work. After a while you start going on shoots and thinking about how you would do it yourself, that's probably a sign you’re nearing the end. Also, I was very lucky in that these two photographers were very encouraging and helped where they could by offering me contacts and equipment loans. They gave me the gentle push through the door.
You picked portraits as your photography niche, why?
I'm pretty nosey. I like getting to know people even if only for a brief time on a shoot. I’m curious about people, seeing how they act differently and similarly to each other. I just like connecting with others probably. The best shoots are the ones where it's more collaborative and you're feeding off each other. Bill Nighy was a great example of that. He was such a cool guy and was interested in chatting rather than just rolling through a stream of poses. I even ended up showing him some uncoordinated moves from a Beyoncé dance class I'd done earlier that week. I don't break out Beyoncé for just anyone.
What was key to getting your name and work in front of the people who commissioned you?
As I said, I worked with some very supportive photographers who actively pushed me in directions and gave me names of people I should contact and mention them to. I felt awkward doing it but I think that's the circle when you've been assisting. You are loyal and put the time in to further other people's careers so if they like you they will try to help you out when it's time to fly the nest. After getting the first few things published you slowly build up a folio and no longer have to keep name dropping the established photographers you used to work for.
How do you approach a shoot in terms of what you want to get out of it?
I consume a lot of imagery by going to exhibitions and seeing things online. I love Pinterest for storing images I like, not necessarily photographic, sometimes you can get inspiration for shoots from colours sitting together in textile pattern or from paintings with great poses, etc. In answer to your question I suppose I make sure I am armed with a catalogue of things I can look at to refresh my brain beforehand if I need to, maybe poses or lighting styles I'd like to try, but so often it all depends on time constraints and location and the temperament of the sitter. lt’s hard to fully prepare but I'm a big believer in over-preparation rather than winging it so I like to have some ideas buzzing round my head.
"When Prince William entered the room I genuinely expected there to be a chorus of angels flying above him." There’s a skill every photographer has to have, working on the fly, how often do your sitters make you drop your plans and make you fall back on that?
Many shoots with Celebrities, Politicians or even Business People start out being for a proposed 20 minutes which, for whatever reason, is generally condensed to just 5 when you turn up. I think the shortest shoot was with Will.I.Am, I had been warned by his PR that he gets easily distracted but only 4 minutes passed from first to last frame and midway through he wandered off to chat with a friend. I had to plead with him to come back into the set up so I could take more pictures.
You have to be adaptable but I also think a main skill of portraiture is being able to chat rubbish to people, no matter who the subject is. Often situations can be really awkward, like a person is thrust in front of you before you’ve had chance to set up properly, or sometimes there's an entourage of randoms in the room and you have no idea who they are or what they do but they stand behind you and and watch you work in silence. I find that an innate ability to chat rubbish is my salvation in those situations.
Do you approach a shoot with the Dalai Lama differently to Grayson Perry?
Not really. There are more formal procedures with someone like the Dalai Lama or Prince William, though I think that comes more from the teams behind them rather than themselves.In terms of what you can ask them to do, someone like Grayson Perry will probably be more expressive facially so you can push that a bit. I still get surprised by how nervous I can be before a shoot with someone famous but then the moment they’re in front of me it dissipates and I realise that they are just people. When Prince William entered the room I genuinely expected there to be a chorus of angels flying above him chanting the national anthem or something but he just appeared in front of me with an outstretched hand to shake like you would do with anyone you met for the first time. I mean, we even talked about the weather.
You always wanted to photograph Ricky Gervais and did. Is there anyone you still want to photograph?
Loads of people, I have a massive list. I think it would be great to photograph the Obamas, and Malala Yousafzai, I’d like to meet people who have done great things. Looks wise someone with a cool, characterful face like Mickey Rourke or Jeff Bridges or the singer Benjamin Clementine who looks wonderful. But there are so many people. I'm working on a personal project at the moment and I recently photographed an amazing man who has just built the Country's first Multicultural Theatre, there's also a woman who gave up her job in the media to carve spoons out of wood for a living who has agreed to pose for me for it. Her products, her style, her demeanour, her studio, everything works together. I'm looking forward to that one too. Anyone with a story really.
You are successful without an agent, why do you choose not to use one?
Most of my work is editorial which infamously doesn't pay amazingly well. If I had an agent I'd end up with little money. I suppose they may push me to get more work but I like the clients I have and I like dealing with them directly though obviously you can’t take your current clients for granted and it’s always good to be pursuing other leads. The main benefit to having an agent would be the business side of it as I really hate discussing money.
How does social media fit in to your marketing?
I'm not great with social media marketing, it goes hand in hand with the talking about money and idea of 'selling myself'. I use Twitter for work and also recently opened up my Instagram to all, but I largely see that as more of a diary of my life in a way. I don't put up published work that I've taken with another camera, it's more the here and now snapped on an iPhone for no reason other than I enjoy that. I'm forcing myself to use hashtags but it's very unnatural for me, though I do understand that social media marketing is the future and it completely works. I have had a few jobs which came from Twitter in quite bizarre ways too, so I would probably be far more successful if I was more prolific on it. I use Mailchimp to do a mail-out with recently published shoots every couple of months which is great for reminding people you exist and I have a blog which I like to post shoot tales and outtakes on.
I love your blog where you give a back-story to your shoots. Is that done out of a pleasure for writing or for more marketing opportunity?
Thanks very much, I really enjoy writing it. I love reading about other photographers’ experiences so I try to share my own and often the imperfections are more interesting and humorous so I'll happily recount stupid things I may have accidentally said or done. With social media there is so much glossiness these days, I’d rather it was a real account of the day, even if that does make me cringe at points. I write it for myself too so that in future I’ll be able to remember those moments and if I ever start thinking that I'm far too important because I once photographed the Dalai Lama, I can look back and find the one where I unknowingly had pain au chocolat crumbs stuck to my forehead as David Baddiel walked past, or when I told Plan B he was ‘good with his hands’. If I was consciously doing it for marketing purposes I would definitely have to edit it a lot to make me sound more slick.
Do you have an assistant?
I use assistants when there is budget for me to have one but largely I work alone. It's nice having a spare pair of hands especially when there's not much time to shoot.
What was the best bit of business advice you were given?
Somewhere along the way you realise from others that you should value yourself and only work for free if you feel you are getting something out of it in terms of experience, furthering your career or contributing to something bigger than yourself. As a photographer you kind of have the burden of all photographers on your shoulders a bit. If you work for free too much or constantly undercut people to get jobs you aren't only undervaluing your own skills but those of us all. It’s hard though, especially when you’re starting out and you just want to get a foot in the door.
What advice would you give to anyone wanting to start a photography career today?
Be eager, be early, be open to opportunities even if they don't look great at first. At least consider them before you turn things down, some of the best experiences spring from saying yes.
Learn from others and be helpful to them as it will undoubtedly come back to you in some karmic way. The first guy I ever assisted wasn't afraid to share information with anyone, he trusted in his own abilities so I learnt from him not to be cagey and to share work opportunities around when I can.
There's a lot of talk about how saturated the market is and that's completely true, but if you really want to do it and are prepared to put the hours and effort in you will succeed. You may not make loads of money but I think you have to see it as more of a lifestyle choice and I certainly wouldn't change it for the world.
Louise's website is here: lhschiefer.com
All images are © Louise Haywood-Schiefer and used with permission.
The Big Issue cover used with kind permission of the magazine. The Big Issue is out every Monday. Their website is here: www.bigissue.com
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