Exploring Creativity: The photographer

The first 2015 interview in my series on creative careers is an in-depth discussion with Idil Sukan, who is a photographer working in entertainment and the Creative Director of West London agency Draw HQ. She has been the official photographer at both the Edinburgh Festival’s Fringe and the British Independent Film Awards. Her portfolio ranges from Tom Hiddleston to Bridget Christie and her work can be seen across the UK national press, on posters, album and book covers. Her photography has also been recognised by the National Portrait Gallery, which purchased a print of her portrait of actor Celia Imrie.

Idil Sukan, by Julia Sukan
Idil Sukan, by Julia Sukan

Lori: How did you first become interested in photography as a career?
Idil: My mother dated a photographer once. He was the worst guy, full of self-importance and thought he was a trendy intellectual but really he barely knew how to tie his own shoelaces. A real Russell Brand of the photography world. That put me completely off being a photographer. I was a teenager at the time, doing art and graphic design and teaching myself how to use Photoshop. When I went to do my one year of art college at London College of Printing (now London College of Communication, UAL) he gave me one of his old, quite cheap cameras with a terrible lens and I had no idea how to use it. I mainly took completely awful pictures of Borough Market butcher shops. So I abandoned the camera and went back to graphic design.

I’ve always loved comedy and I ended up producing and marketing live comedy shows in Edinburgh where I was attending university. I had worked as a designer, producer, picture editor, director, magazine editor by then and was even performing regularly as a comedian. The only thing I hadn’t done was photography. I think I had been so put off by my mother’s ex, but then a few things happened in quick succession. I went to New York where I was swindled out of about $200 for a worthless lens for a new camera I had bought, and when I came home my house was burgled shortly after. They stole everything but my camera, as I had happened to taken it to my nephew’s birthday party that evening. Those events made me so protective over my equipment, that I started teaching myself how to use it in much more depth, I tried to become a technical expert, pretty much just out of pride.

Meanwhile, I found myself producing comedy shows at a level where we really needed some high quality photos. All the photographers I knew working in comedy at the time all seemed to do the same kind of thing, wacky, plain, naff mug-shots of comedians, shrugging at the camera. I didn’t want to inflict that on my shows, so I just decided to try doing it myself. Looking back on it, I really was in the perfect storm, I had personal experience from every different angle, and knew what everyone was looking for – the editor, the producer, the comedian, the audience, I had learnt post-production and delivery from my graphic design experience, and finally picking up a camera again felt like the most natural thing I’d ever done.

Celia Imrie by Idil Sukan, National Portrait Gallery
Celia Imrie by Idil Sukan, National Portrait Gallery

Lori: Congratulations on getting into the National Portrait Gallery! What was that portrait like to make?
Idil: Thank you! It was very exciting going there to the underground labyrinthine vault and being greeted by the National Portrait elders. There’s a secret initiation ritual which involves burning a heap of Canon cameras at a stake but I can’t say any more.

The photo they selected was a portrait of the actor and comedian Celia Imrie. I’ve always been a huge fan of her from way back when I watched Acorn Antiques as a kid. I met her backstage at the British Independent Film Awards. It was an intense chaotic mess of a situation. I was the official in-house photographer, and right behind me, waiting their turn, was a terrifying horde of press and sponsor photographers. There was no room, and no time, we had just a few seconds. I think I only shot 2 frames, the first just to test the light. Sometimes that’s when you get the best photos, when you have no choices, where you have to wordlessly improvise with your subject and find the best moment right there in front of you.

Technically I had a lot of help with my Nikon SB900 flashguns, which are small and so flexible, connected via infrared, so they’re super easy to just move around quickly with no wires in the way. But also, critically, Celia was an incredible subject. It is so rare to find someone in front of your lens that is just so comfortable in their own skin, she seemed to effortlessly have no hang-ups, no self-consciousness, no awkwardness, she was immediately a pleasure, even for just that one frame, to photograph. It’s got nothing to do with fame, or looks, or age, or gender, there are just a few people in this world who have managed to shake off all these unnecessary social hang-ups and just present themselves as they are. I don’t know if Celia really feels like that, but it is wonderful, inspiring, exciting to meet someone that can present themselves that way, even just for a fleeting moment.

On the Portrait Gallery website it says, “Idil Sukan 1983” – which is when I was born. There’s no death year. Exciting because my photo will survive my inevitable death, and hopefully survive the inevitable Hunger Games apocalypse. Our bow-hunting descendants will find the portrait and worship Celia as a god. Which is really the least they can do.

Reginald D Hunter, by Idil Sukan
Reginald D Hunter, by Idil Sukan

Lori: Tell me about the inspiration behind your new exhibition, This Comedian.
Idil: I’m interested in different versions of ourselves, different ways we present ourselves to different friends, to different members of our family. There are overlaps but I’ve always felt our personalities are just an average of thousands of slight variations that we present depending on the person we’re with. I’m a lot funnier when I’m with my sister than when I’m with a parking attendant. That’s a pretty base example but I think it is especially interesting in comedy. When you’re performing, it can feel honest and confessional to an audience, some of it feels improvised, off the top of the comedian’s head, real, and raw. But actually the 20 minute set is a tight culmination of years of work, developing a stage persona, that as confessional and close to the real personality of the comedian as it may be, it’s still a variation of varying degrees, a tailored version.

Obviously this is all especially prevalent online these days, where we’re sometimes known in our circle of friends more for how we present ourselves online than what we’re like in real life. We all have a little curated exhibition of highlights of our life on Facebook or Twitter. We’re forced somewhat by those platforms to make very limited choices about how we present ourselves, so we present ourselves more and more as a summarised version of ourselves. People make a lot of snap judgements and of course, so much of that is based on visuals, on photos. So I find that some of the most powerful ways of defining yourself more and more is through images.

Commissioning a photographer, say, calling me up and booking a photoshoot to represent yourself as a comedian, is an incredibly big commitment. A ‘comedian’ is not a protected term as a profession, you can upload a few Vines and start calling yourself as a comedian, you don’t have to go through 7 years of comedian graduate school. So there is this empowering element of self-determination to commission and then release a photo of yourself as a comedian. These photos immediately go on Twitter and Facebook, to all your social circles, to your friends, to your family, and will then spill over onto the press. To take that leap, to make that decision, that visual commitment, I’ve always found very humbling and inspiring. You’re in it for the the long-run.

That’s why it’s called ‘This’ Comedian. There’s something about using that demonstrative pronoun that is quite affirming, this exhibition is about definition, about all these people staking their claim, committing to the profession. And there’s something exciting and paradoxical there that I wanted to celebrate. Celebrate the longevity of the permanent image – the photo will be around for a long time, archived everywhere online, versus the fact that it was a transient moment in time that was captured, representing one of thousands of versions of that person. I hope too that it demonstrates that there’s so many ways of representing a comedian, that no two comedians are the same, all their styles and backgrounds and inspirations are different, and I try to approach each comedian from the same creative place as they approach their work, and create a photo that is personal and unique to them. And yet, for all the hundreds of different images and approaches and inspirations, everyone has something in common, everyone is still a comedian. Everyone still just wants to make people laugh. I’m really excited about that and I hope everyone who comes along will enjoy it too.

Bridget Christie, by Idil Sukan
Bridget Christie, by Idil Sukan

Lori: How do you balance your work as a photographer (including shooting backstage at the Edinburgh Fringe) with your role as Creative Director at Draw HQ?
Idil: Well, I mean, as Creative Director, when we take on a project, I can appoint the photographer of my choice on each project, and it’s almost always me. I know, right. The highest form of nepotism. So that’s a bonus. But yes – it’s great to be able to both develop and produce the creative direction, and also be the one implementing it – I think that makes the visuals very coherent, very streamlined, and more powerful, nothing gets lost in translation. I have to be careful though because there is a danger that I become stagnant in my ideas, because I’m the one both commissioning and implementing the work, so I try as much as possible to bring in input and feedback from the rest of my team and make the development of the ideas really collaborative and personal to each different client. That way I know that I am open to possibility, feedback, that I can’t plan what I’ll do next, I have to tailor it for each new commission, and that’s what keeps the work exciting.

But I’m not just the Creative Director, I am also the boss of the company so it’s more difficult balancing accounting, management and the logistics of it all. The way I do that is that I have an amazing team. Sophie is my Number One, she handles accounts, client management and production, my sister Julia who’s worked with me for five years comes in to assist with production, creative direction and studio work and I have a team looking after development, marketing and the exhibition. I think at some point you realise that a business is a collaborative enterprise, and the most important thing you learn to do as a manager is to let go. I find that most people who go into business for themselves are perfectionists and I’m no exception. So it’s one of the hardest things you learn how to do, but when you trust people, invest in them and make the work something worth doing then it can be a huge amount of fun.

Idil Sukan: This Comedian will be on from Friday 20th February to Monday 2nd March 2015 at the Embassy Tea Gallery, 195-205 Union Street, London SE1 0LN.

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