Sarah Walker is a Melbourne-based photographer specialising in theatre production and promotional photography. Sarah is a finalist for the 2015 National Photographic Portrait Prize and took time out from her extremely busy schedule to chat about working as a photographer in the arts, her experiences both behind the camera and onstage as well her upcoming project, The Art Olympics.
How did your passion for photography first come about and when did you realise this is what you were meant to be doing in your life?
When you ask most photographers this question, the answer tends to be something along the lines of ‘My grandfather gave me his analogue SLR when I was seven, and once I’d shot my first roll of film, I knew I was hooked.’ That wasn’t the case with me at all, and I often have this weird, deep-seated sense of guilt about my failure to adhere to that narrative! What I have always had, though, is this obsessive desire to document my life. I wrote journals throughout high school, I kept a quote book for memorable things that I heard and read, and I had a digital camera as a teenager, but I used it mainly to take photos at parties and of my friends. When that camera died, I started borrowing my parents’ one, and at some point between high school and university, I started paying attention to the quality of the photos I was taking, rather than just the content. I remember shooting some kids on a trampoline, freezing them in the air, and just staring at the back of the camera, transfixed. And then I went around showing everyone who’d stay still for more than seven seconds all the shots I’d taken. I don’t know why, but new photographers go through this period of being intensely obnoxious with sharing every. single. photo they take and being totally oblivious to the boredom of the viewer.
At some point, my parents put their foot down and demanded that I get my own camera so they could actually use theirs, and I bought a Nikon D40X, my first DSLR. I was very involved at Monash Uni Student Theatre, and I asked whether I could shoot some shows there – there wasn’t a great culture of documenting work at the time. I remember the first shows I shot – a production of The Crucible, and one of Macbeth, and I still remember the only good shots I got from those shows – one of Elizabeth Proctor crying, with her hand to her neck, and a shot of the witches in Macbeth (in this case, three men in suits) with Macbeth motion-blurred behind them. There’s something immediately addictive about theatre photography, because there’s no going back and redoing something if it doesn’t work. You get one chance, and when you nail it, there’s such a sense of achievement. Everything is changing constantly – the lights, the blocking, the number of people on stage, and you have to go into this kind of meditative state of just being completely responsive. Your chatty brain turns off, and you just react. I suppose that’s part of how I know that it’s what I’m meant to be doing – that weird mix of adrenalin and zen when you’re in this sort of dance with the production. You also become the only audience member who can really clearly share their visual experience of a show with anyone else – you get to come out and say ‘This is what I saw. This is what excited me. These are the shapes and lines and relationships that struck me. I can show you them.’
You have worked with some impressive clients in the Melbourne arts scene, including MTC, Malthouse Theatre, Chunky Move, Melbourne Festival and Melbourne Fringe Festival. How did you first start shooting for the arts scene and how did these large client relationships develop?
After leaving university, a lot of my friends went into the Melbourne theatre scene, and word of mouth got me a long way. The whole ‘It’s not what you know, it’s who you know’ cliché is terribly tired, but gosh, it’s true. It helps to know stuff too, of course. But nearly every email I get begins with ‘I heard about your work from ___.’ Theatre is a small world, and people listen when they hear about someone who does what they need.
Part of it was working for free. It’s a disappointing constant in the arts, that unpaid rite of passage, but I did it. Worked for free, or for profit share that never eventuated, or for a bottle of wine and a heartfelt email. But once the directors and designers and producers that I knew started to get bigger and better work, so did I. They started getting paid, so they paid me, and they introduced me to other people, and so it all snowballed.
Some of the best advice I can give is to just email people and ask if you can work with them. It doesn’t always work. But you’d be amazed by how useful a quick email to a big company can be, just to introduce yourself and show what you do. After I’d shot for Next Wave for the first time, I emailed Melbourne Festival about three weeks before the festival started and asked if I could work for them. I got a very kind email back explaining that they’d well and truly hired everyone by then, and I felt a bit embarrassed and forgot about it. But then six months later, I got a call from Chunky Move saying I’d been recommended by this Melbourne Festival contact. She’d never even worked with me! I was staggered. And then I ended up doing Melbourne Festival that year. Those client relationships continue, and it’s all from one polite email. So introductions are vital. People can’t hire you if they don’t know who you are.
The Art Olympics looks like fun – tell us a little about this project.
Basically, The Art Olympics is series of 12 creative projects over 12 months designed to inspire people to try new things, to get out of your comfort zone, to make stuff you haven’t made before. New projects launch on the first of the month. Each project has a dedicated page with information about the form, possibilities and examples. Every week, I publish a new interview with a creative who works in that field, as well as inspiration, exercises and ideas. It means that by the end of the year, people (including me) will have had a chance to try out a bunch of stuff that they’d never have done before – whether that be writing a song, choreographing a dance, making a podcast, shooting a film, making a sculpture – and ending up with new skills and new things to explore. The tagline for the project is ‘Make more art’ – it’s all about giving yourself a community to encourage you to create. It’s online at artolympics.net
I seem to constantly end up setting myself massive year-long projects. It’s gotten to the point now that if I’m not doing something every day, I feel like I’m wasting my life and generally being a failure of a human being, which I’m sure isn’t terribly healthy but it does mean that I feel marginally less guilty when I’m on a Buzzfeed binge (ie: most days). This usually takes the form of photographic projects, but last year I did a piece of writing every day, which was quite exciting for me, because it got me well and truly out of my comfort zone. I was talking with Izzy Roberts-Orr, the poet with whom I did the project (it’s called Throwdown, and it’s online at throwdownwords.com), about trying out more new things, and out of that conversation came the idea of tackling a new artform every month for a year.
I asked some friends whether they’d take part if I made it a public project that anyone could join in with, and they all said yes, so I built a website, and the response has been staggering. It’s been so exciting to see people tagging photos on Instagram and Twitter, conversing with each other, sharing excitement about doing it together.
I think that in the arts especially, it can be quite hard to have hobbies, because you put so much pressure on yourself to excel at the things you spend time on. It can be really frustrating to pick up a pencil and not know what to do with it. I like the fact that the project is on the one hand all about just doing things without judgement, without expectation, and on the other hand about actually forcing yourself to make something, to finish it. To stick to a goal and a timeline and to stop procrastinating and making excuses and just have a good time.
You are also an actor and a designer, how does this work interact with your photography?
My introduction to the arts was through acting. I did a bunch of film and TV stuff as a teenager, then heaps of theatre through university. I actually thought for a long time that I was going to be an actor. It wasn’t until I was about 22 that I became aware that I was getting a lot more phone calls about photography than acting. I took that as a sign! But that background, knowing that it feels like to be on a stage, knowing structurally how a play works, is invaluable for what I do. People tell me that I have a great knack for capturing the ‘feel’ of a show, and a lot of that is just understanding the form. Design is kind of a reverse engineering of that. I spend so much time chasing light that it kind of made sense for me to dabble in lighting design, which then bled into set stuff. I’m no good at massive rigs – I’m best when I’m working on small scale work because it mimics the studio setups that I use. The most recent show I’ve designed is one that I’m also co-directing, and it’s actually set in a photography studio, which is pretty perfect. I get to fill the space with lighting umbrellas. I feel very at home!
How do you deal with camera-shy people?
You know, one thing I’ve learned from years of doing this is that nearly everyone hates being photographed as themselves. Give someone a character or ridiculous makeup or a chance to pretend to be someone else, and they’re usually up for having fun and the shoot becomes a great, productive space. But tell someone that you just have to take a photo of them as they are, and they become nervous wrecks. I’ve had reactions ranging from ‘I hate being photographed’ (about 85% of the people whose headshots I do tell me this) to people who burst into tears because they’re so anxious about having their portrait taken (true story). I think part of it is about trust. We’re quite used to controlling our own images in this age of smartphones, where we can curate how we come across in the selfies we post on Instagram and the photos that we approve tags for on Facebook. So when someone comes along and takes a photo of how they see you, often it clashes with your own self image. I know that’s often how I feel. I know how to shoot myself in a way that satisfies my ego, so I’m deeply suspicious of anyone else who photographs me. One of the most lovely things about this job, though, is showing someone the shots that you took, and them being really touched and surprised and pleased by how they look. I also like the shoots that end with ‘That was really fun.’ I think people seem to expect portraiture to be a really gruelling experience, so I try hard to make it a relaxed, candid, enjoyable experience. If I can make a subject feel good about how they come across in a photo, that’s a really kickass feeling.
Sarah Walker is a Melbourne-based photographer specialising in theatre production and promotional photography. She works with hundreds of clients across Australia and the world, from tiny independents to large established companies and festivals. She is currently a finalist for the National Photographic Portrait Prize.
Photo credit: here