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A top-ranking photographer tells us how to build a career and get creative fulfilment

The photographer behind Dove’s Reverse Selfie tells us about her career and how long it took for her to start getting commercial projects

Illustration by Jael Umerah-Makelemi

D&AD’s Foot in the Door series continues with Photographer Sophie Harris-Taylor, whose work for Dove’s Reverse Selfie portrays a series of films and still images that explore the damage that social media filters can do to young people’s self esteem. The campaign was awarded ten D&AD Pencils including two Yellow Pencils, making her the top-ranking Photographer at D&AD Awards 2022.

Harris-Taylor has also published several books of photography (Sisters, 2017), staged solo exhibitions (including at Francesca Maffeo Gallery) and has worked on campaigns for ACICS, Sports England, Waterwipes and Tena. Here, she tells us about how she built her portfolio, and the realities of supporting herself through commercial work while also working on personal projects.

 

Sometimes there is no ‘a-ha’ moment

I always gravitated towards creative arts at school, but I didn’t focus on photography until I began to use it as a means to support my painting practice at university. I realised then that I was much better suited to photography and switched my degree from fine art to photography.

There was never a light-bulb moment when I thought I wanted to be a photographer; it was a natural progression into a job that I was good at and that I enjoyed. I got introduced to other practising photographers and work that I was really inspired by, and that's how it became what I was interested in. I don't think I gave it too much thought at the time. When I was at university, fees were much lower, so there wasn’t as much pressure to choose a career immediately after leaving, so I took on multiple jobs to support my photographic practice and went from there. It was a gradual but steady process.

Have something to show for yourself and build a portfolio

The hard thing with something like photography — as with a lot of the art subjects — is that there isn't really a clinical pathway like there is to become a doctor or a lawyer or an architect, so you just have to spend a lot of time making work. Since at the beginning that's work that you're not going to get paid for and that no one's asking you to do, all the motivation has to come from you when you’re building a portfolio for yourself. In addition to this, unless you're fortunate enough to have financial support you will have to work alongside that and find a way to sustain yourself and pay your bills.

This time at the start of your career is about building a portfolio and finding your voice, finding your own interests as a creative and the work side of things can come later. People will want to employ you for what you do and if you've got nothing to show, they're not going to want to employ you. So you almost always have to spend quite a bit of time carving out your own aesthetic, figuring out what kind of photographer you are and building a portfolio for yourself to show clients what you are capable of, and no one is going to ask you to do that, it has to come from you.

Build your career step by step

If I'm honest I don’t think there was ever a breakthrough moment for me. It is often one little thing that will have a knock-on effect and lead to another little thing, and that other little thing then knocks on and it sort of goes a bit like that. For me it was entering the Taylor Wessing Prize and getting through one year because I then met (Gallerist) Francesca Maffeo, who was opening a gallery at the time, and I was able to have a solo show that then put me in a slightly different league to where I had been. It really opened doors for me. (Editor's note: aspiring creatives could consider awards like D&AD's New Blood Awards to put themselves on the map in a similar way.

Commercially, things took a lot longer. At this point, my practice and my artwork were getting out a little bit but it wasn't until I started getting quite a lot of recognition that clients wanted me to make commercial work. I think this is because they had examples of my work out there to see. For me, my personal work has always been at the forefront and then commercial work has followed.

 

 

Let your art fuel your commercial work (and vice versa)

When I'm making my personal work it's just me and my camera and maybe a reflector; I don't really use assistants and I fit it in around other things. I used to have more time prior to becoming a mother but now I have less time on my hands. My personal projects take a lot of headspace, but they happen quite organically and commercial projects are completely different.

Firstly, you have to pitch for work, so most of the time you’re pitching up against two or three other really talented photographers. You’ll often all have something slightly different to bring to the table. You grow a thick skin because you're not winning all of those jobs and you might be spending a couple of months on a pitch and then find out you didn't get the job. They take a lot of planning, collaboration and organisation and the way you approach the project is just completely different as you are working with a huge team of people to get the outcome you need to deliver to the client.

Often, it will be a personal project that will bring in commercial work. I do have some great campaigns I've worked on, but I thrive on the projects where the context is my artistic practice and is more in line with my own ideas. They feed into one another — a lot of the commercial work that I get has come off the back of personal projects that I've made.

D&AD’s Foot in the Door series asks creatives to share their unique route into building a creative career. Read more interviews with the likes of a director they call the ‘King of the Super Bowl’ and a copywriter who transitioned from music to advertising, here.

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