Yen Magazine interview
Seeking Freedom in my life. Seeking Freedom in my photographs
Yen Magazine Interview. Courtney Sanders
1) What got you interested in photography in the first place?
I was lucky enough to grow up in a very creative environment and was always
surrounded by creative people. From an early age I was exposed to art galleries
amazing books and Art all around me. My interest in photography was an
extension of this. If I was to pinpoint actual moments it was probably in my early
teenage years when my best friend and I used to spend days thinking about
scenarios which would include amazing picnics in amazing locations and then
we’d plan our photo shoots around this taking turns at being the model and the
photographer. It was all quite ‘girly’ stuff. Fun times!
We loved David Hamilton’s dreamy landscapes and would try to emulate this.
Interestingly I ended up doing a degree in Sociology and art history first which I
guess has ended up providing me with a great platform to evolve my vision as a
photographer. So I didn’t end up studying photography straight away and in
retrospect this was probably a good thing. I like that I can bring all sorts of my
own life experience into my imagery.
2) Tell me about your early photographic years, and your progression through the
industry to now?
I probably chose a hard path to begin with by deciding not to assist anyone. I had
such a clear vision of what I wanted that I didn’t want this to get muddled with
someone else’s ideas. There were definite pros and cons about this but now I
have got through the hard years I can say that I am really happy I found my own
voice. Photography is a very competitive industry and it was just plain hard work,
never giving up and being prepared to do a lot of free work that has got me here
I also think it is important to keep evolving and being prepared to try different
things and keep moving with what’s happening around you. It’s very easy to get
stuck in the same vibe and I have promised myself I was just keep moving and
evolving until I’m 100!
3) Why do you think photography is powerful as a creative medium?
Photography and what you choose to photograph can be an intensely personal
experience. It is a great way to explore your own creativity. You hear about the
eyes being the window to your soul and I think photography can be this as well.
To the souls of your subject and the landscape all around you.
From the very genre and subject matter you choose to photograph to the
execution of the final image. It is a medium that can easily be lived and breathed
and you can find yourself just constantly thinking of ideas and ways to achieve
this personal vision.
4) What is your favourite type of subject matter?
This is such a hard question for me to answer and I have kept a personal diary
recently to try and work this out for myself! I feel quite split at times. I have many
favourites and constantly try to tell myself to stay focused and not get distracted
by too many Ideas, which include much different subject matter. Having said all
of that though I have almost arrived at the idea that it is ok for me to have many
different subject ideas.
I also grew up with a great understanding of social inequality from a very early
age. My mother was very active with women’s rights and my late father (Te
Arawa and Ngati Awa) who was a lawyer was very involved with the treaty of
Waitangi and racial issues concerning Maori.
Social documentary is a passion from a completely different level to how I work
as a commercial photographer. It taps into things that are personal on a different
level and I tend to shoot in a much more raw way. I really want to get in there and
amidst the grit.
Fashion photography, which is almost the absolute opposite end of the spectrum
has become a means to explore my visual passion as well as working a
alongside great teams of other creative people.
2011 was a great year personally where I decided to return and indulge in
fashion photography again. And within this I love to generate works, which
celebrate femininity, nostalgia and strength.
Both fashion and documentary are probably a reflection of my up bringing, which
was tremendously varied.
5) What kind of ideas do you like exploring with photography?
Fashion photography provides me with so many opportunities to explore all the
facets of my own interests and life. It can be quite self-indulgent actually!
The recent ‘Freedom’ campaign with alwayssometimesanytime has been a great
exploration of my formative years of being young and free before life got as
serious as it is today. While shooting I find myself tapping into my old self and I
just begin to feel quite unleashed. It’s a very exciting process.
Then there is this other part of me which is much more serious .I get quite
focused on exploring a darker more emotional self. There was a period in my
work a few years ago, which was visually quite dark. I loved to create images
which had a haunting, emotional quality to them My work on large format using
Polaroid film is a great vehicle for this. It is a great way to explore and maximize
intensity and emotion from my subjects as it is so long and slow and almost quite
It just allows my subjects to zone out and then something else starts to creep in.
And then there is the ‘documentary Sara Orme’ …..Where I continue to work with
ideas of social identity. I am currently exploring and working with gang families
where I hope to start working photographically once I fully understand their
6) Tell me about some of your favourite projects throughout your career. Why
were they important to you?
Within Fashion it is quite hard for me to pin down favourite projects…..They
almost don’t feel big enough to be called a project but then on a ‘little project’
basis there are many. ……..
I am working on a portrait project with a great N.Z brand at the moment casting
from the street but more about that later !
Our ‘Freedom’ campaign is also a very exciting project to be working on. It’s
great to be working and building strength with a team and to try and find a new
fashion vision. It’s also great to be project based within the fashion context. This
allows you to move beyond shooting just another ‘cool’ picture.
Some of my most favourite projects have also been been in my documentary
While I was still studying I made a book called ’ This is not the red carpet’
Essentially it is about the middle aged male hobby photographers cruising the
beaches during the Cannes International film festival, looking for pretty young
girls to shoot. I was reading Susan Sontag at the time plus I had recently
finished my degree in Feminist studies ( Sociology) where my mind was
preoccupied with gender inequalities and the power relations between the male
photographer and passive subject matter, women. To me, the male photographer
and the female object of desire epitomized this relationship. It was a great project
and really kept me fired up for the weeks that I was there.
I guess I bring a lot of the documentary approach I have into my fashion and
portrait photography as well. I always try to grab those off moments when
people’s/ models guards are down. I always try to provide a platform where
models can just be and try not to interfere too much. I think it is quite hard for
models working with me at times, as I have to really beat all that ‘modeling’ stuff
out of them that they have learned to perfect. I really love the imperfect shot.
7) What are you working on at the moment?
I am always working on finding new ideas and things that I personally can relate
to. It can be something small like one studio shot to a series of shoots. I just want
to keep working on keeping things fresh and feel the invigoration of all these
amazing people around me.
I want to work more on book ideas, some fashion and some documentary. My
gang family stories are one I want to get my teeth into during the year.
In response to shooting a story for ‘youth and Freedom’ I am thinking of shooting
something along the ideas of ‘Wisdom and Freedom’ Our culture is very youth
oriented which is awesome but I want to move onto the idea that there is some
fun to be had as we get older (and wiser!) and would love to challenge the notion
that women don’t age as well as men in a fashion oriented shoot.
I am always looking for ideas that move beyond the norm so watch this space!
8) Digital v Analog. Discuss:
I have really changed my tune over recent years on this one.
I grew up on Analog….loved it , understood it, worked it and fully explored it and
then digital came along and I clung onto Analog for dear life and far longer than
most of my peers. I actually HATED it. ( digital ) I couldn’t get how it was better
and why the whole world seemed to be turning it’s back on Analog, But
eventually if I wanted to be taken seriously as a photographer I was almost
forced to take on digital. It was like learning all over again and it was a very
frustrating transition but I did it and now I shoot digital most of the time.
Interestingly, a few months ago while up late at night, working on my computer
with my latest shoot I felt a revelation, which was, I LOVE digital. I even found
myself saying this out loud !
It’s a complex relationship though.
I have kept my analog cameras but I have found digital quite liberating.
The obvious one being it allows you just to shoot, shoot, shoot.
The only thing stopping you is time. Analog was always expensive and you really
had to think long and hard about every shot you took. Which of course is not a
bad thing but I see new generations today who probably have no idea how
liberating digital is for them. They can just shoot what and how much they like
without the cost of a per roll of film cost…..and if they’re really good they can
work their way to the top very quickly.
I could discuss this for hours and feel like I have only started at the tip of a really
9) You work a lot in the realm of fashion photography. How do you feel about the
transition from still photography to video?
Probably a bit like I did when everything started to go digital…a little bit of
To be honest I think there is a lot of mediocre video’s out there being produced
by a lot of very good stills photographers. Telling a story in moving image is a
different story to a stills one. Photographer’s inexperience in the art of story
telling and great filmmaking is nowhere more evident than what is being pumped
out because they just can. It feels like that…because they can, they do and this
doesn’t necessarily produce great stuff.
I can look at one image and find myself believing that it is true …..A picture does
paint a thousand words. With some moving image I feel visual stories have been
dumbed down a bit. I often find myself loosing interest after the first 30 seconds
but will hang in there in case something evolves. Most of the time nothing
But then I have just bought my new canon mark 2 and who knows in a year or
two I could be pronouncing my LOVE for it.
This is the great thing about life; you can change your mind anytime you want!
10) What are you looking forward to in 2013?
Just getting into everything and anything that I can and continuing to meet and
work with amazing people old and new.
11) What inspires you most about your job?
There are times my camera really does let me see the windows of peoples souls.
This is inspiring. I feel very lucky to have this privilege and everyone I photograph
is an inspiration.
Equally working with other creatives is inspiring. I just keep finding facets of
myself tapped into all the time.
12) You collaborate with a lot of creatives every day. Tell me what draws you to
the collaborative process and why you think it's important?
Photography is potentially a very solitary process. To have creative people
around to collaborate with helps get these ideas out. It would be very easy to
be in your studio day after day with a lot of amazing ideas and nowhere to
realize them. When you find like minded people to collaborate with it is
exciting because you know you could end up going down a road you could
never have imagined if you were just working by yourself.
There is nothing better than finding a group of like-minded people and
getting all of those ideas out there. Without these collaborations many a
project may never have existed.