Photographer Alfie White on first clients, social media and navigating industry as an autistic creative
Alfie White had no intention of becoming a photographer. “I was going to be an electrician as it seemed like one of the only available opportunities for someone like me,” he tells us. As an autistic creative, disinterested in pursuing further education, Alfie was initially met with hefty barriers to entry in the industry. Now, however, “it’s beginning to work out.” With three years in the game, Alfie has forged his own path and artistic voice, often documenting events for the likes of Bottega Veneta, Dazed and Vogue. Here, Alfie talks to us about the illusions of social media, navigating industry as a neurodivergent creative and the importance of having an identity outside of work.
Bottega Veneta, Dazed, Vogue
What I do
How would you describe what you do?
I’m a photographer. That’s what I predominantly get hired to do, at least. The commissioned stuff has varied, as does the client, but lately it’s been mostly events.
My practice goes much beyond that, though. Photography is my main outlet, but not the only one. I write, I work with moving image; and lately, I’ve been experimenting with print-making and collage. They’re all just tools, really; photography is my favourite, and usually the most effective.
What are the main influences and inspirations behind your work?
Everything: photos, poems, books; people, relationships. It all falls under a singular, continuous interpretation, and I guess the emotional response to that is what fuels my work. If I were to only list a couple of creatives I like it wouldn’t be wholly accurate. That said, some large (and more tangible) influences have been, in no particular order:
Photographers: Garry Winogrand, Andre D. Wagner, Joseph Rodriguez, Tim Hetherington.
Writers: Frank O’Hara, Ocean Vuong, Kurt Vonnegut, Ursula K. Le Guin.
Artists: Frank Ocean, Jim Morrison.
The film, Synecdoche New York.
Books: Sirens of Titan, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, The Left Hand of Darkness, Norwegian Wood, The Trial, The Bell Jar, Watchmen, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
I’m also a big fan of ambient music, and am particularly inspired by artists like Tim Hecker and Kali Malone. Making that sort of music feels honest to me; like they’re making it just for themselves, which I find incredibly grounding.
What’s been your favourite project to work on, from the past year, and why?
I made my first short film called untitled; communion earlier this year for a competition. It was really last minute and because of that, made almost entirely of photos I already had. The theme was “communion”, so I wrote something in response and paired it with appropriate images of mine. Since its release it’s acted as a reminiscent, rose-tinted love letter to a unique point in my life. It went from something I made on a whim to something I’ll treasure and look back on forever.
I also published my first written work, a photo-essay, in i-D in April, for autism acceptance month. Both pieces hold special places for me; they were incredibly cathartic and showed not only the power that can be found in vulnerability, but the work that can be achieved through that intimacy.
Making something so raw is daunting, especially for someone like myself who was branching out into completely new territory. To throw something into the void and have people across the world, of all ages and backgrounds, identify with it – that’s really special.
How I got here
What was your journey like when you were first starting out? How has it been navigating the industry as a neurodivergent and autistic creative?
Some could say I’m still starting out; I’m approaching my third year of being fully freelance, and during the first year I relied on my savings from prior years of working retail and servicing jobs. And it was just the other month that I finally signed off Universal Credit.
I graduated college without any intention of pursuing photography, nor any idea that it was possible to. I was going to be an electrician as it seemed like one of the only available opportunities for someone like me, who didn’t want to, or couldn’t pursue further education. My position and path is the result of a decision which didn’t involve a huge amount of choice, rather than pursuing my dream as such. I can’t say for certain whether I’ve chosen correctly, but I have no regrets, so that’s something.
“The biggest thing for me – which is also commonly felt amongst other autistic people – is feeling misunderstood.”
It’s beginning to work out, though, largely because I’m still living at home. Things have progressed at a rate that I would have never been able to predict, and yet it’s still been a constant challenge. Being an autistic person isn’t any different in the creative world as it has been elsewhere. The only exception is that I think people in creative scenes are more open to eccentricities or quirks, but only as far as what their own values permit as “cool” – which isn’t that far most of the time.
The biggest thing for me – which is also commonly felt amongst other autistic people – is feeling misunderstood, and the constant effort at avoiding that. I find email communication difficult sometimes, because someone will write me a sentence, and I’ll come back with a paragraph to make sure there hasn’t been any miscommunication. And then they come back with another sentence! I wish I could be that minimalist, that succinct.
Events can also be tricky. If I’m overstimulated, I tend to shut down a bit – but from a neurotypical perspective, that tends to come across as rude or as a reflection of the event: avoiding eye contact or not seeming “happy”, aka, not masking. I feel more misunderstood (or not listened to at all) in creative scenes than anywhere else.
If you could pick three things that you’ve found useful or inspiring to your work or career, what would they be and why?
Printing your work. Seeing your work physically makes you understand it a lot more.
Having a mentor. I feel very privileged to have met some amazing people early on who’ve been working a lot longer than I have; having access to the wisdom of someone more experienced is invaluable. Not just in terms of advice, either; sometimes the fact that they’ve probably dealt with something you’re experiencing for the first time is reassuring, and a reminder that it’ll be OK.
Having a hobby you enjoy. For a long while, everything I did was work-related; there was no switch off. And that’s so dangerous, especially in creative sectors where everything is so 24/7. Hobbies are crucial for cathexis [the process of allocating energy to a person, object, or idea] with something other than your vocation. I’ve always been into exercise and reading, and recently have gotten into chess. Right now, I’m more interested in getting better at chess than photography.
How important would you say social media and self-promotion are to your work?
I can’t pinpoint anything on my social media that has 100% led to anything concrete, but I’ve gotten work on a handful of occasions by replying to callouts or putting myself forward.
Bear in mind that social media is perhaps one of the greatest illusions to ever exist. Even my account has a glamorised view; for any “good” photo I’ve posted, there will be at least another 30 that I’ll never share. You’re only ever going to see the commissions people get – never the ones they missed. Plus, for all you know, your favourite artist is constantly breaking even every month and shares the same anxieties as you. Not to mention trust funds, nepotism, and various other, impossible to gauge factors that have contributed towards a person’s supposed success.
“Imagine that someone only has 30 seconds to look at your website; keep it concise and easy-to-navigate.”
I think the biggest thing anyone can do is just make work that is good to them – as well as work they want to get hired to do – and share it. Have a good website also, to display that work. Nothing fancy. Imagine that someone only has 30 seconds to look at your website; keep it concise and easy-to-navigate.
What have been your greatest learnings with making money and supporting yourself as a creative?
It’s not about making as much money as possible, but knowing how to make money, working as little hours as possible, and making those hours as enjoyable as possible.
Sometimes I find myself comparing my income to someone on a salary, but then I have to stop and ask myself, “In the past month, how many hours have I been working? And how many of those actually felt like work?” Yes, time is money, but it’s important to value how you enjoy those hours and what you get from it. I’ve taken on teaching jobs at one fifteenth of my usual hourly rate, and I’ll do it again! Because it fulfils me and I really enjoy it.
It’s important to remove your ego with this stuff. Don’t let yourself starve because you simply refuse to earn money any other way. A job doesn’t define you and success really cannot be measured. I’m quite happy earning money cleaning dishes and moving furniture if I have to.
“Yes, time is money, but it’s important to value how you enjoy those hours and what you get from it.”
How did you go about landing your first clients?
My first client was when I was 16. He was this kid from Fulham, looking for a photographer. We agreed on £50 for the shoot, he brought a duffle bag full of nice clothes, and we shot two outfits. He paid me £45 out of the £50, saying he wanted to get these sunglasses from the charity shop that cost a fiver and that he would pay me the remaining money later. After weeks of chasing, he still hadn’t paid it, so I emailed his mum, whose Paypal he used for the first payment, and she apparently banned him from using the account after that. I never got that remaining £5.
Since then, it’s been largely word-of-mouth and being in the right place at the right time. I think there’s been only two occasions where I’ve been hired without any physical mutual connection beforehand. It does make sense, though; we’re social creatures and character is so important to this sort of work.
What’s the best career-related advice you’ve ever received?
To not work (so much). As much as capitalism and hustle culture have made us think otherwise, work and success means nothing without all the things that, as humans, we need: Family, friends, partners – and your relationships with them and yourself. It’ll all crumble without them. Focusing entirely on your career is just another method of escapism, and it’s not really worth it. Creating separation and escapism for yourself is crucial.
What advice would you give someone looking to get into a similar role?
1. Your passion is a constantly evolving thing:
My passion for photography is not limited to my own exploration and execution of it.
For example, I absolutely love teaching photography or assisting. Similarly, you might realise that you want to work in proximity to whatever you originally wanted to pursue. It might be that you’d actually rather be a photo editor or producer, or an agent who works with photographers.
Separate your passion from yourself, and view it as a subject you want to explore. I really think it’s less about finding what you want to do, and more about what you don’t want to do. Plus, there’s less pressure in a process of elimination than of choice.
2. Put yourself out there:
Shadow people, assist them, meet with editors. You don’t need to sell yourself to them; play it cool, let them know who you are and hopefully, a day or perhaps a year down the line, they'll see your work and be like, “Oh, I know them!” Assisting can be a great way to achieve this.
3. There’s no blueprint to success:
You don’t have to be freelance and you don’t have to pursue a 9-to-5. Neither is better than the other, it’s just up to your personal values. But what you do need is a motive beyond just money or “success”.
Remember that none of this is that important; I am yet to find a project that has ever been worth anyone’s stress or upset (it’s hardly like any of us are saving lives). Try to see all these things as opportunities and experiences. It’s all a bit of fun, really. There’s no point if you’re not enjoying it.
Introduction by N'Tanya Clarke
Mention Alfie White
Mention Libby Cooper