Telling stories of people and place: We get to know photographer Dean Davies
With an undeniable drive, alongside working on commercial projects, photographer Dean Davies is the editor of photography platform TRIP, and also teaches on the fashion communication programme at his alma mater, UWE. Collaboration is the common thread that runs through all his pursuits; whether he’s working for a client, with a stylist or capturing his own family on film: “You need to allow [people] to be a part of that process. Communication is key” he tells us. Growing up in Birkenhead, Dean’s upbringing has unmistakably influenced his work and inspired him to focus his lens on people and places close to home. Today, Dean continues to embed his own experiences within his images: “I’m drawn to residential homes and the street…I have vivid memories of the interesting characters who lived locally.” Here, Dean recounts his journey from graduation, and spending three years working in an inflatables factory while pursuing personal work, before finally moving to Bristol last year.
Photographer, Editor and Lecturer
BA Fashion Communication, University of the West of England, Bristol (2010–2013)
Ace & Tate, AnOther Magazine, Clash Magazine, Crack Magazine, Dazed & Confused Magazine, Garage Magazine, Getty Images and Lazy Oaf
How collaborative is your role?
Whether it’s collaborating with clients, stylists or models, photographing people in a fashion context is an inherently collaborative process. When working for a client, you need to ensure you’re delivering the brief; when collaborating with stylists (and hair and make-up) you need to ensure you’re on the same page; and when photographing people you have a responsibility to capture them authentically, and to allow them to be a part of that process. Communication in collaboration is key.
What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job?
The most enjoyable aspects of being a photographer, for me, are meeting and working with new people. For that reason alone, I enjoy the photoshoots the most. The most challenging aspect is finding the time and resources to undertake personal projects. Whilst I’m incredibly fortunate to have a lecturing job and commissions that support my personal projects financially, photography captured on film is incredibly expensive. This makes you more selective about the projects you take on, but it can result in less opportunities to experiment.
“As a creative from North West England, I jump at any opportunity to shine a spotlight on the area, and its residents.”
What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months?
I’ve recently completed a project with Getty Images alongside friend and collaborator, Charlotte James, and art director, Josie Gealer Ng. The series explores youth, identity and sibling relationships in the North West of England, and was shot over four days between New Brighton, Manchester and Salford. As a creative from north-west England, I jump at any opportunity to shine a spotlight on the area, and its residents.
What skills would you say are essential to your job?
Good communication and organisational skills are vital, especially when you’re balancing more than one project and working with multiple people at the same time.
What do you like about working in the area of the UK you’re based in?
Living in Bristol and working in the creative hub of an arts university, I am surrounded by like-minded creatives on a daily-basis, and have never been as inspired to create as I am here. A recent project with Ace & Tate and Crack Magazine was the first time I’ve really shot in the city. My photography work mostly takes me back up North or to London, which are only a train or Megabus journey away.
Are you currently working on any personal projects?
The majority of my work is made up of personal projects, or at least started as one. For the past five years I’ve been working on a series featuring my two nieces, Marni-Lee and Amelia. ‘Sisters’ documents their trajectory from girls to young women and is the body of work I’m most proud of. I have eight nieces and nephews, so see no end in sight to photographing my family’s youngest generation.
Over the last seven months I’ve been working with stylist, Vicky Olschak on Manchester Girls – a series that captures Manchester’s female residents against the backdrop of the city’s residential areas. The series will be published as a book through TRIP later in the year.
What tools do you use most for your work?
I have two film cameras, a 35mm Canon AE-1 Program and a medium format Hasselblad 500C/M, on which I’ve shot every photograph I’ve ever taken over the last five years. I have an Imacon scanner, which allows me to scan my negatives at a really high quality, and use Adobe Photoshop to edit my images.
How I Got Here
What did you want to be growing up?
I remember writing in my English GCSE exam about how I wanted to own a JD Sports equivalent chain of sportswear stores. A part of me still does.
How do you think your upbringing influenced your choice of career?
My upbringing didn’t necessarily influence my choice of career, but it has had a huge influence on the photographs I take. I grew up in Birkenhead, a working-class town in north-west England. My upbringing, and the people I grew up around have had a massive influence upon my photography. In homage to my youth, a large portion of my photographs have been shot in and around my hometown, featuring family, friends and locals to the area.
For commissioned projects, when I’ve shot in say, London or Sheffield, cities that I have no personal relationship with, I scout for locations that resonate. 99% of the time these will be residential homes and the street.
I’m drawn to residential homes and the street because they were an important part of my upbringing. I have vivid memories of playing with friends on the street outside my family home, and of the interesting characters who lived locally.
“I scout for locations that resonate. 99% of the time these will be residential homes and the street.”
How useful have your studies been in your career?
As a student on UWE’s fashion communication programme you are encouraged to pull upon your own experiences and interests as a fashion image-maker, and are given the freedom to experiment. It’s here where I learned that embedding my own experiences within my images is what would set my work apart. This has shaped my work and teaching philosophy, and something I actively encourage my students to explore.
After graduating (or first starting out), what were your initial steps?
Upon graduating I made the decision that I wasn’t going to try and make money from my photography, or pursue it as a career, per se. I wanted to focus on developing my work, so I got a 9 to 5 job to support myself financially. I worked for three years in a factory that makes inflatables and soft play – bouncy castles, crash mats, that sort of thing. For the development of my photography, these three years were invaluable, and allowed me to focus on personal projects and producing the work I wanted to make.
Three years ago, when I was happy with the work I was producing, I started entering competitions and sending my work out to magazines. Last year I got a job as a lecturer and moved to Bristol, and almost simultaneously, the interest in my photography increased. I owe this, in part to the work I produced, and have continued to produce since taking those three years to figure out what it is I wanted to be creating. Without that, I wouldn’t be making the work I’m making today.
Would you say you ever experienced a lucky break?
Not a lucky break as such, but in the last two years a number of photography editors and commissioners, including; Holly Hay, Julia Hackel, Jerry O’Sullivan, Josie Gealer Ng and Alfie Allen have commissioned me to photograph projects that have allowed me to develop my practice, and given my work the opportunity to be seen by a much larger audience. As a creative I don’t think there is anything more encouraging than someone saying they love your work, and that they want to work with you; giving you a platform to create and share new work.
What’s been your biggest challenge along the way?
Accepting that it’s ok to take on commercial work, and that it is not always going to look exactly like my personal work, was a challenge, at least initially. Now I enjoy the opportunity to try out new things, and the challenge of retaining my vision in something unexpected. If you are not challenging yourself in your work, is it ever going to move forward?
What would you like to do next?
The next step for me is film. When you are working with such unique characters, a still image doesn’t always capture the whole story. Over the summer I will be directing my first short film, which I’m very excited about. It’s been an ambition of mine for a long time. I will also be working with friend and collaborator, Alfie Allen on launching TRIP as a publishing platform. Through TRIP we will be working with photographers on exciting projects that we will publish in print, and stock and exhibit across the UK.
Could you do this job forever?
I hope so. I couldn’t see myself being as happy doing anything else.
Words of Wisdom
What advice would you give to an emerging creative wanting to get into the same line of work?
Perhaps an obvious one, but the advice I would give to emerging photographers is to go out and take pictures, analyse the hell out of them, and then go out and take some more. It really is the only way to develop your craft.
Interview by Marianne Hanoun
Mention Dean Davies