Joe Puxley on starting out as a photographer and finding beauty in the ordinary
At just 19 years of age, Joe Puxley has already built a portfolio that boasts work for The Face, CLASH and Island Records. Having graduated from the prestigious BRIT School last year, Joe was thrilled to find a place where his creativity and skills were valued, after his dyslexia was made to feel like a problem in mainstream education. Since then, he’s been championed by the likes of DAZED and legendary guitarist Nile Rogers, but at the end of the day, he admits he just wants to make work he truly likes. Here, we talk about finding beauty in the ordinary and why your age doesn’t define you.
GUAP, Island Records, Glyndebourne Opera House, House Of Holland
Social Media Editor, Photobox
Place of Study
Film and Media Production, The BRIT School (2018-2020)
How I got here
How would you describe what you do?
I mostly take photos, but I’m interested in a lot of other creative things too. I left college in 2020, so I’m still figuring some things out, but my work has been featured in DAZED, The FACE, BBC Radio 1, CLASH and Vogue Italia (PhotoVogue), amongst others. This year I also shot my first cover for GUAP magazine.
If you could sum up your job in a gif, what would it be and why?
There’s ups and downs but I really enjoy it!
What are the main influences and inspirations behind your work?
Recently I found that a lot of my work has been inspired by my childhood and teenage experiences. I love the idea of creating new perspectives on things. I’m visually inspired by a lot of renaissance paintings, and wacky ’90s photography, as I like the idea of using their striking aesthetic to elevate my subjects. I would describe this style as ‘hyper-realistic’.
To be honest that’s kind of my copy-and-paste answer, though. I think it’s really hard to quantify all my influences, because I’m just trying to make work I like, or have an emotional connection to. I believe the point of music, photography and other art stuff is that you can’t put it into words. I’m probably not aware of most of my influences and inspirations, these are just key themes I’m very passionate about.
What’s been your favourite project to work on from the past year, and why?
My favourite projects have been my collaborations with musicians, because they’ve all been really formative, rewarding and challenging for me. It’s so inspiring meeting other creative people, and being able to learn from them for a whole day.
My favourite part of a good project is showing it to my client. I’ve had people brought to tears before, and it’s honestly so fulfilling to create something that impactful from nothing.
At the moment I’m also working on my first still-life project, which has been really enjoyable
for me, because I can shoot ideas whenever they come, and if I want I can spend many hours
perfecting one shot!
Would you say you need any specific training for what you do?
No, I don’t think so. For me, photography is about sharing your perspective and ideas, and you can do that with just a disposable camera or your phone.
I think it’s important to understand your goals, and personal definition of excellence. I want my photos to feel like an elevated version of life, and I also want to highlight overlooked things, so I often use a lot of lights and put loads of emphasis on colours and composition. As I said though, I’m just aiming for my own definition of perfection, and to create work that makes me feel something.
“I’m just aiming for my own definition of perfection, and to create work that makes me feel something.”
How I got here
What was your journey like when you were first starting out? Did you find your feet quickly?
I think I am just starting out; I feel like photography is one of those things where the more you learn, the more you realise you don’t know – which I love.
I was obsessed with cameras when I was younger. I wanted one so much that I used to
make them out of cardboard boxes. I also used to have a blog about
filmmaking and photography, and a sponsorship deal where I could rent pretty much any
camera for free. This deal actually led to the demise of that blog, when I had the opportunity
to use my dream camera, a £50,000 Hasselblad, and the pictures weren’t much different to the ones I took with my phone.
I completely lost interest when I actually learnt that cameras don’t really matter; I know a lot of people say that, but it’s true. Photography is complicated, and it’s so easy to blame the quality of your work on what camera you have, because that’s the narrative you’re sold, and most people believe that.
I think we are always looking for quick fixes, but the truth is, you need to work really hard. You should also remember that creativity itself is not magic. A lot of people will say things like, “Your style will just come to you,” which makes it sound like it’s out of your control, but it’s not.
If you could pick three things that you’ve found useful or inspiring to your work or career, what would they be?
I have a small network of creative people, that includes friends, teachers, and my cousins, and they are definitely my most powerful inspiration. My goals feel impossible sometimes, and it’s very empowering to see them achieve theirs. I think you really need other people with shared experiences. Even though you might be working in a big team as a photographer, you’re still quite independent and singular, and that can make you vulnerable at times.
I’m inspired by a lot of music in particular, and understanding what led my favourite artists to make the decisions behind their work. I listen to a lot of interviews, as I think there’s also a much broader conversation about the creative process and mental health in music too. Some really inspiring artists you should check out are Hiatus Kaiyote, Desta French, Lianne La Havas, Mayra Andrade and Matilda Cole.
Practicing gratitude is something my friend shared with me a few years ago, and it has been
so pivotal to my growth. I saw a meme the other day about the journey to success – it was a
graph going up and down constantly, but slightly rising at the same time. In my experience
photography is exactly like that, and practicing gratitude has saved me during those low points.
What would you say has been your biggest challenge along the way?
There have definitely been challenges in my career, but I don’t mind because it’s all moving towards my future. School was difficult for me, because creative subjects aren’t seen as intelligent or valuable in mainstream education. I’m also very dyslexic, and I’m bad at maths and English, and most of my teachers treated me as such. It’s understandable because that’s their value system, but I think it really affected the way my peers and I think.
I’m also a massive perfectionist, so when I struggled with subjects or my teachers didn’t believe in me, neither did I. Photography changed my outlook, because it meant I was able to express myself, and be good at something, and potentially find a place in society. I was really lucky to enrol at BRIT School when I was 16, because they see creativity in a completely different way.
I feel fortunate to be dyslexic as an adult now, because it’s meant I had no option but to pursue my ambitions, even when I was told I would never be able to work or go to college by the people who were meant to inspire me.
“I was really lucky to enrol at The BRIT School when I was 16, because they see creativity in a completely different way.”
How important would you say social media and self-promotion are to your work?
I actually really love Instagram, even though it’s been problematic at times. I always find it so special to meet people who genuinely like my work. It allows me to share my projects and hear important feedback too. I grew up in a small town, so it was great to be able to meet so many people on there.
My advice is to use social media, but not value your work based on engagement. I think it’s important to be as outgoing and experimental as you can, to grow and develop. Instagram isn’t the best place for this, because you’re valued on what’s mainstream and easy to digest.
What have been your greatest learnings with making money and supporting yourself as a creative?
Remembering that a person or brand’s visual identity is so valuable, and you need to see your artwork in the same way. It’s hard; sometimes people think your service isn't worth anything because you enjoy it, and some people even think they’re doing you a favour by asking you to work for them for free.
I’m still learning how to say ‘no’ as well, which is super-important. We’re told to take every opportunity, but It’s tricky, because photography is something that most businesses need, and pretty much anyone with social media wants. I think it’s about finding balance and knowing the power you can create.
In terms of making money, you should just focus on the quality of your work and being a great person to work with. If you keep improving, eventually people will want to work with you, and everything else will follow. People are sometimes surprised by what I’m doing at my age, but I have honestly spent all of my energy doing this for at least six years, and I didn’t really earn anything for most of those.
At the moment I don’t need to do any supplementary work, but I probably will, and that’s ok.
How did you go about landing your first clients?
I did (and still do), reach out to people when I think they’re cool and offer to work for free. I think especially in music, everyone is so connected that once you have collaborated with a few people, your name gets around quickly. One project always leads to another.
What’s the best career-related advice you’ve ever received?
One day you will be better than you already are. Create the work that you want to be paid to make.
What advice would you give someone looking to get into a similar role?
Your age, accolades and followers don’t matter to anyone other than yourself. All that’s valuable is your work, and it’s your choice to care about those other things. This doesn’t mean that your identity doesn’t matter, that’s part of your work; but you’re not going to be remembered by those things, and people often don’t care about them.
My second piece of advice is to look at yourself from a future perspective. You’re in development, creating your back catalogue for people to find – be bold, authentic and exciting.
If you need any more advice, or I can help in any way, HMU!
Mention Joe Puxley
Interview by Lyla Johnston