Photographer and director Olivia Rose talks persistence, mental health and taking the right advice
Olivia Rose is a photographer and director sticking firmly to her guns. Throughout her ten-year career she has continually defied convention to create work she truly believes in. Graduating from London College of Fashion’s Fashion Photography degree in 2008, Olivia’s work stood apart for its refusal to conform to a polished aesthetic, focusing instead on the people she captured and shooting everything on film. In the years that followed, she balanced freelance picture editing for major mainstream press, with personal projects and commissions for magazines such as i-D and Clash Magazine. Her portfolio is rich with raw, intimate portraits, including talent ranging from Mary J Blige and Drake to Jorja Smith, and in 2016 her extensive documentation of the UK’s grime scene developed into award-nominated book This is Grime – created together with journalist Hattie Collins. Olivia shares with us the highs, lows and logistics of her journey, from managing personal struggles with mental health, to costing her time and avoiding the wrong kind of career advice.
Photographer and Director (2008–present)
Freelance Picture Editor (2006–2013)
i-D, Nike, Clarks Originals, Dazed and Confused, Timberland, Kooples, McQ, The Barbican, Les Benjamins, British Vogue, Brick Magazine, Clash Magazine, Sunday Times Magazine, Pylot Magazine, Accent Magazine, Boys By Girls magazine
BA Fashion Photography, London College of Fashion (2005–2008) Art Foundation, Central Saint Martins (2004–2005)
How would you describe what you do?
I’m a photographer turned director. I capture people; I’m very much subject led as opposed to being led by the technical.
It wasn’t until this year that I got my first high-production, all singing, all dancing directing gig. It’s funny, because it’s happened in directly the opposite way to my photography, which was a really slow 10-year process. With directing, I did one 30-second TV commercial and already people were on my back. So it’s been a very interesting and very steep upwards arch.
What does the work look like day-to-day?
Of a week, I normally have a day set aside for meetings. These will be with potential new clients, artist management or labels, normally in the Hoi Polloi in the Ace Hotel (along with everyone else in London that’s having a meeting!)
I’m an analogue photographer, so it’s quite hard to just pick up a camera and run. Then for post-production, obviously it has to go through the lab, then either prints are made or negatives have to be scanned. So every job takes about a week.
If I’m in pre-production mode I spend a lot of the day in my car (I’m in my car literally 80% of the time). I think people don’t realise that the shoot day is the least frequent day in my week.
“I’m really strict about [shooting in analogue]. It’s probably the reason why it’s taken 10 years to get to where I am now.”
What do you like about working in London?
My heart is here in London, I’m really heavily rooted here. There’s something about London that is a constant source of inspiration. I only have to step outside my front door to feel like something's happening creatively. I think I will always remain pretty true to that.
Can you tell us more about your decision to shoot exclusively in analogue?
I’m really strict about it. It’s probably the reason why it’s taken 10 years to get to where I am now. But shooting in film has certainly lost me a few big-money jobs. All I would have had to do was agree to having a digital operator, but that’s not how I work, and I’ve never been driven by money. I am now in a position where clients trust me and believe in my worth.
I really wouldn’t care about photography if I was working exclusively with pixels. Having my images streamed to a room full of people while shooting would ruin the vibe of the shoot. If one person on the team looks at the laptop and grimaces, it can really affect the rest of the day with the artist – or whoever you’re shooting. And on another level, it’s about having the lab [who process the images]. It’s a lonely job – I spend a lot of time by myself, so I enjoy going to the lab. They’re magicians!
Of course I still work on a computer for some stuff, because things have to exist digitally. I will colour correct and do a bit of spot retouching for consistencies. I’m not a fascist in that way. I know that eventually the work has to end up as pixels, because that is how we consume images now.
How important is collaboration to your role?
There are people I work with regularly. For me it’s more about having people on set who I really trust and who I have built up a rapport with. If you get on set and don’t immediately feel that trust, then it’s doomed before you even arrive. You have to work with people you don’t need to micro-manage.
What skills are essential in order to do your job?
I had an amazing fine art teacher at school who taught us the fundamentals of composition, which stay with me to this day. Whenever I do a workshop, or if I’m working with young people, it’s the first thing I say: Go and learn about the golden section and composition. Once you’ve got that, it elevates you. When you’re shooting film, you’re aware that every time you push the button it costs £3.50 or something ludicrous. So you better believe I’m going to compose it right.
You don’t have to know everything. In fact, when you know less you often approach things in a more interesting way. I think the easiest trap you can get lost in is to become a complete technical buff. You lose some of the beauty of art, which is that people approach things in unique ways – and you might discover a new process. For me, the imperfect is always the most perfect part of any set of pictures I get back.
“I’ve got terrible imposter syndrome. The amount of times I’ve been on a shoot and looked around and panicked that I can’t do my job.”
How much do low confidence and anxiety impact on your work?
I’ve got terrible imposter syndrome. The amount of times I’ve been on a shoot and looked around and panicked that I can’t do my job, but what am I going to do at that stage? Walk out? It’s not an option. Every time I do a job it’s another process of overcoming those feelings. That’s a level of achievement in itself.
Fairly recently I put a post up on Instagram about my mental health and the fact that I've been struggling. Even recently I’ve been up and down like a yo-yo, which almost always happens when I have a steep upward incline in my career.
What I’m doing is self-driven. You’ve really got to wake up in the morning and make something happen for yourself, and that can feel like a lot of pressure. It’s overwhelming. When you’re the photographer or director, the buck stops with you. If it’s bad, it’s your fault, and you are literally only as good as the last job. That becomes more acute the more recognition you get.
Do you think social media can play a part in that?
Yes, it’s been a funny little catalyst for my anxiety. I have my own personal pressures with what I want to do with my career and what success is to me. And through Instagram, I now feel like I’m dealing with 13.6 thousand other people’s expectations of what I should do next.
A big part of me wants to say that social media is not important, but I would be lying. A lot of clients have come to me that way – it can be more important than your website. Also, if I really like an artist, I’ll just hit them up. But it does make me quite anxious. What will I post? How many likes will I get?
What were your jobs before you went full-time as an independent photographer?
I freelanced as a picture editor, that ran alongside my photography for 10 years and ended when I was about 28. But there came a point when I was shooting This is Grime where I would be up at 8am to shoot, come into a night shift at 4pm and finish at midnight. I’d then edit until 4am and be up again at 8. I think that was when I finally realised something had to give. But up until that point I had to do that to pay my rent.
I’m a real advocate for people having two jobs. You’ve got to learn what it is to drive yourself and it’s a really good test: Can I come home after eight hours work, have an hour off, then get going again?
Do your learnings from these jobs still feed into your work now?
Yes, I really don’t think I ever could have navigated my way through the industry agent-less without it. It’s literally given me the other side of the coin: knowledge in usage, rights and negotiation. But, with social media, the world has changed very dramatically in a short space of time.
Once an image is on social media it could be posted by anyone, and you would not be able to do anything about it. Nobody really knows how to keep up with and combat the grey areas. I think it’s a real shame that we couldn’t have foreseen this and put some things in place.
Nowadays a client will tell you they want to use work for a social campaign, but the money will be like a tenth of the fee for a print campaign, even though that image will go everywhere. Hundreds of thousands of people can repost it, so why doesn’t it pay 10 times more? I think it’s good to question these things.
What advice would you give someone in this situation, and charging in general?
For me [shooting in analogue] it’s very easy to see what the day is worth when it costs me around £1,000 in expenses. That makes it easier for me to price myself.
In situations where someone is trying to rip you off, I’d advise you to hold your temper. Don’t respond in a heartbeat. Take a minute, then go back to it and stick to your guns. If you lose the job, it wasn’t worth having. The industry as a whole would be worth more if people refused silly fees.
But I know it’s not as simple as that. People still need to make money here and there. However, I think you’re better off getting a side job that pays the bills, over taking money you know is not worth the job. What you’re doing, psychologically, is telling yourself that you’re not worth the right amount.
“For many years I was spending my own money to produce work, just so my name was in the right places.”
It annoys me that there’s a common misconception that just because we enjoy our jobs, we shouldn't be paid for it. Or we should work for a free pair of jeans, or a credit. There are a lot of big, well-known brands that still try that. But you have to ask yourself: If they want me to work for a credit, who will actually pay me?
When you’re on the way up, getting credits from editorial (in the right magazines) can, without doubt, kick-start your career. I don’t know how magazines still get away with their editorial getting paid for by the people working on the shoots. It must be the last remaining industry not to pay the minimum wage. But I did it myself too. For many years I was spending my own money to produce work, just so my name was in the right places. But you shouldn’t be taking a free job with a big brand. If a company is worth hundreds of millions, and won’t pay even a basic rate for a job, then you know what? Forget them.
What would your advice be to anyone just starting out in photography and wanting to follow a similar path?
I would say it’s good to be prepared for a difficult journey ahead. This is an expensive road, full of potholes. But just like everything else, you're going to fall down, you're going to pick yourself up, you're going to dust off your knees and you're going to keep going, because that's the only way.
I've watched my peers from university either succeed or leave to start other careers, and the people who have succeeded were relentless. So be relentless and be relentlessly yourself. Don't pay any mind to what anyone else says, because if I'd listened to some of the people around me, I would have stopped doing this years ago.
“Take advice from the people whose ideas and work resonate with you. Everyone else is just another opinion.”
Also, people can get stuck in the wrong niche. For me personally, fashion wasn't the be all and end all. But because I went to a fashion college, there was a certain taste level aligned with high-end fashion, and that was not what my pictures were about. So watch who you listen to.
My whole career I've had older photographers tell me I had to shoot digital. I think that made me more determined. The more you tell me I can't succeed, the more I'm like, “Watch me.” Take advice from the people whose ideas and work resonate with you. Everyone else is just another opinion.