A word of advice on photography

For any new graduate, taking that first step into the world of work can be a daunting task. We paired four recent grads with professionals in graphic design, advertising, illustration and photography, so they could experience a portfolio crit and get the chance to ask the pros for some seasoned advice. Megan Helyer meets still life photographer Jenny van Sommers

THE GRAD: Megan Helyer
THE JOB: Photographer
THE PRO: Jenny van Sommers

Megan Helyer graduated with a first from Cleveland College of Art and Design’s BA (hons) Photography course. Professional still life photographer Jenny van Sommers has picked her out as someone she sees huge potential in and they arranged to meet to look through Helyer’s portfolio….

Jenny van Sommers: So what have you been doing since graduating?

Megan Helyer. I’m living in Danby in Yorkshire, and I’ve been working in the pub and the local coffee shop we’ve got there, just trying to get some money together really.

JvS: And it says here on your portfolio ‘fashion photographer’- so that’s what you’d like to do?

MH: Yes, I did a fashion and clothing ND for two years at college and that’s where and when I decided I’d like to do photography.

JvS: Looking through your portfolio, you’ve done all this in the darkroom – did you shoot it on film?

MH: Yes, everything in the book is done in the darkroom, shot on film.

JvS: Have you done any digital at all?

MH: In my second year I did some digital but not for my final projects. I shot all this work on film.

JvS: The reason I ask is that one thing you’re going to have to deal with in working commercially is that people are no longer used to paying for film. So you’re going to have to hide the cost of the film somewhere else in the budget. And if you get to the stage in the next few years where you’re going to see an ad agency, don’t say anything about shooting on film when you show them your book. I saw an art buyer the other day and she said that when all the graduates come in to see her, as soon as they say they only shoot on film, she just shows them the door. She’s a top art buyer and she says that they just don’t have the time or the money anymore to deal with images shot on film. Another thing to mention is I love the size of your portfolio. Some people turn up with huge metal cases and you need to open it up on the floor. Your bag-sized leather book is really modest and feels like a really good choice for your work. I really like it. OK, so looking through the first few pages everything’s really pale and washed out and obviously you’ve done that on purpose. Was that an accident that you liked or is that something you were aiming for?

MH: I always used to get my work compared to Juergen Teller but….

JvS: Juergen Teller is a completely awesome photographer and if he’s your inspiration….

MH: Well, that’s the thing, I never set out to make images like his.

JvS: I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having references. I always tell people they should collect all their references and to collect as much work as they can of the people they like and just keep it all on hand, make scrapbooks, put it up on the wall and just surround yourself with images all the time of things that you like – because inevitably there will always be a tiny part of you that is copying something that you like and that sort of never ends really. And from that the more you do it the more what you’re trying to do emerges from that and you find your own style. I, like every other still life photographer, started off copying Irving Penn and I still copy him but can’t quite get there… nobody can because he’s a genius basically. I really love this picture (Melissa exhaling cigarette smoke).

MH: That’s my friend Melissa. I was experimenting with light and doing multiple exposures.

JvS: This is basically a totally legendary picture. If this was of Janis Joplin or someone in the 6os it would be a really famous image. You don’t want people to think it was a mistake though, so how do you show it was intentional? You take four more. Make a series. I really like this headgear in this next image, is that yours?

MH: Yes, I made it. There’s quite a few things I make that I incorporate into the images.

JvS: Now that I’m talking to you, I think the reason your work stood out from the work of other graduates that I saw is because you’ve been in a little village so you’ve developed this completely unique thing that you’re doing and you’re doing it with people that you know, your friends and family. You’re making do with bits of tape and things like that and that, I think, is your strength because when I was looking through graduate work I saw a lot of things that were quite sort of slick in a way that suggested they’d imagined for themselves a career and then they created the work to match the career that they’d imagined for themselves. To me, that is the wrong way round. Your creative juice is stemming from you with your mates in your bedroom, in your life and it’s really unique and that’s what’s so great about it. You’re doing something that’s completely your own and completely unique and that is why you seem to be the person that has something to say and something to offer and give to the world creatively. There’s no point in just making images. If you’re not expressing something personal, then you may as well just stop. his image (girl wearing tape) is totally bonkers! It’s very amusing to look at and just genius. Obviously you’ve convinced some poor friend to have tape stuck on her body?

MH: She’s very open to my ideas, that one.

JvS: The reason I didn’t do fashion photography is that I find it hard to concentrate when there are people around.

MH: That’s something I’ve found too, I like it to be just me and the model.

JvS: All fashion photography is put together by a team. Depending on how fabulous the photographer is, that’s how fabulous the team is and it’s very very difficult if you’re starting out to get someone really amazing to do the make up or the hair, a really amazing stylist. For the beginning of your career, if I was you, I’d just stick to my guns and do it all myself.

MH: I had a massive argument with one of my lecturers, because I’m adamant that I want to do it all on my own – I really like to style everything and  create props too.

JvS: Also in your images, you can see that the subjects and models are completely relaxed and natural, there’s a synergy there, which is really great. Every single time I take a series of pictures that people really like, it’s been very easy and I’ve also been alone. If there are people around, it’s very easy for other people’s personalities to overwhelm what you’re doing. If you want to jump start your career as a fashion photographer, you need to be very, very original and you need to be yourself as much as you can. Then you can put all your own motifs in it, your style – and if people go ‘well, it just looks like you’, then great – that’s exactly what you want, it should look like your work, like an extension of you.

MH: I called this series A Sense of Humour is Important because we had to do a portrait series and it was my birthday and it was Easter too so I got some Easter chickens involved. These are the images that have been compared to Juergen Teller’s work.

JvS: I love that your brother is so badly framed in this shot, the lighting is yours, you’re 22 and you’ve already established your lighting look – and it’s not actually like Juergen Teller’s, his work is much more high contrast. People will always make comparisons because it’s an easy thing to do – but I think these are more unique than that, they’re all kind of faded out and slightly overlit…. With my work I always try to convince the people I’m working with to let me keep the things that shouldn’t be in the picture – the mess ups and the things that don’t completely make it perfect. I go into a long highly intellectual explanation as to why they  should keep the imperfections in the picture. To my mind it’s really important. I think, though, that you get that.

MH: Some of the images had chickens in and some didn’t which confused my tutors.

JvS: They were probably accusing you of accidental interpretation and that is one slightly important thing. You have to convince people that you’re not taking these pictures by accident and that you’ve meant to make these pictures exactly like this and the only way you can do that is by taking more pictures. With Juergen Teller, everyone was like ‘that’s rubbish, that’s rubbish, that’s rubbish, oh OK he’s still doing the same rubbish, he’s a genius’. That’s the essence of it, you have to keep on letting people know that you’re doing this on purpose, that this is your style. The thing that that gives you as a professional is it gives you something that your client can rely on. They can buy into a style if they’re convinced it’s not an accident. You can look at the big fashion photographers and you think ‘oh, that’s a shoot by Nick Knight, that’s by Ellen von Unwerth, that’s by Steven Meisel’ – their look is their brand and it’s very reliable. So if, for example, Prada wants to get somebody to shoot for them and they want everybody in the business to know who it was who shot for them, they want to know exactly what they’re going to get. They need to sell it in to their backers first. That’s the important thing about having continuity.

MH: Would you say the fashion industry is intimidating?

JvS: Everything you hear about the fashion industry is that it’s really shallow, everyone’s really mean, it’s horrible.That’s not true. There’s a lot of really really intelligent, brilliant, creative people in fashion. If you’re doing work like this, it is in itself a message that says, ‘I want to work with the creative types and I want to be doing this really creative photography’ and so that’s the place where you’ll find yourself naturally.

MH: What about assisting? It’s something I’ve wondered about.

JvS: I’d say don’t get stuck assisting for too long. You don’t want to assist for more than two or three years maximum. In fact, don’t even bother, I think a really key thing is that at the moment your work is really unique and so if l was you I would just do a job to earn money, like you are doing, and keep making pictures and then go and be a photographer. I don’t actually think you need to learn anything more technically or even about the industry to do what you’re doing. If you were a still life photographer then yes, you’d have to spend time learning a whole lot of technical stuff but I don’t think you need to do that. In four years time, if you are still taking images like these, you will be good, totally solid. There’s an enormous amount of people in the industry making images but there’s a very very small amount of people who are truly artistic and who are genuinely unique. If you’ve got that, it’s like a little delicate thing that you don’t want to get bashed about by being told to go paint someone’s studio in the middle of the night – it’s just not necessary.

MH: How did you get your first job?

JvS: I arrived in London from Sydney and I just called people up, agents and art directors and asked if l could show them my book. I was taking photos in my bedroom, in my friend’s studio, I was taking images on roofs, wherever I could. I’d borrow kit…. I saw a lot of agents, one took me on and then Dave Dye, an advertising art director, gave me my first job for Adidas. And that was it – I started to get more work. But, I’d worked for six months for free as a kind of dogs body. But yes, I’d definitely advise calling people up to ask if you can show them your book, show them what you’re doing. They might not get it first time – but call them up again a few months later, show them again.  One thing I would say to you is that you should be brutally honest with yourself about the work in your book. If we look at these two images, which one do you like better – this one or this one? This one? OK then you just take out the one you feel isn’t as strong. Less is more. Then with images like the projection stuff – if you have six of them, then you have a series and the thing about a series of images is that it shows people your intention. You intended to create images that look like this, it’s not a mistake, you are a creative person and you can reproduce them on demand should a client want to make a record cover, or an ad, or a fashion spread…. So you have to have the patience to go back and recreate a magic moment. Learn how to repeat your successes. You actually already have series of images in your portfolio which is brilliant, but do be critical of yourself and take out the images that you know don’t quite work or aren’t as strong as the others.

MH: What about knowing what to charge a client?

JvS: That’s very, very difficult, but a client will very, very rarely ask you what your fee is. When you do go and see record labels or agencies, don’t think that they are wanting to shower you with money. You have to say ‘what is the budget for this?’. You have to make those words come out of your mouth at the beginning of the conversation. And then they’ll let you know… if there’s a fee, if they’ll cover costs etc, and you’ll need to work out whether it’s something you can take on.

MH: What about having an agent – I’ve never really thought about getting an agent.

JvS: Your agent is your buddy, it’s their job to be nice to you and to back you up and find you work and help when there’s a problem. For example, if anything goes wrong on a shoot – the client has changed the brief or whatever it is you excuse yourself and call your agent immediately. Don’t wait for whatever it is to develop in any way, simply leave the room and make that call. Your agent will sort out the problem. Your agent is there to fight your corner.

MH: Have you had many different agents through your career?

JvS: Yes I have.

MH: So you can just move around?

JvS: Well, no, it’s a massive, humongous decision when you leave your agent. It’s like an artist leaving a gallery – they’ve put a lot of work into you so you have to have a really good reason, particularly if someone who’s also new takes you on and builds you up. Yeah, you have to think hard before you dump your agent.

MH: So why did you decide to change your agent in the past?

JvS: The basic answer is that I was with a very big agency and I wanted to be with a much smaller one. Actually, my old agent, Camilla Lowther [camillalowther.com], once gave me a really good piece of advice. She said to me, “I don’t think you’re being as creative as you can be”. That was a few years ago, when I hadn’t been doing much personal work. The agency was still too big, but that was a very good piece of advice.


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