The natural

Five years ago, Sophie Ebrard swapped life as an advertising account manager for professional photography. She’s never looked back. By Eliza Williams

On January 6, 2010, Sophie Ebrard became a photographer. From that day forward she began to create work in the style that has become her signature: images drenched with natural light, intimacy and beauty, always beauty. Her shots are cinematic: filled with movement and energy, each still contains a story, usually a personal tale, with Ebrard inviting the viewer to take a glimpse into a world that is private, out-of-bounds. Her images appear to be perfectly pitched for today – in a culture that is seemingly obsessed with authenticity, her photographs feel real.

It is unusual to be able to pinpoint the start of your career to a specific day, but then Ebrard’s journey into photography was an unconventional one. Growing up in the Alps, she studied business, before going into advertising, working for ten years in account management. So far, so un-artistic you might think. Yet Ebrard’s choices in advertising were shrewd – she deliberately joined the most creative agencies around, doing stints at BBDP & Fils, TBWA and Mother.

“I had always been interested in being a creative but I didn’t see myself as a creative in advertising, I didn’t think I was good at it,” she says. “In a way it’s weird because I’ve always been a frustrated accounts person, I was always on the creatives’ side. I was always pushing for good creative work.”

The creative draw was what kept her interested in advertising, but a move into working on global accounts – where “there’s less room for really good creative work”, she says – made her realise a change was required. “One day I just said ‘that’s enough, I’m done with this’,” she says. “That was five years ago and I’d just launched a very big campaign for a big global account, and it was really the opposite of what I wanted to do.” So Ebrard left, and in early 2010 began life as a photographer.

This was not a random decision: Ebrard had always been interested in photography and always carried a camera; she comments that her old friends were unsurprised when she announced her new career. But in terms of formal training, she was unschooled. In some regards though, this has been fortuitous. 
“Because I didn’t go to art school, I almost didn’t have much culture into photography, everything I was doing was with a fresh eye,” she says. “It was very much my style, nobody told me how to do it, or how to shoot. I had very little technical knowledge at the very beginning. So it was just about sensing what I wanted to shoot, it was very much an instinct thing. That was how I developed very quickly a body of work that was very me.”

Her background in advertising has also proved unexpectedly useful in terms of growing her career, both in the opportunities it has thrown up – her first paid commission was for Mother, taking behind-the-scenes images on a Match.com shoot – but also in the business acumen it has given her.

“You have to understand so many things,” she says. “Understanding the client and their needs, and how the agency works, is very important. I think it was a necessary step for me to work in advertising for ten years, to build my understanding of the world of advertising and what to expect from an image, and also to build my standards. I’ve worked in really good agencies for all of my life, so I’ve got really high standards when it comes to the finished product.”

Ebrard shoots both commercial work – most recently producing a major ad campaign for Rolex starring Roger Federer, James Cameron and Michael Bublé – and personal projects. Of the latter, she usually photographs when she is travelling or on holiday, always looking for interesting stories or images, though has also been working on a major project for the last few years, where she has worked with the Scottish porn director Gazzman, shooting images on his film sets.

Their collaboration came about through a chance encounter at a swingers party. “I had always been interested in doing something a bit more personal and the human body was really appealing to me,” she explains. “I went with my ex-agent to a swingers party because I wanted to find subjects for a project that involved people being naked. It was the first time I’d seen someone having sex in front of me and that was quite an eye opener! It was amazing to see how beautiful the human body was and how beautiful it was when people were having sex – it was fascinating, I really wanted to have my camera.”

Gazzman was at the party with his girlfriend and invited Ebrard to photograph at his next shoot, which was taking place in the rather incongruous location of Stoke-on-Trent. “So very naively, three weeks later I jumped on a train,” remembers Ebrard. “I didn’t even research who he was or what kind of porn he was making … it turns out he’s a really ‘good’ porn director, he tries to do quality porn.”

The result of working with Gazzman and his actors is the series It’s Just Love, which Ebrard is hoping to exhibit soon. She plans to show the images alongside text about the experience. “I’ve tried to capture the beauty and the aesthetics of the human body, I’m not really focusing on the sexual encounter,” she says. “People see porn as something really terrible and a terrible industry and it’s not always the case. I saw the beauty and I saw the humour and I want to tell my story.”

Ebrard moves easily between subjects, whether it be working with porn stars, dementia patients (she won Best in Book in the 2013 CR Photography Annual for a NHS dementia campaign) or A-list celebrities. When talking of the various techniques that she uses to put her subjects at ease, Ebrard describes herself as a “chameleon”, becoming “almost a different person depending on who you shoot”. She clearly has natural charm and a strong ability to listen but as well as a skill in adapting her character when required, she also finds a connection with people through a less expected source: by her use of film, shooting on it for all her personal work and, when she can, in commissioned work too.

While she is drawn to film for its “indescribable quality”, she finds it also changes the relationship with her subjects. “You’re always so much more focused, you know that when you press the shutter it’s going to be £2,” she says, “Also, the person you’re photographing really sees that you’re focused so they’re also more engaged, everyone is more into the picture. And you don’t lose that connection,” she continues. “When you’re shooting digital you always have a tendency to look at the picture on the back of the camera or the screen and you kind of lose it, so when you shoot film you really build that connection, and I don’t get that when I shoot digital.”

Ebrard has achieved great success as a photographer in the five years she has been practising – winning awards (this is the second year running she has been Best in Book in CR’s Photography Annual) and shooting for major brands. She clearly made the right decision back in 2010, and is passionate about her career and the unexpected places it has taken her. “One of the most amazing things about being a photographer, or being the photographer I am, is I can choose my subjects and I think it’s just fascinating to meet so many different people,” she says. “What other job would you be able to be on a porn set for 15 days and share their rooms and eat food with them? And then the next day be in Santa Barbara at James Cameron’s property, taking pictures of him? It’s world’s apart.”

See more at sophieebrard.com. Ebrard is represented by Wyatt-Clarke & Jones (wyattclarkejones.com) and i2i. Photography (i2iphoto.com)

More from CR

Eight of the best Christmas window displays

With Christmas shopping season well underway, department stores on both sides of the Atlantic have transformed their windows with elaborate festive displays. Here’s a look at some of the finest we’ve seen so far…

A room with a view – Richard McGuire’s Here

Here by Richard McGuire is ostensibly a graphic novel about a single point in space and the things that happen there over the course of several million years. For the majority of the comic’s duration, the space in question is the corner of a room in a house in America – everything in the story takes place ‘here’

Truman & Cooper deliver another gripping music video

French directing duo Truman & Cooper caught our attention earlier this year with their striking films for Kid Wise and Son Lux. They return this week with an equally gripping video for Rag n’ Bone man. We talk to them about how it was made…

Artworker

NAO (National Audit Office)

Junior Designer

National Theatre