Let’s Break The Ice, why are we drinking Champagne?

I grew up in Norfolk – it’s a little place with one road that leads to it. My father was a milkman, my mother a waitress and my brother was a farmer. I wouldn’t say I had a poor upbringing but we had just enough to get by. Before my notion of photography and before I had any idea about success and money – I thought to myself that one day I would have money and when that day comes, all I will drink is Champagne. So for the last 30 years, on every occasion, social or not, I drink Champagne.

At what age did you discover your passion for photography and how did you go about pursuing it?

Let’s go back to 1980 – I was 9 at the time. I was coming up to my 10th birthday and my parents let me go to the cinema by myself, for the first time ever. It was a James Bond movie- “For Your Eyes Only”. Sitting in the cinema and seeing all the gadgets on-screen became embedded in my mind. About two weeks later, I was watching a TV show called “In The Deep End” – a show where every week they showcased a certain profession and this specific week was a photographer – Mike Maloney. He opened his camera bag and showed us all the gadgets he had inside. The equipment hooked me in. Over the years, I fell in love with amazing cinema and actors and wondered how I could get involved in the industry.

Tells us about your book “Degrees” and how your career changed after that?

Degrees was the thing that launched me. I knew that I wanted to shoot famous people after my encounter with Stephen Fry. I started off doing magazine covers – and after a couple of years, I had shot some great people but it wasn’t anything substantial. So one day I went to the library and got all the directories to try and find the famous actors I wanted to photograph. I jotted down 300 names of agents and then ended up sending out 300 handwritten letters – as we had no computers. Six months later I did not have a single response, until out of the blue I received a phone call from Joss Ackland – known for Lethal Weapon. He said that he got my letter, he hated being photographed but if I would shoot his son’s wedding, then he would give me half an hour to do a portrait shoot of him. He was a 7-hour drive away and so I ended up staying the night. I shot his son’s wedding and the next morning over breakfast he asked me how the book was going and I said: “it’s not, you are the only person”. At the time, The Six Degrees of Separation with Kevin Bacon was a thing. Over breakfast, we decided that I should shoot everyone’s best friends. So Joss picked up his phone, called Greta Scacchi – told her about me and she said yes. It just snowballed from there.

Tell us about your Eureka moment with Stephen Fry?

I got to the end of year one of University and never knew what I wanted to do within photography. You end up studying fashion, fine art, food, landscape photography etc, and year two, you specialize in something. Stephen Fry ended up coming to my college to give an Aids Awareness talk and hand out some diplomas. Next door, there was an empty suite, so I put up a backdrop and lights, etc. At the very end of the Q&A – I put my hand up and asked him if I could take his picture – he said yes as long as I was quick. He gave me 90 seconds and in that time I took ten photographs – it changed my life. Having this megastar ass about in front of the camera for me, gave me a huge power trip – it was amazing. He hated the shoot but loved one of the shots and asked for a copy. He ended up putting it on his piano. That Sunday, Kenneth Branagh went round for Sunday lunch and asked Stephen who the photographer was that took that picture. He then called me up and I ended up taking portraits of Kenneth and his wife Emma Thompson. 

On a shoot day, how do you mentally and physically prepare to get the best out of yourself and your client?

I don’t, to be honest. Next year is my 30th anniversary and after 29 years of shooting celebrities every single week, the thinking of what happens on a shoot doesn’t happen anymore. The thing about photography is, it’s all science. I normally go to a shoot with three scenarios in my head; whether the talent is going to be in a good mood, a bad mood or not interested. Each mood will determine what type of shot we get. I tend to steer away from talking about their work and focus on family, friends and everyday conversations. 

I bet you never dreamed you would be awarded an MBE – tell us about that experience.

I was 39 when I got the brown envelope through the post. It’s beyond an honor because I’m doing a job I love. I don’t need awards or recognition but the fact that they wanted to give me one, is amazing. I got an award for my contribution to photography and charity. Awards are just cherries on the cake. What makes it worthwhile is when you do a shoot or something to raise awareness towards saving someone’s life; that’s why I do it. I love meeting my heroes but I also love what people can benefit from my career. The MBE and other awards are a pat on the back saying that I am doing something right.

What advice do you have for this generation who want success instantly?

It’s not going to happen – you have to play the long game. I have done 3 University courses and out of all my peers, I’m the only one still doing photography. Everyone else found the rejection and knock backs too hard. If you want to be in this industry, you need to have skin as thick as a Rhino. The first 3 years of my career were just “no’s” – no one cared because I wasn’t shooting famous people. Then one day, someone gave me a yes and that yes opened the door. At the end of the day, you need thick skin, determination, and self-belief. 

What has been your biggest “pinch-me” moment?

There have been loads but one stands out in particular. I went over to the Czech Republic to shoot Matt Damon – he was shooting one of the Bourne Movies at the time. At the same time, he was doing prep for a new movie with Heath Ledger. I went into the studio hoping to get a shot of Matt looking like Jason Bourne – quite heroic. Heath was at the shoot and decided to start throwing paper towels at Matt’s head whilst we were trying to get the shot. Matt kept laughing hysterically and I couldn’t get the straight shot. So instead, I got Heath to come into the picture and I got ten of the most natural and organic shots I have ever taken – just two best friends messing about.

If you could Break The Ice, with anyone, past or present, who would it be and why?

I would say Leonardo DiCaprio – he is someone I have not yet photographed and yet I know Kate Winslet so well. His personal life is a mystery but he seems like a good guy. I would like to find out what makes Leo, Leo – what makes him tick. That would be a great Champagne afternoon.

Talent: Andy Gotts

Videography: Cors Media

Host: Kendal Olivia Barrett

Photographer: Jack Lewis Williams

Location: Champagne Charlies

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