Interview by Poleta Ianeva
Kate Stanworth is a London based photographer, exploring the world through documentary and portrait photography. She discussed her Turning Point in Loupe Issue 7, and in this interview we discuss her practice more broadly, revealing what it means for her to communicate with people through the camera.
Poleta Ianeva: What made you choose to work with documentary photography?
Kate Stanworth: I started my life as a painter and I have always observed my surroundings, but ultimately I didn’t want to be shut away working in a studio.
I studied photography at art college but I really just used it as a means of visual note-taking for my art projects. A couple of years after I graduated, I got a job as a Picture Editor at an International NGO and this really opened my eyes to the possibilities of photography, and eventually gave me the inspiration to start building my own career as a documentary and portrait photographer.
Since then, documentary photography has allowed me to meet people I would never have got to meet and to go to places I would never be able to see otherwise. I felt so privileged to be given the chance to try to document other people’s lives through this medium.
PI: Do you have a specific process when approaching these people, how do you choose who to include in your projects?
KS: I look for people that have an interesting story, and that are happy to allow me to accompany them for a while. The process of approaching people and finding stories varies. Sometimes we have a friend in common who introduces us, or sometimes my personal projects begin with a commission.
My project on murga dancers in Argentina began with a commission. I took a photo of the group rehearsing in my local park, and the picture was published full page in a newspaper to coincide with the start of Buenos Aires’ carnival season. I took some copies back to the people in the photograph, and they were over the moon to see themselves in print. That’s when they invited me to follow them in their tour buses during the parades. We have been friends ever since and they really allowed me into their lives when I later decided to make this a longer-term project.
PI: So the dancers were comfortable with you photographing them, do you think that made photographing them easier?
KS: People are used to photographers shooting the carnival so that was nothing new, but as for the behind the scenes stuff it initially took a while for people to get used to me. Every year I take back prints for the people who I have photographed and this has helped to create trust and understanding. Since we’ve got to know each other, people seem to understand what I’m doing and the fact I’m looking for quieter, more intimate pictures and not just the craziness of carnival that everyone has seen before.
PI: Can you talk more broadly about your process during a photoshoot? Many stage performers talk about little rituals they have, do you have any while photographing?
KS: Usually I have a strong visual idea of what I want to shoot before I go out. I look at images I like that are relevant to the subject – often film stills. Things always change when you get to the shoot and you have to respond to the opportunities presented, but I like to have a jumping-off point in my mind.
While I’m photographing the process varies depending on whether I am capturing candid scenes or set-up portraits. Either way, I try to remind myself to stay present and constantly improve and think about how to create the best opportunities for good photos to happen. If I’m shooting more set-up portraits, I try to make people feel comfortable to create a situation where genuine moments of interaction occur.
PI: I am interested in the thinking behind Where we are now. Could you tell us more about what inspired you to shoot this project, and how the different stories impacted you?
KS: I was commissioned to do a project with a collective of writers, academics and artists from Keele and Royal Holloway Universities, who were working around Mediterranean migration. I was a little disconcerted by this theme as so many people are working on it. The majority of photos being taken seemed to portray the same things though – people in boats, and at borders etc – so I decided I wanted to create a quieter meditation on what it is to start your life in a new country, where many of these people had never previously imagined themselves to be.
Working on these stories really makes an impact on your life and people’s stories stay with you and often haunt you. But it’s amazing to spend time with people first hand, that you would otherwise only read about in (often biased) news stories.
PI: How did your approach allow you to achieve this ‘quieter meditation’, what did you do differently from others who have explored the subject?
KS: The series includes images of the places people have come from, using maps and some of their own smartphone images of their journeys to Europe, to evoke the idea of memory, displayed alongside the spaces they subsequently found themselves in. I was touching upon ideas of disorientation and belonging, looking at ‘home’ as something that you have to rework and create anew when your life has been disrupted.
I hoped to present the stories within the context of everyday life, that we can all somehow relate to, trying to avoid ‘othering’ people. Everyone has times in their lives where their lives are disrupted you have to pick up the pieces, change your perception of where you are going in life and carry on.
PI: Where else do you find inspiration?
KS: I look at a lot of photographers’ and painters’ work, and I also find a lot of inspiration in film. Music is a huge inspiration too, but mostly I think I’m guided by the people I photograph and their strength and creativity in overcoming what life throws at them.
PI: How important is it to create a relationship with the subject before the photoshoot and how does that help impact authenticity of the photograph?
KS: On the longer form projects it’s important for me to spend time with the people I want to photograph, get to know them and their stories, and what they feel passionate about. This then informs how I photograph them.
If you are working with a journalist or an NGO, often the contact has been set-up beforehand and you are already given the story and the type of shot needed. This can be a great way to access people and stories, but if you are working alone there is a lot of groundwork to do.
PI: When it comes to exhibiting your work, what is your process and how do you think that affects the story you are telling?
KS: I usually like to have in mind a format for how I want to show the work, and this in turn guides the project. For instance, for the Argentina project I want to make a book, and this has given me the impetus to go much deeper into the story and to work on it for a sustained amount of time.
For Where We Are Now I had a deadline when I had to exhibit the work in Naples and London. I began to work on a series of small photo-essays with text, and as I went along I developed a way to combine the words and images on kind of concertina structures that ended up being mounted on the walls. I liked this because it felt a bit like a 3D book, and it afforded a sense of intimacy with the work. Ultimately I think the way you show the work should be guided by what you want to say.
PI: Thank you for taking the time to be interviewed. Best of luck with your next project.
Kate was featured as the Turning Point in Issue 7 of Loupe. Most of our stockists will have run out of copies but copies and annual subscriptions can be purchased here.