Since graduating from the prestigious Documentary Photography course at Newport in 2013, Owen Harvey has continued to produce a number of personal projects with a focus on youth, subculture, sport and masculinity.
Owen’s work has been recognised by numerous awards and have been published by a range of magazines and online publications including the BBC, i-d Magazine and Vogue Italia. More recently he has established himself as a commercial photographer, gaining representation from Trayler & Trayler agency earlier this year, continuing to pick up commissions from clients including Nike, Fred Perry and Sony Music, based off the merit and style of his personal work.
Bertie Oakes: How did you become interested in photography and what made you choose the Documentary Photography degree at Newport?
Owen Harvey: It was after a long period of playing music in a band. As the band came to a finish, I still felt the need to create something, at the time I didn’t know what I wanted to create, I just had a need to have some form of creative outlet. Looking back now I realise the first picture story I saw was Ethan Russell’s photos from the booklet of Quadrophenia, by The Who. I was fascinated by those pictures and they resonated with me. I saw myself in some of those images and realised that photography could be a strong tool to provoke emotion and to tell stories. I was always primarily interested in people, so documentary photography always appealed to me, but alongside this I was interested also in style and performance. I’d heard a lot about the course at Newport and decided if I was going to study photography, then I should go there, due to its strong reputation for producing good documentary photographers.
BO: Based on your own experience what do you think aspiring photographers should be looking for in a photography degree course?
OH: They should be looking for a university that really encourages them to discover who they are first and foremost – to find out what makes them want to pick up their camera (if they don’t already know). The course should encourage using those three years to take a lot of photos, through that process they’ll find out what they want to focus on naturally. Sometimes it’s easy to get bogged down in theory, but really photography is a visual medium and the photos only become successful after you learn what works for you. If I ran a course, I’d want to see a lot of new pictures every week from students, I’d want to them to leave with a good technical knowledge to use after leaving university, and to learn a good history of the medium. These are the things that I’d look for in a course as a student.
BO: What were the main lessons you learnt from studying at Newport?
OH: Newport changed my perception of what documentary photography can be. When I first joined the course, I had quite a rigid idea of documentary photography. I realised during my time studying, that I was drawn to work that made more subtle social commentary on places or people. Pictures that could be humorous, uplifting, playful, and close to home. By looking at the work of, and discussing directly with, lecturers such as Ken Grant, Paul Reas & Clive Landen, I learned that it was often important to photograph what you know.
BO: With regards to photographing what you know, did your background in music inform any of the work you went on to make, and how important do you believe it is to produce work on subjects you have a personal connection or experience with?
OH: My background in music has informed every project I’ve worked on in one way or another. I was fortunate that I was able to play music in a band from when I was 14 – 21 and this shaped my interest in subculture, style, identity and the idea of performance in a broader sense. Many other aspects of growing up also shaped my interests in what I photograph, but music was perhaps like many others the biggest influence on my teenage years and still is.
BO: Your graduate project, Mod UK, went on to win several awards and was has been published and exhibited widely. How important do you feel it is to make a strong final year project with broad appeal?
OH: I think winning awards and exposure through that is always useful and a nice reassurance that peers understand what you’re trying to do. Of course you always want to make strong work and if it comes at the end of your university course, that’s great. I was always very aware though that what matters most is that I liked the work. Some people have their work recognised at quite an early stage of their career and for others it’s nearer the end, both have their pros and cons. I think the most important thing is not to get too caught up on that and be honest to yourself and make the work you want to make.
BO: From my experience a lot of students struggle with impatience. You’re still very young so from an outsider’s perspective it looks like you have had a fairly rapid rise. However, upon graduating you interned at Magnum Photos before working at Metro Imaging for two years, as well as assisting established photographers before going full-time freelance. How important were these industry experiences in extending your photographic education and getting you to where you are now?
OH: Those opportunities were very important. Magnum Photos gave me a great education in photography and taught me the importance of archiving work properly. I met some people who I consider some of my closest friends now, who I still discuss photography with regularly. Metro Imaging was also important, for the same reasons as above. It also offered me a salary at the time, which enabled me to keep making work that I was passionate about. Assisting photographers was a useful learning curve in understanding how to conduct oneself as a professional.
BO: The amount of long-term projects you have made suggests you have always found the time to work on your personal projects at the same time as working commercially. However was there ever a point you considered studying an MA to give you more time to focus purely on long-term projects?
OH: I always have and continue to make personal work and didn’t feel the need or want to go back to study an MA, perhaps because I was lucky to have a supportive peer group around me after my BA, who I regularly shared work with. Any time I’m not doing commercial work, I am thinking of ideas, arranging shoots, or shooting. I am also fortunate now that I have my agent Trayler & Trayler who I can sit and discuss ideas with too.
BO: You have conducted several guest lectures at Universities and have given workshops at the V&A. What do you enjoy about speaking about your work and do you believe it is important for photographers to be able to do so?
OH: I enjoy speaking about the work as I’m passionate about it, but I enjoy talking about photography in a broader sense more. The more I talk about photography and listen to other people’s thoughts on certain subjects, the more I learn and hopefully in turn the work continues to progress.
BO: Finally, can you share with us any plans you have for the future, both in terms of personal projects and commercial work?
OH: I’m working on three personal projects at the moment, which are in different stages. They all fit in to the umbrella of work that I’m interested in making that covers identity, style, subculture and socioeconomics. Commercially I’m shooting more advertising, which I also really enjoy, I love its collaborative and fast paced nature. It’s all just about continuing to make work and making sure I’m feeling excited about what I do now and for the future, and in turn I feel the opportunities to show the work will keep presenting themselves.
BO: Thanks for your time and best of luck with your upcoming projects.
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