Tori Ferenc is a London based photographer from Poland. Having carved her own path to commercial and creative success, her voice is an important one on the subject of photographic education.
In this interview Ferenc’s shares her route into the industry, suggests what she gained and missed from not studying, and speaks openly about her determined approach to getting noticed.
Harry Flook: Unlike everyone else in this series so far, you didn’t study, can you talk us through your less conventional route into Photography?
Tori Ferenc: I became interested in photography at high school. I must have been 16 or 17, and remember vividly that teachers would get frustrated because I wouldn’t put the camera down, not even during classes. I wanted to photograph everything. Back then I used two cameras – an old digital Olympus I would take from my dad and an even older film Zenith – a really old school Soviet camera. I got it from one of my dad’s friends. She used to live in Sarajevo and she fled to Poland during the Yugoslav war. When she returned after 5 years, the only thing that was intact in her flat was the old Zenith.
Anyway, after high school I went against my natural instinct to study photography and focused on language and literature studies. I graduated with a BA in English and Afrikaans. My mom was really worried that I wouldn’t be able to make a living as a photographer, so I did what I thought was sensible. It didn’t work out, the desire to study photography remained so I applied to a few photography schools in Poland – with very little success. I couldn’t get through the first stage selection. I almost gave up and then, quite spontaneously, I decided to apply to LCC. I didn’t think I’d stand a chance, but figured it wouldn’t hurt to try. To my surprise, I was accepted. My initial joy was quickly shadowed by the fact that I wouldn’t be able to afford my course. I wasn’t eligible for a student loan since I already had a degree.
Obviously I didn’t have ten thousand pounds in my bank account so after only a couple months in London, I went back to Poland. I moved to Warsaw and started working at Daylight Studios where I picked up lighting and technical skills from more experienced assistants. After a year there, I decided to give myself one more chance in London. That was five years ago. In the beginning, I juggled different jobs – waiting tables at a restaurant, working in studios, and assisting photographers. In my spare time, I photographed new faces for model agencies. I never really felt comfortable shooting fashion though, it didn’t seem honest to me, I think deep inside I was always quite against the superficiality. I started working with a portrait photographer and he suggested that maybe I should try my hand at street photography. I bought myself a medium format Rolleiflex around that time and suddenly, everything came together. I found my voice in photography.
HF: It’s impressive that you managed to make it happen in London your own way. What do you think you missed, and what maybe did you gain, by not studying photography?
TF: When I think of the things I have missed, it’s definitely more academic approach to photography in general, and my inability to write about my work (which – I noticed over the years – really helps when you’re trying to apply to competitions or grants), or look at it from a more abstract point of view. I sometimes feel like I am unable to shoot more poetic, not so in-your-face work. Sometimes I wonder if my photos lack something because of that. Maybe if I was forced to do more theoretical work on photography, I’d have more tools to make a point without being so literal.
I think the advantage of studying is that it give you head space and time. Time to work on your personal projects without distractions. Time to think and figure out what sort of photography you want to do. Time to dig into archives and to discover other people’s work, time to make your own prints and just have fun with photography, to learn different techniques and approaches. I think it’s much easier to crystalize your artistic vision if there isn’t anything (mostly money related issues) looming over your head.
However, I have never felt I needed that sort of official validation to become a good photographer. There’s so many photography graduates who end up doing something completely different despite spending three years or more studying it, because universities don’t seem to prepare people for what comes after. They don’t tell you that being talented is one thing, but being persistent is another. Taking a harder route prepared me for worse times and strengthened my relentlessness.
HF: Given the financial burden of university in many countries, would you advise others to follow a similarly self-directed route?
TF: To be honest, it’s hard to say. In my opinion, the benefits of studying photography don’t overcome the fact that you’re putting yourself in a massive debt for the next decade or so. If you really want to be a photographer, you will find a way, with or without university. Most of my favourite photographers never studied it. They learnt by shooting. But that’s just my point of view, since I’ve never studied photography and that’s all I know, I have no other experience in that matter. Maybe if I studied, I’d say something completely different!
HF: Has anyone become a mentor to you throughout your journey?
TF: Well, I have never been mentored in a traditional sense of the word. There were photographers I worked with on a regular basis who I learned a lot from, ranging from technical bits to softer skills such as how to deal with a client and how to distract a nervous subject with a friendly chatter. But it was never a master-student situation. I never assisted anyone regularly enough to call them my mentor. But if I ever had to name someone, I would say Gemma Fletcher – an incredible creative director and writer. I got in touch with her a couple of years ago and she invited me for a portfolio review. We’ve been in touch since then. Her advice on my work has been priceless, and she also came up with the idea for one of my long-term projects. She has an immense ability to understand the visual language of every photographer she meets – and then improve it, take it even further. She’s obsessed with visual arts, always finding new talents and spreading the word on her social media. She’s incredibly inspiring.
HF: You’ve found commercial success largely shooting editorial briefs. How did get your work noticed by commissioners of Photography?
TF: It’s been a long journey. Before I even started contacting photography editors, I had a couple of personal projects I’d worked on already. I had a massive collection of street photography from London and New York, I photographed my first Purim, I went to a refugee camp in France and took portraits of Kurdish children there. Once I had something to show, I began sending my work relentlessly to picture editors. Finding someone’s e-mail address can be an art in itself! I think my first big feature was published in The Guardian, then in AnOther and It’s Nice That. I’m not sure how much it helped me with getting my commissions, but it must have done something good. My first assignment was for FT Weekend. Emma Bowkett commissioned me, I believe I’d been emailing her for half a year prior to that.
It will probably sound like a truism, but I think the key to success lies in determination. There are people to whom I’ve been sending my work to for the last four years, and I am yet to receive a response – I keep trying nonetheless. I have never won a major competition – but I still apply, every year. I know for a fact that even if you don’t win, some judges that liked your work will remember you and give you commissions later on. Also, I never underestimate the power of personal work – I always try to keep myself busy with new projects. First of all, it keeps me sane during quiet times and then, fresh work is a great way to remind a photo editor or potential agent of your existence.
HF: It may be a truism, but it’s helpful when photographers speak so candidly about their approach, especially the less glamorous side of gaining recognition. You also mention the importance of personal work in gaining commissions, which has come up a number of time throughout this series. To finish off, what personal projects are you working on currently?
TF: Currently I am planning to publish a book with my work on Purim in Stamford Hill, home to the biggest Orthodox Jewish community in Europe. I’ve been photographing Purim for the last four years and I feel the project has now matured enough to be put into a book. Another subject I have been photographing lately is a community of English and Irish Travellers. It would be great to make a book about it too, but for now it’s gotta be one at a time!
HF: Thanks for your honest and thoughtful answers, and good luck with the book publication. I’m excited to see it.
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