Creative Lives — Getting timing and sensitivity down to an art, with Yorkshire-based photographer Christopher Nunn
With a portfolio of striking long-term projects, Huddersfield-based photographer Christopher Nunn has turned sensitivity and timing into a craft. From documenting the violence in Ukraine to capturing the grief-ridden parents of a young bombing victim in Manchester, putting people at ease has become a big part of his job. This, too, is reflected in the advice he offers to young creatives: “Be patient and persistent,” he says, “Things often happen very slowly.” Counting the Financial Times, i-D and The Sunday Times as clients, along with word of mouth, much of Christopher’s commissions come through posting on social media, with platforms like Instagram becoming increasingly important in sharing his work. Here, he talks us through some recent commissions, and reflects on the biggest challenges he’s faced so far.
Financial Times, Le Monde, The Sunday Times, The New Yorker, Drapers, Telegraph, i-D
BA Photography, Bradford College
How would you describe what you do?
Most of my commissioned work is editorial or assignment-based. Sometimes these are longer stories working alongside a writer, or sometimes individual portraits. As well as this I work on long-term personal projects.
What does a typical working day look like?
Being freelance, my working days can be pretty random. If I'm not out shooting a commission I'll usually spend the day in my office replying to emails, arranging meetings, updating my website and social media, planning shoots, researching, speaking with contacts about stories that I am working on, working on book projects or preparing for exhibitions.
There will be times when I’m out shooting, and quieter times when I will be in my office a lot. I try and use that down time to plan what’s next, catch up on retouching and post-production and make sure I’m up to date with invoices.
What do you like about working in the part of the UK you’re based in?
I live in West Yorkshire and the creative scene is not that great, but I think it’s steadily growing. It can feel very isolated here sometimes. The plus sides are that I’m in the middle of the country so nowhere is far away, and it’s very cheap to live compared to London. Most of my clients are based in London anyway, and it’s easy to get there from Yorkshire.
'High North', personal work
How does your freelance work usually come about?
A lot of my work comes from social media, in particular Instagram. I think this is an important platform for sharing work and getting it seen. In addition to my personal website, a big part of my work comes from people seeing my previous commissions, or work featured in blogs, websites and exhibitions. Word of mouth basically. I also keep in regular contact with people and send out new work. I’ll occasionally do a physical mailer.
How collaborative is your work?
In terms of commissioned work, it’s collaborative in the sense that I work with photo editors who know my work, and what commissions will be right for me. We will discuss a brief and plan out the shoot together. In reality, though, a freelancer is a one-man band and this can be difficult. I think collaboration is very important so I’m always looking for ways to do more.
What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job?
The least enjoyable are things like bookkeeping and accounts, paperwork and general business tasks, or being stuck in traffic for hours before arriving to do a shoot. The fun stuff is being out photographing interesting things and people, and seeing the finished piece of work published.
“You can hit so many brick walls in the creative industry. The biggest challenge is staying motivated when it feels like no one is listening.”
Fartrown, June 2017
'High North', personal work
Ukraine, Personal work
What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months?
I was commissioned by Emma Bowkett at the Financial Times to shoot a story about the economic situation in Blackpool. I worked with writer Sarah O’Connor and I shot a series of portraits and landscapes to accompany the piece. This was a very interesting and important feature to work on, and I had enough time to slow down and get deeper into the story.
Later in the year I was commissioned by Russ O’Connell at The Sunday Times to photograph the parents of one of the young girls who was killed in the Manchester Arena bombing. This was a very difficult shoot. The only time we could do it was on a Friday night in winter, so there was no natural light to work with. When I met Simon and Lesley at their house I could sense their grief immediately. It was raw and very sad. I could only photograph in the living room which was quite a limited space. After spending some time talking with them, I tried a few different portraits. The one I like most is the one shown here. It’s very deadpan, awkward, and you can feel the tension. They look broken and strong at the same time. I didn’t direct them much, they just stood like this naturally and in one shot Simon took a deep breath and lifted his chin up and for me that made the shot.
What skills are essential to your job?
A big part of what I do is engaging with people and putting them at ease. Almost all my work is real life as opposed to shooting models, and the people I'm photographing are often nervous or uncomfortable about being photographed so my job is to explain clearly what I am doing, put them at ease and make them feel relaxed. I need to be calm and confident in any situation, often outside of my comfort zone.
“When I met Simon and Lesley at their house I could sense their grief immediately. They looked broken and strong at the same time.”
Commissioned portrait of Simon and Lesley for The Sunday Times
Are you currently working on any self-initiated projects?
I’m working on long-term projects in Ukraine. I started working there in 2013 and will be exhibiting a lot of this work for the first time in Autumn. As with any personal project, it’s a long learning curve and working in Ukraine has never been easy. It made me trust my instincts more and helped me to work out of my comfort zone in situations where I had very little control. All the work I did in Ukraine was personal work and self-initiated (i.e. I wasn’t being paid to be there or making any money), but from that work I became more well-known and have had a lot of commissions, both in the UK and elsewhere.
I’m also working on a publication with work I made in Canada with writer Larry Frolick in 2016. I also recently won the Bob and Diane Fund grant for my work about Alzheimer’s, so I’m slowly starting to look into publishing that as a book. As well as this, I’m working on a collaborative project called ‘Sixteen’ which is a photography and youth engagement project. It seeks to engage with 16-year-olds from all walks of life across the UK to explore and document their aims, aspirations, hopes and fears for their short term and longer term futures.
What tools do you use most for your work?
I use one main camera, two lenses, a tripod, a couple of really old flash heads, laptop, and a main computer at home. I work on my images in Lightroom and Photoshop.
Kiev, for i-D, 2016
Society Cryonics, 2016
How I Got Here
What did you want to be growing up?
Stuntman, DJ, pro skateboarder. All much cooler than being a photographer!
What were your first jobs?
I did a bit of work experience at a press agency for a short time. Later I worked as a freelance assistant with quite a wide range of photographers, on photography and video shoots. This definitely taught me a lot about the industry and helped me work out what I wanted to do. It also gave me a very good insight into the business side of freelancing. Things like understanding copyright, licensing, invoicing and what you should charge can all be a minefield at first.
What skills have you learnt along the way?
Patience and persistence. Things often happen very slowly.
What’s been your biggest challenge?
The biggest challenge is keeping motivated and positive when it feels like no one is listening. You can hit so many brick walls in the creative industry and it’s important to learn from this, keep focused and remain positive.
Christopher recently won the Bob and Diane Fund grant for his work about Alzheimer’s
'High North', personal work
What would you like to do next?
In general, continue to develop my practice and keep moving in a positive direction. I’d like to work on more collaborative projects and move forward with my personal work. I’m speaking with a few agents so this could be the next step. In terms of personal projects, there are at least four books that I want to put out over the next year or two. Realistically, I may do one or two this year.
Could you do this job forever?
The photography industry is always changing and it’s difficult to know what direction things will go in. I will certainly always work with photography, but my job may change from its current state.
What do you feel is the natural career progression for someone in your current position?
I don’t know. I think the industry is very hard to navigate sometimes. It’s trying to find that balance where everything can work together – the commissioned work and the personal work. Many photographers in my position get into teaching, which is something I’ve considered in the past but I don’t think it’s for me.
Berdyansk, Ukraine, August 2015
Words of Wisdom
What advice would you give to a young creative wanting to become a photographer?
Be persistent, work hard, and have good manners even when it seems like nobody else does. Do your own thing, have fun, experiment, keep inspired. Social media is fun and can be an important part of sharing work and building your career, but don’t take it too seriously. It’s mostly just noise. Back up your work. If you haven't backed up your work, stop reading things on the internet do it now.