Creative Lives — How Wallpaper*’s photography director Holly Hay maintains freelancing and structures her working week

Posted 06 June 2018 Interview by Indi Davies

“I realised I couldn’t take the pictures I really liked. I preferred other people’s.” Holly Hay didn’t start out with dreams of becoming a photographic director. As a fresh graduate, she began her journey behind the camera, before moving into magazine production – editing, art buying and commissioning for titles such as Garage, Lula and Clash Magazine. In 2014 she joined the team at AnOther, and after three years, she recently moved to design publication Wallpaper*. Here it’s Holly’s job to steer the overall direction of the magazine’s photographic output, from developing a story’s visual concept to final image selection. But her work doesn’t end there: Holly also maintains freelance projects as an art buyer and commissioning editor, dedicating one day a week to collaborations with brands and photographers. She describes how she keeps so many professional plates spinning, and how a stressful early experience forever changed her approach to work.

Holly Hay

Job Title

Photo Director at Wallpaper* Magazine (December 2017–present)

Based

London

Education

BA Fashion Communication with Promotion, Central Saint Martins (2005–2008)

Previous Employment

Photo Editor at AnOther Magazine (2014–2017)
Producer, and then Junior Editor, at Garage Magazine (2011–2013)

Social Media
Website

Holly, shot by Timo Wirsching

Day-to-Day

What does a typical working day look like? 
Monday to Wednesday I am office-based, and that’s when I do all of my team meetings – including a weekly with the editor, architecture, interiors and fashion teams, so we know what everyone’s doing. It’s also when I sit down with the editors to brainstorm future stories and bigger-picture thinking, to how we can push things. Thursdays is when I meet photographers. My office is in Canary Wharf, which is hard to get to, so I’ll spend the day in town, catching up with collaborators.

On a Friday I work freelance, and do a lot of work with brands and independent projects. I recently worked on an exhibition, film and a book with a curator friend.

A spread from Wallpaper*’s March 2018 issue – the first that Holly worked on

A spread from Wallpaper*’s March 2018 issue – the first that Holly worked on

Have you always worked freelance alongside your day job?
At the beginning of my career I worked at Garage Magazine and it paid so little that they offered for me to freelance on the side. At that time I was still taking pictures, so it was a chance to introduce myself to people in different ways.

When I started at AnOther and Wallpaper*, I asked if they would be up for me doing the same, and they were. I’m still available on that day, it just gives me the opportunity to do more personal work.

How collaborative is your role?
I work closely with editors when they’re developing ideas, and the visual develops alongside that. Wallpaper* is different to anywhere I’ve worked before, because it’s very much story first, like visual journalism. You’re not just commissioning beautiful visuals, there has to be a reason for every image: they have to tell the story.

In contrast, working on a fashion story, you will start the conversation, and then once the photographer and stylist are working on it, you detach yourself, and it continues to develop without you.

“[Freelancing] gives me the opportunity to do more personal work.”

Surrealist Scents, shot by Matthieu Lavanchy for AnOther Magazine

Photographed by Larissa Hofmann, for AnOther Magazine

As print publications, Wallpaper* is monthly, while AnOther is biannual – how does this compare?
At Wallpaper*, I’ll be working on three issues at a time. Every issue has a theme, which you’ll know a year in advance. These aren’t really specific, for example, March and September will be fashion issues. 

When you’re working on a biannual like AnOther, the high-res images and final text is sent to the art team, and they spend a long time working on the layout. Whereas, on a monthly, everything happens alongside each other. As soon as we’ve gone to print, the art team start laying out the next issue. We have to be so on top of deadlines so they have something to work with. The team works in an agile way; something might change last-minute, and we’ll be going to press that day.

Photographed by Chris Rhodes for AnOther Magazine

Photographed by Chris Rhodes for AnOther Magazine

How I Got Here

What did you want to be when you were growing up?
I wanted to be a photographer. My dad gave me his camera when I was very little and I loved taking photos (or the idea of it). But, ultimately, I realised I couldn't take the pictures I really liked. I preferred other people's. Working with photographers is a way for me to make the pictures I really want to make.

When I took photos, I did a lot of commercial jobs and shooting backstage where I didn’t have to talk to anyone. But there’s a point when that doesn’t work anymore. When I met my now husband, who is a photographer and director, I realised what it took, and I didn’t think I had it in me. I saw that you have to be a bit of a performer: everyone’s looking to you for the answer. That’s a lot of pressure, and increasingly so. We expect photographers to be art directors on shoots as well. 

You studied fashion communication – how has this influenced your choice of career?
The Fashion Communication course at Saint Martins really geared you towards a job in a magazine. Some people left and became journalists, some art directors or creative directors. I took photos throughout the course as I always knew that that was what I wanted to go into.

It helped in terms of the people it connected me with. Laura Bradley, who was the same year as me, went on to work at AnOther and introduced me to that role.

John Waters by Mark Peckmezian, for AnOther Magazine

Miranda July by Angelo Pennetta, for AnOther Magazine

What were your first steps after graduating?
Living at home in London helped enormously. I worked in a shop through my degree, so I kept that job on the side, took pictures, did internships and just figured it out.

I’ve always been really ambitious, and probably in a naïve way, but I also had moments where I really was like, “Shit, what am I going to do?” I wasn’t great at networking, but I always believed that the people who are nice to others will win in the end, and I still do. If you work really hard, and you’re nice, it has to work out, hasn’t it?

“Working with photographers is a way for me to make the pictures I really want to make.”

Holly’s own work (backstage at a fashion show), from when she was working as a photographer

Holly’s own work (backstage at a fashion show), from when she was working as a photographer

Holly’s own work (backstage at a fashion show), from when she was working as a photographer

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Did you ever work in environments that weren’t so nice?
I’ve worked in really high-pressured environments. When I was at Garage, I  didn’t know what I was doing – it was mental. We were running this magazine, working for Dasha Zhukova, who’s incredible but had very high expectations of us all and rightly so. As my first job at a magazine, I put a hell of a lot of pressure on myself. It bled into my relationship at the time, and eventually I just cracked. 

I was that person, two days before Christmas with my family, on my BlackBerry having to take calls. So I put a stop to it. I went to a meeting with my boss, and said, “I totally respect that this is how you work, but I can’t do it.” That changed my life completely, and since then I’ve never been that stressed again.

I think what we do should be enjoyed. You shouldn’t be scared to open your emails. It isn’t normal, but it’s very commonplace in the industry. However, that bad time has actually made me much better at my job now.

It’s important to protect yourself against that level of stress – it makes you unwell. My mum always used to talk about work-life balance, and I thought it was so boring, but it’s essential to feel you’ve got something beyond your job to make you happy. Quite often we just need a little bit of help, so be brave enough to ask for support.

Pamela Anderson by Jack Davison, for AnOther Magazine

Photographed by Larissa Hofmann, for AnOther Magazine

Thinking Ahead

What would you like to do next?
I’m really excited to get involved in more parts of the business at Wallpaper*. It’s great to be part of a business that is excited to be constantly growing.

And, in the future, since I’ve worked with magazines for so long, I imagine I might want to work in-house at a brand. Brands are making some of the most exciting content, plus they have more budget!

“I have the ultimate fear that I might miss the best undiscovered photographer if I don't look at all my emails.”

Photographed by David Abrahams for AnOther Magazine

Words of Wisdom

What advice would you give to a young creative wanting to get into the same line of work?
At university level, get to know the person sitting next to you. They’re going to be doing something alongside you in the industry. Learn how they want to work from the beginning and build those relationships.

Then, in terms of getting into work, for me production was a good way of figuring out what I wanted to do – even though I wasn’t very good at it! You get to see the project from beginning to end, and just being in the environment is really insightful.

And do you have any tips for emerging photographers?
There are some really good competitions now for emerging talent. JW Anderson has one [‘Your picture/Our future’], and they ended up choosing three winners, because the level of talent was so high – it’s given exposure to a lot of people.

I also think it’s good to cold-email people. I have the ultimate fear that I might miss the best undiscovered photographer in the entire world if I don’t look at all my emails. And everyone likes being asked for advice – not necessarily just saying, “ I love your magazine, can I come and show you my work?” but, “I’d love your opinion.” It’s important to send work and have that back-and-forth while you’re developing. Being a photographer can be lonely.

Also, assisting someone is so valuable to get their insight and advice. It’s not just the technical side, it’s also learning about interaction with clients – that’s half the job.


Top image by Chadwick Tyler for AnOther Magazine.

Posted 06 June 2018 Interview by Indi Davies
Collection: Creative Lives
Disciplines: Photography
Mentions: Holly Hay
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