Creative Lives — Director and photographer India Sleem explains why kindness is the key to success

Posted 09 January 2020 Interview by Daniel Milroy Maher

Fascinated as a teenager by the work of Martin Parr and making her own documentary films, India Sleem wouldn’t realise until her last year of university that this hobby could be her full-time job. Now based in New York, she has carved out an enviable career in directing and photography, with an impressive list of clients that includes Nike, Vogue, Converse, GQ, Gap and many more. Here, India recounts her steps to success and tells us why investing time in improving your people skills will take you far.

India Sleem

Based

Brooklyn, New York

Clients

Nike, Vogue, Converse, GQ, Gap

Previous Employment

NOWNESS, Sagmeister & Walsh

Education

BA Advertising Design (2013–2016)

Website
Social Media

India

Day-to-Day

How would you describe what you do?
I always say that my work deals with colour, composition and human-centric themes. A lot of my work stems from my identity; as a mixed-race person, I am often working with POC and with these clients I try to focus on beautifying the diversity of cultures. I really love the relationships between family members, friends and colleagues and telling their stories – ones that they might not think people even want to hear, but we do! I usually work for commercial clients: fashion, music and editorial, and I have a big hand in the casting, which is one of my favourite parts.

What does a typical working day look like and where does it happen?
If I’m shooting, then my day just revolves around my call sheet. I’ll prepare everything the night before a shoot so I can just get up and go in the morning. If I’m not shooting, I usually spend the day at my local coffee shop working on treatments, editing, or researching. I’ll take a few breaks to walk my dog, Snacks. I’ve started not forcing myself to be creative in those moments, instead spending time watching old films or being outside. I’m learning the way the creative side of my brain works and how to listen to it when it’s ready to make something good.

What are the most and least enjoyable parts of your job?
It’s hard to choose my favourite part. Being on set is always amazing, especially with good company and banter, but I love pre-production and watching your vision come to life bit-by-bit. The best part is probably the wrap when you’ve finished making this thing and you’ve gotten to know the crew – I love that. The worst part is when you’re not working and not winning projects, but then those moments don’t feel so bad once you’re hired for something else.

Blend: Taryl Boothe

Coney Islanders

Converse: We Start It – Seoul

Converse: We Start It – Mexico

Converse: We Start It – Mexico

Gap Khakis: Spring 2018

Indian Hills

Nike By You: Fera Schmidt

Small Town Country Boy

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What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months?
Hard question… I would have to say the Converse campaign. I recently got signed with Black Dog Films (legends) and a small crew of us flew to Paris, Mexico and Seoul. It was hard work for a whole month but the banter was so good and we met the most amazing people along the way, learnt some new languages, and visited new countries and cultures. It was insane. I’d do it again tomorrow.

What do you like about living and working in New York and what initially brought you there?
I love it here. I moved here with my partner right after graduating and luckily I met some really beautiful people who have supported me and my work. It’s a different pace of life, you’re constantly on the go and there’s not much down time, but it’s good for me. I’m especially excited to be here right now as it feels like young creatives are really getting a good shot at it. I feel inspired every day and I’m never going to run out of inspiration. I absolutely love how there are concentrated pockets of culture here; you can travel the world in one city.

“I really think learning to be a person that’s easy to work with is key.”

A film from the Converse campaign, We Start It

How would you describe the relationship between your personal projects and commissioned jobs?
They’re similar! I’ve been lucky to have commissioned jobs that feel personal. I end up getting really connected to the talent or the story being told. The difference is that personal projects are hard to complete because I always want to perfect them.

What skills and tools are most essential for your work?
People skills are number one. I really think learning to be a person who’s easy to work with is key. I’ve been spending time practicing that skill and trying to recognise where I’m lacking. I also think I’m going to be learning for the rest of my life, so maybe the skill of patience. I’m always going to want to be making work that I’m not making yet.

How I Got Here

Could you tell us a bit about where you grew up, and if you remember what you wanted to be when you were younger?
I grew up in northern England, close to Manchester. We later moved to the countryside, to a tiny village in Derbyshire. I didn’t know what I wanted to do but I was always making films and taking photos. I learned about Martin Parr at a young age and was fascinated by documentary work straight away. I’d do all these series in Blackpool and Manchester but I didn’t understand that I could do that forever. I watched music videos on repeat too but I didn’t think that someone was directing them. It wasn’t until my last year of university that I realised that I already pretty much had a reel, and then I had this euphoric moment of realising that my hobby could be my job.

Would you say a formal education is necessary for your work? And do you feel your studies have been useful?
Not at all. I didn’t study film or photography. I just learnt it because I loved it and wanted to be confident in my skills. I studied art direction in advertising, so that foundation helped but I didn’t learn what a treatment was until much later. It’s been a ride.

After graduating, what were your initial steps?
I was really fortunate in finding some key people in New York that became friends and role models. One of my first jobs here was a music video. I met a producer who taught me so much and let me observe her work and held my hand along the way. She’s the person who made me realise that people skills are number one.

“Starting off is difficult, especially because you compare yourself to everyone else.”

Nike: All For 1 – Mr & Mrs Whammy

Nike: All For 1 – Mr & Mrs Whammy

Mae Muller - Anticlimax

Mae Muller - Anticlimax

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Would you say you ever experienced a lucky break? Or was there a project that particularly helped your development?
I feel like every job I get is still helping my development. Every time I release something, I’m excited to see what the next opportunity will be.

What’s been your biggest challenge along the way?
Starting off is difficult, especially because you compare yourself to everyone else. Also, finances when you first bite that freelance bullet is stressful. You have no money but you somehow find your way out of it.

In terms of income, fees and finances, what would you say have been your most essential learnings since starting out?
Ask people what they charge. Don’t be shy about checking with people what their rates are so you can judge what you should be charging. Don’t overcharge right away and be willing to negotiate depending on if you want to do the job or not. And – this is hard – but learn to say no. I still struggle with that but it’s empowering when you can judge whether or not something is worth your time.

‘The Game’, a film by India; cinematography by Evan Burris Trout

Words of Wisdom

What would your advice be to someone just starting out, who wants to work in a similar way to you?
I would suggest making yourself a reel or a portfolio with the kind of work you want to be known for and then approach brands with that. Be willing to wait for the right thing to come your way at the start and don’t get yourself down along the way. It’ll happen. Be yourself and be kind to everyone you meet because you don’t know how they’ll help you in the future.

Is there a particular resource you’d recommend for aspiring photographers or filmmakers?
I want someone to tell me this! I dig deep into the web and I also just stop at charity shops or old book stores and take pictures of anything I like. Hold onto everything you see in a folder and refer to it along the way. I’m looking for a book about people skills right now so if I find anything good I’ll post about it.

Posted 09 January 2020 Interview by Daniel Milroy Maher
Collection: Creative Lives
Disciplines: Photography, Film
Mentions: India Sleem

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