Creative Lives — From sports to the creative world, Kaj Jefferies shares her journey into film and photography

Posted 17 December 2019 Interview by Marianne Hanoun
Introduction by Ayla Angelos

Flitting between documentary, fashion, music and art, the portfolio of London-based director and photographer Kaj Jefferies is a varied yet dreamy one. And what’s more, is that you’d probably find it hard to believe that she’s self-taught, coming from a past life in sports and graphic design. Kaj’s visual eye can be traced back to her upbringing in Swindon, where her less-arty surroundings pushed her out of her comfort zone and into the realms of creativity. And, although studying at Brighton University, Kaj admits that you don’t necessarily need a formal education to do what she does. Instead, hard work and perseverance pays off – evident through her roster of clients that includes Adidas, Nowness and Stella McCartney. We caught up with Kaj as she talks about the importance of “sticking to your guns” and how there’s not one correct route into the creative industry.

Kaj Jefferies

Job Title

Director and Photographer

Based

London

Selected Clients

Adidas, Nowness, Mercedes Benz, Stella McCartney, SONY, Universal Music, WeTransfer

Place of Study

BA Graphic Design, Brighton University (2012-2015)

Website
Social Media

Kaj

Day-to-Day

How would you describe what you do?
I am a film director and photographer. My work lands somewhere between documentary, fashion, music and art.

What does a typical working day look like and where does it happen?
Theres no such thing as a typical day for me; the only thing I do the same everyday is drink a coffee in the morning. I also travel around a fair bit for my job, and my work load is split between shooting, writing treatments, editing photos or going to meetings.

How collaborative is your role?
Incredibly so – especially in film, as I have to work with big crews. This can be from pre-production with producers, brands, creatives, art directors and set designers. On shoot days, my film crew would typically be made up of an AD, DOP, assistants, gaffers, set, stylists, HMU, talent and then post-production; I work with editors, retouchers, grade houses, music composers and so on. When thinking about it, making a good film is like a well-oiled machine and I’m the one holding the tin can.

What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job?
The most enjoyable aspect has to be the travelling – not in my wildest dreams did I ever think I’d be able to go to some of the places I’ve been to. Another aspect is bringing my ideas to life. The least enjoyable is probably the massive lack of sleep and stress when you’re on a long and busy job. But looking back, when you’re watching something you’re super proud of, it’s always totally worth it.

“Not in my wildest dreams did I ever think I’d be able to go to some of the places I’ve been to.”

What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months?
I won some awards this year for my Lykke Li WeTransfer documentary, which is pretty cool.

What skills would you say are essential to your job?
Imagination, vision and originality are probably the most important. Paired with confidence, conviction and a pro-active attitude, then I think you’re onto a win.

What do you like about working in London?
The endless possibilities of growth and opportunity. Although, I am a nature girl at heart and I spend a fair amount of time outside of London whenever I can. It keeps my mind sharp!

Are you currently working on any personal projects? If so, how do you manage your time alongside other work?
I am working on some personal projects; its hard to find a balance, but I honestly believe that if you want something bad enough you’ll make time for it.

From the documentary Boys; shot and edited by Kaj; directed and produced by Kaj and Rosie Matheson

From the documentary Boys; shot and edited by Kaj; directed and produced by Kaj and Rosie Matheson

From the documentary Boys; shot and edited by Kaj; directed and produced by Kaj and Rosie Matheson

What tools do you use most for your work?
Cameras – my main work horses at the moment are my medium format cameras – and a good light meter. I can’t deny that my iPhone is gold dust – I have two apps which I use all the time when I’m shooting. One is called Sun Seeker, which is a comprehensive sun tracker and compass app that enables me to predict where the sun will be during sunrises, sunsets and solar paths. The other is called Dark Sky, which is the most accurate source of hyperlocal weather – it will tell you when it’s going to rain, for how long and when it will stop. I also shoot mainly film, so my film lab is really important. Then for computer-based work, I use Adobe Suite and Keynote.

What inspires your work? And how important do you think it is to land on a particular style as a creative?
Such an amalgamation of things – inspiration comes in so many different ways, but usually from reflection. I’ll come up with ideas, note them down and return to them at a later date when the appropriate brief comes in. I think style comes from within and from a lot of exploration in your early days, but it never stops evolving!

Is there a resource that has particularly helped you? And which you would recommend to someone else?
For me, YouTube is a gold mine – it’s where I taught myself how to use cameras, editing software and so on. If I couldn’t work out how to do something I’d go on Youtube.

Still from Kaj's documentary for Lykke Li with WeTransfer

Still from Kaj's documentary for Lykke Li with WeTransfer

Still from Kaj's documentary for Lykke Li with WeTransfer

Still from Kaj's documentary for Lykke Li with WeTransfer

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How I Got Here

What did you want to be growing up?
My future was destined to be within sport, for sure – until I snapped my ACL in my knee and I had to find something else to do with my time instead of training. While in rehabilitation, I had a bit of a switch up and just fell in love with art and music. Silver linings and all that!

How do you think your upbringing influenced your choice of career?
In some weird way it pushed me outside my comfort zone. I grew up in Swindon, with no arty genes in my family, but I think my eyes saw further than the town, so I moved to London as soon as I could.

I somehow landed an internship when I was 17; I started quite young and I really felt that was one of the best decisions I ever made, as this gave me a real base knowledge of the industry and totally threw me in the deep end. I worked for a small creative agency in Bethnal Green and I interned there all throughout university – the company director basically became my mentor and we’re still friends now, 10 years later! I was running and assisting on editorial shoots and fashion campaigns from the very start. I think it was a no-brainer for me at that point – I wanted to be a director or photographer.

Kaj's documentary for Lykke Li with WeTransfer

Did you study at degree level and if so, do you feel you need a formal education for what you do?
I studied an Art Foundation in Swindon. I then went on to study graphic design at the University of Brighton, and the course was super-open in terms of format – I was able to make films, take photos, book bind, letter press and screen print. I really enjoyed my university course.

I then got accepted onto an MA Communication course at the Royal College of Art, but I decided to go straight into industry instead – I don’t think anyone needs a formal education to work in the industry, especially on art courses, as you don’t really get taught skills and tend to explore your practise yourself. I studied graphic design but now I’m a film director and photographer. I also lecture at an arts university now, and something I keep repeating to my students is that there’s not one correct route into the industry – you have to kind of follow your gut and do what is right for you.

“I don’t really believe in lucky breaks, as I worked really hard to be where I am now; I taught myself everything.”

After graduating, what were your initial jobs and steps?
After graduating, I landed a freelance job as a junior designer at Superimpose Studio, worked at Ditto Press and with Jamie Reid, art director at Dazed. During this time, I was happy as a designer and I was working on interesting projects, but I still made personal films and took photos one the side. My first proper film job was with Adidas football – then, naturally things just spiralled after that. I stopped designing and moved over to film and photography full-time.

Would you say you ever experienced a lucky break?
I never had any formal training in photography or filmmaking. I don’t really believe in lucky breaks, as I worked really hard to be where I am now; I taught myself everything. I think it’s that classic thing – work hard, be nice to people and go with the flow. One job leads on to the next and so on.

Kaj's project for GlumCult's Nurture issue

What’s been your biggest challenge along the way?
Of course there’s been so many mistakes; life is one big lesson. You just have to laugh and not take things too seriously when you fuck up. I think in the early days, it’s the classic mistake everyone makes.

Back up your hard drives, then back them up again and then maybe again for the craic. Also be careful with camera batteries in your suitcase when you fly. There’s a tragic tale of my bags getting trapped in an airport for four days on a job – what a nightmare!

How important have you found social media and self-promotion in your work?
I think it’s helped me more than I am probably aware of. I think you’d be foolish in 2019 to think Instagram isn’t a great self-promoting tool. But in the same heartbeat, I don’t spend too much time on Instagram. I think it’s a bit poisonous for creatives and humans in general – imagery divulges into our subconscious and we’re just sucked into this internet abyss. Then, when it comes to thinking creatively, it just automatically breeds similarity. Instagram is a great tool, but I know how to use it and not obsess over it.

Words of Wisdom

What advice would you give to an emerging creative wanting to get into the same line of work?
Stick to your guns.

Posted 17 December 2019 Interview by Marianne Hanoun
Introduction by Ayla Angelos
Introduction: Ayla Angelos
Collection: Creative Lives
Disciplines: Photography, Film
Mentions: Kaj Jefferies

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