Creative Lives — Photographic director Rebecca McClelland discusses jumping into the deep end

Posted 11 July 2017 Interview by Marianne Hanoun

Taking risks and sideways leaps has led Rebecca McClelland away from her past life as an ‘office-dwelling organism’ to a storyteller in the widest sense. From her earliest editing days at The Sunday Times Magazine to commissioning for Wallpaper* magazine and later Airbnb, Rebecca admits that photography is something that she is always still studying. She feels strongly that the ability to collaborate and having a strong visual voice is central to a role as a photographic director in order to craft stories, developing ideas whilst being the guardian of the brand, the publication and the editor’s voice. When she isn’t on set, you can find her teaching, writing and co-running the Ian Parry Scholarship for visual journalism.

Rebecca McClelland

Job Title

Photographic Director and Creative Director

Based

London

Previous Employment

Photographic Art Director, Airbnb (2014–2016) 
Photographic Director, PORT & AVAUNT (2014–2015)
Photography Editor, Wallpaper* magazine (2008–2010) 
Deputy Photography Editor, The Sunday Times Magazine (2000–2007) 

Place of Study

MA Photographic Arts, University of Westminster (2017)  
Foundation in Art, Queens Road School of Art & Foundation in Photography, Filton Bristol

Personal Website
Personal Social Media

Rebecca McClelland; photography by Baker Evans

Rebecca with the jury for the World Press Masterclass in 2015

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Day-to-Day

How would you describe what you do? 
I’ve spent most of my career as a photographic director in print media within a traditional picture desk structure – either contributing to current affairs titles or on luxury editorials. I started on the bottom rung as a picture desk assistant many years ago and worked my way up, and over the last three years, my role has morphed into making creative content for brands and advertising companies like Airbnb and BBH. It has been a natural progression for me in response to a changing job market and an evolving skill set. 

I commission and produce visual campaigns or stories from conception to delivery, which is a much longer process than working on editorials. I brainstorm creative direction, source innovative contributors, and directing and editing material. I do still work with print media and I believe the two creatively feed one another. I’m currently working with the creative team B.A.M on The Times LUXX magazine to commission their larger stories. We work in synergy and have a lot of laughs in the process. Being able to laugh at work is very important to me. I also co-run an international scholarship for visual journalism called the Ian Parry Scholarship, which involves an annual competition and group exhibition in London, which I curate. I like to teach on professional development regularly and write as much as I can on my area of interest, collaboration and participation within documentary practice.

“It’s important to understand that with global client demands and deadlines, this kind of work often requires a flexible working pattern and that hours can be fluid.”

What does a typical working day look like? 
Recently I’ve been working for a large tech company based in San Francisco from their new plush offices in Clerkenwell. Working across time zones means irregular hours and sometimes working from home. I think it’s important to understand that with global client demands and deadlines, this kind of work often requires a flexible working pattern and hours can be fluid. 

I’m working on a cover shoot right now, which needs constant management, so the emails start flying in around 9am with the latest updates on progress and contracts to be signed. I check out the contributors I follow daily to see what new work has been made. At the moment I’m deeply inspired by Universal Everything, a digital design company based in London, who have been making a series of prototypes called Screens of the Future. They have been testing shape-shifting materials to produce visual displays on a variety of surfaces and its pretty mind captivating stuff. 

Work for The New Statesman

Work for The New Statesman

Where does the majority of your work take place? 
I spend a lot of time on my iPhone or in meetings, more than at a desk. When I work remotely, I’ll flick between several devices so that I don’t end up sitting in front of a screen all day. I also like to keep folders of printed work as an easy reference, which I find helps keep me organised. 

I was a rather institutionalised office-dwelling organism until I started working with start-ups, which opened my eyes to a more progressive way of working. Environment and working conditions are really important when you spend so much of your time there, and these entrepreneurial companies seem to understand that.

How does your freelance work usually come about? 
I currently enjoy the freedom that comes with being self employed; it keeps you on your toes in terms of finding work. You find work by getting out for meetings, talking with people and doing lots of research on creative collaborators.

How collaborative is your work? 
Collaboration is inherent to the medium of photography and certainly everyone on a shoot needs to collaborate with each other to produce good work. I act as a mediator between all the various creative voices on set. Everyone on set plays an important role, and it’s a balancing act to make sure everyone’s contribution is taken on board. Central to a photography editor’s role is to help craft a story by sharing research and developing ideas with the photographer about the best way to approach the subject whilst being the guardian of the brand, the publication and the editor’s voice. It’s important to be confident of your own visual language so you can edit photography rigorously, support your ideas and substantiate you choices to editors. I know that I need to collaborate more when work starts to feel stale for me. I lift my head up and get out to look at fresh work, new creative companies and developments. 

Work for the New Statesman

Work for The New Statesman

Work for The New Statesman

What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job?
The most enjoyable is getting artists’ work, when a recommendation is successful and the photographer or filmmaker wins a pitch or makes a new fruitful connection, (ideally an interesting or well paid commission.) Least enjoyable? I honestly can’t say there is an area of my work I don’t enjoy, its a very creative and rewarding type of career to have.

What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months?
Taking yourself out of your comfort zone and developing new skills is really important. I worked on a series of films for Airbnb to celebrate World Earth day with the filmmaker Ismail Shallis. With the guidance of the team at Airbnb, I learnt how a brand’s message can be delivered to make effective, meaningful work that communicates with a massive audience. 

“The best picture is always worth fighting, working longer, and stretching your budget for.”

What skills are essential to your job? 
Patience, determination, tenacity and strategic creative thinking. Telepathy and mind-reading are always useful. I think the most beneficial skill is being able to problem solve whilst staying positive. This is a huge strength in your armoury and in your teams. The best picture is always worth fighting, working longer, and stretching your budget for.

Are you currently working on any side projects? 
Always. I have many ideas bubbling away but not enough hours in the day to do them. At the moment I’m working on a creative direction idea, it's a vanity project. For me personal projects aren’t about making money but flexing your creativity.

What tools do you use most for your work? 
I don’t have any dark arts in how to fulfil my role well but I do currently like sourcing new work through Instagram, which I find really fast and useful. I also use project management apps like Trello as a back-up for to-do lists.

Work for Airbnb

Work for Airbnb

Work for Airbnb

How I Got Here

What did you want to be growing up? 
I always wanted to work for The Sunday Times Magazine and Magnum Photos so it felt like a real dream come true when I got my role there. I spent a year at Magnum on a scholarship in my early twenties. It was an inspiring place to be but I remember feeling overwhelmed at times by the sudden leap into a professional environment and London. I think work experience is such an invaluable tool to test out work place environments like this. I always say that I grew up at The Sunday Times Magazine, as I spent most of my twenties there. It was a foundation in everything to do with the very best and worst of working in journalism. Newspapers at the worst can be hierarchical, male dominated and unforgiving places to work. At best, they play an important role in social responsibility and injustice and it really is a privilege to make work for them.

What influence has your upbringing had on your choice of career? 
I am a twin so sharing is ingrained in my core and certainly my work ethic. I believe this is partly responsible for me wanting to contribute to a creative team environment and as opposed to a career path as a photographer. My father-in-law is a well known Scottish painter and my husband is a director at Central Saint Martins, so for a long time I’ve been surrounded by art thinkers and philosophical discussion, which I think has been important in challenging my creative process.

How (if at all) is the subject you studied useful to your current role?  
I studied photography and I’m still studying photography, you never stop.

What were your first jobs? 
My first role was with The Sunday Times Magazine where I spent seven years in my twenties. From there I moved to the Evening Standard magazine for a brief time and then Wallpaper*. These jobs were the most informative for me.

Work for PORT Magazine

Cover for Avaunt Magazine Spring/Summer 2015

What helped you most at the start of your career? 
The Magnum UK photographers were very kind to me at the beginning of my career. My editor at the Sunday Times magazine, Robin Morgan developed and supported my career whilst I was there. I’m grateful to him. He would indulge me, listen to my relentless requests for a pay rise, sometimes give me the hair dryer treatment, but ultimately promoted me several times. Aidan Sullivan and I have worked together on the Ian Parry Scholarship for a whopping 18 years. Our strengths complement each other and he is always a trusted sounding board. 

It’s important to have a core group of mentors or sponsors in your career who you can trust and whose advice you are willing to follow. Don’t wait for a mentor to jump out and anoint you though, it doesn’t work that way. But do reach out and develop relationships with people you admire. In retrospect, I wish I had not been so afraid or shy when I was younger in telling people how much I admired them, like Kathy Ryan of the New York Times. It’s taken me far too long to do this! My career path has been very intuitive, I’ve trusted myself to take risks and sideways leaps.

“Don’t wait for a mentor to jump out and anoint you, it doesn’t work that way. But do reach out and develop relationships with people you admire.”

Work for the Sunday Times Magazine

Was there a particular project you worked on that helped your development? 
Whilst at Airbnb, I art directed a social media campaign that had all the hallmarks of a potential disaster. We were shooting in five countries in December but the idea was to make it look like the summer. Thanks to our white knuckle determination as a team and the professionalism of photographers I had commissioned from the agency Making Pictures, we were able to produce an ambitious campaign that I am really proud of.

What’s been your biggest challenge?
Challenges are good because they force you to evolve. The biggest challenge in this kind of career is adapting to the decreasing roles available within a traditional print environment. The biggest challenge to my industry has been the economic one. The universal budget cuts mean valued contributors aren’t being paid what they should, and that includes photography editors. 

Work for LUXX Magazine

Work for LUXX Magazine

Work for LUXX Magazine

Thinking Ahead

What would you like to do next? 
Continue making the same kind of work but within the tech and start-up world. I’m interested in technology and progressive photographic developments, so I will most likely take on more work experience in this area at some point soon to hone some new skills. 

Words of Wisdom

What advice would you give to a young creative wanting to become photography director? 
My favourite motto is “A career should be a marathon not a sprint,” so pace and plan is my biggest advice. I always ask my students to write a three year plan, starting with where they want to be in three years and working backwards, listing all the people they need to meet to get there, places they should go, and how they are going to do it. Then I ask them to write personal and professional blockers (this could be shyness of personal finances) so they can be honest with themselves about what’s stopping them. 

It’s also really important that you don’t procrastinate over your career – jump right into the deep end. Start collaborating and creating work with your peers, or sign up to work on a new launch. It’s important to know your industry and industry players inside out, which is easy enough today with Instagram and LinkedIn. A well-designed CV and website is also super important to start with, then start building up work experience that reflects where you want to be in three years. 

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