Creative Lives — Photographer Suki Dhanda: “It’s a continuous journey; there is no fixed path”

Posted 10 April 2018 Interview by Indi Davies

Having worked as a photographer for just under twenty years, Suki Dhanda has shot some of the biggest names in contemporary culture – from the former prime minister to Stormzy. Growing up in Slough, she admits that there wasn’t a great deal of support for her choice of career, “Photography wasn’t seen as a great profession in the British Asian community at that time... But it made me even more determined to succeed.” Through years of assisting other photographers and portfolio building, Suki grew a long-running relationship with The Guardian and The Observer, for whom she now shoots the majority of her commercial work. We gain invaluable insights from her years behind the lens, from keeping a negotiating hat on for usage and copyright to getting your work seen as early as possible.

Suki Dhanda

Job Title

Photographer

Based

London

Previous Employment

Photographer’s Assistant

Education

BA Photography, Plymouth College of Art & Design (1988–1991)

Clients

Guardian Media Group, The Guardian, The Observer, Bauer Media, Bloomberg, Browns Design, Esterson Associates, Harrods, Hearst Publishing, Hiscox, Penguin, The Telegraph, Victoria Miro

Website
Social Media

Suki Dhanda

Day-to-Day

How would you describe what you do? 
I take pictures – mainly of people – but I wouldn’t label myself a portrait photographer in the traditional sense. Ideally I like photographing people in their environment. 

What does a typical shoot day look like?
It could be all day in a studio – with hair, make-up and a stylist – out on location in the middle of a forest, or on a rooftop. Often if I’m sent out to shoot at a hotel where the subject is staying, with only a 20-minute shoot time, I’m normally expected to have two set-ups, with one being a cover option. Although these shoots are time-limited, they have often produced really good results; it’s so intense but everybody just gets on with it, there’s no wasted time. 

What tools do you use for your work?
I use a Hasselblad H2 with a Phase One P21 back. I bought the Hasselblad when I moved to digital; it was a big investment but it’s really paid off. It definitely makes a difference to have a top-of-the-range camera, and I do feel people take notice of the tools you use. For my personal projects, I have been using a Mamiya 6 – an analogue, medium format range-finder camera.

I think it’s important to invest in your equipment, at least to have the basics; a couple of lights, a camera, and a spare body in case of break downs. (I always have a Nikon DSLR in the kit). 

“[Short shoots] often produce really good images; it’s so intense but everybody just gets on with it, there’s no wasted time.”

Greta Gerwig cover for The Observer (2018)

What skills have you picked up along the way? 
In order to keep my business going I really need to keep in check with the finances. I’ll spend a couple of days a month just working on my paperwork and invoicing.   

I’m definitely not big on promoting myself, but I do try, and I still wish I could get better and more confident with it. Some people are much more savvy! Social media has definitely helped me to get my work out to a wider audience, especially Instagram. It keeps people in the industry up-to-date, and I can be really particular about what images I want to show.

How do you set about getting the best out of a portrait commission?
To be honest, you don’t always know what to expect, each situation varies, but it’s important to be prepared. Before a shoot I tend to research the subject and think about how I would light them.  

I do a lot of work for The New Review (The Observer) capturing artists, actors or directors. As I have said, many of the jobs I work on are in hotels, so I tend to ask for an hour to set up. I might take a backdrop as the rooms can be boring or cluttered – you have to find a new angle each time. That means thinking ahead, you always need some kind of plan, especially when you’re restricted with location and time.

Samantha Morton for The Observer (2002); Grayson Perry for Guardian Weekend Magazine (2012)

My approach is still definitely not loud and in-your-face, it’s more subtle. But it’s important that I have control of the shoot without effecting the dynamic between the subject and myself. I find myself being more assertive particularly when shooting powerful people – especially men! 

I’ve come across a lot of people, regardless of how well-know they are, who feel uncomfortable in front of the camera. It’s my job to make them feel at ease, and empathy plays a big part in that. If the subject is apprehensive and I’m shooting digitally, we might even sit together and go through the edit as it helps to put them at ease.

‘Irene’, personal work (2003)

What did you want to be growing up?
I was brought up in a Punjabi family in Slough, creativity was definitely not encouraged in my house! I don’t know why, but I really loved sketching, and used to draw my family all the time. As a child, I even wanted to be a fashion designer.  

I knew I wanted to pursue something in the arts. It was only when I took up photography as one of my O-Level [GCSE] subjects that I finally knew that this was it. Once I picked up the camera I just never looked back.  From there I went to Plymouth Art College to study photography. I wanted to leave home, and get as far away from Slough as possible! I had an amazing time there, and made lifelong friendships with other women who have also become established photographers. I think a big part of growing up is having that freedom to express yourself, and in time the art will grow.

Untitled from series SHOPNA commissioned by the British Council (2003)

How I Got Here

What did you do after you graduated?
After art college I moved back to Slough, and I’d travel to London to assist photographers. My mum didn’t even realise I was working in photography, she just thought I was doing something in art. Photography wasn’t seen as a great profession in the British Asian community at that time, compared to being a doctor or dentist. To be honest, I think my parents didn’t have much faith in me making any money – my mum just told me to forget about photography and get a job in a bank! But it made me even more determined to succeed.

I moved to London, and while I was still assisting I was working on my own images. I started doing a lot of work for Straight No Chaser, a jazz magazine. It was amazing when I had my first picture published, and was great to shoot portraits for them – it kept me in touch with what I was trying to do. 

I needed to make the change from being an assistant to focus on getting my own work. I started out on a Prince’s Trust loan. It was cheaper than a bank loan, and helped finance buying equipment, getting my portfolio together. I also had a mentor to help me organise my finances.

“It’s really important to be connected to the industry before you graduate. It’s about forming relationships and getting help to develop your ideas.”

Stormzy for The Observer New Review (2017)

Would you recommend assisting when you’re starting out as a photographer?
Assisting helped me – I learnt a lot about the business and picked up some useful lighting tips. I first worked for an advertising photographer, and was coming in from Slough to Hoxton Square every day, getting there as early as 7.30am on shoot days and leaving late. I was young and eager to please! It was a great experience and assisting took me to many countries.

With my assistants, apart from being really nice, they have to be conscientious and interested in the work. I tend to have long-term, regular assistants, with whom I have built a relationship with. So we work more like a team. Some have become very established photographers.

Tony Blair for The Observer (2011)

Have you learnt any hard lessons along the way? 
Over the last 20 years I have been exploring themes of identity and diversity in my personal work, and began a series of projects with varied themes. One of them was when I spent a month soon after 9/11 in NYC documenting taxi drivers from the South Asian diaspora. When I got back to London there was a lot of interest, but I wish I had gone back to develop it further – it could have been a book. I think it was more a financial reason why I didn’t return, but I could have looked into funding, as there were grants available.

Untitled from series Race, Place & Diversity by the Seaside (2017)

Untitled from series Race, Place & Diversity by the Seaside (2017)

Untitled from series Race, Place & Diversity by the Seaside (2017)

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Words of Wisdom

What advice would you give to a photographer just starting out? 
It’s a continuous journey; there is no fixed path to becoming successful – it’s up to the individual’s commitment and willingness. But I do think it’s important to build your own style and keep taking pictures by exploring ideas, and thinking outside of the box.

I think, for a student, it’s really important to be connected to the industry before you graduate. Put your work out there on social media, Instagram, Flickr or Tumblr, and connect with magazines that you would like your work to be seen in. It’s about forming relationships and at the same time getting help to develop your ideas. 

One of the things I say to young people is to also be aware of copyright and usage rights. Don’t give it all away and try to negotiate where you can. It’s important to ask the right questions, the budget, usage rights, and for how long the work will be used. It can be easy not to do this when you’re just excited to get a job, but there can be longterm effects. For example, you might shoot someone who becomes really famous, and you have given your copyright away, you don’t get any extra money for it if that image gets reused.

“Everybody’s looking for something new, so don’t be afraid to express yourself through your work.”

Untitled from Cleaner series, (2005)

Untitled from Cleaner series, (2005)

In terms of commissions, if a potential client calls you about a job, it’s always best to ask if they can email the details before committing to anything. Information over the phone may not be totally clear, especially concerning money and availability – you may agree to something which you’ll later regret. Getting the communication right is really important. Don’t be afraid to ask questions!

You must be technically capable, but clients will also want to know what you’re all about as a person. Magazines are really interested in how the photographer thinks and their personal take on things. Everybody’s looking for something new, so don’t be afraid to express yourself through your work.

Posted 10 April 2018 Interview by Indi Davies
Collection: Creative Lives
Disciplines: Photography
Mentions: Suki Dhanda
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