With the early 80’s being a somewhat uncertain time for many living in the UK, photography legend Barry Willis was willing to take a leap of faith and see what the other side of the pond had to offer. No stranger to the idea of a fresh start, Barry embarked on a journey of self-discovery full of risks, ambivalence and nights of sleeping on sandy beaches. He recently took the time to answer some questions we’d been dying to ask about his childhood, ideas on creativity, his constantly progressing career and much more.Production Paradise: Your background and childhood seem extremely fascinating. Would you say that living in Zambia and South Africa for the first decade of your life had an impact on the progression of your career?
Barry Willis: As a kid, and growing up in the protective bubble of colonial Africa, I was insulated from any real understanding of the political and cultural forces that were shaping the wrold around me. So, in that sense, my early childhood was an idealised playground of dramatic landscapes and childhood adventures. However, I experienced a profound cultural shock when we moved to the UK. I became aware of huge social, cultural and aesthetic differences. It was the first time that I became aware of the terms apartheid and racism. I began to realise that the privileged experience of my life in Africa was not the only reality. This awakened my curiosity and the desire to question what is presented as reality, to consider things from a different perspective, to try and look for what’s behind the facade. These are all qualities that I think are an essential part of being a photographer.
Also, although it wasn’t diagnosed until I was at university, I am quite dyslexic. So my world was, and is, a very visual one. As a kid I would always use drawing or painting rather than writing as a means of expression. I think being dyslexic was more directly the reason for becoming a photographer, whereas my early childhood experiences shaped the type of photographer I’ve become.
Barry Willis: I had just completed a degree in Geography and Art and, although I really enjoyed my three years at Uni, I had absolutely no idea what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. Politically, the early Thatcher years held out little hope for sticking around so I decided to shake things up for myself and see what the rest of the world had to offer.
While at Uni I had developed an interest in photography and had bought myself a Pentax ME Super, and a couple of cheap lenses, to document my travels. After about a month in Miami my money had already started to run out and I needed to renew my visa. Through a friend of a friend, I had a contact for someone who was running a small tourist photography business in Nassau, Bahamas. I decided to look him up and, as luck would have it, he had a job as a lab assistant opening up in about a month’s time. I took off to the outer islands, slept on a lot of beaches, and eked out the last of my money, before returning to Nassau to start the job. I spent nine months working and running a manual E6 dip and dunk line, and saving up for my dream camera, a Nikon F3. I could not afford Nikkor glass, so for the next couple of years everything was shot on a couple of Vivitar lenses. I was still shooting on that F3 up until 2004, when I first started to make my move over to digital.
Barry Willis: Yes and no. I was confident that I had found the thing I wanted to do, but not at all confident what path that journey might take.
After the Bahamas, I spent about six months working and crewing on sailing yachts, before retuning to Miami.
I got a job as an assistant in a large commercial studio that shot catalogues for the major American retail outlets, including Saks Fifth Avenue and Burdines. Everything was shot on 5×4 using colour transparency. I was hungry to learn everything I could about all of the technical aspects of studio product lighting, E 6 colour control etc. There were a couple of very skilled senior photographers who I made sure I worked with, watched and learned as much as I could.
After about three months I came into work one morning to find that the photographer I had been working for had been fired (that’s a whole other story), so I was handed a set of layouts and asked if I could carry on and shoot what I could until they found a replacement. After a few months, I was shooting the daily requirements but was still being paid as an assistant, so I quit and started to freelance at a couple of other catalogue studios in Miami.
At the same time I joined the American Society of Media Photographers and started assisting anyone and everyone I could.
In the early 80s, Miami and South Beach in particular, was just starting to be discovered as a great location for fashion shoots. I worked with numerous American and European photographers during this time. It was interesting to me as an outsider, how the cultural differences ultimately informed the photography, and, after much soul searching, I decided that I wanted to move back to the UK to continue my career.
Production Paradise: Would you say that your diverse and multicultural background has had an effect on your ability to capture emotions so well in your portraiture work?
Barry Willis: I think, inevitably – yes. My background helps me to read people quickly, which helps inform how I communicate with them, to empathise and build a trust. I’ve always had a sense of being somewhat of an outsider. I’ve never identified with being from, or belonging to, a particular place or country. When we moved to England, I was always the kid from Africa. When I lived in the USA, I was always the Englishman in Miami. But at the same time, and probably because this, I’ve always been a bit of a chameleon. Certainly growing up as a kid, the ability to adapt socially, to be able to fit in, was a survival strategy. But, as an adult, I approach my photography in a similar way. Sometimes it’s as simple as being able to smile, but sometimes it might be a slight change in accent or demeanour. It sounds a bit disingenuous, but it’s really not a conscious thing. I’m simply reacting to any given situation to try and build trust. In my corporate work I sell myself as being comfortable from the Boardroom to the Boiler room, and everywhere between.
I realise that all of this has very little to do with my visual aesthetic as a photographer, but, in a way, it has everything to do with it. It’s a duel process. By creating an easy and comfortable social discourse, I’m free to think about how to approach the aesthetic.
I’m genuinely interested in people. I find them endlessly interesting and fascinating. We all have personal stories, some we wish to communicate and some we don’t. As a photographer, I’m striving to explore people’s stories, and the emotions behind them.
Barry Willis: I think there are two interesting, but very separate questions here, so if you don’t mind I’m going to answer them separately.
What’s the next step in taking your creativity further?
Easy. Directing. I’ve been involved in shooting and producing video content for a few years now and last year I directed a DR TV ad with a full crew and loved the experience… so more of that, please. It is a totally different medium and way of thinking and it’s been a steep learning curve. However, as a lot of my photography is informed by a narrative, it feels very natural to use the moving image to tell a story.
How has the idea of failure or rejection affected you throughout your career?
I think every creative suffers from these fears. For me the fear of failure is my drive to succeed. It’s interesting though, because I think failure is often confused with making mistakes. For example, the failure to spot a visual opportunity during a shoot. Quite often at the end of a shoot and during the editing process, one spots things that could have been refined or pushed in a different direction. So, while you might have failed to spot something at the time, you learn for next time. Making mistakes is an essential part of the learning process and, in this business, you never stop learning.
Rejection on the other hand can be very personal emotion. In my early years, I would take it personally and that could be devastating! Over the years I’ve learned to see it not as rejection, but as the client’s loss. (laughs)… No, it’s a case of, get used to it and move on.
To be honest, more often than not, the fact that you didn’t win a pitch can be down to a whole other set of factors, such as familiarity with the other supplier, costs etc and so should not be viewed in terms of rejection.
Barry Willis: Blimey, has it really been 10 years? Well, what do they say, time flies when you’re enjoying yourself! Before PP appeared on the scene I had regularly used many of the well-known print media for advertising my photography. Production Paradise absolutely saw the opportunities of taking everything online. They got it right from the start and, to my mind, are still the key player in the industry.
I’ve always found the Production Paradise team to be incredibly helpful and accommodating. If you suddenly find that work commitments mean that you are not going to make a publication date, they are always flexible in moving you to the next available date. I often get asked by up and coming photographers if I think it is worth the investment. My answer is always yes, but with the proviso that you must be willing to stay the course and look at it as part of a long term marketing strategy. On a personal note, although I’ve never met Barbara Otero, through our many email and phone conversations, I feel like she is an old friend.
Barry Willis: My career journey as a photographer came about through a slightly random and ad hoc voyage of self discovery through my twenties. I sometimes wonder what might have been different if someone at school pointed out that being a commercial photographer could be a legitimate career path… Maybe I would have achieved commercial success earlier? However I’m a great believer that the journey is every bit as important as the destination. So without the experiences I’ve had along the way, would I be the photographer that I am today?…. Who knows?
We would like to thank Barry for taking the time to speak with us. We hope he’s back for another interview soon so we can hear the story of what happened to his old boss! You can see more of his work on Production Paradise and his website.