A ticket-selling image capturing the elements of hope and faith: Interview with Michael Wharley, Spotlight Awards Advertising Category Winner


Be it a Hollywood star in the studio, or a small business owner sharing their working life, Michael Wharley, a London-based photographer, finds personality and emotion in portraits that get under the skin and connect.

Spotlight Awards judges Kieran Delaney, Creative Director at McCann Health, United Kingdom; Lisa Marie Walkington, Director of Global Creative Shoot & Production at Adidas AG, Germany; Toru Fujii, Senior Creative Director at ADK Tokyo, Japan, and Chris Plummer, Creative Director, Netherlands; have singled out one of his images, shot for Theatre Royal Stratford East, as the best in Advertsing Category.

Let’s hear the story behind the Advertising Category winning image of the Spotlight Awards 2020!

Advertising Photography Category winning image of the Spotlight Photo Awards 2020


Production Paradise: Tell us about the winning image – the idea behind it, how was it shot?

Michael Wharley: This campaign was shot for Theatre Royal Stratford East‘s Olivier-nominated production of Our Lady of Kibeho by Katori Hall. It was one of my favourite of 2019 but was a tough ask because the subject is a foreshadowing of the Rwandan genocide. Not exactly cheery! This is the elevator pitch:

“In 1981 at Kibeho College in Rwanda, a young girl claimed to have seen a vision of the Virgin Mary who warned her of the unimaginable: Rwanda becoming hell on Earth. She was ignored by her friends and scolded by her school but then another student saw the vision, and another, and the impossible appeared to be true.“

So, our challenge was to create an appealing, ticket-selling image capturing the elements of hope, faith, and teenage community that define the play, while also nodding to its eerie themes of possession and religious fundamentalism! I designed a subtle gelled lighting state to make darker skin tones look fantastic and the team prepped costume and props with precise detail, but the success of the image we chose was equally to do with the performance of the three actors, Pepter Lunkuse, Taz Munya, and Liyah Summers. Having found this arrangement of the group I had them breathe in and out together, inhabiting the moment and trying to find a shared feeling of ecstasy, fear, or religious transport. No small task when they’d only just met and hadn’t even started rehearsals yet!

We tried a number of different groupings, but this one seemed to express the relationship dynamics and the sense of something ‘beyond’ best. A special shout out to my assistant Kristina who was working on the following special to keep Taz lit by ‘Holy’ light in the centre of the group and to designer Rebecca Pitt in collaboration with whom the shoot was planned and post-produced.

Photographer Michael Wharley on the set witht the actors for Our Lady of Kibeho


Production Paradise: How do you feel about winning the Category Prize of Spotlight Awards 2020?

Michael Wharley: In a word: delighted! I thought the competition was fierce; the other images on the shortlist blew me away and I hadn’t expected to win. It was great to know that a team of expert judges recognised the nuance, detail, and drama in what we made as a team for Kibeho.

Production Paradise: How would you describe your style?

Michael Wharley: Dramatic and cinematic, filled with detail, drama, and great lighting – whether it’s a commercial brief for a brand or a film or stage production I always have an eye for narrative in a photo, even if it’s more abstract and less literal. There’s such satisfaction in telling a story in a still image.

Production Paradise: Name three photographers that have inspired you.

Michael Wharley: Irving Penn for his portraiture, Saul Leiter for his eye for colours, and Alex Prager for her eerie dramas.

Production Paradise: How did you end up behind the lens? Tell us about your career path.

Michael Wharley: Via an English Literature Degree, drama training, six years as a stage actor, and a near miss becoming a criminal barrister. About 12 years ago a camera intervened and that’s been the story ever since. I went full time in 2010 and learned on the job, though ironically, thanks to Covid, my 10th birthday year of 2020 has been the time I’ve shot least in that decade!

Production Paradise: What do you think is necessary to become a successful commercial photographer?

Michael Wharley: Well, as a portraitist: hard work, perseverance, some talent, a willingness to learn, and sensitivity to your subject or sitters.

Commercially, I feel like the days of the diva photographer are long gone – you have to be good to work with, manage a set with composure and ease, deal with problems with equanimity and be ready to use your skillset to realise the vision the team and client need on the day. Your style and aesthetic are important, but not more so than the client and the brief.

Production Paradise: If you weren’t a photographer, what would be your alternate career path?

Michael Wharley: Probably managing some woodland reserve or a rewilding project. I love being outdoors.

Production Paradise: We believe you are not resting on your laurels – what are you working on now?

Michael Wharley: It’s actually related to the outdoors – it’s a project called ‘In a Green Shade: The English and Nature” and explores and celebrates our national relationship with the natural world at a time when England is one of the most nature-deficient countries in Europe, yet sees itself as quintessentially nature-loving. The project is giving me the excuse to travel all over the country photographing people working on, playing in, and trying to conserve or rewild the land.

Production Paradise: Spotlight Awards had a judges’ panel composed of potential clients for commercial photographers – did that influence your choice of image(s) selected for your entry?

Michael Wharley: I’m always looking for chances to get my work in front of potential clients – but in this case, the fact the judges were image experts made the award seem more meaningful; that was the motivation really.

Production Paradise: What made you want to participate in these Awards?

Michael Wharley: See above! It’s good to test the calibre of your work against other commercial photographers and after the year we’ve just had, good news goes a very long way…

We would like to thank Michael for taking the time to share his experience with us! If you want to see more of his work, visit his member page or his website.

Production Paradise has published a special edition of the Spotlight Magazine featuring all the winners and their images. Make sure you subscribe to our blog and Spotlight Magazine so you won’t miss out!

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