Sarah M. Lee | London

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Sarah studied English Literature at University College London (UCL) in the late 1990s and trained herself as a photographer.

In 2000 she was offered a freelance position at the Guardian and has continued to work for the Guardian and Observer ever since. Sarah is specialized in portraiture, features and the Arts and interested in all photography that focuses on people.

In 2011-2012, she shot most of the commercial portraits to accompany Coldplay’s MX album and tour. Her work has appeared in many publications and places, including the covers of TIME magazine, Billboard, Rolling Stone, The Sunday Times, Intelligent Life and Vanity Fair. She’s also an official BAFTA Photographer and an official Ambassador for Leica Camera. 

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Hello Sarah, I admire your portrait work a lot and so it’s a huge pleasure to interview you for Women in Photography. You actually studied English Literature. What has finally brought you into photography?
I came to photography relatively late in that I was given a camera for my 18th birthday, a Pentax K1000 with a 50mm 1.6 lens. I didn’t have a specific interest in photography until this point but once I’d learned how to use the camera I became quite obsessed. Unfortunately, film and developing film was quite expensive and I was a student with an extremely limited budget. So my opportunities for learning and developing my new skill were frustrating limited. Fortunately, someone, I can’t remember who but I’m forever grateful to them let me in on the secret that if I started working for the student newspaper I’d have an unlimited supply of film and access to a dark room with printing materials. What I couldn’t have known was that the student paper in question was being picture edited by Abbie Trayler-Smith and other photographers on its roster included Ed Alcock, Dom Tyler and Christophe Tweedie so it was an unbelievable hothouse. Not just a place to learn, not just to print (which I did) but also to grow and develop as a photographer. In effect, it was a second university experience running in parallel with the literature degree I was also doing. Unquestionably I “graduated” from this experience into the career I now have in that it was the Guardian student media awards which introduced me to the Guardian’s then picture editor Eamon McCabe, who on the strength of the portrait I’d taken of the novelist Iris Murdoch, offered me a job. 

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Was it clear for you that your work would focus on portrait photography?
Yes, if it doesn’t sound horribly pompous I’ve always been interested in the long tradition of humanist photography. I’m interested in people. I like people. It would never have occurred to me to have a career that didn’t involve portraiture. That would be unthinkable to me. 

What is a good portrait photo for you?
To me a “good portrait” is one which is honest. One where there is obviously a honest connection with the sitter. Obviously composition, light use of colour [or if you’re working in black and white; texture and tone] matter enormously but all these things, in my opinion are to be used by the photographer to service the emotional connection with the subject and to capture that moment of honesty. Without that all the technical brilliance in the world is meaningless and a “portrait” just becomes an advertising image. But where those things work together you have incredible magic. Think for example of the famous Arnold Newman portrait of Stravinsky - one of my favourites that I hope illustrates what I’ve been trying, slightly clumsily, to say. But also there is something very deceptive about the simplicity of some the best portraits there seems to be so little to them, but it’s all in the incredible understanding between the photographer and the subject and the photorapher's skill in knowing exactly how to capture that. Think how powerful Wolfgang Tilmans portraits are, but how bad so many of the imitations of them are! I’m in danger of waffling, but put as simply as I can: good portraiture is entirely dependent on honest and emotional connection. Without that all else is lost.

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Let's talk about your latest project called „Tender are the Nighthawks“. Can you tell us something about it? 
“Tender are the Nighthawks” is a new series I’ve been working on mostly though not entirely exclusively in Camden and North London where I live. The title gives clues to my inspiration for this project in that it references both Keats “Ode to a Nightingale” and Edward Hopper and I’m trying I suppose to capture that strangely specific still point in the turning world between the very late night and the early morning when the city is at it’s quietest and the very very last stragglers are coming home from their night outs alongside the workers who have to get to work just before the dawn. I love the way the bus system in London is so democratic, used by everyone. All classes, all ages all socio-economic groups and races of people. It’s cheap and crisscrosses the entire city. I’m interested in tone and mood, and looking for the things that unite us, moments I suppose that emphasise our shared humanity, in a city that is hard to live in. Moments of tender melancholy are what I most hope to catch. I’m not sure I always manage that, but it’s what I’m trying to do. 

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The pictures of „Tender are the Nighthawks“ are very powerful and intimate. Each picture tells their own story. It must have been very difficult to shoot in a bus or from the outside without being recognized. Can you reveal us some insights how you did that?   
For a photographer, buses can be a bit of a gift in that they tend to be lit on the inside in a way that to my eye can make them seem like moving Hoppereque diner windows, each one with a vignette or framed tableaux of city-dwellers absorbed living their lives. And thank god in Britain we have entirely opaque bus windows unlike in many other countries where the glass is darkened to combat the effects of the bright sun - not a problem we face that often! Though I’ve discovered the 88 Bus is hopeless for this project, the lighting just doesn’t work, the shadows it creates are all wrong, my heart sinks when I see it approach... In terms of working candidly, that does create its own issues. I’ve shot all this work on a Leica M Rangefinder with a 50mm lens usually open at f1.4 or f2 in very low light. This means I have to be pretty accurate with my focusing. There can be no ‘shooting from the hip’ secret guesstimating with my framing or focusing. This can be challenging when you are trying to be discrete at 3 am at a bus stop…. So far I’ve got away with it. I very much subscribe to the asking for forgiveness rather than permission school of candid documentary photography. I do often explain what I’m up to after the fact if I’m spotted and someone says something. There is no point being confrontational as a woman alone on the street in the middle of the night [carrying an expensive camera]. Often sympathetic eye contact and apologetic smiles help me get away with it... Also at that hour my subjects have been drinking and aren’t that sharp or aware of their surroundings/ sneaky photographers which can help me too... Technically I find focussing on something very near the subject when they aren’t looking gives me a head start for speed so that I can be quick on the rangefinder when I do want to focus, so I will often blatantly focus on their shoes and then when I feel ready to reframe more boldly…  

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Was there a certain „trigger“ to start „Tender are the Nighthawks“?
One of the first photography books I ever bought was Tom Wood’s phenomenal “Bus Odyssey” and it certainly sparked an interest in photographing on Buses. I also love Bob Mazzar and Nick Turpin’s recent work though I very much hope this doesn’t feel derivative. Personally I feel the buses are big enough for all of us and there are much more people out there being inspired by them all the time... It has always felt like a series I’d like to do to be honest since I started living in London, it was just a matter of when rather than “if”.. I can’t quite remember what started me off, but I call it “prowling” now and I’m very much in the middle of this series now, I definitely haven’t got it out of my system yet.

Besides your personal projects, you work as a photographer for the Guardian. What advice would you give young female photographers who want to start a career as a photojournalist or in the publishing business?  
Oh god, the hardest question of all! The industry has changed so much [and not really for the better] since I started 18 years ago. Pictures seem to have been devalued. Clients pay less for photography. There is the dreadful culture of “exposure” etc. What I would definitely advise for women starting out is an extension of what I’d advise anyone, and that is to always try and remember the value of your work. Do never work for free, or for exposure. If someone wants you to work for them then they want YOU and your work, they will also, as a rule, be willing to pay [even though they may try to claim otherwise]. I’m not for a moment suggesting money matters more than art. But knowing your work has a value is very psychologically important and it is also extremely important if like me, and like many other photographers, you don’t have a private income. Because if you don’t earn from your work you quickly stop being able to work as a photographer. And following on from this I would say for women don’t be afraid at calling out sexism where you see it, or the sort of everyday discrepancies that shouldn’t be there but are. It can be hard at the start of a career to do this, but if you do it when you see it and feel it I think it sets a tone about who you are and how you yourself would like to be treated. Also, and this applies to all photographers, use whatever works for you TO WORK for you. I’m always amazed when I see other photographers work because I just couldn’t do what they do. I can only really do what I do. But that’s ok, I’m me and I’m trying to learn and improve all the time as me. But it took me the best part of 15 years to be ok with this. I spent FAR too long being hung up that I wasn’t all the other people I admire or am in awe of. That way madness, and, worse, lack of authenticity lies. 

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How do you prepare yourself when you are on an assignment, for example, a portrait shoot? How important is the atmosphere between yourself and your subject? Do you give your subject any direction? 
I approach every shoot differently. I prefer a loose approach and to try and respond to each situation organically and be open to each shoot as it unfolds rather than come with an idea of how it will be. And yes, the atmosphere between myself and the subject is HUGELY important!! I try everything I can to make that work. It doesn’t always happen, but as a rule I find I enjoy meeting and being with pretty much all types of people and find that aspect of this job an enormous privilege. Hopefully, that comes across and makes that atmosphere a bit smoother to start with. Though as I said there has been the odd personality clash and then it’s made the resulting shoot nothing but painful! 

Is there any photographer who has influenced you as a person or your work?
God, too many to name. I hesitate to say anyone’s influences my work because I wouldn’t dream of saying the names of the people I admire alongside my own work. I bloody wish my work showed their influence. But in no particular order, and no doubt missing several important names off this list, here are some of the photographers who are always top of my list:  William Eggleston,  Saul Letter,  Cartier-Breson, Vivian Maier, Stephen Shore, Polly Borland, Jillian Edlestein,  Jane Bown, Helmut Newton, Tim Walker, David Hurn, Martin Parr, Sean Smith, Abbie Trayler-Smith, Laura Pannack… Actually, the list goes on. This is an impossible question. Thank the gods. 

Final question! When you need to choose one of your favourite pictures you took. Which would it be and can you explain to us why?
I’m not sure I’ve taken it yet. But of what I’ve done so far. It may be my first proper published portrait. The one I took of Iris Murdoch back when I was both a student and a student photographer. She is still my favourite novelist, and one of the people I’m most delighted to have met. But, it is also a portrait that literally changed the course of my life. I may well have stayed an amateur photographer and had my life go in an entirely different direction had Eamon McCabe not seen it and made an impulsive on the spot decision to offer me a job. From that my entire adult and creative life has unfolded. Something for which I shall always be entirely, endlessly, grateful. 

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