Today we share with you an interview we were excited to put together with Dave O’Keefe, a creative photographer from here in England Dave has built on his education to establish himself as a professional photographer. Here we discuss his educational roots, his inspirations, advice for other photographers, what songs play in his studio and how social media works alongside his business.
What first ignited your love for photography? Was there a particular style or photographer you loved the most?
I got in to photography fairly late, comparatively, I wasn’t one of these kids running around with a 35mm camera or anything. I was always into visuals and interesting aesthetics from copying drawings of Disney and Looney Tunes characters to admiring iconic images from films and of musicians, but it was at university where I first studied photography as a unit and my real passion for it was born out of the realisation that I could use a camera not simply to capture moments but create images, tell stories and present my ideas to others.
It was by recommendation that I looked at Jan Saudek’s work and that completely engrossed me at the time, the drama and subtle manipulation of his negatives were very appealing to me. I’d been inspired by images in the past but He was really the first photographer that inspired me to use photography as an extension of an idea.
You speak of first having a love for photography at university, how did this develop to learning and educating yourself in photography? How did you get from student to professional photographer?
Well it was quite an arduous process. On my course, anything to do with the technical side of photography wasn’t taught, it strictly focused on the artistic side. So technical education involved trying to get my hands on any cameras I could, borrowing 35mm film cameras, saving up for a Digital SLR and even buying run down 120mm film cameras online, just anything to get better hands on experience of how cameras worked. Together with books, websites, manuals and endless conversations with anyone with more experience than me. (which was pretty much anyone) So in fact the technical side was self-taught if you don’t count books and instructions, getting to grips with it certainly was.
Turning professional was even tougher. It was something I had decided to do toward the end of my third year of uni, with few jobs available. I felt being self employed and doing something I loved had to be worth a shot. It was incredibly hard to begin with, figuring out what to spend money on, how not to waste it, how to sell my services and products, at times very frustrating but a great learning process. There was a lot of patience involved from both me and my family before I got picked up by an agency. That’s where the actual ‘career’ began, and now almost four years later it’s a case of constantly working to keep up to date with what’s going on within different aspects of the industry, improving my work, tackling new challenges and of course like everyone else I’m still learning things all the time.
Has the people you are inspired by changed much over the years?
Initially my biggest inspirations were photographic artists, and photojournalists like Tim Page and Larry Burrows, like most student photographers I guess. However, I’ve always been very much drawn to ‘attractive’ images and creative advertising. I became aware of people like Duffy and how they managed to create iconic artistic images that had a voice or a sense of humour but also mass commercial appeal. This ignited a desire to pursue the work I do the whole thing of making ordinary things look interesting.
Now I love the work of Rankin, David Loftus, Dave LaChapelle and I find myself drawing inspiration from everywhere; films, adverts, books, things in the street; just subtle bits and pieces that you store at the back of your mind and all come together for an idea when the time is right or it fits a specific brief. So yes, over the years inspiration has changed massively, I think it evolves with your work and the direction you’re travelling in.
What kind of projects have been the most fun to undertake?
The work I enjoy the most are the commercial projects. In the case of say a restaurant you get to work with the owner and chef through all aspects of the projects development to create a look and feel for their business that they and their diners find appealing. The end result is often the result of creative input from all those connected with the business, It is these collaborative projects are often the most fun which is why I love to work with teams of creative people all throwing ideas into the mix, the work I do with Ad-agencies, designers and creative artists is a constant organic process to produce the finished image. I like the idea that the need to sell more meals, shoes, or whatever can be responsible for great photographs and is dependant upon such creative output, although nothing new, the digital age has given it new impetus and created new opportunities.
How much are you connected on a local scale to businesses and other creatives? Do you feel the need to work more nationally on projects with customers?
I have a really good relationship with local businesses and really enjoy working with them, especially with the business owners themselves. It’s really interesting to hear the ideas they come up with, from owners of building firms to restaurateurs they normally all have a couple of fresh ideas to fit their vision and quite often a really off the wall suggestion which is always good fun and keeps me on my toes and is the reason I love doing it so much. I think people often surprise themselves with how creative they can get regarding their own products once they’ve had a little prompting.
Obviously I really like being around other photographers, designers and the like whether it’s for work or just socialising, I think it gives you a nice balance of inspiration and competition, everyone values the respect of their peers and the same goes with me. I find it can be tough to get as much contact with these people as I’d like sometimes as by the very nature of the industry and the fact it largely consists of ‘freelancers’ it’s hard to find free time for personal projects or socialising. Of course these relationships vary in how local they actually are and I get the chance to work with sole traders and creatives on my doorstep but also with chains and freelancers on a national basis and even internationally on occasion which is a real treat.
Talk us through the process of a recent project, what tasks are the most time consuming?
I recently did a shoot for a Bistro & Deli, this particular commission is a fairly typical one in terms of identifying timing issues, potential pitfalls etc. This process started as is normal with the owner making contact , then there’s a couple of emails sent back and forth establishing a brief and what kind of package they would like, this was followed by a pre-shoot meeting as they were kind of unsure what the wanted/needed. This obviously involved me going to look at the premises, the products and meet the people I would be working with, just to get a feel for the place, their style and help the client decide on what they thought they needed.
I don’t always do this, sometimes the client may know exactly what they want and I are happiest if I just turn up and shoot. Once we set a date for the shoot, in the meantime I was coming up with ideas and sharing them with the owner and the chef and he was sending me ideas and styles of photography he liked, so this lead-in time is obviously how long the client chooses to make it. The next thing is the shoot, there’s always lots that can go wrong with a shoot and some of it’s outside my control so it’s a case of minimising the chances of disaster. Many small businesses I work with, including this one can’t afford to shut for an afternoon for me to take the shots, so it was a case of finding myself a small space to fit into and shooting dishes as fast as the kitchen staff can go without neglecting the customers. With this project, because there was simply so many products to shoot, with them being a deli shop too we did it over 3 days, so I could work with them remaining open without hassling the chef over lunchtime. Then its just a case of quickly getting things to the pass and the head chef being happy with it. This can take quite some depending on the dishes.
Then comes the single most time consuming aspect the post-process and approval: Although there is no manipulation involved with this kind of shoot, there are file conversions to .jpeg, maybe making colours ‘pop’ basically just doing the food justice in making it as appetising as possible with one shot. Once that’s done it is just the small matter of the owner and chef arguing about which photographs to put on the menu and website, luckily this was a digital package and I could give the owner all of the shots and leave them to it. So there can be from anything from a 2 day to 2 month lead up to a shoot like this, but once the shoot is under way, it s normally the ‘on the day’ logistics and the post-process that take most time.
Would you change any of the work or experiences you’ve had seen setting up the work? What are your plans for the next 12 months and beyond with your business?
There are plenty of things I would do different retrospectively, and I think there would be worrying signs of lack of progress if I didn’t feel there was. I have grown not only in terms of creative and technical skill over the past 4 years of professional shooting but also as someone running a business, something that I know many photographers struggle with early on. I have always managed to avert disaster in the past and have always made rational decisions, but there are situations that I think I could have handled better and plenty of photographs I would love to retake but plainly we must curse hindsight and move on. I don’t think I would actually change much though, maybe I would be somewhere else if had, butterfly effect and all that, but I think it’s important that the mistakes I’ve made have been treated as part the learning process and have made me better able to see potential problems. So at least the mistakes I make in future are likely to be new ones.
As for the future I think the next steps are just to keep stepping up my game, keep networking, getting my work out there and continue to deliver the best products to clients I possibly can, if I’m doing that as a minimum that’s a good start. I know a lot of the people starting the same time as I did have moved on to other industries, so now I’ve got over ‘the hump’ it’s just a case of continuing to push forward. I’ve also got a few long term projects this year, such as photographing businesses for an organisation which promotes them online and working with a fashion house, something which I’m really looking forward to.
How has social media and networking helped or hindering your work and promotion of your business?
Like many photographers I have a Twitter account and a professional Facebook page, and like many photographers I was dragged kicking and screaming to get them. I was reluctant to get either of these initially as I wasn’t a big ‘social networker’ in my personal life and I thought that having more accounts was going to be just another thing that I had to maintain and work at day and night when time was already at a premium. Eventually I bit the bullet after reading probably my thousandth ‘actually its really good’ article written by a whole host of former sceptics.
I think things like Twitter and Facebook are so important to businesses and especially to people like myself in a visual industry. Companies are investing hundreds of thousands into research, marketing and networking on these sites. They have allow me to showcase work from a whole range of shoots and subjects, some of which may not be entirely suitable on my website, but may be a great tool in driving traffic to it. I come up with ideas all the time that may fit certain briefs, quite often you can sit on them and wait for a suitable commission to come along but sometimes it might be too specific to do that, so to be able to go ahead and shoot it and then have a place like a Facebook page to display it, can only be a good thing.
I also use Twitter and feel it’s a brilliant tool for photographers, it not only allows me to find inspiration and keep up to date with what’s going on in the photography world but it enables me to get my work out there to fellow creatives, potential clients and creative organisations such as this one (Design Juices). It has helped me enormously as people find it non-confrontational and they can see my work and get to know a little about me before contacting me directly regarding commissions. It’s a great way to get in touch with people without being pushy or without taking up their or my valuable time. I’m not knocking on their door, or travelling to see them I’m simply showing them something I believe is relevant and it only takes a moment for them to take a look to see whether they agree.
Do you search online for your inspiration on websites and creative blogs?
All the time. Now, with tools like Twitter it has become much easier to find high quality and relevant sites. Until the beginning of the year when I got a Twitter account and a professional Facebook page I found it could be rather frustrating sifting through endless sites and blogs that were either poor quality or simply dormant but now with ‘following’ the right people and organisations it’s much easier to follow a link to a decent site then follow a link from that site and so on. Sites such as these (Design Juices) and Light Stalking are for me, brilliant resources where I can use multiple links from one place to fit different needs that all come with a stamp of approval from the site hosting them. Blogs and creative sites are so much better now and only improving, not just with the advancements in technology allowing the creative site operators to utilise their skills in attractive aesthetics but also with the acceptance that people are often informal online now meaning that personality comes through on sites as well as the work.
Outside of the photography work what do you to turn off and relax at the weekends?
Well I don’t know about the weekends, they’re often manic for me but whenever I can I like to watch sports. I really enjoy playing, but with time constraints, actually playing is a rarity. I watch as much as I can, I’m primarily a football fan but I love any kind of sport; golf, rugby, hockey, the games from the U.S., anything I can get my eyes on really. I think when I’m watching sports it’s one of the few times I actually power down from work, but I think that’s because I get rather engrossed in it as opposed to relaxing perhaps.
Which would be the top 5 songs playing on the ipod in your studio when working?
That’s a tough one. I like the old stuff and it changes all the time but I suppose I’d have to say Rag Mama Rag by The Band, She Belongs To Me by Bob Dylan, The River by Bruce Springsteen, Don’t Take Your Guns To Town by Johnny Cash and Games People Play by Joe South.