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Interview with Stephen Gill

By Nahuel Contreras
Since being introduced to the medium of photography at an early age by his father, Stephen Gill cites that his early work reflected his interests in birds, animals and music. In 1993 he began work at Magnum Photos and in 1997 he became a freelance photographer. Gill’s documentary-esque images are now held in various private and public collections and have also been exhibited at many international galleries and museums including London’s National Portrait Gallery, The Victoria and Albert Museum, Agnes B, Victoria Miro Gallery, Sprengel Museum, Tate, Centre National de l’audiovisual, Galerie Zur Stockeregg, The Photographers’ Gallery, Palais des Beaux Arts, Haus Der Kunst and has had solo shows in festivals including Recontres d’Arles, The Toronto photography festival.
Stephen Gill relationship with London is what makes his work so representational to the metropolis’ constant changes. After over a decade of working in the heart of east London as a source of inspiration for generation defining projects, such as Hackney Wick and Hackney Flowers.
Nahuel Contreras: After being introduced to your work, I discovered your fine art documentary projects; 2005-07 series ‘Hackney Wick’ and ‘Hackney Flowers’ and the most recent ‘Coexistence’ shot in Luxembourg. I found it inspiring how you manipulated documentary phototropic images by superimposing flowers, insects, seeds and pond life on your images. Also, growing up and still living in Hackney myself, your consistent theme of Hackney’s recent regeneration has a personal affect on me.
Stephen Gill: Hackney is constantly changing, as is photography. I wanted to capture this in ‘Hackney Flowers’ which is why although I love straight descriptive photography, its one of photography’s great abilities, I learned away from it and incorporated how the subject feels over looks.
NC: Documentary photography often depends on a ‘decisive moment’, your work fine art element running throughout, do you believe your projects are based in conceptual thought?
Stephen Gill: Yes, I agree, I really focused on the subjects’ thoughts.
NC: What inspired you to get into photography?
Stephen Gill: I think a couple of things. It was the synthesis as I wasn’t very academic in school and I found photography was the perfect way to articulate myself, coupled with my interest in birds and animals. I learned to work and articulate without words. At the time everybody was exploring their creativity, but most of my friends expressed themselves through music. Photography started as a hobby and morphed into work, which I kept going and going.
NC: How did you develop your niche?
Stephen Gill: Really tricky; I found it by ‘reacting against’. The medium has worked so long that eventually you will hit parameters, almost like a glass wall. With ‘Hackney Flowers’ I wanted to try to listen to subjects not to impose my thoughts; I wanted the outcome to depend on the extraction of subject matter rather than just simply describe. I think by collaborating with places and subjects deliberately can mean you as a photographer, will have less control. Essentially it all depends on the subject to define your niche.
NC: How would you define you style of work?
Stephen Gill: I learnt to be more experimental, I do consider myself a straight descriptive photographer, however, I can’t convey all my ideas using photography, and hence why I incorporate other elements. Where it started as hobby and I’ve stayed true to that, looking at my current and recent projects, I can trace work back to my earliest projects- critical work.
NC: Are there specific areas one should focus on if wanting to pursue a career in documentary/fine art photography?
Stephen Gill: Oh, good question. For me, I would advise you to lean away from thinking of audience. I focus on subjects that fascinate me. You should always stay loyal to the subject, not focusing on producing a body of work with the aim to please people. Learn to bypass words for art to take stage, translate thoughts not into words but into photographs. Also, listen to your subject; I always listen so I can work out the best way to execute ideas.
NC: Do you have a highlight throughout your photographic career?
Stephen Gill: That’s difficult to say, reacting against is something I’ve always practiced. In the early 2000’s photography began evolving to become more technical, which suffocated content and introduced new technique. ‘Hackney Wick’ and ‘Hackney Flowers’ were big for me. Before, my work was always straight descriptive, however, I feel that those projects helped to change me as a photographer. Now, the subject coaches me, which I suppose means the work makes itself.
NC: You stress the importance of the relationship between photographer and subject; this resonates with me, as when working on a project, I always interview my subjects as a prerequisite before shooting.
Stephen Gill: The synthesis of interviewing, yes. I am fascinated with work which reflects time we live in, in a non-direct way. Therefore, interacting with subjects is incredibly important.
Me: Any last words of advice for an aspiring fine art photographer?
Stephen Gill: Always have motivations behind everything you do, work in a standard way and stay loyal to your subject and concept, forget the viewer. Immerse yourself entirely in a project- ‘Hackney Flowers’ took 3 years; I love projects where I can become obsessed with theories. At the end of it, you will have either exhausted the subject or the subject will have exhausted you.
We then spoke about my experiences and how one should decide their next step.

Stephen Gill: I’d say trust your instinct where your work will end up. I always tried to keep my work personal; exhibitions and books, occasionally published; I was never into self-promotion. That might be generational though, I’m satisfied with what I have accomplished in 20 years, if anything I’m trying to slow down now.

Project Tags

  • journalism
  • writing
  • art
  • photography
  • Documentary Photography
  • content writing

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