INTERVIEW // DOMINIQUE SHAW
NORTH YORKSHIRE, ENGLAND
Interview by Sachin Khona // April 2017
Reading time: 20 minutes
Dominique Shaw is a documentary wedding photographer, based in England and is one half of York Place Studios. Dominique shares with us her experiences of picking up a camera at age 16, shooting her first wedding that year to later owning a studio with her brother Liam.
Coming from a fine-art photographic background and now known for her reportage style, where the focus is on people, rather than places, Dominique is also an active street photographer, with recent trips to the US, Cuba and Sri Lanka and is also member of The 8 Street collective.
We’re excited to share more interviews with you over the coming weeks and months in the run up to The Experience, an annual gathering of creatives and photographers in Vancouver, BC.
Huge thanks to Dominique Shaw for her time and sharing with us here at ARC. Onto the interview ..
PHOTOGRAPHY WORK & PRACTICES
WHEN DID YOU KNOW YOU WANTED TO BE A PHOTOGRAPHER DOMINIQUE?
I guess I’ve always had an interest in photography. My mum was an avid enthusiast and her dad had his own darkroom. It was from my grandad that I got my first proper camera (a Canon A1) when I was 16, and it wasn’t long before I had an improvised darkroom of my own in my parents attic! Still 16 and immersing myself in fine art photography a family friend asked me to photograph their wedding and, probably without really understanding what I was taking on, I agreed. My natural instinct straight away was to shoot in a reportage style, even if I didn’t truly understand why yet, and it was an introduction to a style of photography that stayed with me, even if the conceptual artist that I was trying to be at the time tried to ignore it. I didn’t yet know exactly what my muse should be but one thing was clear from that point on – I was going to be a photographer.
WHERE IS HOME FOR YOU AND WHERE DO YOU WORK?
I live in North Yorkshire, in the UK and my brother and I own a Studio in Scarborough on a little street called York Place. I grew up near Scarborough but I never imagined it would be where I would end up basing myself.
HAVE YOU ALWAYS LIVED THERE OR WAS THERE A CONSCIOUS CHOICE TO MOVE THERE?
After finishing my degree in Sunderland (in photography, obviously!) I came back ready to work out my next move and ended up living with my brother for a little while who at the time was busy exploring his own creative ideas. We’d stay up late and talk about everything from movies to our favourite artists and photographers and became really close during that time.
A few months later—aged 21—a local photographer friend who I’d done a little work for during my summer breaks came to me with a proposition – he was selling his studio and wanted me to have first option to take it over. I’d never really considered owning my own studio to be a possibility before that and at such a young age I didn’t think I could do it alone but after another late night heart to heart with my brother Liam and some unbelievable support from my family, it was decided I should go for it and that Liam should join me.
DOES YOUR LOCATION INFLUENCE YOUR WORK IN ANY WAY?
When we first started the studio location was really important – we were doing more portraits and commercial work and back then, before everyone had infinite information available at all times at the press of a button, if you were looking for a photographer you would probably find them in your local Yellow Pages. Once weddings became our main focus though and as the power of the internet spread we quickly realised that targeting just the local area was rather limiting – after all, living in a seaside town half of our catchment area was water!
These days location is completely irrelevant to us. We travel all over the UK and indeed the world photographing weddings as well as exploring our own street photography projects as often as we can. Most of our clients find us online and we’re always happy to travel, particularly when we get to explore somewhere new.
Our photography is based on people, not places and so where we end up doesn’t matter to us – wherever we are it’s always a completely new experience.
DO YOU HAVE A DESIGNATED WORKSPACE OR OFFICE?
Our Studio on York Place is still our main base and we work out of there as much as we can but during the wedding season we also spend a lot of time on the road or working from home so have to make sure our setup is completely portable. I love the studio though and it’s my little creative sanctuary as well as a great place to meet our clients, surrounded by some of our favourite photographs and with a coffee table stacked with the books of some of the photographers whose work we enjoy.
DO YOU FEEL THERE WAS A TURNING POINT, MONUMENTAL TIME, OR SERIES OF EVENTS IN YOUR LIFE THAT YOU WERE FELT AS THOUGH YOU WERE ON THE RIGHT PATH IN REGARDS TO YOUR CAREER THAT BROUGHT YOU TO WHERE YOU ARE NOW?
For the longest time Liam and I have been working to truly understand our style and what we’re about both collectively and individually. Certain things we knew from the start like our desire to shoot reportage, other things have developed along the way like shooting without flash and a few years ago we maybe started to feel like we had the beginnings of an identity to our work. It’s really over the last year though that for me things have really started to click and it’s kind of entwined with our growing understanding and alternative creative outlet of street photography that this has been happening. During a street trip to New York where we were also attending a workshop with one of our favourite photographers, Alex Webb, we put ourselves under huge pressure to deliver something we felt was worthy of showing to one of the photographers whose books rest with pride of place on that coffee table back at our studio and it was the first time for many years where we really had to deliver something as individuals, not as a partnership. It forced me to really explore the type of photographer that I want to be and was a massive eye opening experience. Since then we’ve been using that experience to bring new dimensions to our work and have felt more confident in our instincts than ever before.
We’ve continued to put ourselves under enormous pressure and whilst it’s at times been gruelling it’s left us with a purer understanding of what and who we are, where we’re at and what we want to achieve.
CAN YOU DESCRIBE YOUR STYLE VIA A SERIES OF 10 PHOTOS THAT YOU FEEL DEFINE THE WORK YOU’VE DONE IN THE LAST YEAR.
[Editors note: These images are spread throughout the interview.]
WHAT INSPIRES AND MOTIVATES YOU TO CREATE?
It’s hard to say what really motivates me to create, I don’t think it’s ever really been a choice, just a basic gut instinct that’s always been there – a need rather than a desire. Even before I truly found photography I would create in other ways, whether it be music, writing or performing but when I pick up a camera it just feels a natural fit for me.
Creativity is like a drug and I guess I’m always searching for a bigger high – I never want to stand still, I want to improve every time I pick up a camera and the fear of missing what could be the greatest photograph I’ve ever taken is all the motivation I need.
DO YOU DO ANY CREATIVE TRAINING OUTSIDE OF YOUR WORK?
I guess it’s a question of what you define as creative training. I don’t really attend wedding photography workshops (aside from a few cameos on the other side of the lens!) as from the start Liam and I wanted to find our own voices, not be an echo of someone else’s. Workshops can be great but for us we consciously decided not to really look to other wedding photographers for our inspiration as we didn’t want to be too influenced to shoot in a particular way. I’d say I’m constantly undergoing creative training though – whether the camera is in my hand or not I’m always seeing pictures and I’m constantly taking inspiration from everything around me from books to movies to simple observations of the people and natural compositions around me. I guess street photography is another form of creative training as we’re shooting just for ourselves and no-one else, although whilst we don’t do it for commercial gain I’d say that street has now become an intrinsic part of our work rather than an outside pursuit.
WHEN YOU GET STUCK CREATIVELY, WHAT IS THE FIRST THING YOU DO TO GET UNSTUCK?
The beauty of the reportage style and placing people and personality at the centre of it is that a person will always do something unexpected, something interesting, even if it’s the smallest movement. We like to include a lot of layering and complex imagery in our work but sometimes when for one reason or another those images just aren’t quite coming together I try to strip it back down and rather than add as much to the frame as possible I remove every element, one by one, until I’m left with only the thing that caught my attention in the first place which could be as simple as an outstretched hand. From that point you can often start to re-build the frame and the more complex imagery comes forth but perhaps in a different light or from a different angle you hadn’t seen before.
Photography is like anything else – sometimes photographs just seem to fall into place and present themselves everywhere you look but other times you’ve just got to dig deep, grit your teeth and get stuck in.
There’s always a photograph to capture, you just have to be mentally prepared to do whatever it takes to find it.
HOW DO YOU KNOW WHEN A PIECE OF YOUR WORK IS FINISHED AND NEEDS NO ADDITIONAL WORK?
One of the things we really try to do in our work is to curate the images we take in camera. Aside from a little colour correction we try to do as little work in post as possible, I think there’s a real purity to the images that way. That said though as we’re generally looking for quite complex compositions and layering within each frame it often takes a lot of attempts to get that one perfect shot where every element lines up perfectly and even when you get it it’s not always clear at the time you press the shutter. Sometimes I think my images are more intelligent than I am and there are elements that I capture and include (or indeed exclude) on instinct but don’t necessarily consciously understand at the time and that’s where the second level of curation comes in: taking those thousands of images into Photo-mechanic and finding the best frames. Often these turn out to be the unexpected ones, particularly when so many elements are included in a single shot. For me that curation stage is so important and it’s what I put most of my time into – knowing what your best photographs are is sometimes harder than capturing them in the first place. It’s so important that even after the first two steps of curation we put a third step in there, with Liam taking the images I’ve selected and editing them down still further to the very best as he applies the finishing touches and colour and contrast tweaks which sometimes reveal something new about an image that again might not have been consciously clear beforehand. So I guess really we limit ourselves to making sure we get it right in the camera in the first place, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we only take one shot at it!
DESCRIBE A PHOTOGRAPH BURNED IN YOUR MEMORY THAT YOU NEVER TOOK BUT WISH YOU HAD.
I’m always taking pictures in my head when I don’t have a camera on me and there have been more than a few scenes I’ve spotted where I was kicking myself that I didn’t have my camera in front of me. But sometimes it’s just understanding that the image was there that’s important even if you don’t get to share it with the world.
You have to train your mind to be open to the types of images you want to create, even if sometimes that image is just for you and no-one else.
ARE THERE ANY KEY LESSONS IN YOUR CAREER THAT YOU’D LIKE TO SHARE? OR BEST PIECE OF CAREER ADVICE YOU WERE EVER GIVEN?
Be yourself and don’t follow the trends. If you try to be like someone else you’ll only ever be a pale impression of them and if you just follow the latest trends you’ll be unsatisfied, out of date and out of work in no time at all. One of the reasons I still love what I do after 10 years of doing it is that I’m in a place where I get to shoot the kind of images that I love. To do that though you have to shut out all the other voices, ignore the Facebook likes and just create the work that you (and of course your clients) truly love.
CAN YOU SHARE ONE CREATIVE TIP THAT YOU USE WHEN YOU ARE WORKING?
It seems obvious but you need to really think about every single element of the frame from edge to edge. Move your feet and adjust your angle to only include or exclude what’s important to the image.
Sometimes what you don’t include is just as important as what you do.
CAN YOU SHARE AN IMAGE THAT YOU’RE PARTICULARLY PROUD OF AND TELL US WHY?
I rarely remain truly proud of an image for long but this is one of my favourite recent photographs. The reason I love it is hard to explain, but I guess a big part of it is that whilst this is a wedding image it could equally well have been an image found on the street. I always look to create images that aren’t just interesting to those involved in the wedding or even to those with a general interest in weddings – I strive to be a good photographer, not just a good wedding photographer. I think this image has a certain humour and mystery about it and it’s far from cliché which I find quite satisfying.
WHAT ARE THE 3 MOST IMPORTANT THINGS IN YOUR LIFE?
Family, doing what I love and making it count. We all spend so much of our lives working I think it’s so important that your career should be something you really believe in and truly enjoy otherwise I don’t think you can ever really feel fulfilled. My family, friends and my adorable little dog Indy are the most important thing to me though!
DO YOU WORK IN ANY OTHER FIELDS OF BUSINESS?
I occasionally do other types of photographic work back at the studio outside the wedding season but weddings have been my focus for a long time now and, aside from street photography which I find is an essential influence on my wedding work, I’ve tried to stay focussed purely on that area. I went more or less straight into having the studio right out of university so photography is all I’ve ever known and I’ve never wanted to change that.
CAN YOU SHARE A BIT ABOUT YOUR DAILY SCHEDULE / ROUTINES?
I’m a bit of a night owl and, aside from wedding days, tend to work late and sleep in a little. I try not to put myself into too rigid a routine, although I’ll tend to get through emails and admin jobs earlier in the day to get them out of the way then, perhaps after a little walk with my dog to refocus my mind, I’ll get down to some serious photo-culling! My husband’s a wedding filmmaker and he’s usually editing at similar times to me so we’ll keep each other company and throw each other a little insight into each other’s work when needed and then try and make sure we do something fun together which I think is really important.
WHAT WITHIN YOUR WORK DO YOU NOT LIKE TO DO AND WHY? DO YOU ACHIEVE “WORK/LIFE BALANCE”?
Liam and I (and also my husband Matt) are all workaholics and getting the right work/life balance has been a major focus for us lately. We all love what we do and are obsessed with constant improvement and in the past that’s definitely meant that we didn’t have the balance right. Whilst we’re still as focussed as ever though we’re trying to find ways to even up the work/life balance a little more so that we have the chance to refresh and be at our most creative and to be honest our work is kind of naturally taking us to that place.
As our understanding of our style has increased we’ve become more focussed on capturing the types of images we love and better at curating in camera so that whilst we’ll still come away with thousands of shots from every wedding, the ones that work tend to stand out more which really cuts down the time in choosing the best work in post. We also try to make sure that we absolutely nail the colour and exposure of each shot in camera so that there’s minimal editing afterwards. More than ever we also try to limit the amount of work that we take on in the first place and only take on the kinds of clients that we feel really understand what we’re about and that makes a big difference not only to the overall amount of work but to how much it feels like work after the day itself!
WHICH PERSON DO YOU RESPECT MOST IN YOUR LIFE?
I’m lucky enough to be surrounded by people I have huge respect for but from the start of this journey my brother Liam has always been the person whose opinion and talents I respected most. When we first started the studio, Liam wasn’t really a photographer and he joined me on wedding days just to assist rather than to take photos. But at some point he started taking a few documentary images whilst I was shooting the groups and gradually he became my biggest photographic inspiration. People often ask why we always shoot together rather than independently and I guess in a way it goes back to the whole work/life balance – Liam is a huge part of my life and I love working with him and that helps to make my work a hugely enjoyable experience.
WHAT WAS YOUR HARDEST / PAINFUL CREATIVE FAILURE TO DEAL WITH AND WHAT DID IT TEACH YOU?
When we first started the studio at such a young age we were perhaps concerned more with how we were going to pay the mortgage each month than what would satisfy us artistically and so we just took on everything we could and worked it out as we went along. It was kind of exciting working like that at first but we ended up taking on some commercial jobs that we really didn’t understand the complexity of and massively undercharged and underestimated the time we would need to put into it and that led to some very painful weeks of long days and nights for very little gain. Coming from a fine-art photographic background it also killed me creatively and it really taught me that I couldn’t (and shouldn’t) do everything. It was after that that we started to really focus on weddings and started to look at them in a more creative way than we perhaps had done previously so I guess it was a valuable experience in the long run.
WHAT WILL YOU BE DOING (OR HOPE TO BE DOING) 5/10 YEARS FROM NOW?
This! I really love what I’m doing and right now I can’t imagine doing anything else. Of course I don’t know where my career will take me and I think to some extent you just have to go with the flow but whatever I’m doing I’m sure I will still be a photographer and still pushing every day to be a better one.
THE CORE // FOUNDATION
IF YOU COULD CHANGE ONE ASPECT OF OUR SOCIETY THROUGH YOUR WORK, WHAT WOULD IT BE?
I guess my work isn’t really about trying to change society, more to observe and make a commentary on it. I find people fascinating to observe and love to see the personality of an individual whom I’ve never met before come through in a single frame, particularly on the street where people are perhaps at their most real.
There are many problems in our society that need to be changed but they all start with the individual and I hope that sometimes my work might in some small way open up a different perspective to someone that they hadn’t considered.
IF YOU WERE NO LONGER ABLE TO USE A CAMERA, HOW ELSE WOULD YOU EXPRESS YOUR CREATIVITY?
Whilst I’m pretty rusty these days I used to play my sax every day and was always writing, singing and making up little stories. Maybe without photography I’d have found an entire new creative pursuit I’ve never even considered but I think I would always have fallen into a something creative.
ARE THERE ANY MANTRAS THAT YOU LIVE BY?
Tune out the white noise and find your own frequency.
IF YOU ONLY HAD 24 HOURS TO LIVE, HOW WOULD YOU SPEND YOUR DAY?
Probably on a boat, having a massive barbecue with my family.
HAVE YOU EVER DOUBTED YOUR TALENT? IF SO, HOW DID YOU WORK THROUGH YOUR DOUBT?
I doubt my talent most days. Even if I’m particularly proud of a certain image that rarely stays true for long and Liam and I are both massively critical of our own work. But it’s through that self-doubt that my work has evolved and improved and I think if the day ever came where I thought that something I had done was perfect and couldn’t possibly be improved that would be the day I quit photography. I don’t think I’ve yet taken a truly great photograph and maybe I never will, but the pursuit of that goal is a relentless and essential one and in the meantime I have a great support network around me to help me keep reaching for it.
A question that I haven’t asked but should have or something you’d like to share with others?
I think you have asked every single question that exists out there. ;) Just kidding! I would have asked, “What makes you press the shutter at a certain time?”
Whilst we’re becoming a little more known for a layered, “streety” style of wedding photography, really the most important thing to me is that I strive to create photographs that make people feel something, whether that be joy, laughter, or sometimes quite hard hitting raw emotions.
I always say that a good photograph draws the eye but a great photograph grips the heart and really pressing that shutter isn’t just about seeing, it’s about feeling, the eye is simply the gateway between the camera and the soul.
QUICK FIRE QUESTIONS
Your favourite podcast(s)
Fav Music // Share a (Spotify) playlist
Oasis, Blur, Ocean Colour Scene – I’m a 90’s kinda girl!
Film / Documentary that is a must watch?
Right now I’m working through the Hitchcock collection – I love his framing and they’re all must sees!
Your favourite book // A book you are currently reading.
I’ve just read “On Being A Photographer a Practical Guide” by David Hurn – a fascinating read.
A website you regularly follow?
Last place you travelled?
A little street photography trip to Sri Lanka.
Favourite photographer or photo project outside of your genre?
Do you have a favourite poem or quote?
“Who photographs reality captures nothing. You must re-invent, re-enact reality to make it a new one.” – Franco Fontana
Favourite TED talk:
Last gallery / exhibit you visited
Your favourite photography book
A creative you’d love to see interviewed on ARC?
Harry Gruyaert and Franco Fontana
THANK YOU, DOMINIQUE!
You can see more of Dominique Shaw’s work here // Web
UP NEXT …
Stay tuned for an interview next with Stockholm based photographer Liam Warton.
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