Our next interview is with former musician, turned photographer, Sandy Phimester from Edmonton, Alberta.
Sandy talks to us about his love for film, shooting in abandoned farms and houses and talks openly about social media and its impact on his creativity.
Interview by Sachin Khona // October 2015
Photography Work and Practises
HI Sandy! When did you know you wanted to be a photographer?
It’s a long story, but for most of my life I was actually a musician.
I got into photography later than many folks do, and in my mid to late 20’s is when I first really discovered I loved photography, and eventually grew to love it more than music.
A band I was in was touring across Canada, coast to coast on a long tour (five dudes jammed into a smelly van, basically) and before I left my dad had asked me if I had a camera, I said no, and this was right before smart phones really took off, so he bought me a tiny little digital point and shoot to document the trip. As the tour went on I realized I really liked documenting stuff and taking fun photos, it just went from there .. a few years later I had my first more professional type camera.
I still love music, but photography has definitely taken control of my life.
Where is home for you and where do you work? Have you always lived there or was there a conscious choice to move to where you currently live?
Home is two places, I currently live in Edmonton, Alberta which is a city of about one million in western Canada. But I was born, and still spend lots of time in Peace River, Alberta, which is in the more northern area of the province.
A small town in a valley, I love it there. Really beautiful, and quiet, so quiet.
In what way, if any, does your location influence your work?
I’m not sure if where I live influences my work, perhaps it does, but I haven’t thought about it much. A lot of the places I enjoy shooting in or around are abandoned farms and houses outside of the city. I know we have more of that here than a lot of places because of the rapid change from rural to urban, mostly due to the oil industry boom. It’s a topic that does interest me a lot, this sort of always changing blurred line between the city and what was once the middle of nowhere.
Do you have a designated workspace or office?
No not really! I Have a boring desk/office set-up right now. It’s nothing special, I think we are moving later this year to a different part of the city and would love to really make something nice to work in, haha.
What has been the most defining moment in your career? OR 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 photography career that bought you to where you are now?
This is a difficult question for me because I feel like things are always changing, personal goals of growth and vision always seem to shift every few months or once or twice a year. I approach this life like there is always so much more to learn and really know you can always get better and grow.
The biggest thing for me so far has really been learning to trust myself and try what I really want to, that still comes in smaller doses than I’d like, but I’ll take what I can get, and will push for more.
I always look back at my work every few months and think about where I was, where I wanted to go and where I am now .. you see little steps, a time where you moved forward a bit, or tried something and incorporated it – and it worked – or not – etc, etc.
I think there are little milestones you pass, that you don’t really realize you did until some time later.
Can you describe your style via a series of 10 photos that you feel define the work you’ve done in the last year and where possible describe why each one was included.
I don’t really have much to say about them in all honesty. I’ve actually tried really hard to move away from talking about photos a lot, it’s hard to explain for me I think, but I believe it comes from my inability to really say what I feel about them, I always feel like I’m twisting the truth or lying, just making it up. So I leave them be.
But I would say for certain that these photos in the interview, among some others, are ones that really did come out how I imaged it all would. That translation between me, the camera and the model was all perfect in my eyes, far from perfect photographs, but just how I felt was really projected into them. That’s why I picked them to represent my style.
What inspires and motivates you?
Friends, music, bike rides, camping, etc. I mostly get inspired from things or thoughts in my daily life.
What creative training do you do outside of your work?
I shoot a lot of daily life stuff on my little point and shoot or other cameras.
Can you share a little about the gear / cameras you use on shoots?
Yeah I’ve owned and used a whole lot of cameras over the past 4 years, that’s one thing I always found really neat about shooting film – there is a whole ton of variety out there in camera bodies, format types, lenses, systems, whatever, there’s just so much variety. I’ve sort of settled on what I like best now, I’m sure that down the line I will want to add a few cameras more (like a X-Pan or 8×10 camera), but for now I feel quite content. My main cameras that I use all the time are: Hasselblad 500CM, Pentax 67, Leica M3, Leica M6, Speed Graphic 4×5 and a Polaroid 180 Land Camera.
I also have a handful of point and shoot film cameras (which do get a lot of use! they fit right in the front pocket of my pants and I have them daily just like my phone or keys), a great Canon AE-1 that I let people use a lot when we travel, even if they haven’t shot film before it’s a great beginner camera for those situations. I recently got a professional underwater film camera, a Nikonos III, and have only gotten to use it once thus far but I really liked that experience too. Right now I just feel like each one has a real purpose for me, and none of them go wasted or sit on a shelf. I usually only bring 2 cameras with me to each shoot, so depending on what the shoot is, or where it is, I will bring the cameras I feel work the best for that. Each one helps me see how I want to see that particular day. They all feel quite different, handle differently and make me wanna shoot differently.
What do you feel differentiates you from other photographers?
I’m not sure really, I know that locally at the time when I first started out everyone (myself included at the time) was doing lots of editing and tons of work in Photoshop. I wasn’t happy with my stuff much back then, and started disliking everything I was doing.
I decided to sort of remove myself a little bit from a lot of things here and just focused on my stuff and moved to as natural as possible in pretty much all ways.
As for a style or something, I really don’t know. I feel like most of my portraits are a reflection of myself, or rather a part of myself, but I’m sure everyone says that, so I don’t really know.
I just feel like this is my therapy, you know?
When you get stuck creatively, what is the first thing you do to get unstuck?
I give it a little time, that’s about it! When I’m feeling a little over-spent on photography I just give it a few days, after that time or even about a week and I feel re-energized, always!
How do you know when a piece of your work is finished and needs no additional work?
I try to observe the finished photos a few times, maybe a few days of time to look at them once or twice and really dig into what I feel about them. I like them to look a specific way, which I have a hard time communicating with words, but I definitely have a “it’s DONE!” moment with them.
Are there any key lessons in your career that you’d like to share? Or can you share the Best piece of career advice you were ever given?
Learn from adversity, learn from pushing yourself. I don’t know. Haha, it’s another hard question. I feel like I’m in no position to give advice to anyone, so it feels weird to me. I actually emailed a favorite photographer of mine once, a few years ago when I first started out, and just said I admired their work and loved their vision, he told me “if you look hard enough, you’ll find it”.
I think for me it has always meant that if you pour enough of yourself, waking, sleeping, dreaming, happy, sad… into the art you love, you’ll always grow and find what you were really looking for.
One creative tip you can share when you are working?
Do what you really came there to do.
Sometimes the thoughts in your head don’t always translate so well to the actual task at hand. It doesn’t mean don’t adapt to the situation, it simply means… have intent, use it. I struggle with this sometimes (all the time? haha) so it’s something I think about all the time.
Do you have a photograph burned in your memory that you never took?
Hmmmm yes. Nothing that stands out huge for me, but I had always wanted to do a portrait of my grandfather and grandmother together in the garden at their farm, which is essentially my entire childhood wrapped up into a photo, but now, sadly, it’s too late for that.
It’s the only real photo I had the idea to take but never did, and I truly do regret that.
What are the 3 most important things in your personal life?
Fun, health and exploration.
Tell me about the entrepreneur in you.. Do you work in any other fields of business?
I run a small business taking photos of commercial real-estate, boring yeah, but it’s actually a great side business, extremely flexible schedule which allows me freedom to do the things I like in life. Which mostly seems to be lots of photography, haha. Plus it’s essentially just a technical job with photos, so I can shoot all day/week and still have all my creative energy for daily shooting or photo shoots.
Can you share a bit about your daily schedule? What within your work do you not like to do and why?
For about 12 years my average bed-time was around 4am, now it’s more like 2am. I’ve always just loved the night-time, it’s quiet, I get more thinking done. I think the thing I dislike the most is computer time.
I shoot film, so that’s already reduced quite a lot, no real editing or massive catalog of RAW files and such, but I still need to organize, cull and correct film scans, so I cannot escape the need to sit in front of a big glowing screen. I definitely dislike that part the most.
over the last few years you’ve become a lot more open on social media about yourself, and your work .. talking about film and developing, your processes to more personal things too.
How do you feel social media has affected your work / business / creativity?
They say we learn from failure. what was your hardest professional or creative failure to deal with and what did you learn from it?
I’ve had many!
Well one of the biggest ones I guess is I had spent a whole lot of planning, two meetings, lots of emails, lots of prepping at the scene… lots and lots of work before even taking the camera out of the bag. (Did I use the word LOTS enough?, because it was lots!) So after all this, days of work, the photos were just…. OK. It felt like a giant punch in the stomach, and I was angry at myself and felt really negative about the whole thing.
I learned that sometimes you just are going to fall short, and learning to live with that failure is going to let you grow and not as easily repeat the same mistakes.
What will you be doing or hope to be doing 5/10 years from now?
I have NO clue! One year feels far away, let alone 5/10 years.
I’d hope to be growing at photography, I’d hope to perhaps have traveled a bit more, to do some small documentary ideas that I have in mind, stuff like that.
Can you share an image that you’re particularly proud of and a bit of the story behind it?
Can you share with us a short assignment / project that has benefited you and feel can help others / our readers?
Lately I have been experimenting with telling a story, using one person, but with double and triple exposures. So it’s similar to the type of shooting I normally do, exploring the same sort of ideas, but now giving myself that extra element to play with, it really feels like a fresh challenge, and makes me think a lot more about just what it is I’m shooting, and why, each pose or shape has to work with the previous exposure.
Since it’s film for me, it’s all part of the waiting game, and all part of trying to really think my best before pressing the shutter.
The double exposure series I started is just a simple idea that I’ve had in my head for a long time, I wanted to tell a little bit of a story within a single image, but with the same person in the frame, two characters in the single frame, played by the same person.
For whatever reason it makes me feel like I can explore certain things a lot more in depth. I’ve only just begun, and will tackle this a few times in the coming months. It’s a lot of tripod work, which I’m honestly not used to, and not being able to see what I’ve done for a day or two makes it somewhat more hit and miss, but so far that’s been a strength – going forward I have a lot of mistakes to correct for next time.
The Core // Foundation
If you were no longer able to use a camera, how else would you express your creativity?
Probably go back to music, I’m awful at other visual creative stuff.
If you only had 24 hours to live, how would you spend your day?
This question depresses me, haha! I uh… I don’t know actually. You beat me on this one…
If you could change one aspect of our society through your work, what would it be?
Well I haven’t done much that really would change anything, but I do have bigger plans in the next few years to do some traveling within Canada to document a certain group of people from coast to coast, so that could potentially make people think more about their lives and the connection with people around them (or nature as well), but the idea is not set in stone yet, and will take lots of time to make happen.
Have you ever doubted your talent? If so, how did you work through your doubt?
Yeah, often. I said before I just like to give it some time, maybe I’ll ignore that feeling for a while and spend the week riding bikes and doing other things I enjoy, or maybe I’ll spend (too much) time dissecting the thoughts in my head.
A question that I haven’t asked but should have or something you’d like to share with others?
Are there any mantras that you live by?
Everything I learned in school was between classes. I guess for me it’s always been about exploring what you really want. So I’ll steal the words of another “look for it hard enough, you’ll find it”. A simple phrase but for me it means so much, easy to say but it really does have a lot of weight behind it, you could take it lightly but if you truly do put as much as you can into something, then you know the sky is the limit.
Your favourite podcast(s)
I don’t actually follow any :( Haha
Music // Share a Spotify playlist / Other
Way too many to list! I have a large vinyl collection that I’ve been growing for about ten years now, a huge mix from experimental electronic ambient stuff from the 90’s to heavy metal, punk and rock, industrial and some classical even!
Film / Documentary that is a must watch?
Way too many! But for photography definitely one I like a lot is Richard Avedon – Darkness and Light.
Your favourite book // A book you are currently reading?
I really just read about music or art, so my books reflect that. I don’t much get sucked into novels.
Right now I’m sifting through some works from a 1970’s painter who did a lot of sci-fi book covers and such. Chris Foss is his name. I love his stuff, pure imagination and vision.
A website you regularly follow?
None really :)
Last place you travelled?
We are always travelling to the mountains, as they are only a few hours drive from out city.
Favourite photographer or photo project outside of your genre?
So many! But I really love Matt Black, his work is wonderful and also brings attention to some otherwise forgotten groups of people, his project KINGDOM OF DUST was the first thing I saw of his, really blew me away.
Do you have a favourite poem or quote?
Which never Burns out
Which yet burns low
Which flickers out
Yet there remains
Always beneath the ashes
Which smoulder and wait
For one to bring
Dry twigs and wood
Dreaming of becomming
A fizzling crackling fire
And such is the fire
Burning within ourselves”
It’s a poem from a song by Varg Vikernes.
Favourite (photography related) TED talk:
I don’t know many, but I really liked the award video for the work JR did, the 2011 award video for TED Talks. Fascinating.
Last gallery / exhibit you visited
Some local galleries here, local provincial paintings and portraits. Really neat.
Your favourite photography book
Magnum Contact Sheets. Definitely.
But there are so so so many.
Links to your personal work / projects
That’s about it. I try to keep it all simple :)
Thank you so much for your time Sandy!
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