Here is part 1 of a 2 part interview with Seattle based wedding photographer Sean Flanigan. Sean is the founder of a wedding photography collective called A Fist Full Of Bolts and runs his own clothing line Tsunami & Avalanche. Named in 2013 as one of the top ten wedding photographers in the world by American Photo magazine, Sean continues to break boundaries with his unique style and creativity, capturing weddings all over the planet.
In this part, Sean shares with us his journey into wedding photography, how his creativity is fuelled by working in foreign environments and how he maintains success by getting access and attracting the types of clients he wants.
Interview by Sachin Khona // January 2016
PHOTOGRAPHY WORK & PRACTICES
HEY SEAN! 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?
I’m currently based in Tacoma, WA. I was born in Seattle and grew up along the Puget sound. Tacoma is home and will continue to be. It’s a mid-sized port city, 60 miles west of Mount Rainier – The jewel of the Cascades. We are an easy day trip from the Olympic National Park – my favorite place on earth, and we are just 30 miles south of downtown Seattle.
For my wife and I, Tacoma works – it has all we need with a little less bustle than the bigger city to our north. Our roots are firm in the foundation here.
In what way, if any, does your location influence your work?
I’ve been asked this question quite a bit. I don’t think much. We’re close to the airport and incredible nature. Other than the fact it rains almost everyday during fall, winter, and spring and it’s easy to hibernate and feel lazy, I don’t think the work is influenced much.
I do 90 percent of my jobs out of the state and country and I feel so much more inspired to make photos when I’m not working in my region. Everything feels fresh when I’m working out-of-town.
When did you know you wanted to be a photographer?
It wasn’t until I quit playing music professionally and went back to college. I rediscovered photography by taking a film 101 class. From there I went on to Art school.
The best thing that happened to me in art school was I learned what I didn’t want to photograph.
I didn’t want to work with companies, or be told what to shoot and how to shoot it. Because at that point your creativity gets crippled and you become just a tool for an end product.
Do you have a designated workspace or office? and Do you have a picture to share of that?
I mean, yeah, but you wouldn’t believe it if I showed it to you. Mainly it’s just where I park it these days. Lot’s of times I’m working in transit.
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 BROUGHT you to where you are now?
I don’t know…. my interests and aspirations are always evolving. I think I really improved at weddings when I fully embraced them. It’s been 11 years now that I’ve been shooting weddings. I started my career as a photojournalist working for prestigious news outlets like the Wall Street Journal.
One thing I was repeatedly told in art school is that wedding photography is the lowest of the low when it comes to a career in photography. You don’t have to be credentialed. You just grab a camera and proclaim yourself a photographer. And I fought weddings because of this. The thing is though, I loved shooting weddings. So when I embraced and accepted weddings as my career path, everything got better for me.
Can you describe your style via a series of photos that you feel define the work you’ve done in the last year and where possible describe why each one was included.
Editor’s note: These images are spread throughout both parts of the interview. Part 2 is live on Monday February 1st 2016.
WHAT inspires and motivates you?
My friends, wife, and son.
What creative training do you do outside of your work?
Currently nothing and I hate to admit that. This year (2015) has been the busiest of my life and I haven’t had anytime to work on pushing boundaries or stretching my creativity. I’m looking forward to January when I can pick up on some personal projects I’ve been working on.
I try to have a lot of down time where I can zen out. For example, I put on my headphones and go for a walk for 2 miles, or just spending time away from the computer with my wife and my son. Other than that, it’s so important for me to have a creative outlet where I can do exactly what I want without anyone telling me what I have to do. That’s where my apparel company Tsunami and Avalanche comes into play because I can be the Chief Creative Officer, I can take the photos, write the copy, and I don’t have anyone giving me any input other than my business partner. That’s really good for me.
It’s really hard for me to be creative on demand. I make my money through wedding photography to feed my family and put a roof over my head. When you’re put in a situation when you don’t have any decision-making and you’re at the mercy of a client, that’s fine, but with weddings what I try to do is be attractive to the type of client that I want to work for. Ultimately I want to be put into a situation where I can be successful.
When I’m at a wedding and I can’t get the photos that I know the client hired me for, it’s almost devastating, but there are so many variables that go into a wedding, the anxiety, the nerves, the sun may have set too soon etc, all these variables come into play .. and when I’m shooting a wedding and everything is amazing but I have these variables that don’t allow me to get what I want, then that stuff eats me up and lives with me for a while. So it important for me to visualise and conceptualize stuff and then execute it exactly the way I want it. And that’s why I started this other project.
With AFFOB I’m not really worried too much about what I’m putting out. I’m trying to attract a type of person that can see past the obvious. Our websites, work and branding gives people a lot of information about us.
Clients aren’t just hiring us because they need a wedding photographer like they need a wedding cake, but they hire us because they feel a connection to what we’re doing
In that sense it’s a success but the thing that kills me is wanting super good photos and doing a good job for the client but sometimes not being able to reach that and it happens.
As a creative I always feel I can do better. I’m never ever satisfied… I guess that’s the artist’s curse.
When you get stuck creatively, what is the first thing you do to get unstuck?
Lately it’s just been to persevere and push through.
How do you know when a piece of your work is finished and needs no additional work?
Oh man. For me? I can feel it. It is all feeling based for me. I inherently know.
Are there any key lessons in your career that you’d like to share? OR Best piece of career advice you were ever given?
When you think you’re close enough, take a big step closer.
Access is everything.
The best photographers are the best because they worked to get better access, not because they can use their camera better than you. It also comes down to personality and how personable you can be with the subject.
Do you have a photograph burned in your memory that you never took but wish you had?
I try not to dwell on the past… but yeah, a few, and those missed images were because I hesitated, or let fear guide me in those moments. Man, not that I think of it – I have a lot of photos I’ve missed.
But the beautiful thing is, those missed frames and moments have been incredible learning opportunities for me.
Can you share one creative tip that you use when you are working?
Don’t pump the breaks. My best asset is how hard I can work. Because here is the thing. When I’m working with passion it is easy to work hard and long.
If it feels like work it’s not my passion.
THANK YOU SEAN!
You can read Part 2 of this interview HERE
You can see more of Sean’s work here // Web
Stay tuned for an interview next with nomad, world & humanitarian photographer, David duChemin
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