Seth Carnill, an Englishman in Holland, is a well travelled wedding and portrait photographer. With a former career in the music industry, Seth describes his transition into photography after moving to Holland and how the old Dutch masters along with his contemporary peers via wedding and portrait photography workshops have inspired his work. Seth goes on to tell us about his emotional as well as aesthetic motivations to create images; and the importance of being original, working hard and why by creating large volumes of work is the only way to reach the levels of our photography heroes.
Interview by Sachin Khona // January 2016
PHOTOGRAPHY WORK & PRACTICES
Hi SETH! tell us where home is for you and where you work?
I live in the centre of Amsterdam, so my home is here in the Netherlands. But I’m English. I grew up in rural Suffolk, and I still call that home. So in a way I have two homes.
I also work here in Amsterdam. The majority of my clients are Dutch but travelling is increasingly becoming part of my working life, which I’m happy about. In 2015 work has taken me to Portugal, France, Morocco, Indonesia and back home to the UK. I would love to travel more, but this is probably the right balance for family life (I have 2 children).
was there a conscious choice to move to amsterdam?
Moving to Amsterdam was a very deliberate choice. My partner at the time was Dutch and she really wanted to live back in her home town, so we decided to make the move. I’ve now been here in Amsterdam for 6 years and have two kids who are half Dutch so I’m very settled. However, when I visit the UK I still feel like I’m ‘going back home’, and it’s always a bit emotional. But with no place of my own there I’m always happy to return to Amsterdam to be in my house and with my kids, so again it feels like I’m coming home. It’s quite a strange, conflicting feeling, but it’s becoming easier with time.
In what way, if any, does Holland influence your work?
It absolutely has an influence. Holland has a very unique landscape. It’s completely flat, literally there are no hills here. And as a lot of my work is located in nature, particularly my personal work, it can’t help but be influenced by this.
I live in the centre of Amsterdam and it has a very distinct aesthetic – the architecture and the canals are unique and you will see them constantly on my Instagram simply because I’m walking (well, mostly cycling!) down these streets everyday. Similarly If I still lived in Suffolk, I’d be shooting Constable skies on a daily basis. But it’s not just about subject matter – I think that the physicality of a place affects how I compose and expose. When the situation or environment changes then I am constantly adapting to make sense of that in my work. This has a lot to do with the type of work I do – usually on location with available light. Of course there are many constants, but it’s the subtle differences that challenge and reward me as a photographer.
I’m also influenced by the work of the old Dutch masters, especially the way they use light. Living in the centre of Amsterdam means I can visit the Rijksmuseum whenever I want and see the work of Rembrandt, Vermeer and the other painters of the Dutch Golden Age. Of course these guys are a huge influence on portrait photography all over the world. In fact their style has become part of the common language of portraiture so I would argue that most photographers would be influenced by this work, even though they may not even be conscious of it. The difference for me is that living here in Amsterdam has made me very conscious of that influence, because I am surrounded by it culturally.
You may also notice that I talk about ‘making’ photos, rather than ‘taking’ photos. This is something I picked up here in Holland because in the Dutch language you always ‘make’ a photo. When I’m speaking English I use it just out of habit – I can’t stop myself. But actually I really like it because it feels like a more appropriate verb to describe the creative process of photography.
so When did you know you wanted to be a photographer?
I have two different answers to this question because for me there is being a photographer, which I was from the age of about 12, and then there is being a professional photographer which happened to me much later in life.
First I’ll take it back to when I was 9 years old and on holiday in Greece with my parents and some friends. One of the friends had an SLR – he gave me a quick lesson and let me have a play around with it. With his help I propped it up on the ground and using a cable release took 2 shots on black and white film of my beloved Star Wars toys. Previously I was just used to crappy plastic viewfinders, so the impact of looking through the actual lens of an SLR for the first time was huge. The idea that I was seeing exactly the light that would be falling onto the film was fascinating to me. Plus I loved the fact that this meant I could get in really close to my toys and deliberately compose the image rather than guessing with a plastic viewfinder.
Of course at 10 years old I didn’t really have an idea of being a ‘photographer’, but this was the moment that I got a real feeling that I loved to make photos.
Two years later at the age of 12 I got my first SLR, made by Praktika. It was dirt cheap, but it did come with a 50mm f2.8 lens by Carl Zeiss. At that age I had no clue but all the adults I showed it to said “Oh, Carl Zeiss! They are the best lenses!”. As soon as I got that camera into my hands, I was hooked and taught myself how to use it.
The second answer to this question is more about when I first knew I wanted to be a professional photographer. As well as photography, I was deeply into making music as a teenager, and eventually got a job at Island Records as a press officer. I had a career in the music industry in London for the next 15 years but after moving to Amsterdam I decided it was time for a change. I had always wanted to do something for myself, and encouraged by my friends and family photography became the obvious path to take.
What do you feel has been the most defining moment in your career?
I don’t really feel that there has been one defining moment – my career feels like a constant series of small manoeuvres and decisions that take me towards the work I want to be doing, constantly changing and progressing in small ways.
The most significant moment was 5 years ago when I plucked up the courage to finally say ‘I am a photographer’. It’s such a simple thing – I’d been into photography since I was 12 years old but for some reason I never made the jump to consider it seriously as a career – in a way I lacked the courage to take it seriously, but the minute I said it to myself and to the people around me, everything clicked into place. With hindsight I wouldn’t say the jobs immediately started flooding in, but at the time it felt like it. I was amazed at the willingness of people to give me a chance.
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 can’t really identify a specific point in time, but sometime in that first year I started to make images that I thought had some value. I think in the initial months there was a very steep learning curve. I found that there was quite a difference taking photos for myself and taking photos for a client. I was immediately pushed to the limits of my technical skills and knowledge, and also to the limits of my equipment. And it was after this initial rush of learning that I finally started to settle toward some sort of style and pattern and realise that I could do this. I also have to mention an amazing workshop by Dan O’Day and Samm Blake that really helped me on my path towards becoming a wedding photographer – but more about that later.
Do you have a designated workspace or office?
Well I work from home, so it’s a very simple desk sitting in the corner of my living room. There is a stand for my laptop plus a 27” monitor, a headphone amp and a pair of headphones (most of my music listening is done sitting at this desk). I’m actually moving house within the next few weeks and I’m going to have a dedicated office space. I’m really looking forward to having more of a physical separation between my work and domestic life.
Can you describe your style via a series of photos that you feel define the work you’ve done in the last year and describe why each one was included?
1. I love this image – a spontaneous moment at the wedding ceremony as the bride is about to say ‘I do’. It’s a good example of how choices in editing can influence the final image. For me the inspiration was the very soft even lighting coming from the large windows, and the blank wall blending into the white dress, and the contrasting detail of the flowers in the bride’s hair. A conversion to black and white and some serious tone curve adjustments and the image becomes something quite special.
2. A perfect example of what I call ‘contrived spontaneity’… The situation was completely natural, kids just sitting eating dessert. But after shooting a few frames, I just said “OK, after 3 all take a bite… 1… 2… 3…”
3. I just love the way she is nonchalantly carving the pig. So much more powerful than if she had been looking into the lens.
4. This is a great example of an image that can begin to tell a story within one frame. I love images that move away from the basic photograph of a ‘subject’ and instead it’s a scene with many subjects. It also captures the beautiful chaos that you find at some weddings. We were all crammed into a beautiful but very small room and I could barely lift my camera to my face to look through the viewfinder. The couple gazing into each other’s eyes, the daughter blocking her ears against the loud cheers and the cousins pulling heart shapes in the background… simply a wonderful moment.
5. I love the simplicity of this image of my daughter. Nice soft window light, relaxed facial expression. I spent many hours trying to teach my children not to pull a cheesy grin for the camera. They got pretty good at it, maybe too good, so I have many images with these sort of deadpan expressions. I like the contrast. It shows a vulnerability which a grin can hide.
6. I include this because I love the way kids can just get naked and have fun in almost any situation. I’m almost jealous of the lack of inhibition! I’m also sad that there is some controversy around images of naked children – just look at the criticisms that Sally Mann had to contend with. Some people will think it’s wrong to show this image on a website that anyone can see. But for me it’s really not an issue, and I have thought long and hard about it. This image is of my daughter and her friends – I will treasure it for the rest of my life and I think they will too!
7. This is a shot I made this year for a fashion show. I don’t often shoot models but I really enjoy it and would love to do more in 2016.
8. Another great spontaneous moment! I just love the pose of the stylist, so expressive.
9. I photographed a wedding this year at one of the most unique venues I have ever seen. It was at a working shipyard in the Netherlands that is owned by the bride’s family. We ate amongst huge industrial machinery and partied alongside half-built ships. My wedding photography really tries to capture the environment and this is a classic example.
10. I have always loved travel photography, and this year I was lucky enough to be invited to Indonesia by the Ministry of Tourism to explore the country and make photos. This is the other-worldly Mount Bromo – a live volcano on East Java.
11. For me weddings are all about the spontaneous moments and I find that even during the portrait session it’s always the shots that catch the couple off guard that are the favourites. A beautiful print of this image ended up on the wall of the couple’s house boat.
12. The highlight of my recent trip to Indonesia was doing some voluntary work at a remote village school. As a traveller and a photographer I have always loved these real life experiences more than the usual tourist destinations.
13. I try to shoot for fun as often as I can, and this was a result of a shoot I did with my friend Iris, just experimenting with very a low-key look in a pretty dark room. I like the results, should play more often.
moving on to creativity, WHAT do you feel inspires and motivates you?
It can be almost anything, depending on how I feel or what is happening around me at any given time. But I can divide it in two ways – the emotional and the aesthetic.
A memory, a wave of emotion, a small kindness or interaction received from someone – all of these things make me feel something and can motivate and give me creative energy.
And then there is light and beauty. This is a more direct motivation in a way. I can feel emotions and not necessarily feed them into my creative process (or at least not immediately). But if I see some beautiful light I will ALWAYS want to capture it immediately with my camera.
This instinct can be a bit of a burden and over the years I’ve learned to accept that I can’t literally capture everything – so I have learned to just experience things without a camera, and after muttering ‘crap, I wish I had my camera with me’, I can usually just experience the moment and move forward with no regrets.
I also love to look at the work of other photographers, especially those working in similar fields to me. I follow countless blogs and am an avid instagrammer and some of the work I see literally takes my breath away and inspires me to push myself creatively.
and do you do any creative training outside of your work?
I try to find time to attend workshops if I can. In the very first months of my career I attended a workshop in London with Dan O’Day and Samm Blake which was incredible… Samm and Dan’s work was the early inspiration for me to get into wedding photography, so when I saw they were coming to London I jumped at the chance to attend. It was pretty expensive for me, especially considering that at that stage I was earning next to nothing from my work, but it was worth every penny! The things I learned here from these two amazing photographers still have an immense influence on me and my career.
I also attended a workshop with Oli Sansom. I discovered his work several years ago. His technique and the way he experiments with processing is very inspiring. He’s an amazing photographer, but also very technical and creative with his editing – pushing his images towards even greater heights.
When you get stuck creatively, what is the first thing you do to get unstuck?
I’m not sure I ever get really stuck. I don’t mean that in an arrogant way – but I can always create something, even if it’s crap. When I’m stuck I will simply do something… ANYTHING… I’ll immediately assess the merits of what I’ve done and adjust or repeat or do something entirely different.
So being stuck, if it happens, is simply a momentary lapse, something else comes along very quickly. This is my creative process, and it feels a bit like a series of experiments leading to a finished image.
How do you know when a piece of your work is finished and needs no additional work?
If it feels good to me then I’m happy. I trust my instinct. I don’t really get into heavy processing and pixel peeping. Plus I’m mostly working for a client, and that gives me a real discipline to get something finished because there are time limits and deadlines. I’m quite pragmatic in that respect – for example I will not work for an extra 20 minutes on an image to improve something that the client probably won’t even notice.
Time is finite and if you are a professional knowing when to stop is absolutely essential.
Are there any key lessons in your career that you’d like to share with our readers?
There is a bit of very wise advice that Dan O’Day told me. It’s about originality in your work and it went something like this. If you are doing exactly the same as other photographers, then the only thing you can compete with them on is price. So you will decrease your price in order to get clients. The key thing is to find some originality and then immediately you are setting yourself apart from your competitors – competing on the quality and uniqueness of your work rather than price, and therefore you can charge the prices that you need to help your business.
what then is the Best piece of career advice you were ever given?
Two things spring to mind. The first is from Ira Glass. I think this may have been from a TED lecture on creativity, but it’s become known as his “Taste Gap” quote… here it is:
“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”
Also linked here. Watch the first 2 minutes.
When I first heard this, I was so happy because it validated a lot of the insecurity that I had about my work. What I took from it is:
“It’s ok if your work isn’t as good as Sally Mann or Anton Corbijn… just keep doing it and one day you will get there”
Do you have a photograph burned in your memory that you never took but wish you had?
This does happen, but I have to say I move on very quickly, so I can not even remember a specific image.
Can you share one creative tip that you use when you are working?
Trust your instinct and stay focused on it. I always have the feeling that clarity of vision can get lost as the things around you begin to exert their influence – whether that’s a client, a colleague or just the latest trend. There are a myriad of influences all vying for attention and it’s sometimes hard to deal with them, but focussing on what you instinctively feel while you are working really helps.
What are the 3 most important things in your personal life?
My children first and foremost, then the rest of my family and my friends. I could have also said music, food and light, but that would be doing the people around me an injustice… ;)
Do you work in any other fields of business?
as a full-time professional photographer, Can you share a bit about your daily schedule?
When you are a professional photographer, and a parent, any semblance of a routine can be hard to find. There is always something that will come along and disrupt your plans – for example a sick child or school holiday.
Having said that, when I do get a day in my office I like to work in short bursts of 30 or 40 minutes before taking a short break. This is a natural rhythm for me, and I think it evolved subconsciously to deal with the high levels of concentration that I need for editing work. It also counteracts the negatives of sitting still and staring at a computer screen for hours on end.
I also like to throw other small things into the day to break it up – this could be simply arranging lunch meetings with clients, simple portrait shoots or coffee with a friend. This of course is one of the huge advantages of living in the centre of Amsterdam – I am surrounded by friends, clients and nice places to lunch.
What within your work do you not like to do and why?
Apart from doing the tax returns (so painful…) there is not really anything that I actively dislike about my job. However I do find that at certain times the workload gets very heavy, and that can cause me quite some stress. When I feel that there are literally not enough hours in the day then that’s not such a nice feeling for me.
What was your hardest / painful creative failure to deal with and what did it teach you?
There is not one specific failure that I can remember… but of course that’s not to say I have never made one.
On the contrary! For me, photography is a constant flow of mini-failures, but also happily mini-successes. You can’t have that one perfect frame without the handful of imperfect ones either side of it.
I saw a great exhibition recently of Magnum photographers’ contact sheets and it was very heartening to see these iconic images surrounded by other crappy shots on the same roll of film.
What will you be doing (or hope to be doing) 5/10 years from now?
I have a dream scenario where I’m doing amazing work with few stresses and an incredible work-life balance.
Can you share an image that you’re particularly proud of and tell us why?
This is such a hard question and my answer could change every time you ask me. But I’ve picked one of my kids in a forest in Belgium simply because it ticks every box for me. Aesthetically I love the image – the slightly eerie feeling and vulnerability it shows. Furthermore it represents a moment when I had an idea for an image and made it happen – we were spending a long weekend in rural Belgium, driving by these immaculate pine forests every day. I had a vision for this image in my head and on the final day I was compelled to make it.
My kids will hardly ever happily pose for a photo. When they do it, they always do it very reluctantly and more times than not they will simply refuse. On this occasion I begged and finally bribed them to pose. They were unhappy, I was clicking the shutter, my daughter finally burst into tears. But I got the shot and I paid my children 2 euros each. I always tell my children they will be really happy when they are older that these photos exist, but I’m not sure if they believe me.
THE CORE // FOUNDATION
Are there any mantras that you live by?
If you were no longer able to use a camera, how else would you express your creativity?
It would be music for sure. I played classical music as a child (piano and trumpet), and then added samplers and synthesisers to my repertoire as a teenager playing in bands, and then as a young adult I spent a couple of years writing electronic music – just me and a computer and a shelf full of synths. When I think about that process of ‘composing’ I actually really miss it. In fact the other day I had a long discussion with a close friend about whether writing music was more creative than taking photos! I felt one way, but she persuaded me that the other was equally creative.
If you only had 24 hours to live, how would you spend your day?
I would spend it with my children, on the beach… and I’d leave my camera behind.
If you could change one aspect of our society through your work, what would it be?
For me it would have to be prejudice, specifically racial prejudice… It is such a misunderstood issue – mainly due to it’s complexity and nuances. It’s difficult to define properly and also difficult to discuss properly because it becomes such an emotive issue. How I would love to be able to change it through my work, but I don’t have an idea how yet…
Have you ever doubted your talent? If so, how did you work through your doubt?
Yes, absolutely, I am constantly having doubts. But I’m fine with that. I have many feelings – both negative and positive – relating to my work, and for me it feels almost impossible to have one without the other. It’s a rollercoaster, and I work through it by just literally carrying on making and delivering images. Maybe it’s this momentum that exists for a professional that helps to stop the doubts taking hold for too long.
is there a question that we haven’t asked but should have or something you’d like to share with others?
I’m particularly focused on improving my work-life balance at the moment – something I feel got a bit forgotten in 2015. This is a problem for so many photographers I know, and personally I would love to know how others deal with it.
QUICK FIRE QUESTIONS
Your favourite podcast(s)
Musea, Guardian Football Weekly, ATP, Adam Buxton, London Real (yeah I like podcasts)
Fav Music // Share a (Spotify) playlist
This answer can vary so much depending on the week you ask me… but at this moment I’m listening to Primal Scream’s ‘Screamadelica’, Beach House, John Grant and Cocteau Twins
Film / Documentary that is a must watch?
Your favourite book?
Unbearable Lightness of Being (all time favourite)
A website you regularly follow?
Last place you travelled?
Favourite photographer or photo project outside of your genre?
Difficult question but Gregory Crewdson immediately springs to mind
Do you have a favourite poem or quote?
Well, it has to be the Ira Glass quote from above.
Favourite (photography related) TED talk:
I don’t have a photo related one but Ken Robinson’s talks about education are always amazing and in particular I can recommend this one about how schools kill creativity.
Last gallery / exhibit you visited
The recent ‘Magnum Contact Sheets’ show at Foam, Amsterdam
Your favourite photography book
A creative you’d love to see interviewed on ARC?
err… Sally Mann!
Can you share a short assignment / project that has benefited you in the past OR create / describe an assignment that you feel can help those reading this interview?
I would say if you are someone who is thinking of becoming professional photographer then a great thing to do is treat your next family get together or social occasion as if it were a professional assignment. Shoot the hell out of the day and everyone there and then present it as you would to a client – beautifully culled and edited, and arranged carefully in an attractive web gallery. Not only are you showing those close to you what you can do but you can also use it as an opportunity to develop your style, presentation and workflow.
THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR YOUR TIME SETH!
You can see more of Seth Carnill’s work here // Web
UP NEXT …
Stay tuned for an interview next with Seattle based wedding photographer, SEAN FLANIGAN
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