Don’t Look, See Things

Stephen Perry has photographed every celebrity imaginable from Patrick Stewart to Helen Mirren to Gordon Ramsey yet he is still looking to learn

Interview by Daniel White


How did you first get interested in photography?
When I was doing art at school I was always wanting to do something creative but my art teacher put me off because he was such a psycho. To demonstrate perspective he threw a tin of nails at my head. I was sitting at the back of the classroom and he was sitting at the front and I saw this thing coming towards me and I ducked and he said ‘could you see how that tin of nails got bigger as it got towards your head?’ so I gave it up and I kind of regretted giving it up.

So I went travelling for a year and I took pictures while I was travelling; I took travel pictures, I took landscapes, I did all this kind of stuff and I loved it so much I thought ‘I have to do this for a job otherwise I’m never going to be happy’.

What was your first step into the business of photography?
I went to the Association of Photographers to try and get a job and there was a book at the time which had pieces of paper in that photographers had filled out when they wanted an assistant. I saw one and I phoned him and I got the job so that was in London and he was a still-life photographer.

He taught me a lot of technical stuff about shooting with lighting and developing images in dark rooms so that was my start. I worked with him for about six months and then I had to move onto another photographer who was a bit crazy and then I moved onto another one before I started working with Terrence Donovan who was a big photographer at the time and that was interesting. He could be difficult to work with sometimes but it was the best experience I could have had.

Who are your photography influences?
My first influence was as a kid actually, before I even took up photography, when I saw pictures by Helmut Newton. They had so much character and humour and personality in the pictures, that was the strongest influence, seeing the personality in his pictures, they weren’t just portraits. He was unique then and the way photography has changed he’s unique now so I love him, I think he’s amazing.

What creates a good photograph?
If a picture can be created that moves someone a little bit then I think that’s what makes a great photograph, not just something that’s been looked at but something that’s been really seen. When someone asks me ‘how do you become a good photographer?’ I say ‘don’t just look at things, see things’ and that’s such a simple thing really; see things that other people don’t see, that’s all we do really.

Do you have a favourite photo?
I have got a favourite photo actually. I went to India just after the earthquake of 2000 in Gujarat where an area the size of the UK had been flattened, literally flattened. I saw these three kids and they were running around as if there was nothing wrong and I just thought it was amazing. So I was asking them to look into the camera and the two older sisters pushed this girl forward and I did the one picture, the one frame and then they ran off, so literally it was one second. You couldn’t have posed that!


How would you describe your style?
The pictures I tend to do for myself do have a sense of humour. So if it’s a picture of a half naked girl I’ll try to do something which gives a little bit more interest to it than just a picture of a half naked girl. I’m not one of these black and white purists, I like colour but it depends on the image and the lighting and all of that.

Are you a purist or do you like to edit images?
I like enhancing a picture because you’re not finished until you’re finished and if you can make a picture better, why not? I’m not really into digital manipulation, I’m not into totally doing something that doesn’t exist, I like to see what’s there and make it the best that it can be.

Do you have any exciting stories from your career?
There was a guy who wanted to take his clothes off and he wanted me to take my clothes off as well while I shot him. Then he stole my keys so I couldn’t get home and he told me I could stay the night. I said no.

Do you have any advice for aspiring photographers?
I would say that if you’re not absolutely 100% passionate about it, don’t try and do it as a job. If you don’t feel as though you have to take a camera out everyday and look for things to photograph, if you haven’t got that right from the very beginning, when you need it the most, that unbelievable passion that will absolutely drive you through all the hell and heartache and all the other things then I would say don’t do it as a job. And don’t get mugged like I did and have your camera stolen in India!

How do you rate your career and what does the future hold?
It has been a very interesting and enjoyable career. I like to question myself because I like to keep learning. I like to keep my interest, I like to keep being inspired so I always want to keep an open mind but with a fairly strong idea of what I want.

To contact Stephen Perry or see more of his photography visit his website