01 February 2022
Kodak Moments – Discussing All Things Photography with Oli Sansom
Exploring the unfamiliar and the invigorating, Oli Sansom won’t let boundaries – both physical and conceptual – define his work. Instead, he embraces the pauses found within the art of creating and points his lens in that direction. Taking us from the start of his career as a music photographer to his work on A Strange Atlas, Oli has continued to seek the organic, dynamic nature of life.
Approaching his portrait photography with clear intention, Oli thrives on the excitement and anticipation of working with film, finding the traditional form a fantastic tool to engage his subjects. Drawn to delicate and quiet moments – and how that translates to bolder, busier scenes – Oli continues to find a refreshing point of view, standing out as both distinctive in ambition and yet somehow inherently universal.
"The interplay between stranger and known, and how that moat is bridged, is one of the more interesting parts of this craft."
Award-winning Photographer, Director, International Conference Speaker and self-claimed ‘Recovering Designer’, Oli Sansom is a maker in every sense. Using his platform to explore photography, cinematography, brand design consultancy, as well as analogue and digital fusions, Oli is a pure storyteller. With a passion for creating, he doesn’t shy away from the challenges of art – whether it’s travelling to Antarctica to document 80 women in STEMM or spending the time to photograph strangers on film, Oli understands the nuances of the visual.
Winning the 2019 Film Category of the International Wedding Photographer of the Year Awards, Oli continues to expand his repertoire. Running workshops and encouraging fellow photographers to hone their craft, Oli continues to give back to his community. Merging his multi-disciplinary background, he is currently working on A Strange Atlas, a suite of educational materials for photographers and creators.
Where did your journey into photography begin?
This image right here. My first ever click, holding up a camera before I could even raise my head higher off the ground than Mums moccasins. I like to say that the #journey continued from there but I’m fairly sure I didn’t pick up a camera after this until I discovered bokeh and went on a quest to turn everything into blur. Nothing was safe. But it really started when a brilliant startup I worked for as a brand and experience designer closed up shop, and I decided to give this a crack. Before all that though I’d begun as a music photographer, chasing down a fabulous shooter Heidi Takla in a music pit, asking her what the hell do I have to do to be able to do she’s doing. She pointed me towards the publication world that commissioned photographers and from there I got to basically start out shooting rappers like Lupe Fiasco, Dizzee Rascal and local death metal gigs as the very first subjects (after coffee cups on my bench with blurry backgrounds etc). Super grateful to Heidi for pointing me in that direction and it’s something that I’ve found is super important to give back in a space driven as much by relationships and networks as much as the work itself.
"I reckon there’s a lot of intense messaging around portrait and documentary work that looks to overcomplicate a process that is more about simply being in a place, with a simple and honest exchange of energy. There’s no such thing as objective capture, and short of thumping a console playing Mortal Kombat I don’t believe in ‘capturing anyones soul’. I do believe people feel something when they see an image that has great light, a unique compositional interplay and has some evidence of that honesty (both comfort or awkwardness in a subject can be honest, and sometimes we couldn't tell which is which), or is otherwise an image that they can project themselves into. So for me, that last bit is what I’m all about - and then the curation stage will do the heavy-lifting afterwards anyway."
Oli's Approach to Portraiture
I reckon there’s a lot of intense messaging around portrait and documentary work that looks to overcomplicate a process that is more about simply being in a place, with a simple and honest exchange of energy. There’s no such thing as objective capture, and short of thumping a console playing Mortal Kombat I don’t believe in ‘capturing anyones soul’. I do believe people feel something when they see an image that has great light, a unique compositional interplay and has some evidence of that honesty (both comfort or awkwardness in a subject can be honest, and sometimes we couldn't tell which is which), or is otherwise an image that they can project themselves into. So for me, that last bit is what I’m all about - and then the curation stage will do the heavy-lifting afterwards anyway.
I kinda see photography the same way, I’ve got zero idea how anyone will interpret something, and frankly it’s not my business. I just try to keep an active diet of good inputs - beautiful music and experiences, and then let that naturally feed into whatever I’m making, and if I’m lucky get them to see something in a new way. If it’s a commission, my approach is to double down on that and also try and pair it as best as I can to their own outcomes. Pretty unromantic huh? But it stops me overthinking it, and means I focus on what’s in front of me and then letting my subconscious/muscle memory do all the legwork.
How do you approach photographing strangers? How do you make a connection with people?
Australian painter Jeffrey Smart was a massive inspiration to me in high school where I was tearing down a path to be an illustrator, and I’ve found that I shoot strangers in a similar way: mostly as a design element. I love that connection and it really drilled home to me that you just need to fall in love with a small handful of inputs and then let that natural osmosis seep into how you see the world. Some folks are great at the more invasive styles of street photography - I wish I could be that person and I love it when they turn out (insert Croatia + NYC street shots here), but it’s not really a space I’m comfortable operating in and as someone that doesn’t enjoy being photographed I try not to inflict that on other people. So the “art” stuff tends to be from further away, and then if I’m invited into a space, such as the Antarctic Homeward Bound project, my Mannequin project or weddings, the way I make connection is, pardon the banality, to be a person first & photographer second, because the images are usually a reflection of how comfortable people were with you. And then if you know someone really well, you can push the envelope in different directions. I pitched an idea for a music video to my mate Mike, wanting to test an analogue-ish idea, after my previous idea failed and we had to make the clip now on zero budget. “So, you’ll basically be topless in my studio singing your song in one take, except a take that’s slowed down and stretched to 23 minutes so that we can paint the characters you’re singing about on your face one-by one. Oh, and you can’t fuck it up even when we’re pulling at your beard or the entire take has to be redone”. This access that I have with friends and the known totally changes what you can ask for, as with this example of my mate Mykel, who for his book cover we shot 1000 photos of him in as many poses/outfits, in something of a Wheres Wally typology (it’s also the only time I’ll ever have my face on a book as an easter egg seven times, let alone on someone else’s book). So yeah - the interplay between stranger and known, and how that moat is bridged is one of the more interesting parts of this craft.
"The thing I’ve realised is that building a good vocabulary in “seeing” just takes time. I’m now more and more drawn to really banal or simple subject matter, and if not that, seeing things in simple ways. This has travelled across in to my editing, how I see colour and process files, etc. I started in music photography, where everything is bombastic and full of sensory overload. I feel like since starting there I’ve learned to see a little more quietly, and going full-circle I’m now interested in taking that right back into where I started. I’m less drawn to super dramatic, chiaroscuro work which feels like an easy-win now, but at the same time I have little interest in big bombastic, complex commercial stuff, so I’m trying to work out where I want to go at the moment, what I value and what I value making."
Can you tell us about your favourite or most memorable assignment?
A bunch of projects have bought so much joy. There was that one time I chased Bruce Springsteen around a house in Jersey after seeing him take over the wedding band in a backyard. Then Mannequin has bought me into the homes of people I grew up idolising. Watching Graeme Base sketch in front of me, The Never-ending Stories Tami Stronach dance and sing solo in a room alone, Peter Russell Clark whip me up his signature dish in his lounge, and Randy Blythe squirting a full measure of chilli-sauce directly into his eye after giving me a local history lesson around his town. Beautiful incredible small moments. It’s hard though to look past Homeward Bound, which involved spending three weeks in Antarctica with 80 women in STEMM from all around the world. The average day involved lunching with tornado-chasers, spider-milkers, and policymakers, before being chased by seals, being invited to base-stations, and seeing terrain that just blows your mind and looks nothing as you’d imagine the continent to look. Super special stuff. <bit of a cheat answer, I listed like 4>.
“I’ve learned to see a little more quietly and, going full-circle, I’m now interested in taking that right back into where I started.”
What projects are you working on at the moment?
At the moment I’m working on my own small education platform, A Strange Atlas. The whole theme of it is the idea that the best way from point A to point B is the abstract way. Trying to learn a “thing” in particular is mostly pointless, but everything that happens on the way there - whether we end up achieving it or not - is the good stuff. It’s been a great merging of my background in e-learning, app development, copywriting and more, creating a suite of educational materials for photographers that focuses on calculated play and putting love into the work, in a moment where the pace of the distribution platforms at the moment are encouraging the opposite. It features a bunch of photographers who make a point of celebrating all things strange and I can’t wait to get it out there. I’ve also got Homeward Bound ever in the background - it was initially to become a book but that has since changed shape, and I’m just working out the best way for that to be put out as a body of work (open to ideas). Around that I’ve enjoyed focusing on super-normal Australiana over the last few years in people and place, and looking for a through-line with that.
Where can we view your work?
Mannequin at www.mannequintalks.com