Zoe Whishaw talks us through her life in images and her approach to mentoring
How did you get involved with the world of photography?
I was given my first serious camera for my 18th birthday (a Canon AE1 SLR) and became obsessed immediately. I am a scientist by training but during my research phase after university, I found myself spending more and more time in the darkroom developing and printing my own work, which culminated in an exhibition in 1992 at the then-prestigious ‘Cambridge Darkroom’.
I moved out of pure science to work in publishing, producing scientific school books for children, where I first realised the power of communicating often complex concepts using photography.
After three years, I dived headfirst into the world of professional photography by taking on a job as a picture editor working with the legendary Tony Stone. This highly-regarded agency became the cornerstone of Getty Images, where I worked for 17 years as an editor, art director and latterly as their European Director of Photography.
During my work at Getty, I worked closely with a wide range of highly talented photographers critiquing their work and helping to develop their portfolios, some of whom are now amongst the world’s leading commercial and fine art photographers.
What prompted you to think of becoming a mentor to photographers?
I left Getty Images in 2009 and realised that my extensive experience could lend itself to helping professional photographers on a bespoke basis outside the framework of the agency. It meant I could work without bias towards the image licensing model and instead be focused on an individual’s own personal motivations and goals as a photographer.
I always thoroughly enjoyed the process of energising and inspiring creative teams to create outstanding content whilst at Getty. I continue this work today by running seminars and workshops in person and on line on a range of topics relating to professional practice as well as guiding photographers on a one-to one to help focus their creative direction and build a sustainable business.
What is it about photography that captivates you?
I think my fascination is linked to the idea that a single photograph has the capacity to go well beyond describing a situation or subject and can to reach into the emotional and analytical parts of the brain to convey an experience or concept that may not have a verbal equivalent.
How would you describe your approach?
The most important work I do is to help photographers build confidence around their work and practice so that they can develop a sustainable business and/or make changes to their creative direction in a way that is authentic to them. This takes a holistic approach as we explore personal hurdles and blocks and discuss ways to overcome barriers to growth.
All photographers are set ‘homework’ before a session so that in combination with a thorough scrutiny of their website, I can get a sense of them and their work beforehand.
Many photographers feel isolated in one way or another and rarely receive any professional objective feedback on their work and ideas. As I am not a competitor nor an agent or gallery, we are able to have open discussions about their images and brainstorm new ideas for personal projects.
Share with us some of the highs you get from mentoring.
I always aim for a photographer to leave a mentoring session feeling more positive, focused and energised. They will undoubtedly have lots to do as a result of our chat, but it should all make sense and I want them to have a spring in their step to help propel them to the next level in their career.
Over the years I have learnt so much from working with a wide range of photographers across all genres, some of whom have come to me at the very early stages in their career unsure of what to do next, while others may have decades of experience but are just not fulfilled...plus everything in between. I get a huge amount of satisfaction when I receive feedback that tells me I have helped a photographer transform the way they think about their work or perhaps helped to remove hurdles and so provide clarity in their direction so they can achieve their goals.
It is also immensely satisfying when I see the career of a photographer I have worked with flourish - perhaps they are winning awards or have been taken on by an agent as a result of the work we’ve done or perhaps they have grown in confidence to reach out to their dream clients and been commissioned.
I am fortunate to work with photographers all over the world. With Zoom being so acceptable and with the sharing of screens enabling effective image analysis, I can reach people and places that were previously inaccessible.
Most satisfying of all perhaps is simply helping a photographer to think differently and so unlock their potential.
I think you come from an artistic family background, do you think that helps you understand the photographer’s makeup?
I was brought up immersed in the highs and lows, stresses and strains of the fine art world. My mother was a sculptor (www.jeangibsonsculptor.com) and my father is a painter (www.anthonywhishaw.com), and still works in his studio every day at the grand old age of 92.
I have managed my father’s studio for over 10 years and am acutely aware of the range of pressures bearing down on freelance creatives. While the medium is different, the close involvement I have in the fine art arena helps me to empathise understand the journey, challenges and rewards of achieving success as a professional photographer.