Creative Works member Alastair Fyfe has photographed a whole host of iconic people during his time as a professional photographer, including Nelson Mandela and various members of the royal family. He’s worked with a lot of lesser known but no less intriguing faces too. For him, “it’s almost always about people”.
Eager for anecdotes and to find out more about his creative journey, we caught up with Alastair in our breakout area. Gather round…
Alastair Fyfe, Photographer
Hi Alastair! So what prompted you to move into Creative Works?
I’d been working in Clerkenwell for a decade and always thought I needed somewhere in the centre of town. Since having kids and moving to Walthamstow, I realised I was spending a lot of time and money commuting to my office, even though I was only using it for the business side of things. So I decided to move out and someone suggested Creative Works.
As soon as I visited I just loved the atmosphere and the huge windows that let the winter light in. I wanted a bay space and was trying to get another photographer friend of mine to share it with me, but he decided to work from home. I can never work from home and find that however much I pay for a space, it pays itself back because of how focused I am.
“I just loved the atmosphere and the huge windows that let the winter light in.”
In the end, Creative Works called up and told me someone else wanted to share a bay, and that’s when I met my bay buddy, Petra. By coincidence her eldest child is in the same class as mine at primary school. It’s funny how things work out!
Do you use your bay for editing photos?
I do. For example, I photographed for Historic Royal Palaces on Friday at a community engagement event at Banqueting House. There were around 120 attendees from different communities and the aim was to figure out ways to make the Tower of London, Hampton Court and Banqueting House more accessible.
As we speak, the images are rendering and they’ll be in Adobe Lightroom for me to edit when I go back. I also invoice people, do my accounting, follow up with clients and further my future vision quest at Creative Works.
Woodsey & Miss Yankey at Banqueting House. © Alastair Fyfe.
Ooh, we can’t wait to learn more about that. We hear you’re also taking part in Forge?
I’m taking part in Forge’s third edition and will be attending three workshops and 1:1 sessions. It’s amazing that it’s free. I’ve been to two of Forge’s networking events so far and I’ve met quite a few parents there. There were 30 people in the last one and nine were photographers!
I suggested that we create a splinter group to discuss our own issues and geek out on jargon. (Mainly so we don’t have to bore everyone else with it!) Gaining an awareness of all the other creative businesses in E17 and getting to know people in the local area is great. The school pickup only takes a few minutes too.
How long have you been a photographer for?
I’ve been a freelance photographer for about 20 years. Before that I was living in Italy and worked as a photojournalist. When I came out of art college I had this huge sense of how the world should just throw money at me for being great at photos. It took quite a while to realise that wasn’t going to be the case.
I started teaching English as a foreign language first. When I wasn’t doing that I was traversing Milan with my portfolio under my arm trying to get photography work. I ended up getting my first job through a graphic designer I knew who worked for one of the magazines. I told him that I wanted to be a photographer and he said, “Go and see Luisella from Investire magazine.” So, I went along and she said, “Oh, can you do Tuesday at 2pm?” – without even looking at my portfolio!
Tell us more about your future vision quest…
The biggest learning curve for me was having to do what other people wanted. Now I’m going to go back to what I want to do.
I was lucky enough to travel to Antigua to photograph the island’s first film festival. On top of covering that for my client I worked my own project that involved photographing people who were involved in the film industry on the island. I photographed the carpenter who made the screen the day before the screening and the woman who ran the hotel and did the catering, all the way through to the prime minister just before independence day.
Gaston Browne, Prime Minister of Antigua and Barbuda. © Alastair Fyfe.
Jackie at Sunset Villas. © Alastair Fyfe.
Pelle the Carpenter. © Alastair Fyfe.
In a sense I’m going back to my photojournalistic roots. I’m thinking of pitching these projects to magazines and publishers who want to tell a story. That said, they’re passion projects and I don’t have to rely on them for income because I have my commercial work.
“…I like the idea of going back to a blank canvas.”
I like the idea of going in and getting to know people first; maybe even shoot them twice. Rather than set everything up in a studio here I’ll be going to go where they are; their natural habitat, so to speak!
I was a painter when I first attended art college, and I like the idea of going back to a blank canvas. For me the camera is like an empty sketchbook.
How much did digital – and later on, social media – affect what you do?
When I started out I had the opportunity to photograph Nelson Mandela. I remember it well: I had a 15 minute appointment with him in his back garden at 9:30am on Friday 13th October, 1999. It was part of an empowerment project around the twinning of Lewisham and Soweto, and focused on issues around education, technology, business growth and how Lewisham and Soweto could learn from each other.
Mandela was an ambassador for the project. It was before digital and I photographed him using film. The fact that I only had 15 minutes and didn’t know what the images would look like until they were developed was totally nerve wracking!
So when digital came along I was really excited and I haven’t used film since. I love taking pictures and being able to see and tweak them instantly.
Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg. © Alastair Fyfe.
I’ve just started using Instagram and I think I’ve figured it out now. I’ve also set up a live feed for clients. I did a shoot for an American client in Shanghai recently; the people I was working with were at a desk in Washington. The images went from my camera to my phone which automatically uploaded them to a shared Dropbox folder. The client was able to instantaneously see what I was doing from the other side of the world.
It’s interesting because a picture taken on an iPhone can have more authenticity in some contexts because of its imperfections. People expect bad lighting and poor depth of colour sometimes.
Do you have a niche?
Not really – I’ve said yes to pretty much everything that comes along.
I quite like where that approach can take you. I’ve been in a lot of interesting buildings but also dingy basements, and I’ve been in some hairy situations too! Being on top of the BT Tower was quite phenomenal. The photos weren’t that good because the skyline’s almost too far away for a backdrop and there’s too much glass, but it was fun to be there.
I do love the job. It doesn’t provide a lot of financial security, especially in the early days, but now I’ve got my eggs in lots of baskets. My large clients range from charities like Centrepoint, academic institutions like Cambridge University to financial companies in the City like Legal & General. 10% of my business comes from royal family charities. The only thing that ties it together is that it’s almost always about people.
What are some of the more unusual projects you’ve worked on?
One of the jobs I had that was never going in the portfolio was photographing potholes for the asphalt industry. Funnily enough my PR contact for that job went to become a priest and is now the father in charge of St Botolph’s next to Liverpool Street.
Father David with his dog at St Botolph’s. © Alastair Fyfe.
He called me the other day and I’m going to be photographing the church for their website. A couple of people are going to show me all aspects of the church and I’ve no doubt I’m going to learn a lot. I’ve been given a few opportunities like that.
When I was working in Italy I covered the Yugoslav War in Riyeka. The thing about a war zone is, even when you’re 30 kilometres away from where the atrocities are going on, you see the most incredible human kindness.
I was working for the Red Cross. They had 20,000 refugees turning up in Riyeka from Dubrovnik every Thursday and didn’t have all the things they needed to look after them. So the week after I returned to Italy I hired a van with a few others. I was still teaching English as a foreign language at the time and told all my students and contacts to donate items. We filled the van full of clothes and reusable nappies and drove back.
Sometimes you just have to do something other than taking pictures.
Follow @alastairfyfe on Instagram.