With regular commissions for NME magazine and a Guardian Student Media Award nomination under his belt, BA Photography student Andrew Ford has both feet firmly wedged in the door of the photographic industry. We talk to him about the secret to his success.
How did you get into photography?
I grew up really into surfing and skateboarding, they are really visual cultures, so it's always been something that's around me. I was really into photography in my late teens but the cost factor held me back. During my twenties, all of my money went on surfing, snowboarding, and travelling. I lived in the mountains for a few years and in France -- I kind of did my retirement first! Then I moved to Cornwall, became a chef and settled down there in my mid to late twenties. For the first time I had spare money, so I bought a camera and a laptop and joined the 21st century.
What inspired you to make the leap from hobby to study?
That "turning 30" feeling. I'd done quite well getting things published and felt that I had the potential to do more. I really wanted to see what I could do if I focused on it. I didn't want to get to 50 and think "what could I have achieved if I'd taken the chance?” That has been my drive.
You’ve made a quick transition from student to professional photographer, whilst still on your degree. That’s impressive.
Thanks. I’ve always set my standards quite high, I think. I’ve always been a harsh critic of my work, and I’ve always reflected on what I do, and how it compares to what others are doing - even before I started to take photography seriously. Working in kitchens has helped, too -- they are quite gnarly environments that give you a savage work ethic. With a lot of NME jobs the turnaround is very quick; you have hours not days, which keeps me up until 5 in the morning, but you just have to get on with it.
How have your interests changed during your degree?
I think studying has really changed the way I think about my work. I think in terms of projects now, rather than singular images. And I’m more questioning of why I make work in the first place.
One of my first major projects was shooting the South West’s punk and hardcore scene. I came to it when there was a lot of energy around it, and studying my degree made me think about the significance of the scene as an interesting cultural thing, rather than an opportunity to take fun photos of my friends jumping off a speaker unit.
Being able to place ideas in a wider historical context of photography has influenced my work. You see a lot of really superficial ideas or things that have been done a million times from people who think they're being really original. A lot of these people haven't really studied photography. Having an academic understanding of your work gives it a lot more depth. It influences the way you think and speak about it.
Who are your peers now and who do you look up to?
Professionally, a guy called Danny North and a guy called Tom Barnes, who are both really strong music photographers. Another direct influence is a guy called SHEEP. When I saw his photography I thought, “that's the kind of work I want to make.” He shot a lot of the punk scene, but focused on the crowd and what was going on there rather than the band. That made me think to look for what isn't necessarily the obvious shot.
Those photographs were a big break for you.
Yes, those photos led to some big breaks. There's an element of luck to these things, but that needs to be backed up by good work.
Winning an NME Photography Award helped me get my foot in the door, but I also had a massive body of work to show the picture editor that I was ready for more. I showed her all of my work from down here; she really liked it and offered me a commissioned freelance contract.
People might think “oooh, that's so cool!” but there's a difference between the idea and the reality. The reality is like, “Shit! I've got to get these photos, there's a page space waiting for me.”
You're in your third year now and you've just finished your dissertation. Congrats!
Yes! It feels good. I wrote about the future of contemporary photobooks, looking at the potential of digital presentations of work compared to physical presentations. People still have an attachment to material objects and I’m interested in how and why the physicality of “things” is appealing.
In music, a lot of kids I know from the punk scene have grown up with music almost existing entirely as a digital concept. They've had ipods since they were 9 or 10. But at the same time they are all massively into collecting vinyl. I guess, if music is the biggest thing in your life it feels weird for it to exist on something the size of your phone.
What three things would you recommend to students who want to ‘make it’ in the industry?
Number one: be a harsh critic of your own work and hold it up to a high standard. If you want to work professionally you need to hold your work up against a professional photographer and ask yourself what you can improve.
Have a goal beyond 'being a photographer'. Knowing what you want to achieve makes it easier to just go out there and do it. It's no good waiting until you've finished your studies -- use opportunities while you are a student, because people are a lot more open to you when you're a student. They don't view you so much as competition. Make the most of student time.
Finally, make the most of the facilities that are here while you have access to them.
What are your plans for after you graduate?
In the last two or three years, my expectations of what I hoped I might achieve have been blown away, so each year is kind of an element of seeing where things take me and rolling with it. When I stop and think about it all it's all very surreal. I can't think about it too much.
What has been your best job so far?
Any time I get to travel is cool. I went on tour with Biffy Clyro last summer, that was really amazing.
Festivals are generally great. Working on a main stage is surreal - you're in front of 90000 people! Part of your mind is like “WOW, this is ridiculous”, but the other part is saying, “I’ve got two songs to get the shots I need, how do I get in front of this bloody dry ice machine!!” I have this recurring fear that one day I'm going to trip over something or boot a plug out of something and all of the sound is going to go off.
See more of Andy's work on his website.