Last week I had a chat with Benoît Grogan-Avignon which I enjoyed greatly.
Benoît is a portrait and editorial photographer www.benoitga.com and I went to see him in his very neat and rather cool Shoreditch flat (I am quite jealous). He is an incredibly interesting person to talk to, we spoke for a long time about many things, and I appreciate his view on the world. He is one of those people who is able to take a step back, and see that there are other ways of doing things – there is no set way to live life.
So to the basics – Benoît currently takes photos using his Fujifilm X-T1.
And he likes to photograph people (he has a broad range of experience – editorial, events, landscapes) but taking photos of normal people is what he is most happy doing – particularly when it’s helping the person achieve something. So whether it’s for a project they are working on, a headshot for a profile, or for a website launch – to take the photo, to ensure the person feels comfortable with the experience, and produce a finished result they are happy with, is what he enjoys most.
His style, to me, is natural and very clear, sharp and pure – he uses light in the most beautiful way – and catches not just the detail of a person’s face in a flattering but realistic way, he captures their character – that little smile, the tilt of the head, or the warmth in their eyes – the one little thing that sometimes says to the viewer ‘I can relate to this person’, and other times ‘ I want to know more about this person’. And I think that is the real beauty of Benoit’s photography – the less is more approach – he allows the person to be focal point of the photo – they are not a model in an image – they are the image.
We spoke about about how taking a good photo of a person is often about connecting emotionally, and building a relationship with them – most people are very very nervous about having the camera pointed directly at them. I liked something he told me from when his mother was working at Magnum in the 1980s – often the photographers would pretend to take at least 10 rolls of film, and only then would they actually put the film in the camera, once the person had finally relaxed. Benoît says he usually get the best shots at the end of a photo shoot, and very occasionally in the middle.
Benoît took some photos of me in the Barbican. We had a lovely wander about – and he really does have the ability to make you feel at ease. He also knows exactly how the fall of light will affect the photograph at different angles, and on our walk pointed out to me why a certain place would be good, and another not. With a very experienced eye, he picked a location, and with subtle encouragement got me into the necessary positions and poses to take the shots. I have never had professional photos taken of me before – and the finished results are rather wonderful, I have included them with this post.
What I found most intriguing is that Benoît is self-taught. He has been taking photos since he was 15, when his grandmother gave him his first camera. He took his camera everywhere – to school, house parties, holidays and just took photos. After school he took a year off to travel, upgraded his camera and took photos of the places his visited, and he put them on Facebook and Flickr.
At St Andrews University where he studied English, he carried on photographing everything, and began to be asked to photograph student events. Benoît and two friends decided to set up Light Box Creative, a creative collective for students, initially specialising in photography, and later videography, and as they built up their reputation they became the ‘go to’ photographers in St Andrews. For Benoît, behind the camera it was the first time he had used his photography skills professionally, and it was 4 years of learning to work with clients, manage expectations, deliver a finished product of the highest quality, in a quick turn around time. He was continuously building up his photography skills, learning new things, and he was aware that he needed to be ‘better still’, as for the first time he was being paid to photograph.
And many ways this has set him on a career path most of us can only dream of when we first graduate – Benoît is able to use a skill he enjoys to work freelance, with a huge portfolio already behind him. Since graduating he has been able to take on photography projects whilst working in a full time job, and eventually hopes to go completely freelance. At the moment, doing both gives him the freedom to choose the projects he works on, a breath of fresh air after 4 years of photographing student events.
He showed me many of his photos – he has lots in his flat – and when I asked if he had a favourite one, he said it changes. It is often a photo that brings back a memory, sometimes a photo in which he has perfected a technique, sometimes it is the people he has met whilst taking the photo, and meanings change over time – I enjoyed hearing the stories behind many of them. It is fascinating to see a photo taken by him of someone I know, to hear the story behind it, to know where it was taken – and then to take a step back and look at it as an outside viewer – and to wonder if the unknown viewer is appreciating it for the beauty of the image, for the technique used or if they are attributing their own story to it. Benoît doesn’t currently sell his photos as ‘works of art’, but there are many I could certainly see being pride of place on someone’s wall.
What I enjoyed most about talking to Benoît and being photographed by him, is his absolute passion for his skill, he is completely immersed by it – he wants to photograph and he does. We agreed that everyone is searching for the ideal, of course working freelance has as many upsides and downsides as full-time employment, but it is taking the risk, the having-a-go, just doing it, and not living life thinking ‘what if’ that is so important. I learnt a huge amount from Benoit, about photography and other things – and he took some absolutely beautiful images of me included with the post.
Photos below all taken by Benoît Grogan-Avignon (except the last one).