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Photographer member focus: Charlie Clift

3 April 2018


©Charlie Clift

Charlie is a busy editorial and commerical photographer who has - in his own words - 'dangled CEOs upside down, got shouted at by political leaders, waded up to his chest in floodwaters, smeared paint on art dealers’ faces and poured pints for dogs'. We caught up with him to hear more.  

How did you get into photography?
A camera has always been a way for me to meet people. I started by taking portraits on the street, just walking up to people, introducing myself and creating photographs that way. Everything grew from those short intense interactions.

What inspires you? 
The same thing continues to inspire me now as it did at the start – people. I genuinely love meeting new people and finding out what it is that makes them tick. I often research a person a lot before I decide how to photograph them, I base my ideas on their story, their personality, their interests, this means the style of the photo I aim to make can differ a lot from one person to another. Sometimes the ideas from that research spiral off in fun or unusual directions which is cool. I think I started to develop this way of working whilst creating Brits in Europe. It was a personal project photographing British people living in other EU nations, I would research people a lot before meeting them, talk to them over the phone and find out as much as I could so that I could make the most of the few hours I spent with them. I have continued that approach with a lot of my work since. Of course, however much I plan I never quite know what’s going to happen when I meet someone: it is still important to be able to connect with the person I am photographing, no idea works without that.

©Charlie Clift

Tell us about your stand out shoots
I love it when the people I’m photographing are up for doing something fun, and it’s not always who you would expect to be game. Like when I photographed celebrity divorce lawyer Raymond Tooth for The Sunday Times Magazine. I had this idea of him wearing a shark mask as I’d heard that due to his negotiating technique he has the nickname “Jaws”. I did not think a top class lawyer would agree to put on a silly silicone hat so it was the last thing I asked him to do during the photoshoot. Wonderfully he was totally up for it and it made for a really unique image.
It’s not just on editorial shoots that I get to input my ideas, often brands or agencies let me be part of that creative process. Like when I photographed Jane Ni Dhulchaointigh, the inventor of Sugru, the mouldable glue. The company is waging a war on stuff by encouraging people to fix and adapt instead of throwing away. They came to me and we worked together to come up with a visual way of showing this. The last time I had photographed Jane I stuck her to the ceiling, so I knew they were interested in creating something unique. After coming up with loads of ideas we chose to bury Jane in consumables. I love the final image of Jane drowning in stuff, and making it was such an enjoyable process.


©Charlie Clift

I get the chance to meet and photograph extraordinary people in my job, and sometimes the process is just getting to know them. You don’t have to have silly props or build an elaborate set for everyone, just keeping things simple can often be best. Diana Athill has worked with brilliant writers, written wonderful memoirs and is full of wisdom. All I needed to do when photographing her was to create a moment of calm and ask her to close her eyes. I feel this photograph captures her perfectly.

©Charlie Clift
Tell us about your Premier Skills series
I had gone out of the blue to pitch an idea to the Premier League about photographing their fans all over the world, they liked it, but wanted me to concentrate more on the amazing social work they do using football. That sounded like a way better than my original one, so I dived in and discovered so many stories to tell. Often as a photographer there is a separation between commissioned work and personal work but occasionally the two come together and beautiful things occur; that’s exactly what happened here.
The Premier Skills program is run by the British Council and the Premier League, they send coaches to some of the most impoverished communities in the world and train locals to be football educators. A domino effect begins as these educators spread the best coaching practices throughout their area. The scheme has reached more than 1.2 million kids. It gives them dreams, teaches them the benefits of commitment, and helps to keeps them out of drugs and crime. I spent about a month researching the project, calling people up and finding out about their lives and their love of football. Then I jumped on a plane with my camera to go and record it.

©Charlie Clift
Where were these particular photos shot? How long did you spend there? 
I spent four days in South Africa and four days in India, working from before sunrise to well after sunset. I planned out a packed schedule, filling it up with all the people I had spoken to during my research: from fan groups to community role models and the children they worked with. I was eager to join people’s lives, not only photograph them on the football pitch but also visit them at home and meet their families. I wanted to tell their whole story.


©Charlie Clift

How much time do you spend on personal projects? Where does your commissioned work come from? 
I spend lots of time on personal projects, they are a way of experimenting and bringing new ideas to life. I firmly believe that if nobody is going to commission you to do your dream job then you should commission yourself. I’ve found that once you have created a body of work as part of a project then people start asking you to shoot their commissions in a similar style. It’s a win win situation. For example, if I hadn’t created Brits in Europe, I’m not sure if I would have been commissioned to photograph the Premier Skills football project. Although the subject matter was very different I was still telling people’s stories and using a similar approach – one that I had learnt by doing personal work.

©Charlie Clift
What advice would you tell your younger self? 
Worry less, enjoy yourself and always wear sun cream.
What is photography’s role today? 
Advances in technology have made photography far more accessible. Everyone can make a sharp and correctly exposed image. So now it is less about a photographer’s technical ability and more about their approach, their ideas and their creativity. This pushes photographers to think more and make work that matters to them. This means that photography is really able to start conversations and help people to see the world from a different point of view. 
See more of Charlie's work here

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