In Conversation With: Charlotte Schreiber
Hamburg based freelance photographer Charlotte Schreiber has been working with a focus on portraiture and fashion since graduating. Her diverse portfolio offers variety and flexibility with both environment and subject, whilst also establishing a clearly identifiable style. Each photograph captures a crisp sense of natural light, either shining through visible windows or reflections originating from a source out of shot. Shadows play a key part in almost every shot.
Charlotte first came to our attention through her regular work with Hoxton Mini Press as the photographer for Makers Of East London and East London: An Opinionated Guide. We asked her about the challenge of manifesting your own personal style, her biggest tips for aspiring photographers and how to get the best out of her subjects while on a shoot.
What is your earliest memory of photography as an art form?
That ain’t an easy question to start with and quite frankly, I don’t really know. My parents made sure I was surrounded by art but photography wasn’t really part of that. My dad used to photograph a lot and at some point he gave me an old 35mm Olympus that I would take pictures with but never considered it as art. Not until I applied for university, really.
Who did you admire at the time?
I was obsessed with Duane Michals and Lee Friedlander. I loved their way of telling stories, their compositions. I still do. They manage to be observant in a distant way but at the same time you’re touched and right there in that intimate moment. The contradiction of that is what got me interested in photography in the first place.
Can you tell us about how you got started as a professional photographer?
To become a photographer was quite the radical decision for me. I always wanted to become a doctor and then in high school I thought, well, I could be good at this. But when I started university I realised I was surrounded by all these people who where photographing since they were really young and had this idea who they would be as a photographer. So at first I was like, what the hell am I doing here, I don’t have any experience, maybe they accepted me by accident?
At some point I had the feeling that I wasn’t learning anything and I applied for an internship abroad, I thought I needed to work before I’d receive my diploma and actually had to make a living with photography – I was working with Anna Wolf in New York for a couple of months back then. She went to L.A. for a few weeks and couldn’t take me with her and said, why don’t you show your portfolio around while I’m away? I didn’t have one yet and she was like, 'well, you better have a book when I get back'. And yeah, that’s how I got started: I began showing my portfolio around and eventually I got work.
What was your first piece of commissioned work and how did it make you feel to have someone offer to pay for your work?
The first magazine I showed my portfolio to back then was Nylon magazine. I was scared shitless, they didn’t have the reputation to be nice to aspiring photographers (this might have not changed) but they loved my work and the day after they called and assigned me to shoot a few stores in SoHo for Nylon Guys magazine. They didn’t offer to pay me though. Which felt alright at the time (it obviously wasn’t). The first photography work I did and was paid for were weddings. Lots of them.
How long did it take for you to define your own style and was there eureka moment?
God, I felt it took me forever even though it didn’t at all. I think you can look at my first photography works and see that it’s done by me. I’ve always looked different than the others, I always had a distinct style, that just kind of happened. But that made it so difficult for me at university: I was set on that style and no professor felt like he or she could form me, even support me. I was just doing what I was doing but was as insecure as the others. I mean, I was young and had no clue why I was shooting like that and I felt left alone for most of my studies until a new professor stood in front of my work and said, a) it’s okay to be you and b) it’s also okay to take photos that are just beautiful. Doesn’t sound too profound, does it? But I needed that validation from someone and from there on, I was okay.
What is the hardest part of the process?
Mhhhh, tough question. I think, it’s to define what you want as a photographer and then to get started. You see so many pictures, so many art forms, so many ways of making a living as a photographer and to find your very own way is really difficult. You can pretty much become anything you want but only when you know what that anything is you can actually work towards it. (In baby steps.)
The hardest part of all of this though is that you’ll never actually arrive. I mean, yes, you’ll achieve things you’ve set out to achieve, but after that, you’ll have to define new goals, you again have to think about what kind of photographer you want to be and then, again, get started.
What type of shoot do you enjoy the most?
I love when people let me in, when I’m taking portraits and it’s just me and them, and they allow me to explore them, I always feel it’s a bit of a journey, I can look at them and sometime even a bit into them. But also I enjoy a lot when I have a team of people around me contributing into this one image that we’re creating, so I can run wild and free on the light and composition and in a way let go of the things stuck in my head of what I should do. Thankfully most of my clients let me do that.
In your portrait photography, you seem to capture people in environments they feel comfortable in. How easy is it to capture people in a relaxed state?
I’ve been asked that before and at first I didn’t know how to answer that, because it always felt very easy to me. After analysing what I do when taking portraits I’d say it really is easy for me but not always for the people I photograph. Turns out, it can be quite cruel, haha. I don’t interact much while photographing, and I don’t mean that I’m not there with them, but I don’t give much of directions, I pull myself out of it and with that, in a way, I force them to be with themselves. Luckily people trust me and after a while they let go. It’s easier for some and way harder for others and it’s always a fine line to react to that. I’ve photographed so many different people, at some point you know when you need to get back in and balance it out.
How do you balance personal projects with commissioned work and do you feel fulfilled by both?
The fun thing is that at this point it just all kind of comes together. Clients approach me for what I do and enjoy, I barely agree to anything else anymore. Also, I’m not the‚ 'I’m loosing myself in personal projects' kind of photographer, honestly, I’m way to impatient for that. I enjoy projects on the side, portraits, studies, this year I even published a book on a personal project, but I’m not driven by these. It’s the mix that comes and goes, but yes, I feel quite happy with both at the moment.
Is there a piece of advice you’ve been given that has stuck with you over the years?
"Smile and be nice, it gets you all the way." – that sounds cheesy, I know, but it’s true. It doesn’t hurt you to be friendly and nice to the people you work with, it actually makes everyone’s life easier. On set, in the prep, and even after the job’s been done. Clients want to feel good with you and safe, having an ensuring smile on your lips definitely gets you far and maybe even a call back. It doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t stand up for yourself or you’re not allowed to have bad days, you can be direct and tough, but still be a good person to be around. It’s just a reminder that we’re all human beings who have stories of their own and should be treated with respect.
What have you have learnt through your experience that all aspiring photographers should know?
Be more fearless! Sounds also kind of cheesy, but for the most part it’s true. When I got back from New York and started to show my portfolio around in Germany I would play it safe. You know, I’d go to photo editors that I got introduced to and knew they’d see me, and yes, even though I’ve received mostly good feedback in New York City, I was really insecure about my work. A friend suggested I should show my portfolio to Vogue and I thought, why on earth would they want to see me, it’s the fucking VOGUE!? But they did, and they booked me for a portrait shortly after. I guess, what I’m trying to say is, if you want to work for a certain client, you have to let them know. Because truth is also that no one has ever waited for you, the business doesn’t really care about you, and no one knows you exist. Until you make them care. And for that you have to be bit less scared! – Also, it takes time. It doesn’t happen over night, nothing does, even though sometimes it seems like it. It doesn’t. I’ve had a gazillion meetings with photo editors and agencies. I had stylists turn me down. I had the. "Your work is beautiful, but..." speech countless of times. But I kept going. (It was not as easy as that sounds!!) But, shed the tears. Pay your dues and keep going!