Sell yourself

Leading Australian commercial photographer Sean Izzard talks with Adrian Hatwell about maintaining a sense of self while working the big jobs

When someone hires a top commercial photographer, it’s for more than just technical proficiency and the ability to deliver on a brief: the best of the best are able to convey something distinct and personal, to put something of themselves into every job. This has certainly been a primary element in Australian Sean Izzard’s assured rise through the ranks of the region’s commercial shooters.

Today Izzard is a sought-after advertising photographer for huge global brands like Coca-Cola, Samsung, and Harley-Davidson, widely regarded for his naturalistic and engaging visual approach. And while real-world–based imagery is very much the fashion in the commercial arena these days, it’s not a trend Izzard ever consciously courted — starting out as a cadet magazine photographer, realism has always been his preferred mode.

“Advertising at that time made a switch from the ’80s, being that hyper-real, glossy, real ad-y kind of stuff, to more reality-based imagery,” he recalls. “So I was fortunate, I didn’t have to change, it kind of came to me.”

But while the winds of style were blowing in his direction, the jump from junior magazine shooter to commercial photographer wasn’t all smooth sailing. Feeling confined in the darkroom of his father’s publishing operation, the young photographer decided to strike out on his own, first as a freelancer shooting “crappy” below-the-line and public-relations jobs, then uprooting to explore the US and UK for a spell.

“Rather than photography I decided to work in bars and do waiting and labouring, and all those other sorts of things I would never have considered if I was at home. It made me a lot more confident, I was able to realize what it was I didn’t want to do,” the photographer says with a chuckle.

Following his overseas adventures, Izzard set his sights firmly on commercial photography (“if I was going to prostitute myself for money, I may as well make as much money as I could”), but after his hiatus from photography, he was faced with the difficult task of breaking into the industry with little to support his advertising ambitions.

“It’s a catch-22 situation; people don’t know what to use you for because you don’t have the work in your portfolio, and you don’t have the work in your portfolio because nobody has used you for anything.”

Since he couldn’t put together something based on prior commercial work, Izzard created a portfolio that sold his own personal vision. On his return journey to Australia, the photographer shot a series of travel images and portraits while voyaging through South East Asia. These images typified the authenticity and humanity that the photographer would eventually be acclaimed for, and just so happened to reflect the reality-focused wave poised to crest over the commercial industry.

Throughout his well-awarded career, Izzard has brought his personal style to bear in a diverse range of campaigns for clients across the globe. He naturally gravitates to shoots involving people, and enjoys grounding projects in a sense of reality, even when the brief calls for more over-the-top stylization. But on the job for some of the biggest companies in the world, how much personal input can the photographer bring to the table? When you’ve been enlisted on the strength of your singular vision, it turns out the answer is ‘quite a bit’.

“You’ve got to have an understanding of what needs to be communicated, you don’t just go in there and start changing the idea, you have to understand what the idea is,” Izzard explains. “Then it’s a matter of bringing it to life. Within the parameters of that, I can have a fair bit of input.

“I’ll be brought in and expected to add a lot to the process.”

And while the photographer has built his solid reputation around successful people-based imagery, he’s always up for extending himself creatively. One recent job saw him shooting what were essentially still-life images for the Commonwealth Bank of Australia’s ‘Everyday Champion’ campaign. The ads involved highlighting the bank’s wide range of services by illustrating how they can be used to conveniently solve common daily challenges. The ‘everyday’ element was right in Izzard’s wheelhouse, but the complete absence of people was a change of pace.

“It was a refreshing change, to shoot something that doesn’t move or talk back,” he says with a laugh. “To have that degree of control was nice.”

On the job the photographer worked closely with the art director to find (or, in the case of the doorstep shot, build) authentic locations to shoot the props in. In another stylistic departure, Izzard shot the job on large format, locked off on a tripod, which took some adjusting from his usual mode of operation — 35mm and fully mobile.

“It’s a slower process, but I treat it very much in the same way I treat anything: You take a step back and have a look at it, and see that it’s meeting the standard you want to meet. And if it’s not, what’s missing?”

The end result was a series of light, playful images the agency and client was thrilled with, leading to a huge media run across the country.

Another way Izzard enjoys bringing his reality-based tendencies to the commercial world is working on charity and public-service campaigns. He has a long history of creating stunning images for worthy causes — breast cancer awareness, anti-animal cruelty, work with the UN, the RSPCA — in which his preference for authenticity comes powerfully to the fore. One of his most recent examples involved recreating scenes of methamphetamine sales in a campaign to help the New South Wales Police tackle what is known in Australia as the ‘ice epidemic’.

“It’s a pretty big problem, and it was a good opportunity to do something to try and make a difference, working with the coppers,” Izzard says. “It’s pretty scary, some of those situations. All of the scenarios are based on the truth.”

One shoot got particularly close to the truth as they discovered the suburban Sydney location that had been scouted for the job had in fact been a meth lab before the current tenants moved in.

“The problem is really rife out there, so everybody was bending over backwards to help us,” Izzard recalls.

As well as providing the opportunity to make a difference, Izzard says charity jobs can be quite liberating, as they often allow more creative scope than standard commercial work. But while he never says no to the socially-conscious jobs when they come along, the photographer acknowledges that to truly flex his creative muscles, there’s no substitute for pure personal work.

“It’s where the juice is. It’s where you hone your skills, explore new ideas, and follow different concepts through, different premises for projects that you can flesh out. They are the sorts of things that start to become your repertoire. And that body of work behind you, that forms the steps to where you end up.”

Of course, committing to personal projects can be a big ask when juggling a hectic commercial career, but Izzard advises making it a priority, not just in aid of self-expression but for career success as well.

“It’s a great selling tool for me. As a commercial photographer I can’t expect somebody to want to use me if they don’t think I’m passionate about what I do, or bring fresh ideas and approaches. It’s an indicator to any prospective employer or commissioner of work that they’re going to get something pretty cool from me.”

One to truly walk his talk, Izzard has banded together with a few friends — who also happen to be some of the nation’s best commercial shooters — to create the Pool Collective, an organization in which members can share ideas, equipment, and facilities and help motivate each other with personal work. As well as counting luminaries such as Simon Harsent, Christopher Ireland, and Danny Eastwood among its membership, the collective also employs full-time staff to help launch vehicles for the artists’ projects: exhibitions, books, and even iPad apps.

“We create an outlet for the work that we encourage each other to do. What kind of professional photographer are you if you’re not out there taking photographs all the time? It’s about getting off your ass and not just waiting for the next job to come in. You need to be shooting in-between those times — that’s what generates more work.”

And generate it does. In the seven years since Izzard and friends founded the Pool Collective it has become regarded as one of the top commercial ‘agencies’ in the region (though the organization might not meet the conventional definition). As the photographer says, now the tail wags the dog, instead of being told what to do, he’s doing what he loves — and the clients line up to get a piece of that love for themselves.

Sean Izzard is a featured speaker at this year’s Image Nation photography conference in October, hosted by the Advertising and Illustrative Photographers Association — visit imagenation.co.nz for details, and see more of Sean’s work at seanizzard.com.

Article originally appeared in The Photographer’s Mail 209 January-February 2016