Assignment: Chris Sisarich

Adrian Hatwell talks to advertising photographer Chris Sisarich about his work on Zespri’s latest export to Asia — a campaign capturing the quintessential Kiwi lifestyle

A young couple kiss gingerly atop a grassy hill, the ocean, painted in dusky light, providing a sprawling background to the quiet moment. A girl in a floral dress beams a grin of unrestrained joy as sunlight pierces a lush canopy of treetop leaves, playful strands of her long hair silhouetted mid-frolic. A father and son bound together down the immaculate plains of a pristine beach, wet sand roughly reflecting the ebullient figures, dwarfed by an endless expanse of undulating cloud and gentle blue sky. If it was your job to convince someone life was delicious, few images would be more persuasive than these idyllic scenes.

That’s exactly what advertising photographer Chris Sisarich was tasked with in his latest job for Zespri, a local kiwifruit marketer that exports fruit throughout the globe. The company sought to underscore the way Aotearoa’s seductively temperate climate is not only the ideal environment for kiwifruit to thrive, but also the backdrop to a lifestyle in which nature and contemporary life harmoniously intertwine. And when you’re looking for organic-yet-cinematic lifestyle imagery, informed by striking locations and gorgeous natural light, Sisarich is many a client’s first call, for good reason.

Although now renowned as one of the country’s top advertising shooters, the photographer initially got his start in fashion. He began assisting in art school, working with the likes of Monty Adams, Craig Owen, and Cindy Wilson. But it wasn’t long before his work attracted commissions all his own, and he began to make a name for himself in the industry.

“It was the fashion industry that really set my course, and essentially was the slingshot into advertising and specializing in lifestyle work,” Sisarich reminisces. “And that time and experience, shooting fashion, set the foundation for my look as a lifestyle photographer.”

And those foundations have made for an exceptionally solid career: since he shifted his sights to the bigger productions and more varied subjects of advertising, the photographer now counts names such as Lexus, Google, VW, Singapore Airlines, Bollé, BMW and Air New Zealand among his impressive client list. Television junkies might also recognize him as the dapper judge from reality show New Zealand’s Next Top Model. As well as being in demand for lifestyle imagery, Sisarich has developed exquisite portfolios of landscape and automobile imagery, and he has extended his practice into motion and directorial work.

These pursuits have taken the Auckland-based photographer around the globe. He counts a month-long shoot in Egypt, for Egypt Tourism, among his most memorable to date. Amid the heat and the dust and occasional cultural challenges, such as fasting for Ramadan, this trip offered Sisarich some of his most memorable career experiences, like having one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World closed down for the afternoon so he could shoot the Great Pyramid of Giza. It was on this trip, after a two-day trek into Farafra’s White Desert, that the photographer shot what he holds to be one of the best images he has ever created.

“We were shooting our shot when, in the distance, this massive cloud of dust was coming at us like a tidal wave — it was immense,” Sisarich recollects. “We got what we needed while the sky was blue and the sun was out, but I decided to stay on with my camera, and let this sand storm envelope us: the whole scene changed into this dark, milky, monochromatic vision, and I made my picture. Next thing the sand was whipping up around us, and we got out of there.”

While it might not have been as far-flung as the Egypt job, the new Zespri campaign also presented Sisarich with an environment rich with natural splendour to play in — Auckland’s West Coast. The concept behind the campaign was ‘make life delicious’, and the photographer’s brief was to capture real moments of connection between people and their environment. The lighting was to be predominantly natural, and what little post-production was needed would be done with a light touch. In short, these were to be engaging, authentic lifestyle images captured in a naturalistic mode.

While such a brief is very much in the photographer’s wheelhouse, he would not be alone in executing the campaign — the stills were to be created off the back of a television commercial (TVC) shoot, an increasingly frequent style of work in the industry. In terms of the creative process, this usually means a fair amount of the decisions have already been made before the stills shooter comes into the equation. In the case of the Zespri job, locations, timing, wardrobe, talent, and art department chores were largely taken care of in the process of planning the television shoot.

Sisarich says shooting stills around a television commercial can often leave the photographer feeling like an “uninvited wedding guest”, particularly with the challenging time restraints imposed by the production’s schedule. But in this instance, he says he was rather fortunate to be working with very talented creatives and was happy to benefit from all the thoughtful planning that had gone into the execution.

“My approach to this job was to get involved early with the agency and production company, to make friends with the director and DOP [director of photography] and first AD [assistant director],” he explains. “I like to watch what the director is doing and what the DOP is capturing, and generally what I’ll do is capture something similar to what they have framed up — DOPs have fantastics eyes for composition — and then do something completely different.”

The photographer describes his approach to shooting lifestyle imagery as loose and improvisational. Once the scenario has been set, the timing and lighting sorted, he encourages the scene to play out organically, much like a director on a movie set. Without too strict a plan to adhere to, he likes to move around the environment freely, reacting to authentic moments as they occur, and interacting as necessary. The goal is to avoid anything overly staged or contrived.

“I try not to be too prescribed in terms of the way people hold themselves,” he elaborates. “I like people to be in the moment and natural. I don’t like ‘posers’.

“So whatever story is being told in the scene, I’d encourage the actors to really live that moment as much as possible. Get lost in it. Keeping moving, laughing and having fun. Talk, be real. No pretenders, please.”

This process sees the photographer constantly moving throughout the space, searching for the best angles, and shooting a lot. In aid of this mobility and speed, he prefers to shoot with a 35mm camera for his lifestyle work. The current weapon of choice is a Nikon D810. He praises the SLR for its fast frame rate, ease of handling, and quick focusing.

“I’d want to smash my camera if it took even one second to focus, and only allowed me to capture one frame a second,” the photographer admits. “I’d be missing so many moments.”

Since natural light was a primary aspect to the Zespri job, Sisarich was able to operate free of any particularly complex lighting set up. The television commercial crew did, however, bring along Hydrargyrum medium-arc iodide (HMI) lamps for a few scenes, which they were kind enough to lend out for some of the stills shoots too. The photographer enjoyed the high quality of light, soft and able to wrap beautifully.

“One of the beauties of working on the back of a TVC is that they inherently have bigger budgets for art department and lighting and special effects. And it’s all these little details that help to create that cinematic look.”

It’s hard to argue with the end results — joyous scenes of Kiwi life that look airily candid, captured in immaculate filmic style. The euphoria of children playing in the rain, the crisp invigoration of a morning jog, the unguarded cavorting of an evening pool party among friends — if Zespri can deliver even a portion of the joie de vivre captured in the photographer’s images, the company will struggle to keep produce on the shelves.

For Sisarich, kiwifruit isn’t the only thing keeping life delicious. Even after working for years at the top of his industry, he still finds the art of photography a uniquely satisfying passion and career — the perfect platform for him to explore his world and express his ideas.

“It’s a great tool for communication because we can all relate to visual stories … or maybe not all relate to them, but we can all appreciate what is in front of us.”

Article originally appeared in The Photographer’s Mail 218 July-August 2017