In Conversation with Claire Lawrie | July 2019
Our next Fable & Folk interview is with photographer and videographer Claire Lawrie. Claire has done many multimedia projects but is best known for her short film “Beyond (There’s Always a Black Issue Dear)” and her series “The Mike Project”. She has participated in both solo and group exhibitions and has won many awards from “Life Framer Award - Urban Portrait”, 2014 to “Best British Short” at the Queer Film Festival 2018.
We wanted to interview Claire because we believe that moving image is becoming a huge part of how we tell stories and her use of video and image to tell her stories is exquisite.
Fable & Folk: Firstly, thank you Claire for letting us interview you, we really appreciate it! I’d like to begin by asking if you could possibly give us a little background about yourself & how you first got into photography?
Claire Lawrie: My friend, the photographer, Jesper Haynes gave me a 35mm Nikon when I was living in New York where I was working for a company making jewellery and side jobs in clubs as you could in those days in the late 80s and early 90s. I carried a camera around with me so am self taught. I started to take classes later on, when I had my kids and they were small. London college of Printing (now communication) ran great one day a week studio courses then and much later on I studied there again at undergraduate level.
F&F: Many of the people who follow Fable & Folk are aspiring to turn their photographic practice into their career. Did you encounter any challenges whilst doing this yourself and do you have any advice based on these experiences?
CL: Being able to make a living purely doing what you want really depends on what your practice is and which direction you want to take your work in. I have not been a snob about working on all kinds of jobs to earn money- and often you can bend the work to suit your interests and to learn something from them. I work on my own mostly but think, depending on how you work, that my advice would be to form collectives with other artists, share the kit share the work and help each other to make the things that are really important to you.
F&F: My first introduction to your work was discovering your series “The Mike Project”, could you tell us a little about that for our audience who might not have heard of the project?
CL: The Mike project is a portrait project that focuses on an older man in his 80s, using both still and moving image. Carl Jung describes the persona as "a kind of mask, designed on the one hand to make a definite impression upon others, and on the other to conceal the true nature of the individual". Mike’s sense of style and grooming hasn’t really changed since he was a young man and his ‘mask’ is still firmly in place, like most of us, it means a lot to him and is his way of negotiating his relationship to everything else. We often see images of women invested in their self image, I was interested in him, and wanted to represent an ageing male subject going through a similar experiences.
F&F: What inspired you to start the project?
CL: Meeting Mike reminded me of the men that I grew up around, my maternal Grandfather’s brothers and extended family would take us kids out to the bingo, to the seaside and just be around looking dapper and I think as a kid growing up without a father I found them fascinating. Most works that I have made a success of have their genesis in personal memory or in a life experience that I want to make sense of, the political and psychological strands come later.
F&F: Did you have an idea of how the project would look before shooting or was that something that developed as the project progressed?
CL: I knew that when I visited him in Eastbourne. The cliffs and the architecture there mimicked his image, he fell into the landscape, white against white, camouflaged as it were, so I played on that as I worked on the still images with him.
F&F: “The Mike Project”, amongst others series on your website, contains both video and still images. Why did you choose to make it a multimedia project?
CL: We made an audio interview, we talked about his life, memories his style and his routine day to day. The invisibility & loneliness he was experiencing were found ‘between the lines’ in that interview. At that point I knew that I would shoot some video and the interview informed that. I had been experimenting with short films and teaching myself basic editing skills for the last few years so I wanted to continue with that learning curve and I am still on it now.
F&F: Why would you recommend other photographers to consider making their projects multimedia?
CL: I’m not a fetishist about the method, use whatever you like to get your point across. But moving and still image making are very different processes and will have different outcomes. I still have a lot to learn about planning and directing as much as shooting and editing film. Also I am used to working in quite a solitary way and movie making is usually very collaborative. So right now, I am missing shooting stills but will probably always work with both, one informing the other.
F&F: The first time I saw your series “The Mike Project” was in the Photoworks Annual 2016. How did you come to be featured in this?
CL: I entered their Open Call and it worked out, it’s good to keep one eye on these platforms and to see if any of your work fits what they are looking for.
F&F: Your fantastic short film, “Beyond (There’s Always a Black Issue Dear)” won the ‘Best of British’ award at the Queer Film Festival 2018 and ‘Best British Short’ at the Iris Prize Festival 2018. Could you firstly tell us a little about the short and what inspired you to start the project?
CL: At the time I had decided to make a protest against the lack of representation of a few of my friends who are black British and LGBT. Their influential presence was not being recognised in retrospectives about the 80’s and 90’s cultural/club scene and therefore I didn’t recognise the time that I grew up in. I wanted to make something that really celebrated my friends and their influence on the British subcultures and on my life. I organised a still photoshoot and that event was filmed and became a part of the bigger film. I see the film as a portrait piece , but it has been described as a short documentary. It is both, it touches on personal memory, history and culture and is both funny and very moving. I knew my friends were pretty incredible, but their stories of growing up in a time that was actually very conservative are a testament to their brilliance and I am hoping that the film goes some way towards ensuring that their voices and the influence of black LGBT culture in Britain won’t be overlooked in the future.
F&F: As mentioned, this fantastic short is award winning. Do you have any advice for people looking to enter their work into competitions?
CL: I didn’t really know much about the film festival circuit and still don’t to be honest. It’s a whole world within itself but Film Freeway has lists of various types of festivals, what they expect from you and what you will get in return. I entered Queer Vision film festival in Bristol. We got through to the finals and then it was the audience who voted the film the winner. The prize was to be entered for the Iris prize and then we won the Best of British prize there as well. Equally we have been turned down by loads more. I am not so worried, as I see the film having its own journey. So far this summer it’s been screened at Rankin studios, in a nightclub, at Pride and at Age Concern, I just think it is important to share it as widely as possible, but it is a massive amount of work and a huge learning curve to negotiate making and promoting a work like this!
F&F: Something that I think isn’t talked about enough between photographers is cost. Lots of people work from commissioned jobs that fund their personal work, others take up part time jobs to pay the bills. What path did you take and do you have any words of advice for young photographers looking to fund their work? To build on that, have you applied for grants or any funding in the past? If so, how do you come across these and what was the application process like?
CL: I am terrible at filling in funding forms, but I am learning to tackle that and suggest that you do too! I have applied for and worked on commissions from community projects and on photography jobs that I get word of mouth that just about pay the bills. Projects take a lot of time, and you need to be able to have a few on the go at once. It’s definitely not easy and I don’t see a lot of photogs with tons of spare cash, I think that is why they diversify and learn to shoot video, teach and take on other kinds of work.
F&F: Finally, I’d like to end by asking what was the last photobook you bought?
CL: Dick Jewell’s four thousand threads and Paul Graham’s Does Yellow Run Forever? Both books are brilliant, rhythmic meditations on life, the photograph and photo books! I can spend hours engrossed in still photos whether in books or galleries or photo albums.
Many thanks to Claire again for speaking to use. To see more of Claire’s work, visit https://www.clairelawrie.com/
All images and text © Claire Lawrie