How patience and persistence drive photographer Sam Gregg

by Ella Hagi

Sam Gregg is a documentary photographer whose work dives deep into communities, often marginalised ones. He sits with his subjects in a quest to get to know them. This type of work could easily cross the boundary into poverty porn but Gregg doesn’t set out to save, judge or dress up his subjects. He’s there to listen and learn, and to share stories as his subjects wish to share them.

A worldwide lockdown has put a stop to many of us creating new work, but if there’s one thing this lockdown does allow us, it’s time for reflection… So, we met Gregg (via Zoom, obviously) for a chat about life and work.

The thing that really blows my mind about documentary photography is how you’re constantly putting yourself out there when you approach strangers. So much potential rejection! How do you work up the courage to do it? I really believe in the 10,000-hour rule. If you invest 10,000 hours into anything, you'll get to a point where it becomes natural. I veer more towards characters, so to speak. A lot of these people, they look quite intimidating but once you talk to them, they're fascinating. Their stories are remarkable. In a way, my biggest fear is talking to normal people. I'd rather talk to a murderer than an accountant, you know? The courage... I'm no genius, I just put a lot of work in. You've got to walk. The more you walk, the more chance there is that you'll get the shot.

We’ve all had bad days. How do you keep yourself motivated when you keep being greeted with a resounding no? I'm quite used to having bad days. A few years ago if I went out and didn't get anything, I’d be incredibly frustrated. But over time you realise it's just part of the job. I think you have to realise everybody’s different and you have to respect their choices. If they don't want to be photographed, they don't want to be photographed. You can't do anything about that. You just have to keep going. It’s just part of the job, really. You have to be tough and not let it get to you.

Don’t get me wrong, it can be demoralising but I don’t take it personally anymore. I just keep going. But in the past, I wouldn’t. I’d give up for a few days, maybe a week or so. But then the more you walk, the more opportunities come your way. And often, it’s actually just stepping out into the street that helps me find motivation.

What makes for the ideal branded project? It's not so much the project itself, but the people that I'm surrounded with. I worked with you and it was a real pleasure. Everything was made easy, you were fun to be around. It was a great project. The photos are obviously important but from a personal point of view, I value the experience more than the images created.

The job we did completely opened my eyes to a community I had no ideas about and I came away with a new perspective on London. Obviously, getting good images is important, but the experience always comes first. I think the experience and the results are interlinked. If I’m enjoying myself, the images will be better. It’s all interconnected.

Where does communication between brand and creative come in? I think no photographer likes to be told exactly what to do. But at the same time, it can be equally bad being given a completely blank slate. We want a bit of direction, but also to be able to put ourselves into the work. It's a fine line, really. Obviously, you want a bit of direction but there's nothing worse than being on set and being told exactly what to do, how to frame every shot. You kind of feel useless, you know?

How does work piece into the rest of your life? I think it is my life. I don't really differentiate between photography and my life. It's just so integral to what I do, it's like an extension of myself. This is why this lockdown is so difficult. Photography is a form of therapy for me as well. It gets me out of my own head. When I'm walking the streets, or when I'm doing a project, I'm distracted.

I've just realised over the past couple of weeks how intrinsically photography is tied to my mental health. It's like therapy for me. It really is. Everyone has their therapy, whether it's reading books, playing video games. For me it's photography. And, the type of photography I do, it requires the outside world.

How do you keep it from consuming other aspects of your life? That's a really good question. A couple of years ago I really struggled with that, because I wasn't sure who I was, really. Am I Sam the photographer, or am I Sam the person? I was worried that I was becoming Sam the photographer, and that I was forgetting who I really was. I wasn’t investing any time in myself. Everything went into photography. I stopped taking photos for a few months because I was struggling with that very concept. I just wasn’t sure who I was.

I still sometimes struggle with that. I think a lot of photographers do, especially in the days of Instagram where you kind of have to create this… I don’t want to say persona, but your presence is about your work, not about you as a person. You have to be careful that it doesn’t become you as a person. It’s hard to differentiate between the two sometimes. Sometimes, even when I’m desperate to take photographs, I have to just put my camera down for a couple of days and invest time in my friends, family and interests outside photography.

This lockdown is probably harder for you than it is for the average creative in London. How are you staying sane? I've moved back with my parents for this whole thing, so just being with them is a blessing, really. They're great people. Obviously, it's not the most ideal environment and there’s an element of stress in the air, but being able to spend time with them is keeping me sane, really. I'm still networking and putting my work out there. I’m reading a lot. Exercise has become very important. Cooking with my parents has been a big thing. It’s just simple things, you know?

Because I'm not creating anything new at the moment, it's allowed me to dive deep into my archive and go through images that I for whatever reasons, when I first shot them, I just didn't think they were good enough. But now looking back at them with fresh eyes, I can see them in a new light and I've found quite a few images that I actually am just quite shocked that I threw them to the side. For that reason it's good.

At the same time, and I think a lot of creatives probably relate, I’m spending this time thinking to myself, "Well, I mean photography was already a bit of a frivolous job, let alone in a pandemic. I feel kind of useless as a human," you know? That kind of feeling of uselessness is something I'm struggling to come to terms with. There’s so many of us, so it’s easy to feel kind of useless anyway, but now it’s just, “Fuck, I mean, what am I contributing?”

But you share stories, and this is what gives a lot of people a bit of a lifeline in a time like this. Yeah, that's a good point. I mean, if I can inspire people just a little bit, then that's the most important thing for me. I know what it feels like to be a teenager and feeling inspired by photography. If I can create that, even a little bit, then that’s my job done.

Let’s talk about young photographers. What’s your top tip? I think just the most important thing is persistence. It can take years to build up a strong portfolio, especially with documentary work. You’re relying on other people more than yourself. You're relying on chance. You're relying on meeting people, walking, talking. You also have to become a psychologist. It's not just meeting somebody and taking their portrait. You have to really learn how to interact with people, and to be able to elicit the best responses in them. I think it’s just persistence.

Everyone's very impatient. Everyone expects success immediately, I think because we only see the positive on social media. We only see success. As somebody who's been through that and was at one point very impatient and felt depressed that things weren't working out, just keep going. It’s a rocky road, documentary is. It’s very rewarding, and it can be very powerful. It just takes time.

I really liked what you said about patience because we don't allow or afford ourselves any patience. Patience is also a learnt skill, isn't it? Oh, of course, yeah. Definitely, and that’s the problem with photography because what you see is literally a millisecond of a moment. You don't see the back story. You don't see the slogging around cameras 10 hours a day, just walking the streets of grey London. You don't see that. People just see just the millisecond of the photograph. That millisecond doesn’t show the process behind it, or how much work it really takes.

And last but not least… What are you reading or listening during this lockdown?

Reading:

The Otters' Tale by Simon Cooper

The Descent of Man by Grayson Perry

The Fractal Key by Stephen Shaw

Listening:

Alt-J

The Black Keys

Podcasts by Joe Rogan

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