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2022-02-22 Frederic Aranda Interview

By Quince Pan

Every year, the British Journal of Photography organises the Portrait of Britain photography award. A hundred portraits that best showcase the diversity of the UK are selected as winners. In January this year, the winners of the 2021 award were announced.

Frederic Aranda (b. 1980) was one of them. His winning group portrait, “Barnet Hospital ICU”, depicts a medical team, all decked in scrubs, posing for the camera in an operating theatre in Barnet Hospital, North London. Since his humble beginnings taking graduation portraits for friends at Oxford where he studied Japanese as an undergraduate, Frederic has accumulated countless accolades, establishing him as a sought-after portrait photographer commissioned by Vanity Fair and Vogue. In February, I caught up with Frederic to discuss his work, his inspirations and his photographic philosophy.

Winning Photo - Barnet Hospital

What led you to take that picture of the healthcare workers and how did you get access?

I have a friend who’s an anaesthetist, who was telling me just how awful it was during the pandemic. We did an Instagram Live together; this was at the very beginning, it was back in April–May 2020 — so we were all still coming to terms with what it means to wear masks and what it means to have an airborne virus. So he was explaining all of that from his perspective as a medical professional. And he said, why don’t you just come and see for yourself. And at the time, it felt quite dangerous, really. You were seeing on the news every day how so many people were dying; it was just awful. And so it felt like going into a warzone. And a lot of pictures that were coming out of these hospitals looked like warzone pictures. You had this very famous series by a photographer in Italy who photographed the medical staff after a full day of wearing masks and how when they take it off they’ve got these imprints on their faces, and it looked like they’ve just come out of battle. So I wanted to see for myself what it was really like here in London. I went in June 2020.

And through your anaesthetist friend, you managed to get access to the operating theatre?

That’s right. I went to several hospitals and then they showed me around. There was a really funny moment because we were at Barnett Hospital and they took me into a meeting room, but at the back of the room, there was a bed and a stretcher. And I thought it was a dead body on a stretcher because it was covered in a white sheet. But actually, it was just a mannequin, a dummy that they used for demonstrations of resuscitations. But I actually had a panic attack because I walked into this room not expecting to see what I thought was a dead body but actually, it was just a mannequin. Yeah, then they took me into the operation theatre and everywhere. I’ve even gone to the changing rooms where the staff decompress and relax.

Was that picture the only one you took?

No, it was a whole series that The Guardian published. What I liked about it was that they gave the actual workers a chance to tell the story in their own words, so it created a platform for them to talk about their experience. It wasn’t just anaesthetists, doctors, nurses; it was everyone in the whole spectrum of the staff it takes to run a hospital, including the cleaners, the porters, receptionists, it really includes everyone. It was nice that they had the chance to talk, and that’s the nice thing about photography; it can create opportunities for people, give them visibility.

In shooting the series, did you have an idea beforehand, or did you just decide on the spot?

That’s a really good question and I think that ties in with your other question about methodology when you’re researching a shoot. It really depends on the shoot. Sometimes I go into something w1ith a completely open mind and I just keep my options open because I don’t know what to expect. (And there’s a lot of that.) I went into situations sometimes when I only have five minutes with a politician or a movie star in a hotel room. And you don’t really know what’s going to happen. You don’t know what the place is going to look like, you don’t know what the lighting’s going to be, so you just got to really think quickly and be very spontaneous, and that’s where you see the talent of the photographer if they’re able to capture something in a very short amount of time under pressure. And then there are situations where you can plan months in advance. And in that case, I do; I plan as much as I can, and I can show you — I’ve brought an example of stuff that I refer to when I research shoots. But with the hospital workers, no, I didn’t know what to expect, so it was really about just thinking on my feet. You know my passion is group portraits, right? So for me, I dream about, sometimes I even wake up thinking about group compositions; that’s what I do in my head even when I’m resting. Just a few days ago, I actually dreamt of how I would compose a group portrait for a Vanity Fair cover, and I catch myself actually just thinking about this all the time because I really enjoy thinking about how to make people look good in a group, not just by themselves. I think it’s so interesting to have group dynamics which are on so many levels — you obviously have hierarchies within a group, so if you’re going to a hospital, there are definite hierarchies in terms of position; those hierarchies are about seniority, they’re about celebrity, there are all sorts of different factors. And then sometimes you can choose to respect these hierarchies or you can play with them, and in my years of doing group portraits, I’ve had the opportunity to play a lot with these hierarchies. Sometimes, they even cause problems, which I think is good in the end. And then obviously there is the question of ratios of men to women, and I’m always very conscious of how I position women in my pictures. So I think that that’s one of the main things in my mind when I’m working on a group shot: women, the representation of different minorities and diversity. These are definitely questions that I’ve always been thinking about, all my life, even before it became a hot topic.

How does your background shape the way you see the world and approach a project?

I think it’s given me a very rich outlook on life and culture. I definitely view myself as a citizen of the world rather than belonging to any particular country. In Switzerland, I was born there but I didn’t feel Swiss. I mean, I am Swiss, but I don’t feel Swiss, because my parents were not from Switzerland. So, I’m second-generation Swiss and my parents had no roots in Switzerland. I’m the first generation that has had roots there. At home we heard all about Morocco, we heard all about France. And also, my father’s Algerian French, so it’s another link to North Africa. And also obviously, growing up in Jewish culture. It’s all kind of a way of distracting me away from Switzerland in itself. So I was thinking of other places, and my cultural references were in many different places, not just in one place. I also went to an international school, so it gave me exposure to people from around the world very quickly. My best friends in primary school were Japanese, Chinese, Singaporean, Kenyan, Tanzanian, Indian. And then in secondary school, they were from even more diverse places. I don’t feel particularly French either, even though I have a French passport as well, but I’ve never lived in France. And then I’m British now, and I’ve lived here for over 20 years so I feel British, but at the same time I’m not really completely British. And those formative years were all spent in Switzerland. So where do I come from? I don’t really know, in a way. But I think that’s a good thing because it enables me to go to places like Japan and feel at home. I enables me to go to the Middle East and feel at home, or anywhere in the world and feel at home, because there’s always some way to relate to a place based on the people I’ve met from all around the world in my youth and who are still a part of my life now. And so, I think that’s been very helpful for me as a photographer because it helps me to relate to people a lot more. Learning a new language, Japanese, for me was a way to enrich myself with a whole culture that I didn’t know. Because you access a whole new world when you learn a language. And I wanted to understand how Japanese people think and the way that they relate to the world, and a lot of that has to do with language. And it was a way to explore a culture that has zero to do with where I come from. You know, I am definitely very interested in people. Unfortunately, I don’t have time to learn every language, otherwise I would. I would love to learn Mandarin. In fact, I tried, one year at Oxford I did a special subject in Mandarin and it was really hard.

But at least you can read the kanji!

Yes! I go to China a lot and when I got there I feel, again, that I can be at home there too because I look I understand the characters, and there was a very surreal moment once when I was in the middle of the countryside in China and the person I was speaking to couldn’t speak English. I couldn’t speak Mandarin but they could speak Japanese. So, we were speaking in our third languages to each other, and we were just laughing because it was just surreal that we were in China speaking Japanese to each other. That was the common link we had. I whole life has prepared me to be interested in people and to be interested in their stories and their perspectives.

Are you working on any projects at the moment?

Yes, I have a lot of projects. I’m thinking of doing an exhibition of group portraits, and the aim of that would be to show some patterns and to show some truths that are not visible in individual portraits, to really show the power of group portraiture. And that’s with reference to, obviously, the long tradition of group portraits going back to antiquity and in the Renaissance and in all the European masters and a lot of the American painters, and then a lot of the photographic masters as well. I think Irving Penn was one of the most successful group portrait photographers even though he’s known for other things. And people like Annie Leibovitz are now the big stars of group portraiture but actually, Irving Penn did some incredible work. Really, really creative. I like to refer to these things, I like to create group portraits with all of this tradition in mind, Obviously, not being too reverential to it because you’ve got to push forward and break boundaries and be creative and do new things. But at the same time, I think it’s so good to know what happened before.

You mentioned that you are informed, but not bound, by the history and tradition of portraiture. What elements of this tradition are you drawn to? The technique? Composition?

Technique and composition are secondary; they’re not important. They’re not the main interest here; the main interest is the person that you are photographing, the people in the picture, and to create a group portrait that’s meaningful, that is powerful as a group but also individually. And so to make that happen, I think you need to be good with the technique and the composition, have an eye for those things, but those are only secondary, they are only the tools you have to make a successful image of these people. And, with group portraits, I think what is particularly fascinating is where in some cases, it’s very laborious and it’s difficult and it just doesn’t work, but then some days you do it and it just all really falls naturally into place, it’s what I would say that it should just “come naturally”. Some days, you’re blessed, and people just fall into place naturally and they look great together. And that’s usually because the group has a reason of existing. These people are in a group for a reason: they like each other, or they compete with each other, or they hate each other. So the dynamics are fascinating to me. That’s where I really, thank heavens for being able to do what I love the most, and to do it every day. My passion of photography is when I can actually witness these magical moments where people give me something even that they don’t realise it. And that’s why portraiture is wonderful, it’s such a wonderful art form.

“A group portrait of dancers by Irving Penn, one of Frederic’s photographic heroes”

Regarding that, would you say that it was the same with the operating theatre? Even when everyone was there for purpose, all being part of the medical team, did you have to nudge them a bit here and there?

This one was not planned in advance because I didn’t know the place until I got there. And I asked them to position themselves the way that they would normally during an operation. So they all took their own position. And for me that was really important. I didn’t want to tamper with the reality of the setting, because there’s an added journalistic aspect: you’re actually conveying to the wider public what the reality is in this space, so you don’t want to change this reality. That’s journalism. But then I have my own aesthetic which has a polished, colourful gloss to it — which is why I work with Vanity Fair and Vogue — and so the picture that comes out of this is going to be more of a magazine photo rather than a newspaper photo. But I don’t think there’s anything wrong with wanting to make things look beautiful. So, yeah, when I go into the operating theatre, I want it to be well-lit. I want there to be light. And luckily, there’s a lot of light, because they need to see what they’re doing. They’ve got these incredible things that hover over the operating table and they almost remind me of Hollywood movie sets’ lighting, these huge projectors, and when you’re doing a photo shoot sometimes you can use those projectors, turn them towards the camera so that they’re glaring into the camera, and it’s the same in the operating theatre. I was thinking that this is almost being on a movie set, except that now what’s glaring at me are the medical lights. And there’s a beauty in the colours of their uniforms, which is all codified, I’m sure. The colour of your scrubs immediately tells your colleagues what position you are. And I think there’s a beauty to those colours, they really capture my imagination. I love colour. For me, that blue is gorgeous because it’s a very specific type of blue. And that green is also a very specific type of green, which I’ve actually used many times even with Vivienne Westwood. This kind of very apple leafy green, I think, is such a beautiful green, and for me, to find that in a medical setting is amazing. I look at that and just think, that’s something out of a fashion set! Certain scrubs are even pink and purple and I just love that. So there’s a lot more to that picture than meets the eye. And yet you have very little time to do it; you have to be quick. And so I just told them, put yourselves where you would normally be, and then I looked at the positions that they were in, and if they looked good then I would leave them where they were, but if it wasn’t to their advantage then I would suggest maybe turning their heads slightly this way; I would tweak a few little details in the arms, the legs, the head, because I still want to make them look good. I don’t want them to think, “ugh, this is a bad picture of me”.

On that note, I want to turn to a book that you co-published, California Elegance. The picture “Visalia”, with vintage cars, palm trees and a funky mural, reminded me of Mark Power’s Good Morning, America. As a portrait photographer, did you approach that landscape scene as though it was a portrait?

I think photography is universal regardless of what you’re taking pictures of, and there are certain universal truths in photography that apply to all of photography. My passion is people and portraits, yes, but I have been fortunate enough to experiment in other areas of photography like still life, with my first book, Electric Fashion, which looked at a whole fashion collection, and half of the book is pictures of mannequins, so it’s really studio still life. And then the new book, California Elegance, has a lot of landscape and also still life as well. But, to me, there is no difference shooting landscape than shooting portraits, and that’s because a face is a landscape at the end of the day. The way that the light falls on a face, with the angle of the light on a face, it changes the face just like the angle of the light on a landscape will change the landscape. That’s why people spend hours waiting for the light to be a certain way for a landscape. Whereas, in portraiture, you can create that light in the studio by yourself, just as if you were lighting a landscape. You know, they talk about golden hour in landscape photography, which is a very short amount of time at the sunset when the light is at a certain low angle, and it brings out certain details in the texture, and everything. And it’s exactly the same with portraiture. If you’re lighting a face, you’re re-creating golden hour but on the landscape of a face. The way that you pick up certain parts of the face, it’s exactly the same way that you’re picking up certain parts of a hill or a mountain. And depending on how you light a person’s face, this is a hill or a mountain — the cheekbones — the eyebrows are a forest. To me, all of these things are the same. The reflection of water in someone’s eye is like a river in a landscape, and I think once you get it with portraiture, then you get it with everything else. The question is, do you have the patience with landscapes to actually sit there and wait for it to happen, and I don’t. So, for my California book, I spent so much time on the road and California’s such a beautiful place that it just throws these opportunities at you, so I was able to see some beautiful landscapes at their best and I clicked at that moment, but I wasn’t going to spend all day waiting for it. I did this over 5 or 6 years so I was able to accumulate enough material that I think represented the state well enough to make a book. But I am not a landscape photographer; my interests are much broader. And I think that still life is all the same, all the same.

With regard to Visalia, I was thinking in terms of book layout. When I took that picture, I thought, I had just been to the redwood forest in Northern California. I photographed these ancient trees in real life, in the forest. And then suddenly I was in the Central Valley which is where all the agriculture is, further south. It’s quite industrial in Visalia, the actual town itself. And I was in this parking lot and I turn around and I see this mural of these trees I just photographed in Northern California. And the mural had a blue sky painted onto it but then it was against an actual blue sky which meant it blended in beautifully, and it was such a shocking superimposition of an image onto reality that I just took a picture without thinking too much. And that’s what I was saying earlier, you shouldn’t have to work too hard, it should just come naturally, I think. If you’re trying too hard then it’s already a failure, I think. If it comes naturally, then good! I was thinking in terms of the layout: I wanted that spread in the book to come just next to the spread of the actual trees, to play with people’s minds as they’re flipping through the book. Because when you’re making a book you’ve got to think about how you’re going to lay it all out. With the second book [California Elegance], I was definitely shooting with that in mind. I was definitely shooting with that in mind: how I was going to actually plan the layout of these images.

BJP: Was there a get-together, maybe even a virtual one, amongst the winners?

Not this time. 4 years ago, I was one of the winners of BJP Portrait of Britain. I had two pictures that won that time, and then they had a big get-together but I think with COVID-19 this time, they didn’t do it.

What was your learning experience at that event? Did you meet many photographers whom you eventually collaborated with?

I get a lot out of these things because for me it makes me more aware of the photographic community that I work in and more aware of what’s going on. So I really enjoy these opportunities to meet other photographers, for sure. It’s so important. You can’t just operate in a vacuum. And I think we can all learn from each other. I’m very open to learning from anyone. For me, if a photography student wins this award, they are worthy of my attention just as much as Annie Leibovitz. Yeah, that’s the beauty of photography. It doesn’t matter who it is. If their work is good, then it’s good to be exposed to it

How did you feel when you won the second time?

I was thrilled! Very happy. I think it’s nice because photography can be quite isolating sometimes, which is why it’s important to be a part of that community. I think sometimes you can be just operating blindly without necessarily having too many people telling you if something is good or not. When you’re taking pictures, you’re editing them, you don’t necessarily have people around you all the time to discuss the pictures with. I do that now more and more, by the way, because I am friends with photographers with whom I discuss ideas. I felt really good because it gave me a lot more perspective on what I can do going forward, and also because it gave an opportunity to the people in the picture to gain more visibility, so that’s really good.

Finally, is there any motto you live by, not just in photography but life in general?

I don’t know if there’s a motto, so to say, but the thing that really comes to mind when I think about my approach to people in life is that I love people. I actually really love people, and I noticed there was a big change because when I was a teenager, I didn’t love people. And in fact there a school friend of mine who took pictures of other people all the time and I used to think, gosh, he’s wasting his film on other people! He should be taking pictures of his family and himself, but he’s photographing everybody else. Why is he wasting film on other people? I realise now how self-centred I was as a teenager, and how much I’ve changed, because now my life is precisely to take pictures of other people every day and not of myself. And so, I think that shows how much I’ve changed and how much I actually really love people and I think it’s important to give people the benefit of the doubt, and not judge them, and to always bear in mind that they might be coming from a completely different place. So it’s more of a message of just love, really, than anything else.