Interview: Alice Hawkins

by Lou Stoppard .

To celebrate the publication of her debut book, Alice's Adventures, photographer Alice Hawkins talks to Lou Stoppard about her unique approach and the amazing cast of characters she’s assembled over the course of her career.

Lou Stoppard: Tell me about how the concept for the book came about.

Alice Hawkins: It began when I was pregnant. I’d been shooting for 10 years and it felt like a great opportunity to sit and look at what I’d done. It just felt like the right time given I was going to be sitting on the sofa for the next year or two! Frith Kerr at Studio Frith designed my book - she was also my tutor at Camberwell! It’s wonderful because she has gone above and beyond. She’s turned me into a cartoon with her fair hand! For the title, we thought we’d go with Alice’s Adventures. I named my Instagram that a couple of years ago… but this is just the first of many books - it represents everyone I've met of different ages and backgrounds and the cultures of the places I have been. It's got celebrities, but it's also got village kids in India - it's a whole mix.

LS: So do you see it as less of a retrospective of your work and more as an extension of your diaries, like the ones on display in this project? Is that right?

AH: Yes – it’s definitely an extension of my diaries. I took a lot of advice from people who review books for a living and I came to the conclusion that throwing everything in and doing a mid-life retrospective would be the wrong thing to do. I didn't want to put all my eggs in one basket - I've got about 10 books in me, at least, because I've been shooting since I graduated and that was 12 years ago, maybe even longer.

LS:  You travel to lots of different places and experience different things with different people. Could this also be seen as a travel book in some ways, rather than a photography book?

AH: Well, Katie Grand described me as a documentary photographer but I've never really known what I am. I know I’m a photographer, but Nick Knight's also said, 'she's not a fashion photographer, she's an artist.' I suppose what I do is autobiographical. With most people I photograph, I haven’t booked them through an agency. Obviously, there's loads of photographers nowadays that shoot real people, but I started a long time ago and I just find people as I go. A lot of it is down to luck and charm! I mean, now we have the internet and smartphones it's easy to contact the right person who lives in another country or a place where you want to go and shoot, but 10 years ago you couldn't do that as easily. I never want to lose the road trip adventure spirit. When I shoot it's difficult for the stylist working with me because they need to be away with me for at least a week and they'll be getting calls from the brands trying to get the clothes back! A lot of the characters in the book are really important to me - I really love them! I like hanging out with them and I go back and re-photograph them too. I keep in touch with people and collect friends.

LS: Do you feel different when you do shoot someone who's an established model as opposed to someone who you've just found and cast?

AH: It does feel different and sometimes I feel worried about it, because unless I believe in the picture and the situation, I don't want to take a photo of it. If I am asked to photograph a model, then I normally ask if I can go where they live or if I can go on an adventure with them. I like it when we strip away the business side of things and it's just about having fun and experiencing things together; hardly getting any sleep and getting up really early means that by the end of the day the two of you just know each other very well. That said, I do prefer to go and find the people wherever I'm going rather than taking someone with me. But, when you do photograph girls like Cara and Gisele – any of the great models that I've photographed - you realise why they're models, because they're so bloody good and easy to photograph. They just understand the concept and what you're doing - they're actresses aren't they?

LS: You must have ended up in some very strange situations over the course of your career?

AH: I've had some mental stories - that would probably get me divorced – often when I'm trying to find people out in the desert, or something like that. It's quite funny, because a lot of people don't think I'm the photographer - they always think I'm the tea girl or something. It catches them off guard - maybe they find some extra sympathy for me and give me extra love and help me a bit more, or just give me a bit more time or handle me with a bit more care, because they think I’m just some young girl. 'Weird, she doesn't look like a photographer!' It can be helpful, especially when I’m walking into a little bar in the middle of Texas or a strip club - it just means that people stop making assumptions. People just seem to be more forgiving because you look young and you're blonde and you're female. I just use it to my advantage - it's how we survive as women isn't it? We use anything we got!

LS: Women must love to be shot by you.

AH: Donatella Versace was really pleased. She said something like, 'Oh it's just wonderful to be photographed by a pretty young blonde!’

LS: Why are there so few female fashion photographers?

AH: It's like so many industries in the world – it’s male dominated. Maybe it’s unsurprising in an industry that is as competitive as photography. We just have to work harder for things, don't we? But I know things are getting better. And sometimes when I travel around the world and I'm photographing I see things that are heartbreaking - some things aren't getting better in other countries. Over here, it’s slow, but I think we're getting there. I just hope we're making the same amount of money. Probably not!

LS: In some ways you look like your images. Do you think that that helps your subjects feel respected and comfortable?

AH: They know I'm coming from a genuine place and I'm not mocking them. I'm adamant about people respecting my subjects. If I work with a stylist and they say things like, 'We'll go to LA because there's loads of freaks there,' I just won’t work with them. Because that’s not what it's about. I hope that my subjects can see that there's a genuine admiration and a respect. I want to get the best photograph of them and I want them to really love that photo too - they will hear from me again. So I have a huge responsibility, because I'm not just passing and going 'tack tack' and then walking away. I think people help me because they know I'm coming from a nice place. Also, I'm working through really great magazines - international fashion magazines that are going to be in every major every airport in the world. I'm very lucky that those magazines give me that power and they give me that confidence and a passport to travel and to approach people. Quite often when I'm not shooting for a magazine and I've got time off I’ll see some amazing woman and be too scared to ask her, but if I was there on a mission for a magazine I would have asked her. So they give me extra confidence as well.

LS: How did you decide exactly what to put in this book?

AH: It was really hard. It was a blend between what myself and Frith and her team really were happy with. I sent them a million PDFs while I was pregnant and just before the babies were born. And then I went into their office when the babies were two months old and their whole office was covered with printouts of my PDFs – like This Is Your Life! It filled 3 floors, up the stairs, everything. I thought 'Gosh, how the hell are we going to get a book out of this?' It was really hard, because every photo means something to me - every photo is representative of a person I love or a memory I love. But I think this is just the start of me using books as vehicle to display my images – that thought made it easier for me to pick and be cutting with my edit.

LS: Do you feel like the importance of a book like yours is partly the fact that it challenges the typical representations of women that you see within coffee table books and fashion books?

AH: Yes - I love that the cover and the book represents all different people from all different nationalities, countries, cultures and statuses. Beauty can be found in so many places and I don't think it's something that can be bottled up and then labelled. To me, all of these people are special. Marketing culture at this moment in time is a bit depressing really.  You turn on the telly and it's a bit depressing. I'm just so thankful that this world exists that allows people to notice things that don't necessarily sell - it's refreshing.  I'm really lucky that I've been given that freedom through all the magazines that I've worked for and that there's a publisher that's willing to support it as well. Finally I feel like I'm being taken seriously. I'm feeling really proud of myself right now.