Updated: Jun 25, 2020
Interview with Sophie Mayanne
Sophie Mayanne is a fashion and portrait photographer, splitting her time between London and Cotswolds, UK. If you don’t know her work brace yourself, you are in for a treat and if you do, well you know what goodness is coming your way.
Sophie’s photos are unforgettable. There is a bewitching presence at play in all her work, not something every photographer has mastered. She isn’t just ‘taking photos’- she is able to bend the continuum the moment she depressed the shutter, time travelling us to the unspoken, silent connection of trust, honesty and raw beauty. In some images the enchantment is stronger than in others, I found myself scouring, feeling my way through all her portraits, hungrily tapping into those energising moments.
Working across menswear, womenswear and the music industries, Sophie’s work opens up important conversations around diversity and inclusion. In 2017, she launched Behind The Scars, a celebratory project featuring scars and the stories of how they were formed.
Renee: Sophie, the first time I came across your work was the Mothercare - Beautiful, Isn’t She campaign. I can remember exactly where I was, at an event which was applauding and showcasing brilliant work within the Media & Comms Industry. I literally stopped mid-stride across the room and felt a huge smile spread across my face as I looked up at the screen. What I loved about the images was the joy, but also the beauty you captured. Something I was immediately conscious of, was as someone without children, I didn’t feel excluded, which was pretty powerful. How did that project come about and what was the process of casting and shooting?
Sophie: The project began at the end of 2018 – Mothercare’s ad agency, McGarryBowen approached me with the concept, after seeing Behind The Scars, and felt I was a good fit.
We cast via social media, the internet etc.! I remember I joined a number of “Mum” groups on Facebook, as we really wanted to find a variety of mothers to feature in the campaign. We kept the set pretty small – as all of the participants hadn’t done something similar to this before. I felt this was important as sometimes big studios can feel quite overwhelming, and for this campaign, it was critical the Mums (and babies!) felt comfortable from the outset. I think the joy in the campaign comes naturally – as an authentic connection between mother and child can’t be “faked” (in my opinion!) – the moments captured are raw, and the Mums were at the forefront of the campaign.
R: Mothercare made a seismic shift in how they had been advertising and speaking to women with the Beautiful, Isn't She campaign. The reaction and celebration, both from those that they were trying to reach, but also from the industry press was overwhelmingly positive. It felt like a step-change; genuine new mothers, with their real bodies, front of frame.
You had made an "official statement" in October 2017 that: "you would no longer digitally manipulate bodies or skin in any of you work." I’d love to know more about how you arrived at that decision and the importance of drawing a line in the sand for your own creative integrity?
S: I reached this decision after a fair bit of contemplation. I had come across a post on Facebook from a model I had previously worked with, who shared her experiences around eating disorders after working within the fashion industry. I had photographed this model 2-3 years prior, and at the time had been asked to pull in her hips and jawline, and obliged. A slightly younger photographer then, I believed this is what was expected of me, and many times – it was. I decided that as a photographer with a following, I had a responsibility to be honest in my work. I retrospectively went through old posts on Instagram and added a note that they had been retouched, and made the conscious decision to no longer alter my future work. It was also in conflict with my Behind The Scars project, it was like I was saying: “this project can exist and not be retouched, but my fashion work is different.”
R: As you mentioned, the Mothercare campaign was a direct result of your Behind The Scars project.
At the time of this interview, you have taken approximately 700 portraits. It is incredibly beautiful and infused with humanity. It invokes an empowering pulling of the heartstrings - the need to be connected to each body you photograph and to their specific story. Why scars and what are your hopes and aims of the project?
S: The project started off small, several months after meeting a model with scars, and him sharing his story with me. It stirred an interest and I pursued the idea as a small editorial project. Since then it’s continued to grow! I’d love to put the series into a book one day, as I feel the stories will always be relevant to someone and I love the idea of someone finding it and dusting it off years down the line to read!
R: I see glints of Nan Goldin, Corrine Day, Laura Aguilar and Peter Hujar in your work. How did you come to photography Sophie and who inspires you?
S: The people around me are inspirational, they drive me to continue as well as those that I photograph. I don’t spend huge amounts of time looking at other photographers work (I probably should more!) – as I’ve always been drawn to shooting what I feel, which 9 times out of 10 works!
Sometimes when I look at other photographers work, as beautiful as it may be – I can fall down the rabbit hole of feeling self-conscious about my own photos!
R: Another project of yours, which I find incredibly… I can’t find the word… perhaps "tender," but that feels very underwhelming in relation to what you have been able to communicate, is The Hand We Built. It is a photo story that is deeply personal, painful but also elating.
I spotted 'a feeling' that arose when looking at this project but also in some of your other projects. There is often a deep connection between you, the photographer and your sitter(s). I can see... sense there is a silent dialogue between the both of you and whilst I don’t feel excluded, I appreciate there is some form connection that I’m not privy to - I can only witness. How do find that intimacy and capture that moment? S: I photographed Lucy for this project, after meeting her through Behind The Scars, so this was a follow-up series. She shared that she was having surgery on her hands and asked if I would be interested in documenting the process. This was quite a different experience for me, as it was more in-depth than how I work on Behind The Scars. Lucy trusted me to be there during intimate moments pre and post operation. Throughout the project communication was vital – we spoke about what she was okay with from start to finish and openly discussed how we could capture the elements of her story. It was a very collaborative.
I try to keep my photographic process quite laid-back. I spend a lot of time talking to the person I’m going to be working with. Sometimes this is via email beforehand and then continues in person. The atmosphere I create on set is really, really important. I want people to feel comfortable, not on edge – so music, keeping things relaxed and also bringing my little dog helps. I also have a tendency of taking more photos than I need if I know someone is particularly nervous – it’s crucial they don’t know, I might be finding it hard to get the image I'm looking for! So sometimes, taking a few extra snaps in the beginning, instils a little extra confidence.
R: It is evident that your work creates psychological shifts in perception for those that you work directly with, but also it is already accumulating, gathering momentum, shifting cultural perceptions. I want to put to you the notion that you are a "healer" and I’m curious to know if you have considered this as part of your practice?
S: I’ve always referred to my work, more as an art as opposed to just a photograph – and I think art can be interpreted in many different ways. Some can look at art and feel inspired, some find solace in work. Whilst I don’t consider myself as a healer (I haven’t thought of it that way!) I am aware of the effect my work can have on people – and that often this is deeply personal to the person who views it.
R: I feel you are a modern-day shaman - the teller of stories that connect and heal society as well as individuals.
S: Haha, maybe I should go with it!
R: You are already doing it!
You also use bodies as sculptural objects in their own right - shapes created through framing, shadows and light. This work feels like it should be found hanging on a gallery wall (or on one of my walls - ha, ha) as opposed to being on the pages of a fashion or music mag. I’d love to know if you have any plans for exhibitions in the future?
S: No plans for exhibitions at the moment (sorry!) – I would love to do more though.
Prints are a bit of a new forte for me too – and I’m going to be working with Darklight (launching soon) to sell a small selection of works!
R: I feel post lockdown there will be shows popping up exhibiting your work. Really looking forward to seeing what is available on Darklight too - potential exhibition in my flat as a result!
There is a clear dialogue between your self-initiated projects and your commercial commissions. What I love about the fashion strand of your work, is that it feels fashion but it doesn’t - it isn't overly worked. There is also a lot of "play" within the imagery - one photo I’m particularly thinking of is a girl in an oversized PUMA jumper. She is having fun and laughing, her hair is still tucked inside the collar and it is perfect within the ‘imperfection’ (in the context of it being fashion shoot). I think that takes some bravery, not to fall into the expectations of what fashion "is" and how it should be captured. How did you come to trust yourself to push against those boundaries?
S: A lot of the time, I go with what feels right – and I work with people that trust my intuition! The PUMA jumper in that image is actually mine, I remembered I had it in the boot of my car and just thought it would be great to use. Whilst I do plan shoots, including fashion ones – I always make space to create something a bit more unexpected, as often the best shots come from not being planned, being in the moment.
R: I think there is something in that for all artists regardless of their tools - being in a state of flow and not overthinking.
Connected to my previous question, as a creative it is sometimes hard to find your own voice, your own perspective and style - what advice would you give to an aspiring photographer?
S: Just keep shooting – it takes time to work out who you are, and what you want to say. Photograph what’s close to you. What do you have access to that others don’t?
R: What would you say is the most important thing to you as an artist - in the context of your practice?
S: Being honest! I think you have to be honest with yourself, and in your work.
R: Being totally and utterly nosey here - what is coming up for you the next few months and where and how will we be able to see more of your incredible work?
S: I have a few projects that have been postponed due to Covid19, so there will be a couple of campaigns out in the near future, as well as more personal works!
R: Thanks Sophie, looking forward to seeing what is available on Darklight, the Behind The Scars book, more of your work in magazines and - when it is "safe" to venture out, seeing an exhibition of your captivating work up close (it has to happen!).