Guadeloupe. The sun is blazing down on my already burned skin from a slight mistake while applying my sun screen. The driver has taken me to Jarry, it's in the center of the island. Maybe it's the jetlag as I'm still on Paris time, but here on this island, time feels slower, somehow. Buildings are dilapidated, roads are falling apart and sidewalks, I learned, are not always a given. Contrast this with the crystal clear beaches and five star hotels with infinity pools where you can gaze down at the elite, tanning on a private beach below. I'm told by the driver that six months earlier the roads had been barricaded and that it was impossible to drive around the island. This is perhaps one of the last places I was expecting to find Lou Denim (@loudenim), a fashion, beauty and advertising photographer formerly based in London. She is gracious enough to take some time to chat with me a bit about her work and life back in Guadeloupe.
FFU: How did you get your start?
LD: Right, when I started photography, I was quite young. I must have been about 15 or something like that. I had a little compact, I was just shooting. By the age of 17, I really wanted to be a photographer, I decided. For my 18th birthday my dad bought me an enlarger. I was based in Guadeloupe, so he bought that in France somewhere, somehow and had it sent to Guadeloupe. I was taking pictures in black and white of my friends on film and taking the negatives and printing them in the kitchen, my mom's kitchen. Then, selling them to my friends' parents for 10 francs, at the time it was francs and not euros. Ten francs was nothing. So that was my first business venture!
FFU: An entrepreneur from the start!
LD: I did my A-levels in maths/physics and my dad was not really over the moon that I wanted to be a photographer. So, he insisted for me to have my BAC C and then I went to uni. I was the only one going on to university of letters having an A-level in maths/physics because there was a section called ISAV (image, spectacle, audio, visual). I did that for a couple of years in Montpellier. At the age of 21 my dad said well, if you really want to be a photographer and a REAL one, and not taking pictures of babies on the beach, you're going to London, you're going to learn English and you're going to learn how to take pictures professionally. I arrived in London when I was 21 with my little suitcase and all my dreams. I had something to prove, because in my family they are all bankers, judges, and doctors. I think I wanted to prove I could do it.
FFU: I think the desire to prove something to our families is a common driver for many of us in this industry. What was your first camera?
LD: I remember much younger than 15, I had a Kodak one. So the camera was long and thin and you had to attach the flash on top. I was like 12 or 13. Then we moved to Corsica, and my dad bought me a Canon or Panasonic, I can't really remember. It had a zoom and I was like WOW!
FFU: What is your approach to photography?
LD: I am today - or I have been for a little while now - a commercial photographer. So I do editorial and advertising, I always work with clients that have briefs. There's always a product behind the photography. Because I've been doing that for about 30 years, I do less and less test shoots, especially now. In London I was doing them up until the last moment I left. I would say what motivates or what is behind is the brief, some are interesting and creative, some you have to just deliver what they ask for, basically.
FFU: When it comes to lighting, are there any setups that are particular to you?
LD: Well, flash. I'm a flash photographer, I rarely use natural light. if I use natural light, I mix daylight with my flashes, basically. I like images that are punchy, I like them well lit. I'm a bit of a perfectionist, you can see it in my pictures. I do a lot of beauty photography, you have to be perfect. In fashion, you can be a bit blurry, but with beauty you really need to know your shit. You need to be technical and in London because we do a lot of studio shoots as we don't have such good weather there - I became a studio photographer mostly, although I've been abroad for shoots like Cape Town, Miami, all sorts of places to shoot. Always with power packs and flash heads. To be able to override the daylight, you just use flash and saurate your image.
FFU: You've been working as a commercial photographer for a long time. What kinds of things inspire you, or what other work do you admire? Are there any elements that have nothing to do with photography that have an effect on your work?
LD: Hmmm, I've been inspired by Sølve Sundsbø or Nick Knight. I mean, these guys I really admired their techniques and ideas. Also, because they work with teams, you know, it's not JUST the photographer that is brilliant and comes up with all these ideas. There's a team behind them. People will look at my site and say 'Oh! I want this!' and I'll say yeah, but this isn't just me. There's a great makeup artist, great stylist, great art director. Although, we do the job of art direction a lot because it's not every single job that someone is there to provide the idea.
I think I'm very much fashion advertising, when I look for ideas for visuals - even though I do a lot of corporate - I'll often type: fashion campaign for xx brand. I think they are pushing it to the next level. If you want to have a corporate idea for selling I don't know, guitars, nothing will pop up. I think that's my type of imagery I'm inspired by as well. This is what I do. I don't do lifestyle. Sometimes, little local brands ask me to do shoots to look like Instagram. It's not the same.
FFU: So when you go on shootings outside, is there one thing you always bring that people wouldn't expect?
LD: Probably the loupe I showed you earlier. It's something I bought 15 years ago to shoot in Cape Town. I put it in a bag and never really used it until I came back to Guadeloupe. With all of the light that there is outside, I just stick this to the back of my camera so I can really see.
I've spent my whole career telling people - clients and so on - I feel they underestimate me. Me being French, being a woman, being young . When they imagined a photographer, they imagined a guy 6 ft. tall with his camera. I sort of felt that if I was a man it would have been different. I always felt that.
FFU: One of the reasons I decided to make this project is because there is so much sexism in the photo industry. Have you ever experienced that personally?
LD: It's funny you ask this question! No, I haven't. Having said that, I've spent my whole career telling people - clients and so on - I feel they underestimate me. Me being French, being a woman, being young. When they imagined a photographer, they imagined a guy 6 ft. tall with his camera. I sort of felt that if I was a man it would have been different. I always felt that. Now there are more and more women photographers, but back then there weren't that many. I remember I had my camera bag, which looked a bit like a makeup artist bag and I would arrive at the studio and unless I mentioned I was the photographer, sometimes the person I was shooting or the client thought the assistant there to set up the lighting was the photographer and that I was the makeup artist.
FFU: Yeah, of course you're the makeup artist.
LD: Very often when I arrive somewhere I say 'Hi, Lou the photographer'. It's just something I'm used to doing now just so people know. Sometimes I see their faces and I know they're thinking 'It's HER that's going to make me look fabulous?!'
When I used to do editorials with For Him Magazine, you know I was younger and just breaking through in editorial, and the models would be topless sometimes and used to tell me they were very comfortable with me because they could see I wasn't looking at them. If I told them to shift their body because it was an awkward angle, I remember them telling me they were happy with the photos because I was a woman and could understand the best way to shoot them.
FFU: Yes, that's such a huge point with models and especially after #METOO. When I spoke to models as well they'd say the same thing about being comfortable and appreciating more women on set.
What's your most memorable shooting? Whatever the reason!
LD: You're going to like this one because she's American! Janice Dickinson, one of the top supermodels. She used to present America's Next Top Model with Tyra Banks. She's a crazy lady. She arrived at the shoot and I think she was drunk. She kept falling over and we had these bags and she kept falling on the bags. At some point she wanted to lift her neck, so she asked my assistant to get some duct tape and then shouted at him to leave. So he hid behind a pillar. She took a bit of tape and actually taped herself behind her neck, an express lift.
At this time I had this project called 50 Quid, where I'd give a celebrity a 50£ note and they had to do something with it. I wanted to do something for charity, but in the end it didn't work. Anyway, I asked Janice to participate and she lifted her skirt and put the note on her crotch and I said well, maybe a bit outrageous for charity and she said 'ok I'm putting it on my boobs!' and she put the note on boob and I photographed her like that.
FFU: What is your favorite thing about photography? Some people like the aspect of it freezing a moment in time, for example.
LD: What I like is I create images. So I have an idea, I look for inspiration/mood board to show the team and client what I'm after. Then you put your team together - the ones that you think will be able to give you the results. Then you shot and do the post production. It's more about being a créatrice d'image (an image maker), you know? I like the concepting, I'm more conceptual.
This for example (she motions for me to look at her computer screen) is Jessie J, and this is one of my polaroids, a picture in my camera bag of my mom and dad. I stuck it to the camera and my idea was she was going to make faces and I was going to photoshop one of the faces on the polaroid. So you know, concepts.
FFU: I know sometimes you do corporate shoots, so you are working with people that are not models. How do you direct them and pull what you want out of them?
LD: I don't know if I pull everything inside, but I talk to them a lot. I joke a bit. I'm not quiet, I encourage them and if it's not good I tell them as well. I'll show them if it's not working and remind them not to do that again. I pose people.
I can personally attest to Lou's vision of how she is able to make people that are not models comfortable, as we did a short photoshoot together. She is an absolute perfectionist. She will keep working the light until it's that way she's seeing it in her mind. In spite of all of this concentration on the lighting, she still manages to carry on a conversation with you.
FFU: So how do you feel about being back in Guadeloupe post-Brexit?
LD: I spent 22 years in London and when they started the referendum for Brexit, I said ok it's time to go, I sensed it. Plus, I think to tell you the truth, I had already been thinking about it for a few years. Originally, when I left I was really happy, although Guadeloupe was not my first choice. I wanted to go to Miami. I was going to stay at my friend's house in Saint Martin, she has a bungalow and she said I could stay there to go back and forth to Miami for a few months because there's an international airport there. Eventually, I was going to find an agent and move to Miami because of the visas and all that. Then Hurricane Irma happened. My flight was supposed to be the week after Irma hit and we didn't know it was going to destroy the whole island.
Another one of my friends from Guadeloupe when I was a teenager called me up and asked what I was going to do. I said 'what am I going to do in Guadeloupe?' And he asked if I had anywhere else to go and I didn't. He told me to come and just see how things develop. So I arrived in Guadeloupe, the first year I was doing a lot of trips back and forth to London to work and come back to the beach here. I met some people at EWAG and started doing some fashion shoots for them and covers and bit by bit I've now taken over the place. I have my own studio, my own desk, I do everything now.
At the beginning it was hard, because they didn't wait for you. I had to prove to them that I was the best and now I'm actually swamped with work.
LD: Now I'm happy to be in Guadeloupe because I've got work. Going to Miami would have been to carry out my international career, which I'm not doing anymore. I knew what I was signing up for coming to Guadeloupe. There are a lot of problems on this island, with the state of the roads or water for example. There's a lot of poverty here with only around 80,000 people actively working out of 400,000. But I'm not going to start over again.
Don't give up. If you want to succeed, you need to give 150% at all times. You can't be average because you're tired. You can't not come because your throat hurts. If you really want to make it big - on top of that there are so many photographers now on the market and it's over-saturated- you need to always push, push push.
FFU: I understand this idea of starting over again and how that can feel so heavy.
One of the reasons I wanted to interview you is that I think it's a good idea to interview photographers at all stages of their careers. What do you want young emerging photographers to know?
LD: Don't give up. If you want to succeed, you need to give 150% at all times. You can't be average because you're tired. You can't not come because your throat hurts. If you really want to make it big - on top of that there are so many photographers now on the market and it's over-saturated- you need to always push, push push. I've never missed a day of work. Ever. I've never canceled a shoot in my whole career. You can imagine that sometimes I had sinitis or I was coughing or whatever, but I always showed up for work. Don't hesitate to work weekends or holidays.
FFU: Especially as photographers quite often shooting outdoors means shooting at atypical hours for sunrise or early to avoid people.
LD: Yeah, exactly, sometimes I can wake up at 3 or 4am to be on set with the team for sunrise and to set up. A lot of people don't realize the amount of work that goes into it behind the scenes.
Another thing is today, my eyes are trained to see things and that is worth something and it's not the same as someone that just started photographing a year ago, for example.
FFU: Coming from London, which is such a huge city for art and photography I was wondering how you did it and I'm so happy to know you did and that you're so busy. What are you working on these days?
LD: I'm working on a shoot right now that I did with Jocelyne Bérouard from Kassav', it's a Zouk group that's very famous here. They're superstars in Guadeloupe and she's just published a book about her thirty years in Kassav' and she needs some photos to promote the book.
FFU: Any last words for our readers?
LD: Be creative, be nice. Be polite, always have a smile for your clients. Be the first one there and the last to leave. Wow them. Make them have a good time.