Over 12 years of photography and 9 years of living in New York have brought Sean Kennedy Santos a world of experience and ever evolving challenges. Two years ago, he decided to move on from advertising photography and transition into motion picture film directing.
We’re catching up with him to find out about his original screenplay of Hitchokian proportions, dressed in classic French cinematography style. With a cast that spans the globe from the US to France, China and Scandinavia there’s surely someone to relate to for everyone. As the development moves into pre-production, we’re keeping our eyes peeled on new-generation film making utilizing the best of technology and art with an in-camera storytelling style.
Looking into the magic mirror that reveals our future, what will it bring you?
SANTOS: I have my own script written over 8 years, a wealth of connections plus the experience of a lifetime of viewing the world from behind the lens.
I have watched others take their place and succeed with personal material, directing their own masterpieces. People who have hidden talent and no start that go onto make epic films that stand the test of time far after the glamour of award nights and ceremony has passed. So yes I’m moving forwards to a place in my heart where I know visual stories can be told. FILM! Every day now is filled with beginning that new journey, as Andre Gilde once said “Man cannot seek new horizons until he consents to lose sight of the shore”. Photography has had its place in time, but film is the new frontier for my creative spirit.
What is your best childhood memory?
SANTOS: There are two in fact. 1 is sitting in movie houses being able to skip school and watch Indy films with my grandmother who believed in a more flamboyant philosophy than any taught in the conventional confines of a school curriculum. ‘JUST DO IT‘!!!
Stories that took my imagination to an adult dimension with films like – Zabriskie Point and Straw Dogs. The lure of adult underbelly with actors like Dirk Bogarde and Charlotte Rampling in the Night Porter & London’s / Harold Pinter’s adaptation of The Servant with a gay Edward Fox (ahead of it’s time this film). All taught me a much more inquisitive question about life. Where, who, why & HOW would I capture these emotions to tell my own story much later on. This is what fascinated me more than the everyday. Music by the Parisians & Jet Set crowd of a London 60’s flooded the hallways of our home to inspire such thoughts. So it made for an easy playground to build my future on. Just a matter of time before I bought a ticket and made my way OUT!
The second was – Every year she would pack up the station wagon; pull a map from the glove box and say – ‘ Point’. Which direction? East, West, North or South? Where ever we went it was unplanned, unchartered and spontaneous. Wherever we stayed it was an adventure. The things we saw, the places we went, the people we met, and the knowledge I got about life and other people: a veritable feast. All I needed was a camera to say it all and keep records.
Let’s get into the hottest and most extreme place you’ve visited. Tell us about it.
SANTOS: I have visited and worked in some of the most spectacular cities on earth. Every place has magic all unto itself. But to talk about TRUE ‘ Out there’, a once in a lifetime experience, balls to the wall. Well …There is an isolated land called Yirrkala that is home to the indigenous people of Australia in the far north east of the country. It stretches for thousands of miles across desert and coastland, and where the rivers from the flood lands meet the ocean there creates an iridescence of natural color and beauty that’s hard to describe, so rather than describe it – it’s best photographed. To get there one needs tribal elder permission and the only access is by charter plane, thus making it even more extraordinary. It’s mind blowing how beautiful the place is and how spiritual the people are. Just thinking of it – it was a lifetime experience any photographer would die for.
What were your parents and your upbringing like?
SANTOS: I had no parents & that was to my advantage, I was off the hook for life, raised by a wild and adventurous grandmother. Apart from that I had a brother in law who became my 1st mentor @ age 14. He was a self made man, a fearless risk-taker. His education for me was far from any so-called ‘ Good parenting ‘ manual. He was hard to the core & if there was another hour in the day, he would make it count. This passion sat well with me and he taught me things in life I think every child yearns to be a part of, danger, risk, and the ability to do anything in life you want – without fear. He gave no quarter and suffered no fools. His parting words to me were to let no one stand in your way and BE what ever you set your heart to and NEVER, EVER give up. It’s your life, so OWN IT!
Your biggest problem or hurdle you’ve overcome?
SANTOS: Coming straight to New York from a town like Sydney Australia, with no agent, a basic portfolio of 20 images, and only a months rent 9 years ago, I have to say was a balls the wall decision. Do I regret it? NO, would I change it if I could, NO! It was the absolute best thing I ever did in my career. No one would see me, my book was too small, I had no clients, who was I, how long had I been in New York, where were all my awards, how much money could I give consultants willing to point me in the WRONG direction, would I sign up for tens of thousands of dollars in source book marketing? I stood out in the rain one day after feeling humiliated by an agent during an interview, a bus rolled up with a banner ad for a James Bond movie on it, saying ‘ THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH ‘ and it suddenly hit me. WELCOME to New York Mister. What ever you do next is all on you and you’re on your own. Those words came flooding back to me faster than a nano second. YOUR LIFE … So OWN IT! 9 years on – a footlocker full of stories about triumph over defeat and an A list of clients, industry top tier relationships and few awards along the way with a lifestyle to boot. You need courage and passion, talking is not enough, you have to do more than walk the talk – you have to spirit it with every inch of your soul, and maybe if just one person sees it and likes you for it , enough to give you a commission – you have won that first round , and then you have to go and do it all over again , day in day out , year in year out . It’s not a test of who’s the toughest out there; it’s a test to see if you have what it takes to make the kind of artists New York produces in the end. Perhaps the BEST in the world. Otherwise why would 8 million people want to live here and more coming every day to try their hand at a game where everyone is invited but only a few get asked to stay. Just ask people like Mert & Marcus 12 years ago….
What is your most wildly insane taxicab story?
SANTOS: We had just arrived from a town in Northern India & were standing in a crowd football field deep of taxi drivers all vying for our fare. I yelled Hotel Kohta … 3 wild youths emerged & hustled us to a ‘ tuk tuk (a kind of 3 wheeled open automotive rickshaw) . I asked how much? They just laughed and screamed ‘ OK ‘! …. NO! I asked HOW MUCH! … To which I got the reply: YES OK! With a joyous smile and much laughter he sped off with 3 friends holding onto the sides of the vehicle so that made 5 + luggage on a vehicle that was only meant for 1 + driver. GREAT! We rounded corners up on 2 wheels at break neck speeds almost lost control into a tree head on all to the sound of a blaring Bollywood musical score (by Sukwinder Singh called – Chanan Chanan / Mitwa) I thought if we die now at least I’ll go out with music in my soul and be joined by 3 crazy kids who love life more than their own fear of losing it . We screamed up to the hotel with the smell of burning break pads and a ball of dust from the road behind us , they leapt out , handed us our luggage , laughed some more and sped off into the night , all before I could reach for my rupees. We were saluted by a waiting porter who was dressed in a used old military uniform from the 1940’s and made it to the room. The next day we saw the kids who gave us the ride of our life. They were happy and just wanted to see the looks on our faces just for the fun of it, we offered to pay and instead they offered us hot chai and biscuits. No payment they said – it’s India and if we are poor we are happy if we are rich we are happy the old chai wallah who translated told us. True story? You can’t argue with pictures taken that night. That’s the beauty of being a photographer and wanting more from life than just a postcard.
How have you begun to appreciate or become disillusioned by the business that is fashion?
SANTOS: Appreciate for sure. Fashion offers an abundance of creative freedom in a competitive and challenging arena that needs an entire entourage of industry professionals. If you don’t put in all you’ve got, to begin each collaboration with, then it will certainly show in the end shot. You need top stylists who have relationships with the industries best designers and accessories, makeup and hair stylists to create a seamless look, and above all a close and respective relationship with top tier modeling agencies. Even that too takes years to acquire and they are looking at everything you do as much as you are looking at them to see what girls and new talent they recruit. Fashion is a cruel and unusual beast that needs to be fed creatively with new blood, new ideas, greater standards and even greater photography – why do you think it’s the same 5 people in fashion photography in Europe that dominate a billion dollars business in the arenas of fashion advertising each year – through and through. Therefore being at the top of one’s game every time a perfectly looking model steps in front of the camera – you have to be absolutely confident of what you’re doing next, without hesitation. Time and money are ALWAYS at play, and when you’re shooting a collection for an editor, other high profile photographers from around the globe are all waiting for the same collections to be shipped to them. There is a very intricate machine at work on so many levels, so at no one time can a photographer be thinking solo. Everyone looks to the relationship of the editor and photographer – after years of making a relationship work harmoniously you then begin to see it all fit and you then become synchronized as one without talking – you just step up and do the do behind the camera.
Another thought: After dealing with the economic Tsunami of the past 2 years the industry has taken a fair amount of knocking. Publications closed, budgets shrunk, advertisers panicked and money wasn’t spent. To remain positive and maintain perspective in that climate was the operative sentiment but was hard – damned hard! And brought home to me yet again that only a photographer can get his own commissions – not agents. It’s up to the photographer to be constantly producing new work, new ideas, and maintain relationships with clients and editors alike.
SANTOS: A feeling not a fad. Nothing to do with fashion.
Scariest pro-lighting accident you’ve come across?
SANTOS: Last year I had a crew in a very isolated location on an island in the middle of the Norwegian Sea. At the end of the shoot we abseiled down part of a cliff face and were putting crew and models back into a waiting zodiac. The tide was moving and it was becoming increasing rough with fog and mist moving in. We had the shoot in the can – it had been an incredibly good day, and now we just had to maneuver the rest of the gear into the moving target that was the boat and we would be home free. I asked my assistant to pass me the lighting cases, I got up to swing, the zodiac came in and hit the wall, and the skipper yelled GO! But just as I threw the case a rogue wave swept the boat away & the case bounced off the port bow straight into the icy waters. I was just about to jump in (only one not wearing a dry suit) and my assistant screamed ‘ Leave it – she’ll float – I packed everything in garbage bags’. This gave the skipper of the zodiac just enough time to lean in with a gaff hook and pull the case out of the water. It was fantastic thinking by the assistant (must have been his Nordic blood) and saved my producer a long story with the rental house and the insurance agent. It could have been quite a different end to a brilliant day but it was all worth the rush – and how did the work look – Hot!
What role does commercialism play in creativity?
SANTOS: 10 years as an advertising photographer, In every kind of location and studio environment imaginable, you get to see a lot. I’ll make this one quick and simple. There is a huge committee at play here and EVERYONE wants equal say in how the process works. Pick your battles and only fight the ones you know you can win. Best piece of advise to anyone in a commercial situation so everyone stays happy. ALWAYS, ALWAYS – shoot 3 options, theirs, yours and a backup. If something is not right there are outs to play and you have alternates to present. No mater what the art directors says, chances are you can bet the client will disagree and want something else, and 10 others will chime in with a different song again after that last call is heard as well. So being prepared to show options and loads of them is your best answer to all of it. Unless you have total creative control (and that is very, very rare) you can expect a myriad of change to occur, regardless of what was initially drafted. Don’t play politics and give them what they want, it’s what they paid you for in the first place. Their money pays for you as a photographer to do your own art later on.
The best story of your international travels? Followed with the most interesting location you’ve shot at.
SANTOS: Taking the train from Jabalpur with stops along the journey to go and see the annual Bikaner Camel festival in Northern Rajasthan. The people we met, the culture explored, the sights witnessed, the food eaten the peace and life experienced. UNBELIEVABLE! Never have I been so happy to be in a place where no one cares who you are or why you are there.
I think every person photographer or not should take this journey. China was tough, a hard land, a harder people, Argentina was full of richness and love, Paris is always Paris, every street corner has the sent of a woman and Moroccan coffee shortly there after. Prague is a city bathed in eastern European beauty; Australia is the last frontier and a beautiful big county. But in all her poverty and trouble India is rich in a wisdom that calms even the wildest soul and tempers you to just move with others at a different pace. One where you can just ‘ be ‘ and not be forced to make any decision other than a peaceful contemplation about life. I don’t think there are many places where a culture doesn’t demand something of you as a traveler but India gives and gives so freely it’s always hard to leave.
Last year took crew and myself to many places in the world, but by far the best hands down was the Faroe Islands, situated about half way between Denmark and Iceland. A small cluster of islands the Faroes is the most unique place I have ever had the pleasure of working in, the terrain is vast and magnificent and the weather is completely unpredictable. A true challenge for any photographer. In one day you can have snow, clear blue skies and sunshine, drowning rains, dense fog, and then gusty wind. But the light is amazing and the beauty of the landscape is breathtaking. The generosity of the local people makes it even more of a special place – without their help and friendship my book project and shoot would have never have happened. Indeed a most memorable way to begin a first chapter.
If you’re going to…
SANTOS: If you’re going to…become a fashion photographer, first know that your skill as a visual communicator needs to carry far beyond that of a camera, you are a director in part – of many things, to the client, to your crew, to the model your shooting, to an agency, to retouchers, printers and web designers. I’ve said this in other interviews and I’ll say it again. Photography is a rich man’s career no poor man can afford. I don’t discourage photography – for it is in all of us , we each have the ability to see the world we want to and show it via an image taken. Digital has made all that possible so why not takes pictures for pleasure and have fun experimenting with all that an enhanced medium of ever growing technology has availed to us. It’s fantastic! Being in the business, making a living of it, becoming a marketed professional and practicing that applied skill in a town like New York, London or Paris… is a great life. It’s a business and requires the tempered patience and practice of many skills to make even a modest go of it and still be a player in a changing world. Think before you leap and know precisely what you’re going to do next before you make the plunge. Ask yourself as an aspiring photographer all the hard and tough questions, because if you don’t you’ll be answering them later down the track with your own money later on. In a huge tide of change where interactive and digital has now become as much a part of any art directors tool to apply for his client so has photography diminished it’s capacity to reach a focused audience with the kind of impact it did 10 years prior. Original IDEAS are the only solution if a good photograph is to survive the interactive age. Just look at the motion picture industry in Hollywood today. No end of remakes + no new ideas = bad movies and a failing box office return for the studios. I counted as many as 10 films made last year that were remakes or sequels from the 1970’s. So where then are the new ideas?
What makes a good fashion model?
SANTOS: I’ve mostly shot woman in my career, no real preference there I’d shoot more men if the opportunity presented. Both are great to work with and sometimes men are better because they are not so consumed with appearance. I’ve always maintained beauty shines from within first above all else so having self confidence brings out all those beautiful elements in a woman. I have been very, very fortunate, in that I’ve always made a point of casting and interviewing models before a shoot – always in an Ad campaign – that goes without saying, but especially in editorial. Comp cards are pointless. They are old and retouched and offer no real insight as to how a model will perform in front of the lens. Having a great figure is only as strong as the personality that carries it. I look for unique characteristics and above all ‘ personality ‘. Take Gisele Bundchen as an example. A brilliant model yet a vivacious personality brimming with movement and concentration when she works the camera. That woman can’t take a bad shot if she tried, because models of that caliber listen to the photographer and give to the camera in perfect tune in the same way musicians look to a conductor to orchestrate the perfect score during a symphonic performance. Every model has at least one fine attribute that can be discovered by a photographer – it’s there, it just needs to be found and bought out in front of the camera. As I said before, it’s about trust and if a good model trusts the photographer and knows he can make her look stunning then anything is possible in a shoot – trust and respect, those two symbiotic elements of the photographer / model relationship go hand in hand.
New photographers entering the city of NY…
SANTOS: Should carry VERY DEEP pockets! And have the patience to do the do and hit the bricks to create strong relationships for a long, long time. I was just lucky and worked very hard and got breaks by clients who saw my work and wanted my style – fast enough that I was then able to move from account to account and still do my own work in-between busy periods. But New York in all her beauty and glory can be a total ‘ Gladiator ‘ experience, and as anyone who has been here for more than 5 years will tell you. You need so much more to compete in this market. Usually it works for fashion photographer in this order, you do your background years in London, move to Paris with an editorial strength and do some time there and when your ready and making progressive waves – you graduate to New York, because that is where the advertising dollars are . But I did it all the exact wrong way around. I started in New York so it made it thrice as hard and even more speed and skill was needed to make that initial impression. You can be famous in your own right as a photographer, in another country but when you get off that plane at JFK and your feet hit the bricks, you will fast learn that there is a food chain and new arrivals often find themselves at the very bottom of it and for a long, long time. There are instances of people who arrive in one day and HIT the bright lights of opportunity almost instantly, that can happen also. But those instances of happenstance are far and few between. It’s about commerce in this market so leaving your principles of fine art and virtue behind is probably a good idea. Focus on making work so great that it catches the eye and attention of head art buyers and clients alike – then your off to a good start. It only takes 1 to begin the process.
Fashion photography is…
SANTOS: A great business if you are going to make a passionate and sincere contribution. But having a thick skin is essential and remember: not everyone makes it. A relationship with a publication like Conde Nast (that sometimes leads to ad campaigns for prolific designers) is one that is an invite only. It’s like a Black American Express card. You don’t apply – they call for you to audition, but when you are in, YOU ARE IN! And if you are not, then you have to take that in your stride and find another way. It’s just business as I always tell assistants who ask … Why not me? It’s demanding, political at the best of times, all the pressure is on you as the photographer to make the relationship of commerce and art work, everyone wants to be the best and get the best so it’s extremely competitive. But at days end if you can find yourself on the cover at news stand then that is all the accomplishment one needs. A huge price to pay for such a small and short lived amount of exposure but think about it this way – you made a contribution and it was seen by a global audience, it’s as close to a thank you for your art as anyone can ask for in life … and in my book, that’s a lot in this day and age.
You have to give people…
SANTOS: A chance in life. EVERYONE has something they are good at, the secret is finding it in them, bringing out that quality and making it work for a positive / creative outcome that can benefit everyone. I have this great saying that I tend to live by – There are only two times in life – Now and too late. You do the absolute best you can do where you can, make the absolute best of every situation and treat it like an adventure.
If I could invite anybody over for dinner… (You can have a large table, you’re probably going to need it!)
SANTOS: Alberto Giacometti so we could discuss sculpture and the emotion of his art. Orson Wells – for his sheer conviction and decisive views about life and cinema. Pedro Almodovar – for his ability to see Spanish life with such evocative color and beauty from behind the camera. Rowan Atkinson – a man with an intelligence and dry humor that extends far beyond the superficial context of party behavior and antics (He’s a genius that man). Miles Davis – because at some point in the evening I know he would play something so soulful everyone would be transfixed. I’m missing at least one woman … Lets have Monica Bellucci , if she didn’t even utter a word ( and we would hope she would indeed – many in fact ) , and gazed at the silverware it would be enough to grace the table with an astonishing after thought.
SANTOS: Sometimes great to work to with – and a bottle of good French wine while you do endless skin retouching from a shoot. Gets you there, in the mood and helps paint the way to a good image.
SANTOS: Something everyone should do at some point in his or her life. You can’t take it with you, so why not put it to good and progressive work while your still vertical.
SANTOS: Oprah is a television god. Fortunately I don’t own a TV.
SANTOS: Under the sun or in Swedish – Under Solen, is one of those cinematic classics that remains timeless and ever so beautiful to me. With directors like Ingmar Bergman’s Seventh Seal & Wild Strawberries who can go past Swedish film and say it’s not a lover of all things intelligent and visual on the larger than life canvas.
SANTOS: If you’ve got time enough to participate in it. Life is short. Remember – make the most of it.
SANTOS: Someone who has a lot of power and can wield it if they want to.
Any parting thoughts as we wrap this up and get back to life?
SANTOS: I’m just a guy with an eye who’s looking to tell a story. The world is a fantastic canvas by which we can each paint our own masterpiece via way of visual expression. I’m still looking to paint mine, and if along the way someone else likes where I put my brush upon the canvas of life, then that is ok too.
In Eric Roth’s screenplay for ‘ The curious case of Benjamin Button ‘ it is summed up best as he writes –
It’s never too late to be whoever you want to be. There’s no time limit, stop whenever you want. You can change or stay the same, there are no rules to this thing .You can make the best of it of the worst of it – I hope you make the best of it. I hope you see things that startle you. I hope you feel things you never felt before. I hope you live a life you’re proud of. If you find that you’re not, I hope you have the strength to start all over again.
I feel these words – more so of late – have shown me who I am and who I am about to become . There isn’t much more to say beyond that sentiment than to show it in visual expression. My own film. There is much to do and not a moment to lose.
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