17 November 2013

Playing cards with Matilda Temperley (English version)

Since I moved in to London, actually since last year, I developed an increasing fascination for people who can live between two work careers or for those who took the challenge of changing areas radically. If you’ve read my posts before you might have noticed that I love things that get me inspired,  but mostly inspiring people, and I’m not talking about those famous or iconic people, ok? I’m talking about real life people, those with whom we can have a proper chat in a café, a bar, a pub, or even just exchange virtual messages without feeling reticent.

That are so many different kinds of blogs on the web is a fact. Many people read them in search of information, stating they couldn’t care less about other people’s opinions. I’m not one of those. I look for blogs that can bring some sort of inspiration to my day, it can be inspiring on the way I can dress, or the way I look at an art object or exhibition, a book etc. Blogs are written in the first person, one should never forget about it, even when the platform has many collaborators.

Recently I caught myself wondering about inspiring people around me and I, happily, realised I actually know many inspiring people. So I decided to interview them! (feeling like a journalist here…) So that’s more or less the context behind this and future interviews posted on my blog. I guess that, in a world so full of blogs, bloggers and self-promotion discourses, we tend to get a bit too obsessed with a few specific people, mostly those who are constantly exposing themselves to us, that we might end up not looking around and seeing that inspirational people can actually be just on the next door or neighbourhood, and people who’ll be genuinely willing to share affection and have actual dialogue with us. (I’m a bit frustrated about contacting people I once judged inspiring and then finding out they were actually more obsessed with their mirrors than anything else)

In this context of searching for down to earth inspirational people, I encountered Matilda Temperley, an English photographer living in London. I met her in a friend’s birthday dinner and felt instantly amazed by our conversation and her voice tone. Raised in an idyllic cider farm in Somerset, Matilda bears with her an almost bucolic air in her delicate features and the delicacy with which she tells her stories. I met her about a month ago to chat about her career changing from Sciences to photography, her inspirations, the loneliness of having to work on a computer and her (enchanting) lack of pairs of shoes.

Hope you all feel inspired!

In a pub in Camden

Gabi: So tell me a bit about the career you were in before you decided to become a photographer.

Matilda: So, I studied Sciences probably because I was quite good at this, it was just something that came naturally to me. I always thought I wanted to do creative things, study Art… Then when I was at college all my art work was stolen from me, it was quite a weird character (he stole all my things) and I just stopped doing anything and concentrated on the science… Also my family was always telling me to do something academic, there was no other rout apart from doing something academic…

G: But you always had that with you, that you loved arts?

M: Yes, well, when I got my first degree in Sciences I got the highest degree, so when you do well you just keep doing it, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, so I went on and I did my masters in Tropical Diseases… I find tropical diseases completely fascinating, and I loved the learning and I loved the knowledge, but actually when it came to the practical side it’s quite a lot about statistics… It wasn’t as fun as other jobs could be. I was just young, at that time I just wanted everything, I wanted to see everything, and feel everything, I was working on my own a lot in Africa, and the work I did was very specific, it was quite a lonely job. So I had a few bad experiences in over two weeks in Africa, and I always knew I wanted to try something else; whenever I reflected about what I wanted to do in life I always ended up thinking about what I wanted to do as a child and I always loved photography. I never thought it was a proper career, never thought it could make money… And I always wanted to be a trapeze artist! So when I was in Africa, and I had a few dodgy experiences, too many, I just thought ‘what am I doing here?’. I came back and I quit my job in Uganda, I was in a hurry…. I had already got a camera and I would always really be working with my camera all the time, cause I always thought you could tell a fastest story with a camera then with Science, it’s not actually true, but at the time that felt true cause you take some pictures and you show somebody and that looks very understandable, in Science it might take a year doing the same thing… Definitely not true, but at the time I thought it was. So I thought I was going to do that. I was going to photograph things, photograph tropical diseases, it would be the same sort of thing but I would be telling a story in my terms, and faster.

G: In practical terms, how did the change happen?

M: I moved back to London and I started thinking ‘ok, so I’m going to be a photographer’, but I was a scientist and that was something I carried on for a couple of years. I’ve decided to go and assist people, I assisted some photographers, I did a day here and there, I thought photography was something that I could pick up, something that just would come… I was very lucky to be given grant by the Arts Council in the beginning to do a big exhibition about circus, and by the meantime I was training by the trapeze and I practically started to get hired (…), instead of saying ‘no’ I said ‘yes’. I asked for help from other professionals, so I literally just practiced and I always thought ‘who am I interested in’, I always thought about dancers. I love dance! So I got some dancers, they would come and dance, so I just photographed things I loved until eventually people started paying me to photograph things I love. [Laughs] Then I’d take some other jobs that came in my way, but now I can be a bit more selective. But it’s taken a few years to be like this, because I was so impatient at this time I didn’t want to stop, so I was already in a proper career… I probably would have learned more if I had assisted someone for a year, but I was very impatient at the time…

G: Speaking of being impatient, I’ve been in the academic area for 7 years, and I’ve never done anything else, so whenever I want to try something different I want fast results, I want things to happen in a kind of fast way. Did you feel this kind of anxiety when you decided to change?

M: I had a lot of anxiety, it was the most pressured thing I’ve ever done, giving up this job that I’ve worked through my life to go and do something unstable. When you studied for so long, when you’ve been in Academia and you try something new you kind of feel pressured by age, I think, and when you start out you expect to be eight years after the time you’re actually in… It’s quite hard in the beginning, I think, I was quite naïve, I thought everything would happen really fast just if you work hard…

G: So how long has it been since you switched areas completely?

M: 2007, I think, so five and a half years.

G: And how long did you spend in Academia?

M: Not very long. Obviously I did my undergrad, then my masters and then I worked for a couple of years… I was kind of spoiled cause I started working right after I finished my masters, so I didn’t have to, you know, climb the ladder.

G: Looking at your work I see the human body at the centre, right? Cause the body’s everywhere, in all shapes, kinds, oddness, beauty…

M: Yeah, I think. I love the circus and at the same time I was becoming a photographer I did trapeze, I broke so many bones, and so many bits in my body, so I was too old, definitely too old to be starting that. I’ve always had friends in the circus because I’ve always loved the circus, I love the physicality of it, so I think it [the body images] comes from there. I like extraordinary people, I like to understand why people do what they do or live like they live, where they come from; it’s extraordinary the kind of body modifications that they do, just how they wear their hair etc., and the commitment of people in London to completely change their bodies. See, one of the girls I photographed she transgendered, she’s tattooed her own eyeballs black, she’s got horns, she’s changed everything in her body that she could change, to understand the psychology of that is what makes photography interesting, why people look like the look… The photography, especially the Human Zoo Project, is about the stories these changes can tell…
As a photographer I’m interested in unique people, I think.

G: And what is your relationship with beauty? I mean, standardised, normative, western idea of beauty we’re exposed to.

M: I would love to be a documentary photographer, that’s why I ever entered into photography, but I’ve realised I can’t ever be a documentary photographer because I don’t want to capture things necessarily as they are, I always want to look for beauty in things, that’s a slightly different thing. I feel more like I want to portrait everyone in their best sense. One of the most important things for me when I take a portrait of someone is that they have to be happy with that image, because you’re taking a bit of them, I feel like you have a responsibility certainly to show someone’s character or express that beauty. So I don’t think I have a sense of beauty I can reckon.

G: And how do they respond to your images?

M: Really well!... People generally react really well; I think I haven’t had a negative reaction yet. But if I don’t bond with someone then I’m less inclined to take the photo.

G: How do you know you connected with someone?

M: When someone comes in you have sort of ten minutes to find some sort of common ground, you have ten minutes to assess each other and it’s very intense photography, because you’re one/one. With some people you just don’t have that connection, I have an emotional attachment to make the images so I wouldn’t like I because I hadn’t an emotional attachment to it. One of my subjects an amazing guy, he came in for ten minutes and we had such a great bond! Also you can ask anything to someone when they come in to show themselves, not in fashion, this is just in portraits, fashion is something totally different. They are very open up, they let you, photographer, be a kind of voyeur, so they open up about their lives.

G: Speaking of job, you also work with fashion, right? What is your relationship with fashion?

M: My sister is a fashion designer [Alice Temperley from Temperley London] so I’ve always been aware of it. Am I interested in it? Not so much. I kind of appreciate the beauty and I can actually appreciate clothes, but does it inspire me and do I get excited about it? Not really. Unless I’m doing a job, then I’d really enjoy the job, I would get inspired and I’d switch it on. But I’m always a massive scruff bag, I couldn’t care much about fashion at all. And that’s that, I’m not someone who’s inspired by fashion. But if you give me a model and some clothes then I’ll be inspired to make the most beautiful image I can make out of that, the most interesting image.

G: And it’s a totally different setting, I mean, the sensitivities that you have to access to photograph a model…

M: The difference is for a portrait you want to get into someone psique, well that actually sounds really pretentious, but you really want to see them and who they are and their body; when you’re using a fashion model you don’t want to see who they are, you want to use them as a blank canvas, then you make them whatever you want to make them, you want to use them to represent something else. That’s the main difference.

G: Did your relationship with the subjects you’ve photographed, the circus project, the portraits, affect in any way your relationship with your own body?

M: I’d like to say ‘yes it got me really inspired to get fit’ and I constantly feel very inspired to get very fit, but I’m very good at braking bones. Last year I broke my knee really badly, just had an operation on it again, the year before that I ripped my hip so I had an operation on that, just before that I broke some ribs, so I’m always injured. But I’d love to get back on the trees, I’d like to be able to dance, which is why I like to look at other people dance. I think I‘ve become more aware of looking after my body and maybe that’s also what inspires me to look towards people that have an incredible physicality.

G: Tell me a bit about your latest exhibition here in London, with the cards.

M: I just did a pack of cards with an agency called Ugly, they’re sort of little portraits of the models’ physical diversity, they’re sort of fashion models but they represent everyone. And they’re called Ugly, that’s not to say that any of the pictures is ugly, but it’s just a really nice project celebrating diversity.

G: I’d image you’d always be surrounded by people because if your work, right? One of my major issues with my PhD is that I end up all by myself most of the time, because I need to read, think and write…

M: But, you know, being a photographer is not really as sociable as you’d imagine it to be. You’re not photographing everyday, you spend a lot of time alone in the office, I think people underestimate how much time is taken doing all of the editing and all of that stuff. You do spend a lot of time in your computer. I think I’d spent more time with people as a scientist, you know, you’re talking to your peers, you’re reviewing things, you have fieldwork…

G: Well, I don’t actually have fieldwork in my area, I don’t have a lab so I don’t have people to talk to! [Laughs]. I find it quite challenging to socialise at the university, the academic politics itself doesn’t allow us to be very sociable; as PhD students we don’t have classes (that we have in Brazil) and when I try to socialise with some colleagues it feels as if they were somehow indifferent or even unaware that socialising is a fun thing!

M: Yes! And that’s somehow one of the reasons why I decided to leave Sciences. Because I thought [in photography] it was going to be more social and I was going to be able to see more and faster, in some respects that’s true, but in other respects it’s not. In other respects I’m my own boss, I can do what I want, when I want, I work longer hours because I’m a freelance, I’m doing twice the money I was doing as a scientist, because I got crazy and worked a lot, but I’m not that social, you know. Yet it’s much more computer heavy then you realise, so I think maybe the grass is always greener… But, yes, one of the reasons why I left Sciences is because it was a lot of lonely work, especially when I was in the field.

G: I can imagine. I often catch myself feeling very lonely cause it’s part of the job; it’s necessary. That’s one of the reasons I decided to create my blog, cause even though I’m still on the computer I can actually talk to people about things they can understand and they can actually bond with me.

M: Yes! You see, that’s the same with photography, even though I’m working on my own, people can actually have a reaction to that; with what you are doing as a PhD and with what I did as a scientist there’s only a few people with whom you can actually have a conversation about it cause it’s so specific…

Back at the office

G: [Asking her if I could take some pictures] I’m really into black & white pictures lately, I think they make my photos look more elaborated. [Laughs] Do you think a good image relies more on the equipment – setting, lighting, model, subject, and landscape – or on the photographer?

M: An exceptional picture relies on the photographer; a good picture relies on the camera. [Laughs]. It’s actually half/half. I’ve just taken on a new job that I’m terrified about, I’m photographing Manolo Blahnik’s new book. They’re just about to deliver a whole lot of shoes, I’m bit terrified!

G: Why are you terrified?

M: Just because I’m terrified about being stuck in studio photographing shoes.

G: But do you like shoes?

M: Not really. But that’s ok. Well, I do like shoes, I love the structure of shoes, but, I mean, I have two pair of shoes and both of them are in my office. So I’m not like a shoe connoisseur. I can appreciate them but I can only wear flat shoes anyway…

Image sources:
First: click on it to see the source.
Second and third: my personal archive.

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