Romain Duquesne On Photography And Why You Should Never Let Your Style Define Your Future
I’m a firm believer that you can’t teach someone taste. You can educate someone on the technicalities in whatever craft they wish to pursue, but at the end of the day, if there’s no eye or vision in the first place then you’re screwed.
Clem Macleod interviews London based Australian photographer to discuss his photographic philosophy and reasons why his work will be an ongoing evolution.
How long have you been in London?
Two years in August.
How do you say your last name? It’s not particularly Western Australian.
Duu-ken. I was born in Belgium, so it’s French.
When did you move to Australia?
We moved when I was six to a little country town in Western Australia with 7000 people. It was a strange experience.
How did you start taking pictures?
I was always into art as a kid. I drew from when I was about 4 or 5 and continued during school. When I was 14, my dad suggested I take a photography class. I gave it a go and I quite enjoyed it. I picked it up the following year when I was 15 or 16, and decided it was what I wanted to do.
So you were quite young when you figured out what you wanted.
Too bloody young. I was much less cynical.
Did you always want to shoot fashion?
Yeah, I did. It’s quite strange for a kid to know exactly what he wants to do but I remember going into the kitchen when I was 16 and telling mum, “I’m going to be a fashion photographer and I’m going to move out of this town and I’m going to Perth (the closest city). Then I’m going to move to Sydney. And then to Europe.”
And you did exactly that.
Yeah! Funnily enough, it was kind of weird. It was a weird transitional period coming here (London) because initially I thought “Well… I’ve kind of reached my happiness. This is all I ever wanted” It’s been a weird process of trying to figure out what my next moves are, because life’s good at the moment.
You had the post-high school confusion a little late.
Yeah well, when people in my tiny home town used to ask me how I was going to do it all, I would just tell them: “I’ve got no idea… I’m going to make it up as I go along”.
Did you study photography?
Yeah. I went to Perth and did two years at TAFE, which is really nothing to write home about.
What do you think about studying creative subjects? Some people think it’s more effective just working immediately with it.
I think everyone should study at some point. It’s quite an enjoyable part of your life because it’s a nice transitional period between school and complete adulthood, and you don’t really have all the responsibilities yet. But, I’m a firm believer that you can’t teach someone taste. You can educate someone on the technicalities in whatever craft they wish to pursue, but at the end of the day if there’s no eye or vision in the first place then you’re screwed.
Tell me about your relationship with stylist Anna Santangelo.
Anna’s one of my best mates. We met in December of 2014. We did two shoots together in Sydney and straight away I thought, “Fuck I found the person I’m meant to be working with!” You know when you meet that one person that everything just flows with? The thing about Anna for me is that she’s humble. She’s such a humble person and she’s really hard working and insanely creative.
Some people find it quite difficult to work with friends; do you experience this with Anna at all?
Not at all. Maybe it’s because we didn’t know each other beforehand. In the beginning, we had slightly different styles but we kind of pushed each other and now it’s similar. We influence each other a lot. It was very frustrating because soon after we met she left, and I was moving here so we were on opposite sides of the world. We often chat over Skype, and we talk about everything.
Do you send each other references/inspiration for shoots?
Everything. We talk about everything. She’s not just someone I want to collaborate with. It’s a really close friendship now and I love her to bits. She comes and stays here with me and we’ve made it work. Whenever we’re in the same place at the same time, we’ll shoot something. We’ve seen each other 4 or 5 times since we both moved which isn’t so bad considering the distance.
Like a long distance relationship.
(Laughs). It’s frustrating though because she’s so far away. All the time we’re saying to each other “Why aren’t we in the same city” because when we do get together I know that I always create my best work. It’s a synergy we have.
“You treat people with respect. You hear all these stories of photographers treating their assistants like absolute shit and for me, that’s just not a thing. Anyone on the job is a human being and that’s the way it should feel."
Would you consider doing a bigger project together in the future? E.g. a book?
Oh yeah. We’ve spoken many times about doing a magazine but it’s just not feasible when we’re on opposite sides of the world. It would be so nice having our own publication though, somewhere where we could just do what we want. It’s nice doing editorial together but there’s always a limitation or a requirement. It would be great to have total free reign.
Do you prefer doing your own thing or being commissioned?
Probably doing my own thing.
Some people find it hard to work with restrictions whereas others find it easier. What do you think?
I much prefer working on my own terms because they’re things which interest me, and I know the results will be better. It’s a development of my style and aesthetic. With personal work you can push forward, whereas with commercial work, they want you to do something that you’ve already done. Therefore, the results will be good because you’ve done it before, but it will never have that originality of personal work.
Do you ever shoot on your own terms and then pitch it to someone to publish?
I prefer to do personal work with absolutely no agenda apart from my own; otherwise I can’t help but constantly think whether the publication will like it.
You want your creative freedom.
I have to say, Museum is probably the magazine I work with the most and the editors are great. They give Anna and I so much free reign – they’ll tell us the theme of the issue and ask, ‘What do you want to do?’ So we’ll present them with an idea. It’s really self-driven.
Do you cast your own models and choose your own team to work with on shoots?
Yeah definitely. I’m very opinionated, probably a bit too much for some people! (Laughs) but you have to be because at the end of the day it’s your name on the photograph.
And a reflection of you.
It is. And if someone’s looking at a photo, more often than not its quite likely that they will judge the entire photograph and judge the photographer for something that’s gone wrong in that image. Through experience I’ve learnt to be really selective about who I work with. I put my heart and soul into shoots and so if its self-funded, I want to make sure that I’m happy with the results and that it was worth my time and effort. I ensure that there’s a lot of pre-production discussion before a shoot to make sure that we’re all on the same page.
So you have a team of people here that you work with?
Yeah. I have a makeup artist, hairstylist, set designer and stylist.
How did you come across them?
The hairstylist, John, I reached out to on Instagram because I saw his work. He was assisting Guido at the time but I could tell that he was really developing his own style and this really resonated with me. For me, it was like a male version of Anna – a calm, chilled-out, nice guy and you could tell he was really hardworking as well.
There are a lot of egoists in this industry. I wasn’t brought up that way. There’s a lot of arrogance and bullshit, and so if I can sieve through and find the right people to collaborate with, then I’m happy. There should be no drama. It’s not about ego. We should all be coming together; if a stylist brings in something that requires me to change my lighting, then ill change my lighting. You treat people with respect. You hear all these stories of photographers treating their assistants like absolute shit and for me, that’s just not a thing. Anyone on the job is a human being and that’s the way it should feel.
There are too many people trying to do the same thing. And, there’s too much competition so you can’t be an arsehole anymore because people don’t want to work with you! The market is too occupied to be a dick.
Do you find competition within Social Media?
I use Instagram in my own way. I use it as a publicity tool, which is what it’s good for. I think that Instagram is becoming a massive reference point for people. The same shit is influencing everyone, so the whole industry is full of imagery that looks similar. I’m not going to sit here and say my images look unlike everyone else’s, but I think at the end of the day you’ve got to have your own point of view.
Where do you look for inspiration?
I watch a lot of movies.
Who’s your favourite director?
Bernardo Bertolucci is pretty great. I like his work. In terms of cinematography, Bruno Delbonnel uses really beautiful light and tones. Roger Deakins is amazing; I would say he’s number 1.
Do you ever shoot on film?
Your photographs look like they’re shot on film. How do you do that?
With many years of frustration. (Laughs). You might think I may as well just go and shoot film.
It’s a lot more impressive that you don’t shoot on film when your photographs looks like that.
I think film looks beautiful. Digital doesn’t look beautiful; it looks pretty artificial and flat. It’s always a work in progress to give digital the feel that I want it to have. But I can’t give all my secrets away…
“I have an opinion on everything. That’s how I get good images. Not in an arrogant sense, but you need to be fussy. You have to know what you’re talking about and have an opinion on things. No one wants a pushover. I learnt that the hard way."
But it’s generally in lighting and technicalities?
Yeah, it’s definitely a lot to do with the lighting but there are different ways of doing it. Different methods all together, not just one thing that I do.
What camera do you shoot on?
Just a Canon 5D. I’ve had it for about 7 or 8 years. I love it, it’s not too sharp. Digital’s too sharp for me.
Film is really beautiful; it’s a much slower process of shooting. I think there’s a trend to be shooting film, a lot of photographers are going to go and shoot film because it makes them ‘cool’ but I don’t buy into that. I don’t care what camera you use, what lens you use etc., for me it’s about the final image. A lot of photographers get stuck in the process of how they work or how other photographers work but it doesn’t matter. Just do what you do and let the images speak for themselves.
Just because you take photos on film doesn’t make you a better photographer. It all depends on what someone is trying to say with their images. I’m not saying that every photograph needs to be a political statement but its always going to be an extension of yourself and you can’t help but put yourself onto that image. It’s going to be your taste, it’s going to reflect the way you’ve been brought up; your morals, your ethics.
So you think that experience is a big part of image making?
Yeah, I quite like taking silly photos. Photos with a bit of irony. I like to create a character and there to be a bit of awkwardness because I’m awkward.
I don’t think you’re awkward at all.
I have my moments don’t you worry. I’m clumsy as all hell.
It’s always easy talking to Aussies.
We’re a lot more relaxed though aren’t we. I swear if the world adopted the Australian attitude of chill we’d have a lot less problems. The world just needs to chill out. This is another thing – we’re not curing cancer! We’re not rocket scientists, we’re not saving the world, we’re privileged. We’re in a privileged position to be able to do what we love and make money from it so therefore, we don’t have much to complain about and there’s no reason to have an over-inflated ego. We should feel humbled and lucky that we can work in this industry and make money from it.
It’s a luxury.
It’s an absolute luxury.
Everyone should give back in return.
I have an opinion on everything. That’s how I get good images. Not in an arrogant sense, but you need to be fussy. You have to know what you’re talking about and have an opinion on things. No one wants a pushover. I learnt that the hard way. When I first started out as a photographer, I definitely felt a pressure to be liked, to conform, and to shoot images that were expected of me, which is not the right way to do things at all. It means there will be no soul in your images. The longer that goes on, the more scared you are to show what you’re actually into. I would say it took me until I moved here to question what I was really shooting, before then I was definitely shooting stuff I felt I had to shoot to be a certain kind of photographer, which isn’t the way to do things. It doesn’t work in a creative world. All of the best and most talented creatives which we look up to are all great because they broke the mould.
They didn’t care what anyone thought of them.
Exactly. These wonderful talented creative were told that what they were doing wasn’t right or wasn’t working. But, they just kept going and that’s the sort of attitude we can all look at.
In an ideal world would you just want to be making images for yourself?
Oh yeah! God, if I had the money!
Would you have an exhibition?
I’ll exhibit in 20/30/40 years’ time when I have some sort of retrospective. I don’t have the patience to create a mass collection of one theme at the moment because my brain’s too sporadic and I get bored too easily. I much prefer to focus on one shoot at a time because I have too many ideas.
How do you choose your themes?
It’s usually something that I’m interested in at the time of shooting or something about how I feel at that time in the world.
What is your favourite shoot?
One that came out on Monday for Museum.
Do you usually favourite the work which you’re doing at the time?
Yeah – always the most recent. I get so bored of my work. Within a month of shooting something I’m over it. Which I think is good. The worst photographers are the ones that think that their work is the best thing in the world. You have to keep at it. Perfection happens when you’re dead.
Who are your favourite photographers?
Too many to count!
Just give me your all time favourites.
Okay, so Richard Avedon is one of the all times. I really love Steven Meisel. In terms of fashion he’s number 1 for me because a lot of photographers have a really identifiable style and they want to stick to that, I think Meisel goes off on his own tangent and is inspired by so many different things. He’s quite the chameleon so I really look up to him.
Do you always shoot in the studio?
Too much. I’m very comfortable in the studio, I love it though because I can create the mood I want.
Do you keep a journal?
Kind of. I’m crazily organised on my computer. I’ve got so many references and different folders. I know where everything is pretty much. Then I have a lot of books and I do have a few journals where I sketch ideas for a shoot, or I do my lighting diagrams.
When you approach a shoot, do you have a specific image of what you want the shots to look like?
Yeah. I never used to but its more time effective for me. It’s really liberating and nice not to have a complete set idea, but with shooting editorial I really need to plan otherwise it just won’t get done.
Do you keep updated in what’s happening in photography?
I used to. Now not so much. I unfollowed everyone on Instagram because I just didn’t want to see it. I didn’t want to be influenced; I didn’t want to be distracted. It can be a great thing but it can also be a negative thing to compare your life to other people’s. I just reflected on it and realised that it wasn’t the way I wanted to think.
You don’t find competition healthy?
Competition can be healthy but at the same time it can easily be all consuming. I much prefer focusing on what I’m doing and getting my influences from what I hope is an external source, as opposed to an Instagram account which a somewhat 300,000 people are following. There are just so many people doing similar work now. If I see one more golden-toned image…
People find that cool, though.
And that’s the thing… You get stuck in a trap of wanting to fit into the industry and be accepted, so you morph your style to what is acceptable and when I’ve been there I’ve done that but it doesn’t result in anything which creates feeling. You have to find your own voice. That’s the truth. I’m still trying to find my voice.
I don’t think you ever really stop looking for it do you?
No. You change. We all change constantly. I’m not the same person now that I was three years ago. Far more relaxed… thank god!
That seems funny that you settled down as you moved to London? Sydney is one of the most relaxed cities in the world.
It is. And things were starting to work out really well for me there workwise and then I came here and had to start all over again. That was tough. It was definitely tough but I appreciate that that happened now. It needed to happen. We need that slap in the face sometimes. It forced me to re-assess everything. My whole book; what I was trying to say, why I was shooting and what kind of images I wanted to take.
You should do what you love. If it doesn’t make you money, find a job that does and shoot what you love on the side until the industry changes and loves you for what you do. Fashion is commerce at the end of the day. Yeah I’ll shoot commercial, but my personal work needs to be something that I can go home and be proud of, that I’m passionate about and saying something with. If you’re not getting paid and it’s costing money, time and effort, then it needs to be worthwhile. Otherwise what’s the point in living?
Photography by Romain Duquesne
Interview by Clem Macleod