Tom J. Johnson x CAMSoc
I've known Tom since we were children, and have watched him bloom into a sucessful photographer! He graduated from BA (Hons) Fashion Photography at Falmouth University in May 2020, and now his work specialises in fashion and portraiture. At 21, Tom has shot London Fashion Week, boasts 19k followers on Instagram and has worked with the Evening Standard Magazine and the Royal Opera House. Tom chatted to us at CAMSoc about all things fashion photography, the key to his sucess and the importance of photography in marketing.
Thank you so much for agreeing to speak with us! Could you please tell us a bit about yourself (what you do, career aspirations, etc)?
My pleasure! So my photography actually started quite a few years before I started shooting ‘professionally’ so to speak, where by I would take self portraits in the countryside surrounding my childhood home. I would post these portraits to Instagram and it’s how I originally found a community in photography which helped encourage me to take it further to what I do today. Nowadays I very rarely do self-portraits (only having really returned to them as a last resort in lockdown at times!) and instead focus on photographing other people, mostly performers like dancers, actors, and musicians, for the narratives and expressions they naturally bring to set. I centre this work within a fashion portraiture context, but am working on a couple of projects at the minute which are perhaps a little bit more naturalistic and conceptual than what I usually do. As I’m sure it is for many in the industry, the future is quite uncertain, but I’m trying to focus mainly on reaching out to new creatives to work with and working on developing my portfolio a bit further. I definitely want to do a lot more creative and experimental personal work.
What got you into the photography industry?
I got into photography because I couldn’t paint very well, which was so frustrating as I very much wanted to. Photography allowed me to create images that weren’t necessarily realistic but also didn’t look too amateur like my paintings did at the time. Then in terms of the industry, I covered it briefly in the previous question but it was actually very much through Instagram. I would post these self-portraits and use hashtags to appeal to different audiences and creatives and in this way would participate in these photography communities. It was largely how I built my audience online and how I reached out to some of my very early clients. It gave me the means to connect with other people which is so, so valuable in establishing a business or getting yourself noticed in the industry, and I relied on Instagram before having a website as my main portfolio. Off the back of this, I would email publications asking if they had any work going and it went from there. Instagram has always been the most prominent tool in my marketing.
What do you think makes fashion photography (and the consequent marketing) so interesting?
What I love about fashion photography is that there are so many different creatives working within the industry who are creating such unique and incredible work, and everyone does this alongside each other. You can completely transform the representation of a brand or product by how you photograph it, and in this sense you have a great responsibility as a photographer to ensure you’re being considerate in your representations. I also love how stories are woven into everything. The images create such vivid atmospheres and feelings; after all, they’re usually trying to sell you something and as such have to rely on creating this unique world that seeks to draw you in. The psychology of that is fascinating. Fashion’s also always been such a safe place for expression and experimentation, subcultures of society have always used fashion as a platform to express themselves, and this industry then gives them a space in which to share their art with the world.
How do you find arranging your photoshoots?
Inspiration for me usually always comes from music. I don’t like to look at the work of others in the pre-production of a shoot too much because I want to ensure the mood or narrative created is wholly unique. That isn’t to say I don’t get inspiration from others at all; I love visiting galleries or curating boards on Pinterest that catch my eye. I just like to do it with a fresh mind though, instead of matching a pre-existing idea to the visual language of others. Music gives you the opportunity to completely vibe with a certain atmosphere and then leave it entirely up to your imagination to realise this mood visually. I’ll usually tell the model to listen to a particular piece of music or a song to understand the mood of the shoot before we get to set. Then coordinating the team and locations is usually the most difficult bit as it means working to everyones’ unique schedules. I also still do a lot of self-production and self-funded shoots so you need to be respectful of others’ time and availability and be as flexible as you can be. I do all this usually on Instagram as you can quickly liaise back and forth with creatives. Sometimes I’ll do it via email if I’m trying to get clothes from PR or communicating with editors or art directors, but usually for stylists and makeup artists I find that messaging them on Instagram is the most efficient way. I always try to do location scouts in advance - if I have a specific idea, I’d never turn up to a location blind as it can throw me off if the location doesn’t meet my expectations. But on the other hand, you can get really creative and experimental without having something already planned.
You’ve shot London Fashion Week AW20 for tmrw Magazine (woohoo). How did you get involved with working with large companies?
They were the first magazine I ever shot an editorial for! This came about simply by emailing their editor and asking if they’d have me on board to shoot LFW coverage for their online platform. I essentially offered images for free if I could have their credentials to get me into shows and backstage, so it was mutual gain. Reaching out to companies in this way can never be a bad idea, as the worst they can say is no! And even then, you’re on their radar now and you never know what might come later down the line.
You’ve also worked with a variety of different models for projects that have appeared in interviews, magazines, etc. and you’ve accomplished all of this at such a young age! What do you think has helped you on your journey to success?
I’d definitely say persistence. You really have to love photography for the art. I think if I only did it for the commercial side of things, I would have fallen out of love with it by now and probably abandoned it long ago. You go through a lot of rejections and ignored emails as you would with any creative career so you have to be quite resilient and continue producing work because you love to do so. As long as you continue to create images and experiment, you’re going to stay current. I’d hit ruts where I wasn’t hearing back from anyone and it seemed like other people were advancing much more rapidly than I am, but I think learning to not compare my work as much (still very much guilty of doing it now!) and knowing that everyone’s on their own journey really helped me relax a bit. But making sure that I’m regularly reaching out to different magazines and creatives, asking if they want to work together, and consequently continuing to expand my network, has been the most beneficial process for helping me get jobs and connections.
How have you found creating your photography brand and getting your name out there in such a saturated industry?
It’s odd answering this question as I still don’t feel like I’ve fully broken into the industry yet. I don’t feel like it’s necessarily saturated, but instead just more tightly-knit. A great thing about fashion photography is brands are regularly changing their visual style to match new collections or campaigns and will tend to source new teams for each one, so there’s a regular demand for creatives. Furthermore, a lot of new magazines around today look for artists who can tell a story, so as long as you have the skills to match, you’ll find work. It can sometimes be difficult getting these companies to notice you as the same names pop up time and time again, but this is because they’re reliable and their work is genuinely beautiful. Once you get brands to trust your creative vision, you’ll excel. But I feel it’s quite a slow-start, you have to work to get yourself noticed and then it gradually might get easier. I can’t vouch much for that as I’m still very much working to break in!
What would be your main piece of advice for our society members who want to pursue a similar career in photography marketing?
To focus on your own journey and value your work, oftentimes more than you feel you should. I have a terrible habit of undervaluing my work, usually because I don’t like particular images. Usually though these are the images that everyone else loves! So you just have to trust the technicalities of your art and your vision and stick with it. It’s a career of persistence for sure, and staying true to your work and self as this is what will make you stand out to clients.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the author only, and does not represent the views of CAMSoc as a whole or the University of Cambridge.