Independent Filmmaker's Guide
October 13, 2020
Nigel Barker: Photos, Film, & Finding Your Voice
Every filmmaker’s journey is unique. Some follow paths while other times we make them like photographer, filmmaker, and entrepreneur, Nigel Barker. The important thing is to bring your passion with every pivot. This artist’s passion has led him from photography to filmmaking, and tons of places in between. Be it from America’s Next Top Model to documentaries in Haiti, many might not know how truly diverse his career continues to be.
Steven Pierce: Yeah, the whole center of this is around independent film makers. So we’ve been talking, primarily what we do is we talk to independent films, like ones that were in Southby or Tribeca and this year they got canceled so far, or we even talked to a couple that were on Netflix, released on Netflix last year. What we’re really doing is we’re getting the director and the DP, the producer, the writer, combination of cast, whomever three or four people and really talking about how they did it, what their experience was and what the takeaways are, because we think the audience we’re going for are people that want to be making independent film or are already making independent film. I think what’s going to be interesting talking with you is going to be talking kind of how you got started, which I guess if you’re good, we can start right there. How did your career, I think you started as a photographer, right?
Nigel Barker: Yeah, I don’t know if you were to take it back, as a kid. Take me back to my childhood I was into basically all things creative. And I got my first camera I think I was about 11 years old. It was a 1959 Kodak Brownie. And I sort of, don’t worry, I’m not that old. It was not new. But it basically set off that fire in me, and the excitement of photography and capturing images and the power of imagery, and of course those old Brownie cameras were 120 film, so you could only shoot 10 shots, 11 shots. And so you have to really hone your eye. You don’t have the luxury of shooting, just going on and on and on as you do today, and that helped. That started the process, and I got really into doing all kinds of art with photography all the way through high school and in fact it was my Biology teacher who taught me how to print in the dark room. I fell in love with the process. I started shooting elements of video and what have you as I got into photography, but it really the photography happened as a career because I actually had a bit of a weird opportunity as a model in the late ’80s early ’90s. What people don’t realize I guess or may forget is that obviously I’m almost 50 now, but when I was starting out as a photographer, there were no degrees in photography. That wasn’t an option. Really, thinking of photography as a career choice was not really an option either. At least it wasn’t something that someone offered me to do. When you’re at high school and with you’re with the career advisor and they’re telling you these are the jobs you can do, photography is not one of them. You should be a photographer. It’s like that’s a hobby. And also, I just didn’t know anybody the photographers worked in newspapers. I guess there were magazines and things obviously, but I just didn’t know what that meant to have to become one of those.
Nigel Barker: So modeling led me into that world. And ironically it was people knowing me from a show like America’s Next Top Model and things like that. I got my own break from a very similar type of show in the late ’80s in the England called the Clothes Show. That led onto obviously mid ’90s the fashion industry changing dramatically. I as I mentioned started late ’80s. If you know your fashion history, late ’80s was the time of the super model. People like Claudia Schiffer, and Linda Evangelista, Christy Turlington, Naomi Campbell, they’re sort of very, very … the age of the supermodel really. The ones we all remember today. And music like Freedom ’90 from George Michael. Really over the top glamorous stuff. And then of course came grunge, hair and chic, androgyny, and that wasn’t going to work for me. I was never going to transform, but I didn’t want to throw away what I had kind of learned and the people I learned from the many years, this five, six years I had spent in the business. So I transitioned into becoming a photographer, and I’d seen what photographers could become at this point. So that’s how I got into photography early on.
Nigel Barker: And very early on also realized that to compliment my still photography that so many advertising campaigns included video content, commercials, TV commercials and music videos were such an important part in the late ’80s early ’90s.
Steven Pierce: Yeah, absolutely. That was the art form of the late ’80s early ’90s.
Nigel Barker: Oh totally. That’s basically how a lot of commercials started. I got into doing that kind of work to compliment my fashion work. As a director mostly, and so I would direct alongside, and it would also keep a consistency between your still work and your actual-
Steven Pierce: In the commercial itself.
Nigel Barker: Yeah.
Steven Pierce: I didn’t know you started as a model, but it makes sense as I’ve seen some of those photos. That hair is beautiful. The beautiful gorgeous-
Nigel Barker: What are you talking about that it was?
Steven Pierce: I mean you must really long for those days Nigel. I don’t know I think you got a great look now also.
Nigel Barker: I was going to say, you may want to don this yourself Steven.
Steven Pierce: Exactly, hey man-
Nigel Barker: But I think it works.
Steven Pierce: You can’t tame my hair. My wife cut my hair two weeks into quarantine, that’s been what three months ago, and I look like I’m a shaggy dog. I’m a ball of popcorn that’s gone awry.
Steven Pierce: Yeah, so I like the thing you were saying, keeping consistent between your photo work and your film work. Whenever you were getting booked for those commercials, was it because you were already photographing the campaign and they were just adding that on with the agency, or were they approaching it like hey we want you to do both of these things as-
Nigel Barker: So initially what used to happen I think with so many fashion girls was that you’d get booked to do the stills and someone else would get booked to do the commercial. However, you’re given the brief by creative agency. The problem being then is that you like yours with strobe and flash and what have you, and they’re lighting theirs with daylight and HMIs and whatever, where else we might have studio lighting and it’s very hard to match them. It’s very hard to make them look the same and consistent and what one does and the other one does. And oftentimes because the model or the talent is only available on one or two days, you’re sharing spaces. You’re in one room, they’re in another, and you’re trying to keep it … And there was competition of who had who longer and how it was all going to work. Very early on I realized to myself at least, this wasn’t a good solution to this problem. If you had the same person shooting and directing all aspects and maintaining consistency with the team, because we all had our own everything. We all had our own cameras, our own lighting, our own editors, our own digital assistants, and gaffers and grips so to have two sets obviously is not cost efficient, but from a looks perspective, it’s certainly not efficient.
Nigel Barker: So we quickly moved on and would offer ourselves to agencies and say look we can do both and we can keep it consistent, and that really helped with a lot of campaigns. We’d come in and we just do the whole thing, and also we cut cost, but make it look better.
Steven Pierce: Yeah, I mean talk a little about how you’d approach the lighting difference. The set for me, I’ve always been kind of in the video world. I’ve never been a photographer, I’m really it’s something I did have a film camera similar to you, that’s how I got into being interested in visual stuff, but I was terrible with it. I had a Rebel T2I and I couldn’t shoot anything. Everything was all blurry, and that was the thing about film I always remembered, it was so hard to get a good image, and you didn’t know if you got it, you literally had no idea until you got it until you developed it, and I never developed that skillset.
Steven Pierce: But when I’ve been on photo sets, or had photo sets going simultaneously to a commercial I’ve been shooting, they’re very different in flow, in process, in the feel, in the people that are working there. The worlds feel totally separate to me, so how do you approach bringing them together creatively?
Nigel Barker: Well, there’s a couple of ways. One of the things, obviously one has to adapt the way one lights things, but what we’d often do and still do is light things more as if I’m lighting it for a film set. And then shoot my stills within that world. Of course there are many ways one can do that. There are obviously red cams and what have you, which have large enough file formats per frame, that you can actually pull a still from the video content, and potentially use it as a ad campaign. They have the ability to pull really large frames. So that was very helpful. But also, just the ability to share property, because what happens, I mention the competitive aspect, and I won’t mention any names, but I remember working with certain people and they wouldn’t want you on their set. They would want clear set, everyone leave, this is my set now. And that made it difficult one to see how the other was working and to capture some of the vibes and moods, and what happens sometimes is you capture some kind of really beautiful moment, because you have a certain camera, certain lens, and that lens allows you to get intimate with the subject, because the capability of the lens, and you can focus just on the eye and a part of the mouth and the face, and then of course some other aspect of the video or whatever doesn’t capture that. One, because he doesn’t know that you actually did it, because you haven’t showed him yet. And two, because they got different lenses and different things. But if you’re doing it all and you remember a moment as the photographers, the director and what have you, and it’s all happening so fast. It’s one thing when things take a lot longer, but in the world of commercial photography, a lot of these things are all going down in a day. 24 hours, 48 hours, and there’s just not a lot of time for everyone to know exactly what’s happened and then it’s very expensive obviously to go back to the drawing board and say, “We love what this guy did here, let’s do more of that now.” Because the talents gone somewhere and everyone’s dispersed and what have you. By being the only one there, you were able to remember moments, and pull in aspects, and sometimes I will shoot a shot, and then go oh this is really beautiful, I love what you just did, I love the motion, the movement, I love the way the wind was hitting the gown or the dress or the hair. And then we bring in my video team, and I’m directing at the same time and replicating what I just did on still.
Nigel Barker: And then I pick up my still camera and go back to shooting again. There’s sort of situation that allows all of this sort of magic to happen all at once.
Steven Pierce: One thing that really stands out whenever you say all that is because also, imagine if you’re sharing talent, and you have them literally for hours sometimes, not very long at all, especially if they’re famous, but it’s all about the relationship you create with them. You know what I mean as the photographer I’m sure, but I know as a director, it’s all about being able to connect with somebody and have that relationship. I can only imagine how hard that becomes when they start dicing your day up and you only have so long, and now you got to go develop a total new relationship with another director, and they’re doing something totally creatively different that feels like it’s totally backwards honestly.
Nigel Barker: Well, and I guess that’s in large part again why I think it works so well to do the other way, the way I’m … just because there are different campaigns that require such an intimate relationship with people, but there are certain types of photographers who that’s what they’re booked for. Although I’m known as a fashion photographer, my art form was really more as a portrait photographer, and I’m a portrait photographer who happens to shoot fashion. It’s the person first for me, and then the clothes second if you like. My idea is that if you love the person or you’re interested and fascinated in the subject, you’ll be interested in everything else about them, including what they’re wearing and how they might smell and where they might want to go and be and all those sorts of those things that we sell in fashion and advertising. From beauty products, skin products, fragrance, clothing, which are all can seem quite dull or random or whatever, but a person is deep. So you have the ability to speak to that aspect of a person and then of course the choices that they make, this is the psychology behind it at least, and therefore why are they here in that place, why are they looking in that area? Why would they want to wear or smell like that? All why, why, why? If you’re photographed, your imagery provokes that kind of reaction in the viewer, you’ve succeeded.
Steven Pierce: Yeah, absolutely. You also mentioned the lighting starting in the video world with lighting, and I think that is key. I mean still photos you can get really nuclear with the lighting, because you can compete with sunlight, you have a lot of pop in these flashes, you can really get specific, but you can’t really do that as much in video, well I mean you can with adding lights and constructing and shaping, but you don’t have the same power output that you do on stills. Right? Is that why you approach it that way?
Nigel Barker: It’s true to some extent, except for the fact, a lot of those funny things. Guys who come from fashion, as you know you mentioned, we’re quite brutal with our lighting, we have all kinds of lighting and we have a lot of power, and you meet guys who come from film, and they have a specific way about lighting an entire set. A lot of the fashion guys laugh about, because we’re like, “Why? Why does it have to be perfect? Why does it have to be so even? What happens if you blow the picture out, who cares?” And if you break the rules, that often upsets … You can’t take it back. We can’t fix it, we can’t tweak it. You’ve lost the image there and we’re like, “Answer me this, does it look good?” Did I create an effect? Does this work?” And people are like, “Well yes, but that’s all we have.” And I’m like, “Well, that’s all I’m giving you.”
Nigel Barker: And you see, that’s not how everyone likes to work, it’s not that you’re going to be that belligerent, but the big picture is oftentimes when the fashion guys perspective, and this is not for making movies so much, this is quick video content, music videos, TV commercials, bits where you’re looking for something cool, hip, sexy, flashes of moments, and-
Steven Pierce: And you’re also social. I think that would apply for social too.
Nigel Barker: Absolutely. Absolutely. That’s why filters work so well. People are applying all this crazy stuff and it’s like, “Well, man, but if you were to have that for any longer than a blip it would look cheesy or it wouldn’t work or it would look ridiculous.” But it does work for those sorts of moments where you’ve got a 15, 30 second, 45 second TV commercial with lots of cuts, lots of moments, so you can afford to have those kind of smoke and mirrors in a way. That fashion photographers are very practiced that, whereas somebody who’s making a motion picture or something will be like, “I can’t do that, because that would ruin the whole picture.”
Steven Pierce: Yeah.
Nigel Barker: I’m going to tell the story.
Steven Pierce: Yeah, I mean I think you know the way to echo the way I think about that stuff is there’s a lot of times that people spend a lot of work to make things feel very natural and very real, which is great if that’s what you’re going for, but I think there is something really too, starting with the subject, the story, the emotion, because it’s not natural. Many times what we’re doing is not natural at all, it’s very unnatural the way we’re lighting a set, but I do frequently that is my process too, start with light the background, then bring in the key, soft, control it. And then you start shaping the set, so it is an interesting thing to just remind yourself that it isn’t always about being perfect, it’s about being emotional, it’s about serving the mood, it’s about serving the brand, it’s about serving your voice too.
Nigel Barker: Yeah, absolutely. I think certainly the normal process for most people is to sort of light the set versus I think oftentimes, and I’ve spoken about this before in other venues, but I’m often more about removing the light. I’m more about taking it away. And it’s starting by taking it away. What do I not want around, because there always seems to be so much light around, and I find there’s often more story in the shadows, and mystery. And then to reveal things with light, small pieces of light that allow story to unfold, and to let the light help you in that way. Often times people love to light everything, everything has got so much light going on, and after the fact fix or tweak or put shadow in. It’s hard. It’s also hard for the subject, because the subject they react as well to the lights. The light’s incredibly effective. You feel it, just remember how you feel when you wake up in the morning and the light comes through the window and how that morning light makes you feel. Remember the same way when the light goes down at night and you know it’s evening. How again, that light makes you feel, the things you wish to do, what to do. You have to treat light like that in my opinion and replicate those sorts of moments that are very real in life, but obviously you feel a completely different way and so does the viewer and so does the subject. That’s how I approach it.
Steven Pierce: Absolutely. I think you have to have, if you’re an imaging person, you have to have an interest in images. I’ve been walking around, that’s something that COVID has really given me a great opportunity to do is my wife and I spend a lot of time walking around at different times a day, and I’ll just turn down a street and be like that light is just beautiful coming through the trees. I remember one night we were on the fire escape having a drink and I remember the blue coming from the neighbor, and then Mercury vapors, and I was like this is just a gorgeous construction of natural light here. So I think you have to have that interest anyway.
Nigel Barker: That’s a great moment what you’re describing and it’s funny because I think we all have it. We’ve all even just probably looked at ourselves in the mirror and gone “Oh God, I look good today.” Because something’s happening. Some light, backlight is bouncing off the thing hitting you hear, giving you a cheekbone, doing a thing, you’re like wait a second, did I not walk around with this light at all? So my point is that’s our job, is to replicate those moments and you do have to do a clock, and go … And I’ve done literally seen things and gone okay, I’m going to replicate this, and I’ve gone as far as to get a bare light bulb, hang it on my set, and get a mirror, because it was a mirror that was bouncing light and replicate literally identical to what I had, and then try and shoot that, and it’s not even using professional lighting or any of that kind of stuff. No doubt, I probably could have done it with higher intensity with more lights, but sometimes all of that takes away from the vibe and everything else that’s created. I love things like that.
Steven Pierce: Yeah, for me I’ve been into color a lot lately. I used to be into source, when I was first also starting, the first years as a director was always more light, more light, more light. Put more in here. Had hundreds, not hundreds, but 10s of instruments lighting a single shot, and I kind of started steering away from that in the last couple of years anyway. One bigger softer source, and then shape is really what I’ve started doing, is I feel like it’s more consistent, and I don’t know I feel I like it better all around, but I’ve been noticing color a lot more the last year or two. For instance, we were on the fire escape and there were these mixtures of color in the set and it just creates this interesting mood. It was a very romantic-esque setting and what I immediately started doing was I started looking for what was creating it, which is bad for conversation, but interesting for me. I’m like so that’s a light in there, fluorescent light, and then it’s coming through this type of window and that’s brick, it’s just an old mercury vapor on a brick and that makes this color combination, and it hits the skin and feels like that. So for me I’m looking at how the light is created in that scenario to remember when I move forward like oh cool, if you’re shooting something in an alley definitely … Because I remember thought about scenes that we were writing right now that we are hoping to produce in the next couple of years. I’m like this is a great concept for this setting, because it’s got the right kind of feel.
Nigel Barker: Yeah, 100%. In fact, it reminds me of a story that if you allow me to tell right quickly is my old photo assistant, I won’t mention his name, but you can probably look him up. He used to be Irving Penn’s first assistant. And Irving Penn had a most amazing studio in New York City. Incredible skylights. If you were familiar with Irving Penn’s work, he did some of the most incredible still life photography, as well as fashion photography in the world ever. He’s one of the legends of the business. He went away for a week at one point and left the studio in my agent’s hands. And he was a young man at the time. He was trying to think what he could do while Irving Penn was away, and he looked up and he noticed that the skylights were incredibly grimy and grubby and dirty, and he thought he’d do the old man a favor and he spent the better part of four days up there on the roof, cleaning and polishing and washing and getting those windows to be absolutely sparkling perfect, not a dot, not a residue, nothing. Perfectly clear glass. And he was rather impressed by what he had done and thought my goodness he’s going to get a tap on the back by Irving Penn when he arrives home.
Nigel Barker: And as the story goes as my agent retells it, he says that Irving Penn walked in the studio and as soon as he walked in, opened his eyes, he fell to his knees and burst into tears. Was just devastated that the decades if not longer of buildup, of residue on his windows had been washed away and the look and feel of his photographs that he had been taking in this gorgeous studio that had made him so famous, he was no longer going to be able to do. Because that very, very look was created by that softening of the light through the … Of course now it was all harsh sunlight casting through. So yeah, moral of the story, don’t mess with something when it works.
Steven Pierce: Yeah, or dirty up your windows. If you want to soften light up, don’t have diffusion, just grab a dirty window, throw that key light through it. So how did photography specifically set you up? You have your documentary work that you did as well. Does being a photographer help you shape that story? Help you with composition, or are you thinking about it the same way?
Nigel Barker: So you know it’s a bit different obviously because it’s a much longer format. As a fashion photographer too you are hired oftentimes to tell stories. It’s not single images. Advertising-
Steven Pierce: Even a single image has to have a story.
Nigel Barker: 100%, 100%, but you have the luxury obviously in a way in making a film of telling that story over time. So whereas perhaps in an advertising image you’re trying to say something about someone, a story about this handsome fellow, this beautiful woman, or this thing, inanimate object and why it would fit into your life or where this person is going or where you think this person might want to go, travel to, and who they are. It’s all sort of the drama and the fantasy that you’re trying to create in an image.
Nigel Barker: When it comes to obviously documentary making, it’s less about fantasy clearly. And about reality and what’s happening. But what one can do and what I have tried to do is I like to create beautiful imagery, I like to create pictures that are a celebration in many ways. I approached most of my documentary work and it’s for example, I have one film called the Sealed Fate, which is about the Harp Seal migration from the Arctic down to Newfoundland, which happens to be the larges mammalian migration on earth. There’s four and a half million of these seals migrate down and they give birth on the ice. We track this whole process through to the rather tragic seal hunt that has happened for many, many years. The film though is not about necessarily so much the hunt and the tragedy of that moment, but rather, it’s a celebration of how amazing these animals can be and how beautiful they are, and I sort of approached the subjects in ways where I probably would have, the same way I approach people. Which is looking for character, looking for personality and people obviously how did you do that in an animal, but they do. All animals of personalities, and have characters and if you spend enough time with certain ones you’ll see. The baby pups are very much like children, some are shy and want to be around their mothers, others are gregarious and confident and don’t worry about their mothers and charge off and come and say hello to you, and want to get all up in your camera’s face, and the whole nine yards, and it’s really fun. But by capturing all of those sorts of moments, not that one is humanizing because it’s really not humanizing, it’s really all animals have this, so it’s just capturing the love and life, and applying that kind of concept to it. So that’s how I approach that particular film, in several of my other films, one of my other films called Dreams are Not Forgotten, which was my second film in Haiti, we actually did with no narration, no real conversation. It’s almost like a silent film, but there are elements, there’s obviously music, me playing but we were trying to let the story unfold just by the characters and what they were doing and moving and how they were behaving and by using the light of Haiti and Porter Prince to also help tell a lot of that story so you really feel that you’re there. It’s almost as if you’re not just a fly on the wall, but you’re a person right there in it all, so you can experience first hand what it’s like to live that life. Transform that person into that position. That’s how I got into doing that, and I did it mostly because I thought these were very important stories, and I had the luxury and the honor of being able to go and visit and be able to tell those stories.
Nigel Barker: Certainly when the first one, which was a Sealed Fate, I wanted to really show something different, because a lot of people were used to the very graphic horrific images of seals being beaten and what have you, but this is one it doesn’t seem to really work, it’s almost too terrifying to see, and too heart wrenching and perhaps even too over the top. Not that it’s not happening, but sometimes when things are too graphic, even if it’s true, you turn off. You simply can’t watch it or see it. So the message doesn’t get across. However, if you convince people, not even convince. The great thing about photography is, you don’t have to say anything to convince, you just show. And you have the pictures, you have the imagery, you have the content, you let the film do the story telling, and then the viewer simply makes their mind up of what they think is right or wrong. If you put something delicious in someone’s mouth, it’s up to them to think it’s delicious. You can’t say it’s delicious. They either like the flavor of it or they don’t. They either like salty or they don’t. They like sweet or they don’t. There’s something about it that they’re going to be like that tastes good or I like what I’m seeing, or I want to see more of that. Please don’t hurt that animal. Or I now see what’s happening, I get it. And you don’t have to say anything. Here it is.
Steven Pierce: So on that note, how do you approach your editorial for photography versus documentary? To speak to what you’re saying, photographically yeah you’re putting something here, you don’t need words to go with it necessarily, it tells its own story, documentary, by the share nature of time and showing images across time you are structuring and you are making an argument in some way or another, so how do you approach those two things?
Nigel Barker: Well, in the sort of Sealed Fate it’s more really time that goes by. It starts with the mother seals coming down, you see them giving birth on the ice, we see them growing up, and they very, very quickly have a very fast life cycle at that age. Within the first two weeks, they transform from baby white coat seals into these sort of beautiful silver and black speckled seals called … What are they called? Quackers on the water, and beaters rather on the water. And then they learn how to swim and the ice breaks up and the hunt begins, and boom, it all happens in two and a half week, three week period. White coats, so really I just let the story unfold. I let it, and just this is what the story is. It’s sort of like here it is.
Steven Pierce: So that one had a natural progression because of the life of the seal basically. Their progression.
Nigel Barker: Right, but you see that’s similar to how with Dreams Are Not Forgotten, it’s a similar vibe. As in I’m just following along, a young girl called [Roadline] whose parents were killed in the earthquake, who now lives with a school teacher and four other adults in a small tent, which is tiny. A little bit bigger than my office, and they all live in there together. And you see her getting up and getting washed, getting clean. Putting her hair, getting her hair done. She’s washing her clothes in the gutter, and her hair is being done on the dirt floor and you watch her go to school and study and go through the whole day in her life and doing her homework and while kids are playing outside, but it’s such a different world. What I’m doing is following the story. The thing is that perhaps it’s the photographer’s eye, it must be. We see things that perhaps other people sometimes see, sometimes don’t. The details. And if you can focus on some of those moments, little things that are going on around the room whilst other things are happening, the sounds that are happening outside the window, and you take the camera there, you take the picture there. You shoot from perspectives that help tell those stories. I’m allowing this progression to happen, but I’m also telling the story that I’m seeing, I’m hearing as if I was … With the idea of trying to make the viewer be me. See what I’m seeing, hear what I’m hearing and feel what I’m feeling. Without saying a word.
Steven Pierce: Right.
Nigel Barker: Most of that comes from fashion photography, because I guess I don’t have the ability to speak on a fashion photograph. I have to somehow convince them that is a sext, beautiful, hot moment or something with a model, or some great gorgeous things happening, but I don’t know that they are going to feel that. I have to almost feel it myself as the shooter in order to hopefully capture that in my imagery. The same-
Steven Pierce: Absolutely.
Nigel Barker: I mean it’s the same way if I look at the sky or something. How does that landscape make you feel right now? I’m looking out my window right now and it’s a beautiful day, but I see the shadows of the trees on the ground, I see the clouds moving in the sky. I can see the wind is blowing them at a certain speed and feel. I can see the leaves rustling how do I capture all of that so it doesn’t just look like nothing? The way it’s set that tone, set that feel, so that whoever looks at that sky feels that the mood of the clouds, and feels the speed almost at which they’re moving. You have to capture a little bit of movement to do that. So you have to control all these aspects in order to get that story across, and I guess that’s where I get that element from there, and why I enjoy doing perhaps stories, documentaries that unfold in that manner, versus me commanding the story or telling the story in another way.
Steven Pierce: Of course. So I mean that story you’re describing, Dreams Are Not Forgotten, I watched it this morning actually. There’s lots of beautiful imagery in there. I thought it was a really strong choice to not use narration. I was like, “Oh interesting.” It was surprising in a way I wasn’t expecting. But I mean whenever you’re telling those intimate stories in a small room with a family, with a young person, by very nature of filming it and observing it, you’re kind of, you can potentially alter it and change it from what it really is. So how did you approach that delicately, so you can capture the authenticity without making it them being filmed. You know what I mean?
Nigel Barker: No, no, 100%. 100%. I think that every situation is different. You have to obviously have a small crew. You have to be very tight with your crew. They have to understand what’s happening and it was very unusual, it was very tough to shoot that, to shoot in a tense city outside of Cité Soleil, which is one of the worst slums in the world. And the interesting thing is, things are so bad there, and were so bad there then when we were shooting, that people have very little time for us, and the blessing there from a filmmaker standpoint is that we were somewhat ignored. And people were just going about their day because they had to in order to just get through their day. We were there for a few days prior, and got to know everybody, and had meals with people, went to school with them, went to church with them, wandered around with them. Maybe because I worked in reality television I had learned and watching how many of the great shooters who we had on some of the shows we worked with were able to the first few days or week or so photographing a model on say America’s Next Top Model, they’re very conscious of the camera being in their face, but it’s amazing how after a while, one forgets, and it becomes normal. It’s not so weird.
Nigel Barker: In as much as look at the world today, how many people are able to shoot themselves at home and do selfies and videos, and documentaries of their life and as if they were all born with a camera in their hand. There is something to that technique of breaking down that barrier, but again, the guys I work with, it’s almost like they were like nature photographers. It’s unbelievable how quiet and silent they were, and how seamlessly they fit it in, and their energy was very quiet, and low, so you can capture these moments. Often times I would direct using my screen and a headset from outside of the building, so you wouldn’t hear me, because obviously if I’m speaking in a room, I would distract and ruin the vibe and everything else, so I’m actually outside in the street while my shooter is inside filming, and I’m directing as I see things. And that’s because I’m familiar with the room, I’m familiar with other angles we may want to capture, look at, shoot. But we never asked anyone to do anything twice. It was always just once, and we either got it or we didn’t.
Steven Pierce: I completely believe in that in documentary work. I never like to stage anything. It always feels the moment you do it, it’s different and it just doesn’t feel right anymore to me. You, as much as anybody I’ve ever met, have such a diverse career. You are not only involved, you’re a host, you’re a producer, you’re a filmmaker, a photographer, how are you able to go from your beginning as a photographer, and build this such a diverse overall package of who you are? You know what I mean?
Nigel Barker: Well, thank you for acknowledging that. I think in large part it comes from not wanting to set myself limits. I started if you like at the bottom. You teach yourself how to do certain things in order to do them. As a young photographer, I didn’t have access to hair and makeup artists, I didn’t have access to fashion stylists, wardrobe stylists. I didn’t have access to great sets. So even film studios or photo studios. It was just me and my camera. Having worked with fantastic photographers, the best of the best, as a young model, I had sensed there were certain things that really translated in pictures. And oftentimes it had nothing to do with the location of the studio or the set up. It had so much to do with the communication between the photographer, the director and the subject. And that had nothing to do with what you had as far as material things. A lot of it translated into me clearing for example where I lived every day getting all my furniture and piling it into a corner, clearing it so I had some kind of shooting space, and learning all aspects of the business. How to do the hair, how to do a little bit of makeup. Putting clothes on people and saying that looks good. Having an opinion. Obviously I go on to have my own hair and makeup artists and stylists, but it gave me an understanding of what they did, but it also helped me instruct me and have an idea of how long it should take or how difficult it could be, and how talented they were and all the details, and I learned packing casting, fashion design, weaving, so I understood from the designers what was important for them, and then as things progressed and I got the opportunity to work on America’s Next Top Model, I would watch myself when the shows came out and think, huh, I could do better than that. I want to get my point across, I need to speak clearer. I should sit up, or I can see that I’m slouching. When the camera’s not on me and it’s on somebody else, the camera is still on me, because I’m in the background, so I should still be paying attention, or I should still be focused. So I guess there’s an element of the OCD, but also the perfectionist in me to try and fix and tweak all these other aspects.
Nigel Barker: And I go okay listen, how hard can it be. I enjoy a challenge, and it’s certainly challenging, but it’s also just for me, I enjoy doing a bit of everything. As I mentioned in the very beginning, it wasn’t necessarily photography that was my love of my life, it has become that, but it was more being an artist, or being a creator that was what excited me. It didn’t really matter how, or what I was doing that with. As long as I was creating in one way or another. So whether it’s writing a book, or whether it’s making a film or executive producing or hosting a show or there’s some element of the creator in me that comes out and therefore I’m fulfilled. That’s in many ways how I’ve fallen into so many different buckets.
Steven Pierce: Just kind of constantly chasing the next challenge.
Nigel Barker: Absolutely. It’s really just if you see something, maybe you go on holiday, and you see someone jet skiing, you go oh that looks really fun. I want to do that. I’ve never done it before. I don’t know if I can, or skiing or whatever it might be. And you’re like, are you the person that says oh I can’t do that, I’m too old. Oh I can’t do that, I’m not good at that. I’m not an artist, I can’t draw. I’m not a writer, I can’t write. Says who? You have thought processes, you have great conversations with your friends, if you set your pen to paper … I often talk about photography and what’s happened with photography as it’s similar to how you give every child a pencil for the first time. If you’ve never given them a pencil, you’d never know they could write, or draw or become an author. What we’ve done on mass by learning with a phone with a camera on it, and all of a sudden people have the ability to see things through photography and through film making that they never were able to do before. That doesn’t mean that everyone’s a fantastic photographer, but it does give people an appreciation for it, and it does of course give many people the opportunity to become fantastic photographers and filmmakers.
Steven Pierce: Exactly, so on that note, I mean you obviously … Hold on, that’s my buzzer. Pause for one second. Hello. Sorry for the loud beeping there everybody. So on that note, whenever you created your career and started out, all these avenues didn’t exist. It was a very different time. Now social is such a big thing. I can’t even name the avenues you can get your work seen on, but there is so much that it becomes hard to get in there in another way. So it’s kind of you traded one access for over saturation. What advice would you give to people who are starting out who are creating to really give their best ability to be seen?
Nigel Barker: It’s hard to know what the best ability to be seen, because like you said, there are so many platforms, but that being said, one thing I think is most important, is you have if you like a signature, you have a style, you have your own voice, that you aren’t trying to replicate or imitate anybody else. Oftentimes, and the majority of the time, and even in professional photography, at the highest level, you’ll be given a creative brief, and they’ll say this is what we want you to do, like this. This is what we like. This is our research, this is our mood board, this is general vibe and feel. Now, that’s all well and good, but why are they hiring you, or why will they be hiring you? What do you have that’s unique? What is your perspective on it. And that is the only reason they’re hiring you, because if there is another reason, then you can be replaced very quickly, because you’re just another one. So as difficult as that sounds, you have to have some element of your image making process that is polarizing one way or the other, and allows people to single you out. They may love you, they may hate you, but they know you and that is the most important aspect. When I get out there, you take pictures, and you create imagery and you create content, aim to be heard, aim to be seen, aim to make a difference, aim to look like no one else, aim for people to be able to see your pictures and go, “I know who shot that. I know who did this.” I can tell you, there are people on Instagram who I follow, and once in a while this has happened so many times that I’ve seen a shot and I’m going oh, this is so like so and sos picture, and I forwarded it to them. And then they’ve turned around and said, “Huh. Love that you found my photo.” And it was actually their photo, but it was in a magazine, that they haven’t credited them, and I could just tell. And I’d seen it and known it and forwarded it and thinking someone was copying them. Look at this, this is so much like what you would do. And it has been their work. And that’s the way it should be. People should see, and should know from the moment … If you think about great filmmakers, they have a style and a look and a feel. That’s why they’re getting hired, for their vision and how they see things. Their perspective and their mind.
Nigel Barker: So as a filmmaker, remember, how important your vision is, and be seen.
Steven Pierce: Yeah, I mean absolutely. I think you hit the nail on the head. Everybody’s always like you don’t want to shoot the same thing. I’m like it doesn’t matter. Shooting the same thing if you shot it versus I shot it, it would be totally different. It would reflect a total different viewer on the world background human. It’s just a different person. The times I feel like I’ve done the worst work, and the worst commercial work I’ve ever done, is when I am approaching it most technically. Where I’m almost checking boxes, like oh yeah, this what the brand wants, and this is the colors, and this is this. You have to do all of that, but if you can’t find the connect, the heart to you and telling the story of that, it is going to feel generic, and it’s not going to be special.
Nigel Barker: I think the hardest part of that kind of advice is of course it doesn’t mean that you’re necessarily going to be successful just because you have an opinion or just because you have a certain look and feel. I’m afraid the je ne sais quoi of it all is that the ones that really work, and this is a hard thing for people to do, and some people have it, some people don’t, is that they are in touch with the zeitgeist of the moment, and it’s not going to work if you’re behind the times, it’s not going to work if you’re ahead of the times. As brilliant as it might be, to be ahead of the times, people just won’t get it. You literally have to be having the right vibe and feeling of exactly what’s happening right here, right now and plugging right into it, which means you got to be incredibly aware of who you are, what you are, and what’s going on, in order to be noticed, certainly in pop culture. If you’re working in fashion, there are obviously different realms, different worlds and you may say I like David Attenborough documentary on animals and he’s been doing that forever and it’s exactly the same way. But that’s in large part because he created that vibe and that look and that feel when he did people fell in love with it then, and they still enjoy it to this day. His way of directing and narrating and creating this incredible documentaries for BBC and what have you was his style and his way. No one did it like him. Just like the Crocodile Hunter was completely different and the opposite. From screaming and shouting to whispering and discussing things as if everyone could hear you, even though you’re in a studio.
Nigel Barker: And ways of shooting and styles of methods. You have to discover it, and create it, whether it’s creating a robot that goes out and bangs into the animals so they don’t know and they climb all over it, to where they’re shooting from a great distance, to whether you’re a drone guy or maybe it’s a combination of all these things, and then how do you tell the story once you cut all that together. What was it you wanted people to see it? Think of it like that. What were you trying to communicate? What were they going to see that they hadn’t seen before, they couldn’t see. What was special about it? And how does the light play into all that. Bringing all of that together and you got something.
Steven Pierce: Right. I mean I always like to say luck is when opportunity meets preparation. Kind of a dig on that. I feel like we see all these stories about people that magically break through and break out, and they come out of nowhere, but I don’t really buy that. Those people have been honing their voice, their vision the way they look at the world, the things they’ve been working on for a lifetime up until that moment. We just became aware of them at that moment.
Nigel Barker: Yeah, well that often, where the zeitgeist comes together. Even if you look at, and I take it back to fashion, because that’s my world, but I you look at someone like a Kate Moss for example, she was very unconventional supermodel if you like. Now of course, world famous, everyone heard of her for a decade or two. It’s quite obvious that she’s gorgeous and beautiful and all these sorts of things. But when she came around in the early ’90s you went from a model who was five foot 11, and sort of hourglass figure and all the rest of it, to someone was very androgynous and almost looked like an alien, and had very boyish physique and all the rest of it. Because designers were able to fit into the zeitgeist at the moment, and they could sense that there was a rebellion against the over the top perfection of the late ’80s and the I’m not getting out of bed for less than $10,000 that people were like, yuck, I don’t want that anymore. I want to be represented. I want to be whoever I want to be. You don’t have to be looking like that to be a woman. I can have short hair. I can have no hips, and I’m still a woman and I’m still a person. You know advertisers created fragrances like Calvin Klein One, and all these sorts of things. It was very interesting, that’s how these things morph and shift, and as a visionary, a photographer, the ones that were designers like a Marc Jacobs or what have you who understood that and could feel the zeitgeist, and design clothes and advertising campaigns that spoke to people, Anna Sui and what have you, Calvin Klein, they got that moment and they won that era as a result. That’s why you often see with filmmakers too, the ones who can sense and feel a moment in time. Right now it’s very interesting to take it back to what’s happening in the world today, oftentimes, when there is something very difficult like what’s happening now, and of course none of us have really experienced this before, but when there have been wars and things like that and certainly global downturns and depressions and what have you, you’ll see people going back to nostalgic types of films and shows and wanting things to be low key and what have you, but once things begin to bounce back and you feel it, people then all of a sudden want the glamor again and want the luxury again because they haven’t had it. So oftentimes now is the feeling of don’t be excessive, don’t be over the top, don’t show too much, because I don’t want to see that, people are hurting, it’s difficult time, but then once that seems to settle, and things start to improve, again people want to dance again, people want to sing again, people want to laugh again, they want to party again, they want to have fun again. So all the excessive and things come again and you can see how that wave comes back and forth. I look back in hindsight and seen it many times.
Steven Pierce: So Nigel, as a man with finger in so many different pies, what are you up to nowadays?
Nigel Barker: You know still taking pictures thankfully. Still shooting even in these difficult times. I got clients who send me products and things to shot while I’m at home quarantining and what have you. So that’s something I’ve also been doing. I have a lot of my own equipment so I can. And I have access to certain talent and what have you, which is very helpful and helps me create. I’m still working on various different shows. I’m actually in the process of trying to create a new network of fitness network of fitness content as well, which is something I’ve always loved and sort of side line of mine, and I’ve been involved in various gyms and what have you as well, as a part-time thing, but it’s been something that’s taken over a little more recently.
Nigel Barker: And during the quarantine times a lot of people having to workout and do their fitness at home. I’m looking out for you. I’m going to try and create something that’s going to be rather special, so stay tuned on that note.
Nigel Barker: And just keeping things together. I’m a father of two kids, and sort of really trying to appreciate them and that moment, and I guess there’s a silver lining to the situation that’s going on right now, that perhaps we’re having to slow things down a little bit and appreciate what we have, right here, right now.
Steven Pierce: Yeah, absolutely. Where should people, for whatever you’re working on, where should people go check you out and your films?
Nigel Barker: I mean certainly if you go to my website, which is nigelbarker.tv you can stay up to date there, and my Instagram is not just about my work, but it’s about my life and who I am and what I say, and it’s a pretty eclectic mix of my shoots, my work, my editorials, to what I had for lunch and what I’m doing. So it’s kind of a crazy hodgepodge, but that’s kind of what social media is all about. So you can keep a more consistent view of my work, on my website if you just follow me at Nigel Barker on both Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook I’m Nigel Barker Official. You can keep track of everything else we’re doing too.
Steven Pierce: Nigel, thanks so much for taking the time to do this. I know you’re a very busy many. This is a lot of fun to just kind of catch up and get to chat.
Nigel Barker: Absolutely. My pleasure. And thank you. And good luck with everything, and I look forward to our next collaboration Steven, you’re amazing, you and your team on Top Photographer, so I really appreciate that. You guys made that look fantastic. I’m still working on trying to resurrect that in one way or another. So stay tuned.
Steven Pierce: Well, I hope so. I really always loved working on that one. So it’s always been near and dear. We’re always a phone call away.
Nigel Barker: Fantastic, all the best.
IFG is created by Framework Productions. This episode was directed by James Allerdyce, produced by Matt Mundy, edited by Audrey Rae McHale, and hosted by Steven Pierce. The music is by Glass Boy. Find his music on freemusicarchive.org.