Husband-and-wife photographers Michael and Vanessa Lewis first met while at university in South Africa, and though they didn’t immediately hook up, several chance encounters — including sharing studio space — in Johannesburg dictated that destiny had other ideas. Whether it be fashion, food, travel, editorials, ads, décor or portraiture, between them, the pair cover just about all possible bases, and sometimes combine their photography prowess (as they have for Verve), though are officially independent freelancers.
“We help each other out,” says Michael. “And Vanessa’s the easiest person to work with.”
And the feeling’s mutual, Vanessa?
“I’m not so sure,” her husband chuckles.
The amiable couple made the move to Aotearoa two years ago, in search of quiet and care-free new life — a slice of paradise in which to raise their eight-year-old daughter, Nina. Michael’s 20-year-old son, Mathew is also attending film school here. “I’m so in love with New Zealand,” beams Vanessa. “It still feels like a holiday and I’m trying to explore every part of the country. I love cows — and there’s a cow around every corner!”
It’s in keeping with Vanessa’s forte for she favours photographing food and travel. “Travel and food go hand in hand,” says the snapper. “One of my happiest professional memories was for a food magazine shoot in Mexico about the origins of hot chocolate. Air France were sponsoring it, so we had a stopover in France and ended up eating in Paul Bocuse’s kitchen. He came and sat with us, it was an amazing experience.”
Much of Michael’s photography captures interesting characters. I ask him what it takes to take compelling portraits, and what it teaches him of the human condition. “A portrait setting is quite a complicated process,” he says. “You have to make a person feel comfortable — though, sometimes you must make them feel uncomfortable to emphasise a certain aspect of their personality or profession. When a person sits in front of a camera, they feel potentially judged. They have no control over the way people will views that portrait in the future. There is a lot of trust involved.”
You need strong interpersonal skills.
“Yes, you have to be a personable person, if you are naturally grumpy, it won’t work. You need to be confident also, to give off a certain energy. It’s like working with an animal, if you’re nervous, the animal picks up on it. It’s the same when you’re working with people.”
Your careers span the digital age. How did that change things, and do you miss the old days of film?
“My first year of training was only in black and white, and learning how to use the dark room,” says Vanessa. “Many of the dark room skills can be transferred to photoshop. I enjoy the freedom and the intimacy of digital, it makes things easier for me and the clients.”
“When I sold my dark room, I celebrated!” adds Michael. “All those days and nights spent on orange and yellow lights. It’s a very laborious process.”
Are you fans of social media?
“Digital photography has democratised the image-making process,” says Michael. “Social media provides avenues for photographers to show other sides of their personalities. Some use it to showcase their work, others for behind the scenes shots — as a way of validating themselves. Vanessa and I use Instagram as a visual release, a place where we don’t have to feel that we have to be saying something. We can just respond to the world around us in a noncommittal, pleasurable way.” It is, continues Michael, a celebration of their life experiences, without the pressure. He goes on: “I recently spoke to a photographer in Australia who told me he has to be so careful about what he uploads to Instagram because people are watching. But I think that if you’re using it that way it creates too much pressure, and are you really enjoying it then? I want to be able to enjoy my visuals, to express myself freely.”
Looking back, is there anything you wish you knew when you first started out?
“To be practical, I wish I’d had a better archiving system,” admits Vanessa. “Michael did, but I didn’t and I lost photos, and I regret that. Also, when you finish studies, you have all these great ambitions and sometimes you don’t want to take on the little jobs that don’t pay much or aren’t glamourous. But they are an important part in developing your career. You build confidence and relationships. Much can grow out them.”
Michael wishes he didn’t put himself under so much pressure. “I became relatively successful quite early on in my career, and I was desperate to continue that trajectory,” he says. “I would have sleepless nights before big shoots, and work myself into a state of anxiety.” In the days that followed shoots, Michael would over self-analyse, dwell on what he would have done differently, and become critical of his own work. “If I could go back, I would tell myself to relax,” he says. “That you are growing, and you will continue to grow. Be kind to yourself and enjoy the process.”
Both say a big part of attaining success is the ability to be accommodating. There is so much talented competition out there that securing a shoot can come down to the client choosing the photographer they’d rather spend time with. “I was working with some of the biggest brands in South Africa, but when I came to New Zealand, nobody knew who I was,” says Vanessa. “It was a case of starting again. I may have been a big shot in Johannesburg, but it doesn’t matter now. You must learn the new rules, and earn respect. The industry is smaller here, and New Zealanders are very loyal and have a friendly approach to work, which is a good thing, but it makes it harder to get in. It did take longer than we thought it would, but you just have to keep at it. It’s all working out now.”