In October of last year I was commissioned by Guardian Weekend Magazine to photograph Susan Boyle at her home in Blackburn West Lothian. It wasn’t the kind of commission that you leave small details to chance so I asked a recent photography graduate Borja Prada Garcia if he was interested in assisting me. I met Borja earlier in the year when I helped out at the portfolio reviews at Edinburgh’s Telford College: he showed some great work and seemed like a really enthusiastic guy.
The picture editor had mentioned that the piece might make the cover so at the last minute I also decided to take a background with me. This was an unusual decision for me as I rarely use backgrounds and in the past I have always chosen the location or made the best of the location that was presented to me. But on this occasion I was to be confined to Susan’s new build, which she bought after she was made famous on Britain’s Got Talent, and is not far from her childhood home in Blackburn. I was worried that the house might not provide a good background and I felt that I couldn’t leave this to chance- I wanted to make sure I really covered my bases.
On the day of the shoot heavy fog clung to land, as we made our way to Susan’s house and I thought to myself- this is going to make a great portrait. Around 20 minutes away from Blackburn I got a call to say that Susan’s flight had been cancelled due to heavy fog. We continued to the house to have a good look around and prepare for the rescheduled shoot.
I shot these test images in the soft light which was produced by the foggy conditions: I felt thoroughly prepared to take Susan’s portrait the following day and I was looking forward to it.
The following day conditions were completely different- harsh sunlight bore down on us as we prepared everything for Susan Boyle’s arrival. It just goes to show no matter how well you prepare, when you shoot using ambient you are always at the mercy of the weather- the conditions were far more challenging and I was forced to adapt.
The decision to bring the background presented an interesting question: how much should you change the way you work when you are commissioned by a magazine? There is no doubt that this decision affected the way I worked and the images I produced. I know there were better images I missed because I was thinking about what images the magazine had used in the past. But in retrospect, my answer to this question is still torn. On one hand the picture editor commissioned me because she likes my work and the way I do things- I don’t think your going to get very far if you drastically change your methodology at every turn. On the other hand, you probably do need to adapt to any given situation as well as you can, and you should be trying new things to make sure your work doesn’t stagnate. So perhaps meeting in the middle and trying to provide the best of both worlds is the answer, but at the same time doing your utmost to make work that is unmistakably yours.