The remarkable story of a remarkable photographer who changed his world from working with homeless kids on the street to looking through the eye of the lens, shooting everyone from Beckham to the Royals
How do you change your life? That was the question Grant Squibb addressed everyday in his job as a social worker, trying to persuade young homeless kids to get off the street and accept some help. As he says in the interview below, in a different way it’s the choice he faced when the BBC came looking for someone to feature in their programme about people changing their professions. How do you change your life?
A decade on, and photographer Grant Squibb has photographed the celebrity royalty of the Beckhams, the aristocratic royalty of Royal family, and the blue-bloods of beauty and hairstyling, Vidal Sassoon. As Fatboy Slim once said, You’ve Come A Long Way, Baby.
When we bumped into him at the Image Source Photographer’s Workshop Squibb actually had come a long way, back from a nine-day ‘Brazil’ shoot in Rio with Jeremy Rice.
Both of them gave a presentation engaging the audience with the same fascinating blend of charm, passion and ease that must have been effective working with street-kids. Also unlike many interviewees (and interviewers, I often spin out a question with more sub-clauses than a submarine of Santas), the fact he thinks and speaks in fully formed sentences, spinning out anecdotes, has a magnetic quality.
In that sense he is exactly where he was 10 years ago. As he points out below, strangely the same qualities of making people feel relaxed work in the studio as much as they do on the street. You see how people respond to him his portraiture.
As Squibb points out himself there are technical things you need to execute to give you a chance of a quality photograph, and if you’re creating a portrait, there’s the other things such as your dynamic with people and choosing the moment. His best portraits express an uncontrived honesty, such a difficult idea to communicate.
Below Squibb eloquently tells the story journey he made from working on the streets to working behind the camera.
1. A shot of a single object that expresses a powerful memory/event
This ring was Mum’s. She passed away last year and she left me her favourite Tiger’s Eye ring that she wore every day. Earlier this year I had the ring redesigned so I could wear it, I think the jewellery designer did a great job and I love it and wear it with pride. Not ashamed to say I was a Mum’s boy and I miss her everyday, the ring makes me feel close to her.
2. An image of three books that have inspired you?
Martin Parr – This was my first photography book and signed by the man himself. It’s where it all started and I have spent hours staring in wonderment at this guy’s work and his ability to turn the mundane into art has always fascinated me.
Stop Smoking – Alan Carr. I had to put this in as I quit a year ago, and this time for good. I’m determined to enter my 50’s fit and healthy (Currently 46!!) I’ve put on 1 ½ stone since quitting but I smell better and feel great, and I’m now on a mission to get back in shape.
The five people you meet in heaven – Mitch Albom. This is an inspiring little book that made me think. I’m a big believer that books come to you for a reason and this book came to me at a time when I needed a little direction, I’m not sure it gave me that but it has stayed with me and made me contemplate. It’s not a huge literary masterpiece but I’m fond of it for what it gave me at a time I felt a little sad.
3. Favourite photo you have taken?
To me this image symbolizes the beginning of my hair photography career as this shot was taken on the very first shoot I did for The Vidal Sassoon Academy London – and everyone went crazy about it. It was the beginning of my ongoing and successful relationship with the Academy. I continue to work with them and I’m very proud that I have helped the London team win four Global hair competitions.
As a result of this I have gone on to work with some great names in the hair world, Proctor & Gamble, Joico, Clairol, Londa, and Hob Salons, most recently a collaboration with Toni & Guy led to two of my images chosen to appear in their prestigious global publication – the T&G Look Book 2013/2014.
4. My favourite image maker?
The list is huge, I am inspired by huge names as much as my artist and photographer friends, but if I had to pick one I would choose the photographer Philip-Lorca diCorcia. As an ex-social worker specialising in street homeless youth, his series of Hustlers on Sunset Boulevard is absolutely amazing and really speaks to me (see Ashley Jouhar’s review). Recently I queued up in the Photographer’s Gallery in central London where Mr Lorca diCorcia was book signing and when it came to my turn I rambled on at him about my past life working with young people living on the street, and raved about his series Hustlers. He stared at me blankly and I forgot to even ask him one question – I just talked at him about myself, then was ushered out! What a missed opportunity! What an ass I can be!
5. Was there one moment, one thing that made you realise you had to take a leap of faith and jump into the world of the professional photographer?
I had my dream job. I worked with youth homeless. I had qualified as a social worker and I realised that it was the most exciting thing you could work in within that field. You didn’t specialise in mental health or substance misuse or in self-harm. Working with homeless kids meant I had to be competent in all of those areas. Up until the last four years of my 11 years I worked in Residential, I worked for Centrepoint, I managed a winter shelter one year, I met the Princess of Wales, she was our patron, she came down and hung out with us one year.
But the actual work itself was frustrating because we would do a big piece of work with a kid and then on a Monday they’d have been evicted. I knew I wanted to have more power to effect change. That’s when I left Centrepoint and went to work for a government initiative, to reduce rough sleeping and was part of a contact and assessment team, a multi-disciplinary team. I was the youth specialist for Westminster. I had the best job you could imagine. I was liasing directly with prisons, drug rehabs, it was exciting and perhaps 60 percent of my week was based on the street. There I was doing this job, breaking my arse really. They do say that the burnout factor for the outreach workers working with that client group is about 2 years – I had been doing it for about four and a half years. It is really exhausting and my job was contact and assessment, new kids, runaways, get them quickly off the street or support long-term homeless under 25. I had a case-load of about 30 kids that wouldn’t work with anybody else, that were too difficult. So there I was doing this job, where I was in essence, trying to reinvent people, trying to show them a different lifestyle that was more healthy or less dangerous or less criminal. And then one day, it was about 10 years ago since ‘I got the phone call’ from the BBC, saying they’d heard about the work that I was doing, and would I be interested in having a team of professionals change careers into something else. “Is this a joke? I’m busy!” Seemingly what had happened was that Channel 4’s Faking It was massive at that time, top viewing figures and the BBC wanted to do something similar, to change people’s careers forever. They decided they were going to follow 6 contributors, and they had a psychological profile of those 6. They wanted a housewife, they wanted a farmer whose cattle had been lost to BSE (it was a huge story at the time); they wanted an office bod who bounced around and didn’t really settle; they wanted a hairdresser; and they wanted somebody from the caring professions, a doctor, a social worker, somebody who was out there helping other people. They had five people in place, but didn’t have the sixth. They were advertising it all over the place – The Lady, The Guardian, the papers social workers were reading.
They didn’t get who they wanted and quite quickly they heard about this work we were doing with kids in Central London on the street. And to them that makes great telly. And quite quickly because I was the youth specialist, they found me and that’s how come I got that phone call.
I’m a man who’s not afraid of life. I definitely want to meet you, what’s in it for me. I had no desire at all to be on the TV, but I met with them, they had a camera and I hadn’t agreed that but they said we just want to see if you look all right on camera. Seemingly I did, and they were really, really keen for me to be a sixth contributor. I thought about it long and hard, and I really believe life gives you what you are ready for. And I would kind of felt hypocritical not to accept this incredible offer, because in essence that’s what I was doing on the street, then someone came and offered me exactly the same thing – a new life, a chance to do something different. I agreed, and signed the document, and sold my soul to the devil because I knew then they were going to start filming me.
They filmed me for a year in total, and for the first three months they filmed me working on the streets. We turned my leaving into a learning tool, everybody knew about it, all the homeless kids, a year later when it was shown on the BBC, the London Connection I worked for, they opened up the doors, invited homeless kids from all over and they put a massive screen up. I think maybe a hundred kids turned up and they made them popcorn and they all watched my story.
Without sounding pious I wanted to turn it into something inspirational. Any one of us can change our careers if we want to but there is a formula: a supportive partner or not one at all, you need a little bit of money in the bank, luckily I had a house so I could release some equity out and take a year off; and you need a bit of courage. At the time my partner was working for OK! magazine, a celebrity editor, so I had this weird double life at the time where I was behind the Savoy [hotel] with the crackheads and the junkies and then in the evening I’d go to these crazy celebrity parties. I also often went on shoots. When Jade came out of the Big Brother house, there was a bidding war and OK! magazine bought her for a million quid, and I was there in that first shoot, in the background. I always thought wow what a fantastic job, the photographer. When the TV company asked what career would you like – as social workers we never indulged ourselves with the question of what career we’d like – and it didn’t automatically spring to me that I wanted to be a photographer. I had to do some exploring because this was a massive opportunity. But I kept on coming back to photography, it was something tangible it wasn’t this crazy career I’d never heard of.
6. How did you get to work with Tony Briggs and Martin Parr?
I was allocated two mentors and some time with Martin Parr. At the time, I didn’t know it, but they made the mentors into the Good Cop, Bad Cop. One mentor was a paparazzi guy, the other mentor was Tony Briggs. I found Tony Briggs because I’d gone to Cotton Mutton Bones photography agency, they’d filmed me going there, and I loved his photography. It was accessible, it was very cross-processed as everything was back then, and it was funny, it had a real sense of humour. That’s how Tony came on board, and 10 years later I’m still assisting him, I’m more like an Art Director now, he brings me in. I’m still working with him and I owe him so much, he absolutely handed me a career on a plate 10 years ago. Still now, I have an issue with copyright, some of my photos are being used that I haven’t agreed to and he’s the first person I go to. He’s still my mentor 10 years on. I was at his wife’s birthday party recently, I saw his kids grow up, he’s only two years older than me but it was a match made in heaven. We had so much in common.
As part of the TV programme, it was an insult to the industry that I was going to turn into a photographer in those 12 months. Actually what I became was an incredibly proficient photographer’s assistant, and I moved up the ranks from his third to his first assistant during the time of the tv programme.
Because I was 35 when I started all of this, I knew I could kind of get away with all of this. Tony said to me I’m going to tell you what the biggest secret in photography is, and I said what’s that then, and he said “It’s really easy!” And it is, once you’ve learned the technical side of things and I had incredible people skills working all those years with people as a social worker which I didn’t realise I had, everything I used to do was totally transferable. My job was contact and assessment, meeting kids on the street, and I had to convince them to come to a hostel rather than go off with a crack dealer, I had 30 seconds to win them over, those skills of making people very quickly relaxed around me, transfer that to a studio. It means everyone is really relaxed in my shoots, the models know what’s going on…
Right from the beginning Tony would ask my opinion “What do you think of this…?” and that in essence has made me realise that to get the final end result, the image, it has taken a whole team of people.
I might have pressed that button, but my assistant is as important as the make-up artist, the make-up artist’s assistant is just as important as the retoucher we are all one big team and that has worked really well for me. That’s why I have such a loyal team around me. My assistant has been with me 3½ years, my make-up artist has been with me five years, we have Christmas staff parties. Having a strong team around me has enabled me keep my identity in a big massive world of photography and that boils down to the way I am on a shoot.
7. How did you get such prestigious clients so quickly?
The reason I have worked with Victoria Beckham, I’ve worked with the Palace, is basically because I’ve lived in London since I was 19 and I’ve got friends in all walks of life rooting for me. They knew this great job I’d done with the kids, and everybody was 100 per cent behind my reinvention. Consequently from day one, everyone has thrown me work, because they want me to do well. Luckily because I can do it, and they like what I do, I get asked back. It has led me to Beckingham Palace and Buckingham Palace.
8. You were one of three photographers chosen by the palace to shoot The Queen, Camilla and Kate on their first official outing at Fortnum & Mason. Weeks later you went on to accompany Prince Charles and Camilla to the Piccadilly street party, how did the relationship come about, and how did you approach the shots?
It’s the strangest thing photographing the royals – their every move is a complex choreography that is planned months in advance – and as a photographer entering their world you have to dance along with them. For many years now I have been in-house photographer for the PR Company that represents many cool companies including Fortnum & Masons the venue for this Royal outing. It was a great experience, and a complete honour to be so close to such an informal royal meeting. I got some great pictures of the royal party and It was noted that I was completely professional and appropriate, and when they needed a photographer to accompany Charles and Camilla a couple of months later they came to me.
Just to keep going. Not to sit on your laurels. I don’t believe I have made it, I’m constantly working, constantly retouching, constantly seeking new clients, constantly cold-calling, constantly trying to make my portfolio, my branding, better, nicer, more professional. I want to do this for the rest of my life and I know it is a young man’s game, thousands of photography students come on to the job market every year. I don’t want to be a famous photographer, I don’t want a book in Waterstone’s, I just want enough money to put food in the fridge and to go on holidays a couple of times a year. See Grant Squibb’s website here and his Brazil shoot here