Sam Barker is a multi award-winning photographer with a signature cinematic lighting style. His work has seen him commissioned for campaigns for Hugo Boss, BBC, Glenfiddich, and Land Rover. Sam has shot subjects as diverse as Lewis Hamilton and the world’s most successful CEOs to tribal chiefs in Africa. In addition to this, Sam is also a regular contributor to the National Portrait Gallery, where he has 14 portraits in the permanent collection, including images of Sir David Attenborough to commemorate his 90th Birthday and Tim Peake to celebrate his first mission into space.
Hi Sam! So, how did you get into photography?
I was working with a builder friend, repairing roofs when I had a bad motorcycle accident. While I was recovering, I was introduced to the photographer Matthew Donaldson, who invited me to visit his studio. I started assisting him which I really enjoyed. I then started taking my own pictures and enjoyed that even more. After two years I took a one-year college course at the London College of Printing. This enabled me to work on my portfolio, which consisted mostly of black and white lift prints. I started by taking portraits of my friends in Camden Town, who were all musicians and artists at the time. I didn’t have my own equipment so I borrowed their lights and equipment and just continued to photograph writers and artists around London and the UK in order to get a real start.
Wow, so up to that point you never picked up a camera? And did you have an eye for photos or was it something you developed once you started assisting?
I always enjoyed looking at pictures but had no real interest in taking them. I suppose at the time I just never explored it. It turns out I am actually a very visual person! These days I see everything in f/stops and I think in light. I must have always been this way and didn’t realize in those days what skill it was.
And how did you come up with your style?
It all started because I tried to mimic Hollywood portraits and due to my fascination with light. Even if I’m in a jungle somewhere, I like to light everything. It’s really important to make my work stand out. It’s a good way to find your style. Sometimes I regret it when I’m traipsing around with lots of lights in my backpack! It can be difficult but I’ve always maintained that style and I think that’s really important.
Aside from the stars you shoot, how do you get everyday people to open up during a shoot?
When there are language barriers I try to be very open and read people to a certain extent. I get to know people from their faces and then I know how to engage with them.
“Before I even took a picture, my 80mm lens was smashed.”
You certainly were able to do that with your “Omo Valley” project. Can you tell a little bit more about that?
A friend of mine just got back from Ethiopia and we talked about the positive experience he had there. Hearing him talk about Addis Ababa made me look into Ethiopia. I came across the Omo Valley and it really blew my mind. I knew I wanted to photograph the tribes from there. Within two hours I booked flights and began researching until we left. I always wanted to photograph the Mursi people, because they’re visually very interesting and have a history behind the lip plate. I also wanted to photograph the Hamar people because they are a very peaceful tribe.
When we arrived in Ethiopia, we started in the capital and drove to the Omo Valley. Our first step was to meet the village chief of the Mursi people to explain to him what I wanted to do. We were then invited into the village to do our first set of portraits. I treated it like I would an editorial job. I was trying to come up with backgrounds and situations that they felt comfortable and honored to be part of.
There were a few problems with the shoot of the Mursi people. It became apparent that the translator attempted to double cross them. As I was setting up my tripod and lights, a warrior came running down the hill with a machine gun. He started pointing at the interpreter and that’s when my camera and lights got knocked over and I thought I was going to be shot. Before I even took a picture, my 80mm lens was smashed. After speaking with the chief and a lot of negotiation, we got rid of that guy and were allowed to shoot. I shot the whole thing on medium format, on a 50mm which actually was a better lens to use for the whole project.
The next tribe, the Hamar, was the polar opposite. It was almost like a sort of perfect vision of Africa. They could not have been more welcoming.
Would you say that’s your most memorable shoot?
It’s definitely not far off. There’s never been an incident quite as crazy as that. I’ve done two or three different sets of tribes and they’re definitely interesting people just because of the nature of how they live.
I try to show the“heroism” in people and capture a nobleness and strength in them.
And what inspires your personal projects?
A huge body of my work is personal and this has always been really important to me. I’ve always been inspired by people’s work and living environment. I try to show the“heroism” in people and capture a nobleness and strength in their characters.
Your photos are in one of the most extensive galleries in the world, the National Portrait Gallery. Can you tell me about that and the images that are in the gallery?
Some of the photos are earlier work I did when I was in college because it was an opportunity for me to process my photos for free. I didn’t have any money so I went to ILFORD, showed them my work and they sponsored me. They gave me 5×4 film and chemicals. I took photos of a set of writers and artists. I dived into the deep end, which was a good challenge for me.
Every year, I go through who I shot and select what photos to submit. There are certain qualifications such as they had to be British and they have to be within a certain sphere of the arts. When I have some I’ll go down to Clare Freestone, a curator for the National Portrait Gallery and show my work. It goes through several boards and meetings and they come up with a list of what they’re interested in.
It’s a good feeling to know my picture will be there longer than I’ll be around.
And what does that mean to your career and personal life to have them in that gallery?
I think as a portrait photographer it’s a real accolade to have work in the National Portrait Gallery. It’s a good feeling to know my picture will be there longer than I’ll be around. However, I do think there’s more importance around building an impressive identity and website if you really want to get noticed by potential clients.
And what percentage would you attribute your success to luck and hard work?
I think there’s definitely luck. Your work needs to be seen by the right people. But I think if you put the hard work in you will gain rewards. It’s about making sure that you apply yourself with the same passion for whatever imagery you’re taking. I think it’s really important.
You’re also fortunate enough to work in both London and New York, what’s it like working between both cities?
I’m represented in both, but the nature of my work is shooting people in their own environment. I think all companies want to tell the story of where their product came from.
The main difference would be the level of professionalism in the US. It’s really inspiring and it’s moving more into the UK. For instance, the assistants in the UK have become much better in the last five years. They’ve gotten to a much higher level of professionalism and it’s now seen as a proper job.
In your portfolio, you also show motion/video. Why did you decide to include this?
I think it’s important for photographers to be able to create ‘motion’ and would advise others to get their head around it. Their clients will then be able to rely on them to do that.
I try to have constant light whenever possible now, whenever the budget allows it. It allows me to create small bits of film that have the same feel as my stills. You can’t do that with a strobe. You could easily build up a nice body of work by shooting just a small bit of film with each shoot you do.
What are you shooting with these days?
I shoot with a Phase One most of the time. For reportage work or when I’m just with a backpack I use a Nikon 850 and I have a Nikon Z6 as a backup.
I’m trying to evolve and do something that helps my career every day.
Do you remember the moment you thought “I made it!”?
I’m still on that journey. I’m trying to evolve and do something that helps my career every day. My attitude is to keep working or thinking about work most of the time, in terms of the next project or pitch. If you begin to rest on your laurels or take things for granted, you might find your work dries up.
Who inspired you?
In my early days, Matthew Donaldson had a very strong influence on me. Not necessarily in style, but certainly in learning how to deal with people. It had a big effect on me.
Style-wise, I always loved Horst P and Irving Penn. I think Irving’s book, Small Trades is one of the greatest photographic books. He brought dignity to those people and that’s still very inspiring for me. I also love Vincent Peters work and the way that he uses reflective light and water to reflect onto architecture. It’s just stunning.
Any final advice for up and coming photographers?
It’s really important to get up every morning and do something that helps your career. It doesn’t matter if it’s personal or commercial. Otherwise, you’ll get taken over by other people. It’s a very competitive industry and you have to constantly evolve. That’s the great thing about it.
Thanks so much, Sam!