Interview with Vicky Grout

How a fan with a camera became Grime’s go-to photographer

Vicky Grout lets us in on the importance of telling a story through photography and why you should never be too critical of your own work.

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Stepping into the spotlight

Vicky Grout was a hobby photographer who used to go to music gigs and take pictures of the acts she saw. In April 2015, a picture she took of Grime star Skepta became the cover for his album Shutdown. Since then, she’s photographed Grime’s brightest stars, including Stormzy and Wiley. You can find her photos splashed across Time Out and music magazine, Fader. We caught up with her to talk about portraits and pursuing her passion.

How did you first get your pictures noticed?

"Well, initially I wasn’t trying to do that. I was just going to raves with my friends and took photos and put them on my blog. It wasn’t to get anything out there. It was just somewhere for me to put them. This was pre-Instagram and pre-social media as it is today.

 

It was more around 2014/2015 that my work started to get noticed. I was shooting UK music generally but was specifically shooting Grime music when that was getting more attention. Because more people were following that genre of music, more people were seeing my work as well."

So, you ‘came up’ with Grime?

"Yes, but it was all so unintentional. I was a raver and a fan with a camera."

Did you feel like you were part of something special?

"It’s exciting to document something which is underground or up and coming. My pictures have got us both [Skepta] noticed, so I feel like we’re helping each other out."

You’ve taken pictures of people as diverse as a café owner and Stormzy. Do you approach these subjects differently?

"To be honest, not really. I approach things in a natural and candid style anyway but it definitely helps if I’m a fan. The important thing is to make the person you’re shooting feel comfortable."

Do you coach the people you photograph? Do you tell them what you want from them?

"It’s a bit of that and a bit of finding out what they want to do. I shoot lots of different people, so they all have different expectations. Models obviously know what they’re doing. I can direct them to do all kinds of weird things. But if it’s an artist or just a normal person, I chat to them and try to help them loosen up. I want them to be themselves and do what comes naturally to them. In that scenario, I don’t want them to try to do any super crazy poses."

Onto portrait photos. Do you feel the background and surroundings are as important as the subject?

"Definitely as important. If the background isn’t done right, you can ruin the image. You don’t want a background that’s too cluttered or noisy. Sometimes I can spend a long time getting the background right for a portrait. Other times, I’ll be wandering around and see a place I like and shoot there. I like to work quite spontaneously like that. Just go for a little wander and find a great place to shoot."

Grime artist performing on stage

Do you carry around a lot of equipment when you do photo shoots, like extra lenses and lighting?

"Yes and no. Sometimes I have several cameras and each camera has a different set up, so that comes with equipment and lenses. But that’s when I shoot on film. When I shoot on digital, it can do a lot of the things without the need for extra equipment. (Check out Vicky shooting a portrait session with just a Huawei P20 Pro). It all depends on what I’m shooting and where it’s happening. Carrying all the equipment around has caused me back problems and RSI, but I guess that’s what comes with following your passion. I’m definitely suffering for my art."

Selfies are about the most widely-taken portraits. Is there such a thing as a really good selfie?

"I don’t really take them anymore. I used to take them when I was younger. I think the problem that most people have is a dirty lens. You should always give it a wipe. I saw one recently which was the best one I’d ever seen. It was a girl on a boat with the sunlight hitting her and the water behind her. So, again, I’d say it’s all about the background and lighting. The Huawei P20 Pro has Portrait Mode, so it’s worth using that."

A lot of your pictures seem to have a sense of story. Is that something you try to guide or is that left to the viewer to interpret?

"I think it’s a bit of both. When I’m shooting real people, I’m just documenting that person’s story and that’s what naturally comes over in the images."

What’s the main thing that keeps you wanting to take photographs?

"Deep down it’s because this was a hobby first. There are a lot of people who got into photography but had another career first. I was very lucky in that respect. Making this a career was never my intention. I love music, I loved that type of music, those were the shows I’d go to. So I think it’s important that it’s a full-on passion. It’s like we talked about – I’ve always wanted to be around music and document it, but it’s also about telling stories. So much can be said with a portrait. And there’s so many places I’d like to visit and capture. I’ve always done this, ever since I was a child. Always making things and painting things. I’ve never been an academic person, much more of a visual person – so it’s a natural fit."

O2 Sessions is about unlocking potential. What advice do you have for someone who wants to get into photography?

"Find a topic or a niche you’re passionate about, because if you’re not passionate, it will come through in your work and people will see that. And you’ll get bored of it very, very quickly. The more you shoot, the more you’re learning and the more you’re building your craft. Make sure you get your work out there. I know so many amazing artists who torture themselves over their work and never put anything out – and nobody sees it. Don’t be overly critical of yourself and your work."

Three portrait tips to get you started:

  1. Get to a stage where you’re shooting fully manually. You don’t have to right at the beginning, but that should be the aim.
  2. Practise on your friends. The more you practise, the more you’ll get to know your personal style.
  3. Look for inspiration from other people’s work. Don’t compare yourself with them, but just look at things you like and would like to try yourself.

To see Vicky’s guide to perfect portraits, check out her O2 Sessions video on Portraits and look through her back catalogue on Instagram or her website.

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