I first met Alex Duffill during the 2017 London Nocturne. Midway through a degree in Editorial and Advertising Photography, he had a place on the Leica Camera workshop shadowing Marshall Kappel for the day. Fast forward a year since that first chance meeting and we caught up to discuss post-graduation plans and why he tries to avoid the word ‘like’.
When we speak Alex admits to finding the reality of three years of study finally coming to an end a little difficult to process. Reflecting back on the focus of his degree programme, it’s primarily the importance of narrative that he now considers when planning for a shoot. That it isn’t enough to just take pictures which are pleasing to the eye.
‘It’s an approach,’ suggests Alex, ‘that makes any body of work stronger and more likely to resonate with whoever is viewing it. A lot of it comes down to the pre-production that precedes any shoot; going in with a clear understanding of your client’s needs. But then, when the time comes, you need to work flexibly and react to what unfolds.’
‘Basically it’s down to someone’s opinion whether a particular image works,’ he continues. ‘As long as they don’t use the word ‘like’ [laughs]. It was drilled into us on my degree course that it’s too subjective and means nothing. But I’m pretty laid back when it comes to feedback. I feel it’s important to listen as I never want to feel that I’m standing still; that I’ve stopped questioning or trying to improve. And sometimes you can get too close to a body of work – too emotionally attached – so it’s useful to draw on another individual’s perspective before you divide the two. Identifying the images you feel really work but not being upset if someone asks you to try a different approach to the one you’ve taken. Not always an easy aspect of my job to balance but it’s just a photograph at the end of the day.’
Favouring media subjects when considering his high school options, on reflection it was the 2014 Cyclocross World Cup coming to Milton Keynes that led Alex to consider a career in photography. The first time – covering an event – that he knowingly tried to offer a broader response to who was there and why rather than simply documenting what was happening.
‘A strong composition is always important but I think eye contact – particularly at the moment – is a massive thing. Portraits that reach out and grab your attention. There’s a shot I took of Mike Cuming at the Rás last year that’s a fair representation of my style. The sense of exhaustion in the way he’s standing immediately after finishing a race. Taken from only a metre away using a 24mm prime as I like to get in close without pissing anyone off [laughs]. The equipment I use isn’t small by any means so it can make people feel awkward. So building a rapport – being really open and honest, friendly and approachable – is very important.’
Creating video content as well as still imagery, Alex feels the switch between the two helps keep his approach fresh but describes a craving for the other after a certain amount of time working with a single medium.
‘The composition can be similar for both – all my Instagram photographs are cropped to 16:9 – but with video you also need to consider sound together with a load more complications that you wouldn’t necessarily have if you were taking a still image. It’s fun, though, and a little like solving a puzzle. You just have to solve it whilst someone’s in front of you.’
Alex understands that in developing a body of work – no matter how talented an individual – it can sometimes come down to being in the right place at the right time. A train of events that led to his first shoot for Rapha; a company he’d long admired for the quality of the content they produce.
‘It was a week before the Nocturne that I got an email from Jack Saunders and Harry Downey to invite me in for a meeting. I’d just woken up and was sitting reading their message and wondering whether it was real. But I went down, showed them some of my work and out of that I ended up at the National Championships on the Isle of Man shooting images of Rhys Howells riding for Team Wiggins. And from there it’s just been crazy.’
Together with Marshall Kappel he lists Benedict Campbell, Jake Stangel, Emily Maye and Sean Hardy as contemporary photographers he admires; pointing to social media as the biggest current influence on the jobs he’s offered with 90% of his shoots commissioned purely for these platforms.
‘Brands clearly understand the advantages of strong media content,’ Alex suggests. ‘The big companies can get twenty, thirty, forty thousand likes in a day. And if that then translates into sales, you can see why there’s so much focus in terms of marketing.’
Commenting on his own use of social media and Instagram in particular, he admits that his feed is to a degree curated but adds that in his chosen profession it can act as an effective shop window. This aspect resulting in a certain caution when posting content and a tendency to take it all a little too seriously; a broad grin lighting up Alex’s face when he describes how much time he actually spends scrolling up and down on his phone.
‘I just like taking pictures. It’s still a passion of mine and it’s nice if people look at my work and want to be there. The day that I stop falling in love with it will be the day I find something else that I can do to earn a living. I’m always super excited to take on a project but when it starts to feel like a job then it’s time to move on.’
All images with kind permission of Alex Duffill.