An Informal Discussion with Photographer Stef Mitchell by Tim Boreham
Stef Mitchell is one of those 20 something creative types that is a perfect example of someone being where they are supposed to be. You know the ones, they end up somewhere unplanned doing something they are naturally talented at and in the end become part of the seemingly growing group of young people just doing what they want and how they want. Stef is a product of growing up in a supportive environment where creativity was encouraged and walking that path of “you can be whatever you wanna be” that so many of us like the idea of but never really work hard enough for. Stef Mitchell is a hard working photographer who understands that risks must be taken to succeed and that your journey is really all about learning and the sharing of skills without letting one’s ego get in the way. Stef’s humble approach towards photography combines her love for fashion photography and photo documentation by taking a candid look into her world as a 27yr old growing up and the love, friendships and youthful naivety that come with that part of life. We were lucky enough to have met Stef some time ago and reached out to her recently to see how her adventure had progressed in the some seven years since we met.
Where did life begin?
I grew up in what seemed like a giant retirement village, Lane Cove in Sydney AUS.
Do you think sometimes that suburban life can really spark something inside young people? It sounds cliché but that whole “ I have to get out of this town thing?”
For sure, I think suburbs can sometimes act as incubators. I guess if you find your environment uninspiring it can kill creativity or you can use ideas as a means of escape. I found the lack of distraction helped me focus and constantly be into one weird idea or another. I like reading about kids such as Guy and Howard Lawrence (Disclosure) and Lorde who both came from nowhere, living with their parents and have produced amazing bodies of work and had huge success. It’s definitely inspiring.
I’m always interested how creativity starts in kids or maybe all kids are born creative and some of us just sustain that creativity longer than others?
I guess I grew up around creative people, my mum was a ballet dancer and my aunt is an amazing artist/ illustrator. I was also an only child until 14 so I spent a lot of time alone drawing and generally being a weirdo.
Was this when you first picked up a camera? Those early teen days?
Yeah I have rolls of film from when I was about 7 onwards. Mostly I just liked the idea of what a photo was but my mum started buying nice cameras so I would play with them behind her back.
I’ve noticed your little sister is pretty awesome, seems like she may be influenced by your artistic ways? Are you guys close?
She is!! Charlotte is literally the coolest person I know. She’s only 13 and already has this crazy strong sense of self and doesn’t care what people think of her. When she was eight she asked to have her hair cut into a mowhawk “with shaved sides” like Billy Joe Armstrong from Green Day. We’re definitely close and I’m sure she’s influenced by me in some way, but she’s constantly creating videos, photos, music, drawings. Most of the time I’m in NY, and while we message and skype etc I’m not around her enough to take credit for influencing her or what she’s creating.
I’ve read some interesting articles about how young people have been constantly told they can be anything they want by their parents and teachers in the last ten years especially, because their generation was told to get a reliable job and work hard. There is a theory that this has caused a generation of young people entering the workforce with dreams of being just that, whatever they want. Often it doesn’t turn out how we want. However you are an example of someone achieving that dream, what do you think of this whole ‘you can do whatever you want, reach for the stars’ kind of attitude? I guess would you give that advice or different to say, your little sister?
I think giving someone confidence is a powerful thing, and I would definitely give that advice in a directional way. Initially “you can do whatever you want” is a good thing to say to a kid, but as they get older I think you need to zone it in, they need to be passionate about something by themselves and mean it. Then you make a plan and I think if you want something enough you can get it. Maybe that’s just me being a blind sighted moron, but in small ways this philosophy has worked for me so far. I understand why getting a “reliable job” in the past was necessary, but we’re lucky enough to live in a time where we have the option.
Photography or drawing first? Are they related for you? Or are they totally separate?
I guess I took photography more seriously and have spent the past few years learning as much as possible about it, drawing is just something I've been doing to release the ADD.
You are now living in NYC what inspired the move?
It kind of happened by accident, I never wanted to go and a friend dragged me there while we were traveling. I ended up being offered an internship so I went back for that with a backpack thinking I'd last 4 weeks max. I ended up falling in love with a girl, the city and my job, and I've been there now for almost 3 and a half years.
I guess living in NYC is a pretty big change from Lane Cove?
The biggest change is that you can walk down the street dressed like a crack head or buzz light year and no one will look twice at you. I love that.
Tell me about your relationship with such an amazing city.
I think most people who live here have a relationship with the city like it’s a girlfriend. You can be mad at it and it can treat you like shit, but you’ll always love it. It’s definitely a place of extremes, and I’ve felt some of the highest and lowest points of my life here. Many people have said it’s as if the city has it’s own feelings and mood swings and energy and I’d have to agree.
So many people dream of making that move to New York what do you think it takes to really make it a reality?
Just being stupid enough to do it and not thinking about any of the consequences.
New York is a place that could easily swallow creative people whole, there are just so many wonderful people doing amazing things. Is it sometimes hard being in a city like that? Or does it just fuel your ideas? I imagine it could be easy to lose your way.
I think it’s just a state of mind. I find it really insane to be around so much talent, in a good way. The friends that I’ve made here are constantly doing awesome things and it couldn’t make me happier. I know there’s a lot of competition in any industry here, but I just try and focus on my own work and go with my own ideas. Anything awesome that I see definitely just pushes me to try and be better. I think it’s where you’re personally at, if you find the city too much or uninspiring then it’s time to leave.
You have been assisting for some amazing photographers in NYC.
I’ve worked for a bunch of amazing people over the last few years. My first experience in photography was with Annie Leibovitz, which was incredible. I interned and worked with her for about 18mths, then I assisted freelance. I’ve assisted some really talented photographers, my favorites being Beau Grealy, Dan King and I learnt pretty much everything I know from Benny Horne. Benny really gave me my first chance when I didn’t know anything and I’m extremely lucky he wanted me around. I had some amazing experiences traveling overseas and seeing a lot of America working with him. This year I’m trying to transition more into shooting and having that be my priority. So fingers crossed!
How is the role of assisting compared to when you work by yourself? Is it sometimes hard stepping back and not being in charge of the photo?
It’s not really hard because I see it clear cut as a job. All the people I’ve worked with have worked hard to get where they are, and have assisted themselves, so I have a lot of respect for them and feel lucky to just be useful on their set.
How does your assisting work influence your work? If at all?
It definitely influences my work, assisting has given me an education I originally didn’t even know existed. I now know how to turn my ideas into images that are (hopefully) industry standard. So if I hadn’t spent the past few years stuffing my brain with knowledge I’d be limiting myself and my career.
Your work tends to really have this candid look into peoples lives especially young peoples lives and when looking at your photos I feel like I’m along on the adventure with you.
Originally I wanted to be a photojournalist so I guess that’s where the candid nature of my photos comes from. I don't think anyone can help their style or how they take photos, but I'm glad you feel like you're along on the adventures. I guess that's the ultimate goal, to make people connect with your picture, even if it's just for a second. I've been learning fashion photography and lighting for the past few years, so I guess I'm going to try and merge the two styles of journalistic and more thought out fashion images. Hopefully the result won't be too demented.
Do you think you tend to lean towards youth and that carefree lifestyle as a subject for both your drawings and photographs? IS there something there that appeals?
I think youth has been a subject for me because it's been my environment. My friends and I have grown up while I had a camera in my hand. When I think about it though, I do like the attitude of younger people and teenagers, whether they're carefree or totally obsessed with a certain style or concept, it's always done with a sense of aggression and I like that. I also love photographers such as Ari Marcolpolous and Larry Clarke - both who capture the lifestyle of young people in a really intimate way.
What gets you excited in photography/art?
Usually what my friends are creating. Whether it's exhibitions, books, music, plays etc. That usually gets me excited about what’s going on.
How’s the future looking?
My five year plan is to get a female cat and call her Phil Collins, and to start a band called Paradise Punch.
What music would paradise punch play?
Only Elton John covers.