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Social Impact: Proving you don’t need a degree or professional training to be a photographer. Finding a new way to see the world.
For those who have never visited East London and want to know the best place to go to immerse yourself in the world of the local artist, we always recommend Redchurch Street. It’s relatively unknown to many tourists, but locals will know it as the hub of all things creative. Coffee shops spill out onto the street of local writers, creators and photographers in a bid to find their freelance spot for the day.
One such place is Modern Society, Paradise Row favourite retail-experience-come-cafe, which is where we meet Claire Menary one wintery morning. She’s just one of the locals carving their own way in the industry; and her astounding success on her blog and social media is thanks to a keen eye and impeccable taste; proof that you don’t need a prestigious qualification to make moves in the photography world.
She’s self-branded as a ‘lifestyle photographer’, meaning that whether it’s a castle in Switzerland or a dish in a local eatery, it can be explored through the ‘Claire Menary lens’. We asked about who inspired her to first pick up that camera:
“I’m actually not from an arty background at all; when I was growing up, my mum was always taking photos which we kept in albums, but it was never something that I really focused on. As I grew up, I was always taking photos, but it was mostly rubbish ones of my friends.”
That’s how you start, though!
“Exactly, you just realise that you love taking photos of your friends or your self looking stupid, but then it turns into objects and places and the interest grows from there. I didn’t do much photography when I was at uni where I was studying Law. I’d take pictures on my phone on a night out so that love of taking pictures was kind of always running in the background. I never thought in a million years I would be a photographer.
How did you begin to make that transition into someone that took it more seriously?
“I liked having a nice camera, so every year I’d get a better camera and then a better one until I got a really amazing camera without realising just how good it was. One year, I spent too much money on a Wednesday evening at the camera shop; from there I decided to start to learn!”
What stage were you at when you decided to learn the technicalities of photography?
“It was actually only four to five years ago, I never really understood the technical side when I started, it was always self taught. I didn’t take it seriously, it was something I just loved. One day, I just decided to take it off auto and go fully manual! It look a lot of time to understand but as soon as it clicks its so great— there’s a whole new world opened up to you. So many people are afraid to take it off manual, but once I give them a mini masterclass, they realise just how simple it actually is!”
Your photography has such a dreamy film quality to it; is this achieved through film or digital?
“Always, always digital, I’ve never ventured into film, it’s a whole other world to me so I need the right headspace to venture into it.”
What is it about digital that clicks with you creatively?
“The main thing for me was that it was definitely more accessible. With film, the professional side is way more technical; you have to be incredibly skilled to pull it off. For someone like me when I was deciding to make a go of it, I needed that safety net— I love digital! Right now, I wouldn’t be able to adjust the settings in my head without seeing it on a screen; you need to master digital to do film— that’s definitely a project for next year!”
There’s definitely a stigma against digital in the industry, that some see it as lazy.
“Exactly, but I don’t think it’s lazy— it’s convenient. We can take photos on the go in so many different environments, climates and situations, and it’s so powerful.”
Let’s go back to your journey and how it started— what was your journey from school days to now?
“I was one of those kids who got good grades in school, but I had no clue what I wanted to do. I knew a law degree under my belt would prove to people I had a brain, but I didn’t have a passion towards any career route. When I left uni and came to London, I was working in PR and just had the poorest salaries for ages; I did the interning, moved up to the junior account executive, account executive…I never had any money so I’d never travel.
But now travel photography is what you’re best known for!
“[Laughs] It was so bad; one year I went as far as Paris for a weekend, but now my life is so far removed from that it’s crazy.”
What did you start with when you decided to do photography full time?
“Food, I used to work in restaurant PR and I’d do ad-hoc duties for my accounts and then would be asked to do other jobs for clients. It was at the time a few years ago at the rise of social media and Instagram, where visuals first became so important. Everyone needed new visuals, everyone needed new photography, so that’s kind of how I slowly learnt. I just realised that PR was not for me and I decided to put my everything into it.”
How did you initially break through in what is a really competitive industry?
“I basically said “Hi I’m a photographer, do you need any photography?” I had a tiny portfolio, looking back I’m wondering how I got away with it! I shot an event, I did a few restaurants and now it’s just grown. Now I’m a lifestyle photographer, which means that so long as you like my eye for things I can put it to anything; food, drink. travel, and this year, weddings!”
If your eye for things is so key to your work, how would you best describe the ‘Claire Menary eye’?
“For me, it’s just what I see in its natural state: very clean, never over-edited, never over-processed. I take a photo and I make it look the best it possibly can be within what it is. I enhance, I don’t airbrush.”
Despite difficult beginnings, you’re now best known for you exceptional travel photography, but what has been your favourite trip this year and what are you most looking forward to?
“I went to Japan in January, it was an influencer trip. I hate the world ‘influencer’, personally; I’m a photographer first and social media has naturally come alongside that and will always be second. We did Tokyo and then I went to Kyoto and several other places, it was completely amazing.
Soon, I have a road-trip around the US, but in terms of projects I’m looking forward to; I want to put the focus on my print-store, do more passion projects. I lost the chance to do that this year with collaborations and trips because it got so mad. I’d love to do more ‘me’ stuff next year.”
Do you have a favourite photo that you’ve taken?
“I really love a picture I took in Morocco three years ago; it was of two girls from China and I took it when I wasn’t even a photographer. I just loved their little story, and it was completely by accident that they were wearing the same colours.”
What advice would you give to any photographers just starting out in the industry in such a saturated market, how would you advise them to find their voice in that?
“Number one is pick up your camera and just take photos of everything, get really comfortable. Take inspiration from photographers from photographers you like on Instagram: don’t copy them, think of how you can change their work. Have a different take on it, and don’t be afraid to do it! Challenge yourself, move around; you don’t have to do just what you know! When you shoot cities, say you’re going to Amsterdam— everyone’s seen the harbour scene— how can you do it differently? Use your eyws, but use your brain at the same time.”