Aotearoa NZ Photographers – Lee Howell
Design Assembly recently got the opportunity to chat with photographer Lee Howell, an Auckland based photographer who’s work you may have seen in the recently in the ‘Hey Toyota’ campaign. We talk about the search for subtle moments on set and the pros and cons of working on large commercial campaigns.
This article is proudly sponsored by MyChillyBin.
Tell us a little about your background – what path led you to becoming a photographer, and to doing what you’re doing today?
My path to becoming a photographer wasn’t a direct one. My first career as a Formula 1 mechanic lasted 5 years before I realised I wanted to continue traveling the world, just at a slower pace. During a cycle tour around NZ in 2003 I discovered my passion for photography. I read all of the photography magazines at the time and taught myself the basics. After moving to NZ in 2006 I started shooting what I knew best, motorsport, but with a twist. As I was self taught I didn’t follow the trends (which at the time was boring to me). On track I wanted to portray the speed with slow shutter speeds and big wide skies, I was also drawn to photographing the mechanics and the people behind the scenes. Cars, sports and people filled my portfolio for years but now it’s mainly people I photograph.
How would you describe your photographic approach?
Expensive but well worth the money 🙂 I want to capture real moments, even if it’s a set up on a commercial shoot there are still subtle little moments that I search for that make the shot unique and authentic.
What’s your favourite thing about photographing people? How do you get them to look so comfortable in front of the camera?
Photography allows me to connect with people. It can be a 5 minute conversation or a long deep and meaningful, either way I try to find a common thread between us. Everyone has a story, we seem to forget that nowadays. I really enjoy bringing that out of people and it’s these stories, moments and connections that help make people feel comfortable in front of the camera. Recently I photographed someone who was clearly petrified at having their photo taken. every time I brought the camera up to take a shot I could see the panic in their eyes. Towards the end of our session they had relaxed and wanted to keep on shooting, this for me was a total win.
Can you tell us a little about the ‘Hey Toyota’ campaign you just worked on and share a bit of insight into the process of shooting for a commercial brief?
It’s always nice to be asked to involved with a project like this. Once the brief is received I put together a treatment. This is a document that outlines your approach, including the lighting design, technical approach, thoughts on talent and also the final grade / edit. It shows what you’re bringing to the project and gives the agency and client peace of mind that you have thought of everything. After a number of pre-production meetings its over to the producers and production team to align all the moving parts. We were navigating the ever-changing covid restrictions and personally I was also dealing with the birth of my first child, my son (who joined us just 7 days before the shoot started). As with many big campaigns like this there will be a TV commercial and stills all within the same production. For the photographers on set this has some big pros and cons. The pros, a huge crew, 30+ people who all have a specific role. Like a well oiled machine they all come together to create stunning sets with a very high production value. This makes my job easier in one aspect, everything in the scene is virtually set up for me to step in and get the shot. The cons, when the production gets behind schedule (which is inevitable) it’s the always the photographer’s time that gets reduced. For some of the shots I literally had 30 seconds to get the images that would be used as a billboard, so the pressure was on. Due to these time restraints, I always made sure I got to connect with the talent before they went on set. I’d explain what I was hoping to capture, which on the Toyota job was a certain expression.
How much of the styling and art direction are you involved in when composing your images?
It totally depends on the size of the shoot / production. If it’s big enough to have a stylist and an art director on set, then great. It allows me to concentrate on the connection with the person, directing the shoot and making sure I capture the key moments. Unfortunately a lot of the time I’m the Director, DoP, Camera Op, art director and stylist.
What shoot, personal or professional, are you most proud of and why?
Back in 2020 I was commissioned by a charity called Kenzie’s Gift to capture portraits of people who have been through heartbreaking grief for the #DearGrief2020 exhibition. The campaign / exhibition was aimed to open the conversation and get people talking about grief because when grief is shared, it feels less lonely. Each portrait involved a cup of tea and a heartfelt conversation. We spoke about that person’s relationship with grief, what grief visually looked like and their journey to end up in front of my camera lens. Each photograph was accompanied by a very honest and intimate handwritten letter to grief. I felt honoured to witness and be a part of the process. It takes a lot of strength to sit in front of a camera and to be this honest. Project gallery: https://leehowell.com/Selected-Works/DearGrief/thumbs
How do you see your photography practice developing, what are your main aspirations for the next couple of years?
I’m currently taking a look into my ‘WHY’. Why do I shoot what I do? What do I want to say with my work? The personal projects I have done in the past have just sort of happened, I’m keen to investigate what it is I want to say with my work. It’s like I have this specific set of skills but I’m yet to work out what it is I really want to do with them. I’m also shooting more motion, I feel I’m a frustrated film maker.
How can people get in touch or see more of your work?
Email is best: firstname.lastname@example.org