— Vicky Grout —

On Kingston, grime, shooting under pressure, building relationships, working with brands and the importance of taking time out.

(All photos submitted by Vicky Grout)

Chances are, if you’ve paid any sort of attention to music photography over the last five years, you’ll have caught one of Vicky Grout’s images. She’s arguably one of the the UK’s most prolific and in-demand young photographers, focusing on (but not limited to) working across music, fashion and streetwear. Perhaps best known for her gritty portraits of Skepta et al, her story is a tale of trust, hard work and most importantly, acknowledging when to take time out.

“I’ve been reading a lot and sitting in my garden”, she says when I ask her about how life in lockdown has been treating her, the sun beating into her room and casting a shadow over one side of her face. “Where I live now, there’s a big communal garden so it’s been nice to be able to chill there. I’ve played a lot of Animal Crossing as well and there’s been lots of cleaning the house. But to be honest, I’m quite enjoying this time. I know there needs to be a lot more going on in the long run, but right now I’m chilling. Some people might not be able to enjoy spending time at home, especially at the moment, so I realise I’m lucky to be in a position where I’m able to do that.”

Vicky grew up in and around Kingston in Surrey, a stones throw from the Thames — the river actually runs alongside it — and recently famed, rather regrettably, for being home to one of the UK’s biggest Oceana nightclubs during the 2000s; a destination spot for my friends and I during our student years. Her interest in music and photography was first piqued after finding a disposable-style film camera in a draw at home, just before getting her first part-time at Natterjacks — a skate and streetwear shop in Kingston that acted as a de facto hub for local skaters, musicians and creatives. “I’d say my interest in photography probably started when I was maybe like 11 or 12 years old”, she recalls, “I’ve always like photos and visual things since I was little, so photography made sense to me. It wasn’t until I found my family’s old holiday camera in a draw one day, just a basic, point-and-shoot Olympus film camera, that I thought ‘ah this is sick, I should try using this’. I started going along to gigs and shows from when I was about 13 and I’d queue really early and wait for hours so I could be at the front to take pictures, which I’d share on like, my Tumblr or my Flickr. They were literally pictures just for me, I wanted something to look back on for myself. That led to taking photos of my friends and just documenting random shit really and then when I got to about 17, working one day a week while I was at college, I realised I was spending all my money on film. It was just an expensive hobby and I never really thought I’d make any money from it.”

The cost of developing film eventually became too much and Vicky decided to have a break from taking photos, instead focusing on her college work, where she studied Art and Design, specialising in Graphics, before going on to undertake a foundation degree in the same subject at Central Saint Martins in London.  “I thought it’d be a slightly more reliable career choice for me”, she explains, “but somewhere between college and university, well the summer leading up to university anyway, I just started raving. Two or three times a week I’d be out, whether it was at Visions, The Nest, fabric, Fire in Vauxhall, Hyperdub nights, Swamp81, Butterz nights. It was crazy.”

“Two or three times a week I’d be out, whether it was at Visions, The Nest, fabric, Fire in Vauxhall, Hyperdub nights, Swamp81, Butterz nights. It was crazy.”

For anyone looking at Vicky’s work objectively, one of the key takeaways is not only the access she’s had to some of the biggest artists from the UK and beyond, but the natural light she captures them in. As we start to talk through her career proper, there’s one factor we keep coming back around to; trust. Without it, you’ll never capture the images you or the artist want and its clearly a delicate balance to strike. Vicky’s secret? “Those times I didn’t even go out with my camera, I was literally just raving”, she says. “I think over time I became a bit of a bait face in that scene as a raver, as a regular. I got to know people like Spooky, Novelist, AJ Tracey, Sian Anderson, Julie Adenuga, the Butterz lot just like that really. It must have been the summer of 2014 and that’s when I thought, ‘rah I need to be out and be everywhere’ you know.”

It was through these formative relationships, first forged on club dance floors and at noisy, gig venue bars, that Vicky became part of the fabric of a grime scene that was exploding, and starting to rear its head to the mainstream. Her first experience of being asked to take photos came via Siobhan Bell, who asked her to not only photograph, but curate one of her legendary Cherryade club nights back in 2014. “Because I’d kind of got to know some of the newer artists in the grime scene at the time like The Square and Novelist, she was like, ‘why don’t you help me curate a line-up and you can reach out to the artists and book them’?”, Vicky recounts, “and 17 year old me was like, ‘ahhhh!’. I remember for that first night, I booked Ollie Rant, Last Japan, Spooky, Novelist and The Square and it was such a sick night. Siobhan said to me before that she used to usually take a disposable and shoot the nights herself, so I said well look, I’ve got a proper camera, why don’t I shoot? She said that I could and that was that. One of the photos from that night is still one of my favourite live photos to this day. It’s a black and white shot of Spooky with The Square and Novelist more towards the front. Spooky must have dropped a banger because he had the maddest bass face and Novelist was shelling and it’s just the maddest picture. I remember getting photos back from that night and thinking, this is sick, I should do this more.”

With that, Vicky caught the bug. Artists she’d met in her raving days suddenly cottoned onto the fact that she was now heading to events equipped with a camera and word quickly spread that she was gifted behind the lens. “People at grime raves would see me with my camera and be like, ‘rah I didn’t know you were a photographer, can you take some photos of me?’, she says. “I think because a lot of artists had met me before without having a camera shoved in their face, it made them feel a lot more comfortable having me take their photo. I guess they trusted me because they’d seen me at these raves completely fucked, spitting every bar, gassed to even be there and just enjoying myself. I think they could tell I was coming from a good place.”

“I think because a lot of artists had met me before without having a camera shoved in their face, it made them feel a lot more comfortable having me take their photo.”

The buzz around Vicky’s name grew gradually from that point onward, but there was one particular moment that made her realise, albeit inadvertently, that photography could be a full-time career. Working part-time at Offspring in Kingston, Vicky harks back to early 2015. “It’d got to the stage where I was getting a lot of DMs about shoots and taking photos of this artist or that artists and even brands were starting to reach out”, she recalls. “I was still working maybe three days a week and I remember not being able to have my phone out on the shop floor, so I was having to check my emails and DMs on my breaks. Obviously if people need someone for a shoot, if you don’t get back to them quickly, they’ll just go with someone else so I felt that pressure. It got to the stage where my head wasn’t in, I’d become shit at my job you know? I didn’t wanna be there. I ended up getting fired later that year, which gave me the kick up the arse I needed, it forced me to go out there and make a success of it. And yeah, I’ve not looked back since.”

The transition from part-time hobby to full-time job wasn’t as harsh as Vicky would have anticipated either. Living at home enabled her to continue on a similar trajectory as before and she was able to build relationships with artists and PRs, as well as shoot interesting people she’d find on Instagram and head along to test shoots where she could; “It was all about meeting people”, she says bluntly. This organic, DIY hustler’s attitude lends itself well to Vicky’s spirit and demeanour; to talk to her away from the lens, she’s remarkably calm and laid back but on the job, she’s steely-eyed and markedly serious — everything is done with a smile, but to perfection. Does she ever get nervous shooting? “I still get nervous even now, yeah. It’s a confident nervous though, I know I can do it. There’s even times where I’ll have been booked for something and I know I can do the job, but I’m more nervous about taking photos that I’ll like, that’ll meet my standards. I feel like a lot of the time, publications and brands will be happy with a good image, but for me its different. I do actually remember shooting Skepta for Time Out back in 2016 and being nervous as fuck for that one though. I got asked on the day and had to roll up to Tottenham with my camera, the sun was setting and I was like ah, for fuck’s sake (laughs), but I managed to get some good shots and it worked out.”

The conversation soon turns to the composition of photos themselves; just what is it that makes a great photo? “It’s so subjective but I almost don’t know until I see it”, Vicky says, laughing shyly. “It’s only when I’m going through pictures at the end that I realise. But usually it’s a mixture of the lighting, whether it’s sunny or not, the time of day, the person’s expression. I hate it when the subject looks bored and lifeless, so I always try and capture personality.  But often you’ll just find a photo that stands out, whether it’s because it details a certain emotion being portrayed or because I’ve captured something happening in that specific moment.”

It wasn’t long before brands came calling. Vicky’s portraits and live shots were the talk of London, with her snaps of Skepta in particular serving as iconic timestamps of a crucial era in grime’s short history; she’d become the scene’s chief story-teller without ever picking up a pen. But how did she manage switching out the street for the studio? “I’m pretty lucky in the sense that I still get to choose most of the brand work I do even now”, she explains. “Even the big brand collaborations I’ll work on are mostly on brand for me whether its a sportswear brand or Clark’s, Adidas, Nike, whatever. There might be the odd thing I do that I won’t share but generally it’s all down to creative control and if I have enough of that, then it’s not too different to shooting Skepta on the street in Tottenham.”

“I actually feel like there’s less pressure riding on brand shoots”, she continues. “A typical one will amount to a certain number of looks, a certain number of locations, the models know what they’re doing … there’s only so much that can really go wrong. When you’re shooting an artist portrait, I feel like you need to make sure that they’re comfortable with you and that they’re gonna like the picture too. Shooting a model and shooting an artist are two very different things. Models will be out here doing the most and they’ll look great, where as artists are, most of the time, a lot more reserved. I will direct them a bit, in a way that’s natural to them, but I try and step back from doing that too much. Usually I’ll chat to them at the beginning because breaking down barriers is important, especially in a studio, and I’ll ask if they want to put music on. If they’ve got a mate with them, I’ll get them to chat normally and take a few candids as well, that’s a good tip for making people feel more relaxed.”

“Shooting a model and shooting an artist are two very different things. Models will be out here doing the most and they’ll look great, where as artists are, most of the time, a lot more reserved.”

When it comes to trying to pick out career highlights to this point, Vicky’s spoilt for choice but manages to pick out three that have either helped moved the dial or made her love the job. “I feel like the Skepta – ‘Shutdown’ image is definitely a highlight”, she says thoughtfully. “My career’s always been on a steady incline but the response to that one definitely jolted it a bit. I did a shoot with Rich The Kid for SSENSE too, which was great because I had full creative control. I had the production budget, I had to source the studio, the catering, studio lighting, everything! That was a lot of fun and he was really easy to shoot. And then…”, she pauses to think for a good few seconds, “…basically any photo I’ve ever taken of Jorja Smith. She’s just great.”

There have been inevitable speed bumps along the way too, but Vicky’s strength of character is another of her calling cards; I can’t think of many people who’d take getting fired as a springboard into launching a full-time career as a freelance photographer. Most of the on-job, in-the-moment difficulties she’s had to respond to and overcome though are owed to timing and the onus that’s placed on photographers to get shoots done as quickly as possible, often with little regard for aesthetic or craftsmanship. “I remember one artist I was shooting out in Miami for Adidas, it was quite a big one”, she recalls. “I was told I could have 20 minute shooting him on a small street and in the gardens surrounding where he was for the day, not for anything in particular, just for my socials and whatever and I was like yeah, this is gonna be sick, perfect. I waited around at the location and then his PR came down and said ‘right, you’ve got 5 minutes’ and I was like ‘ah, for fuck’s sake’. I still managed to get some good photos but I could tell he didn’t wanna be there, even though he was professional and polite. His PR said to me afterwards that it was actually his scheduled nap time, so that’s why I needed to be quick.”

“There’s another as well”, she says thinking back. “I was given 45 minutes to shoot someone in their hotel room for a cover of a German magazine, which was not a lot of time but really exciting. They wanted me to use lights and get shots with three different backgrounds. I set it all up with my assistant, shot him on one background for about 5 minutes, got about five pictures on the next background and then he got up and said, ‘Ok, I gotta go’. I ended up shooting in total for about 20 minutes. Again, I got some good pictures, but I didn’t necessarily get a broad selection of images for a cover. It’s cool though, I’m used to it now.”

Given the enduring pressures of the job, the inevitable setbacks and the tendency for photographers to self-critique, I’ve always felt like it can be a thankless task — a lot is demanded of them, but little is understood. So what is it that keeps young shooters like Vicky going? What is the recipe for success and what does she take solace in when things are at their most challenging? “I think firstly, you need to be passionate about whatever it is you’re shooting”, she acknowledges. “Whether it’s music, fashion, dance, nature, animals … whatever it is, make sure you’re obsessed with it. If you go in with the intention of making money, everything will feel contrived, it always needs to feel authentic. I’m always gonna love music and that’s a big part of why I’m still doing it now. As much as I hate it, it’s important to have an online presence as well. Whether that’s updating your Instagram feed or making sure your website is up to date, they’re things you have to do. A lot of people don’t see websites as important in the digital age because we have social media now, but clients, especially fashion or commercial clients, always wanna see a website. If you’re gonna go down the fashion photography route, I’d definitely recommend getting a physical book or portfolio too. I wouldn’t get one made until you have to because they are expensive, but if you’re going in to meet agencies and whatever, then they’re invaluable.”

“Whether it’s music, fashion, dance, nature, animals … whatever it is, make sure you’re obsessed with it.”

“My last piece of advice?”, Vicky asks rhetorically with a wry smile. “Just don’t be a prick. Being nice goes a long way. I feel like I’m a bit of a people person anyway, but you don’t necessarily need to be chatty, just respectful. If you’re on a set and you’re rude to someone, that client won’t book you again. This doesn’t just apply to photography either, that’s a lesson for life.”

As our conversation starts to draw to a close after nearly an hour, we come full circle, reflecting on the importance of looking after yourself and how pivotal that has been to Vicky’s career in particular. “I feel like all the things I’m doing at the moment, the self-care, reading, yoga, cycling, like I’ve always done those things, even when people used to ask me ‘why are you doing that, what’s that for?’”, Vicky says. “At the end of the day, nothing really matters. Obviously I’ve got to make sure I’ve got enough money to pay rent or whatever, but this period has reaffirmed that for me. I don’t know what things are gonna be like after this, so I need to take care of what I can.” 

If you’re looking for inspiration, Vicky’s also spent the lockdown period working on a short project for Polaroid, writing pieces for The Basement — “that’s been nice because I don’t get to do much writing” — and undertaking an online course via MoMA in New York, as well as taking time to relax and be kind to herself. “I was maybe in a bit of a rut for the past two years if I’m honest and it’s almost like now, I’ve found that drive again”, she concludes warmly. “while managing to maintain that self-care balance. And that is so, so important.”

Keep up to date with Vicky’s work via her website:

http://www.vickygrout.com/

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