Andrew Hetherington Interview

Jonathan Blaustein: You’re from Ireland. Is that right?

Andrew Hetherington: Correct. Yes.

JB: How far does a good accent take you?

AH: Good question. It certainly helped get my foot in the door and I have certainly laid it on thick at times to break the ice. Then sprinkle some irony, sarcasm and charm on top for the full Irish effect.

One has to use what one has. You know?

JB: Don’t hate the playa, hate the game. Right?

AH: We wouldn’t say that in Ireland. But…I guess, yeah.

JB: (laughing) There’s the sarcasm. I guess. Whatever.

AH: Let’s face it. It is partly a game, and how you choose to play it. I think you’ve got to use all the tools in the arsenal. Do you need to take good photographs? Absolutely, but what else sets you apart from the pack?

I recently photographed Conor McGregor the mixed martial arts fighter aka The Notorious AKA from Dublin here in New York for Esquire magazine. We hadn’t met before but he knew where I was from as soon as I spoke my first word. I said off the bat that I was a shite photographer and the only reason I was on the shoot was that I was Irish. Ice broken.

Doesn’t matter to me whether I am photographing a celebrity, a person in the street or a slice of bread I try to be as genuine and sincere as possible.

JB: You could not have set me up more perfectly for the next question. You used the word arsenal, I’m curious as to whether you’d agree that Arsenal Football Club are likely to beat the pants off of Liverpool this upcoming Saturday?

AH: I have a funny feeling they will, yes. They are the form team and we are lacking in world class players like Ozil and Sanchez in the middle of the park. So I expect us to get well-beaten, although secretly I hope we will win. Being a Liverpool supporter, naturally.

JB: That was not the answer I was expecting. The guy I interviewed last week (Dewi Lewis) was a Manchester United fan, and he was such a homer, he defended them to the death under all circumstances. So I thought I was going to get your goat, but instead, you were honest.

AH: Well, we are having a mixed season. The usual highs and lows. I’m very much a realist. We haven’t played particularly well against the big clubs. If we’d beaten Manchester United the weekend before last, I was hopeful we would make a charge for a Top 4 spot, but I don’t think we’ll get there. We are looking at 5th, and Tottenham and Southampton are nipping at our heels.

The dreamer in me thinks we can win the whole thing of course. I photographed the Liverpool owner, John Henry, right before the end of last season. We were both really optimistic, believing that we would do it. He hit me with some statistics he had run, being a statistically-minded owner, saying that we had a really good percentage chance of winning the league title. The shoot was right after the Manchester City game and the day after the Hillsborough documentary aired on ESPN. It was a very emotional session that one.

JB: Isn’t that the beauty of sports, no matter how you crunch the numbers, there’s no algorithm that can predict that Steven Gerard’s going to slip, or lose his mind and get red carded against Manchester United.

The two defining moments of the last 8 months of Liverpool football could not have been predicted by a computer on Earth. Isn’t that crazy?

AH: Yes, it’s a funny old game as the saying goes. Both events were gut wrenching. I couldn’t look at the UTD game. Already dreaming about next season at this stage.

JB: I only know you’re a Liverpool fan because I watched a video on your website called “Meet the Hetheringtons.” It’s awesome, and everyone who reads this interview should go watch it now.

Did you direct it? Who was the official “maker” of this video, which inter-spliced interviews with you and Tim Hetherington? Was that your baby, or collaborative?

AH: That was my idea. I’d always known of Tim.

One hoped that one was the only “Hetherington” photographer. If there were 20 Andrew Hetheringtons, how do you differentiate yourself from one another?

So I remember seeing Tim’s name in “Vanity Fair,” when I was getting my thing going, and just being in awe of his talent. Early on, in the first couple of years that I was getting into American photography, it was always alphabetical, so I would be before him.

I’d have some portrait, and Tim would have some Earth-shatteringly brilliant picture from Afghanistan, or whatever. It was inevitable we would meet one day, and the opportunity came at the New York Photo Festival, when that was going strong. We were introduced by a mutual friend, Jon Levy, who was at Foto8 at the time.

I had no idea what to expect. And then it turns out he’s literally larger then life in person, tall, handsome, engaging. The complete package. And I’m bald, and 5’8″.

He was the sweetest, most generous charismatic life force, and I figured I had to do something fun with him for the blog so the idea of the video popped into my head. He was totally game and on board, up for some fun. I shot video of him answering the questions. Through our conversation, we figured out that we had some stuff in common, like both being Liverpool supporters.

JB: That was what struck me. I never met the man. Just knowing his work, which was so life-and-death serious, I assumed he was a serious guy. But in the video, he had a wry smile on his face, and came across as funny and down-to-earth.

You’re confirming that he was a fun, cool dude?

AH: Yeah. People close to him hadn’t seen the video until after his death and were touched when they saw it.

We weren’t best friends, by any means.

JB: I understand.

AH: We were friendly. We did an event together for Resource Magazine, I think, out at Root Studios in Brooklyn, where they had a little film evening, inviting photographers who were dabbling in motion to showcase some material. They got in touch with me to show the “Meet the Hetheringtons” video, and in turn I put them in touch with Tim with a view to them screening his “Sleeping Soldiers” piece.

He agreed to have it shown, and showed up for the evening himself. I think he was working in Amsterdam, and managed to get back for the evening. The two of us are sitting there, and they show mine first, and then they show his right afterwards. They couldn’t have been more polar opposite content wise, but it was a fun.

A special moment I will treasure.

I’ll always be grateful to him for giving me that opportunity, and for spending a little time with me. He was definitely one of the greats. Talent, creativity and humanity just oozed from him. I had the utmost admiration for what he did, and who he was.

JB: Well, you’re really anticipating my question. This one sets up perfectly. Sure, you had some things in common, and were both Liverpool supporters. But you are Irish, and he was English.

Here’s the real question: Who are better drinkers, the Irish or the English? Who takes that one?

AH: (laughing) Oh wow. Can we have a score draw on that one?

JB: That’s a politically correct answer right there.

AH: Well, I mean, I have a lot of English friends and a lot of Irish friends. And what about the Scots? And the Welsh? I think on any good night, as in any good day on the pitch, anyone can play a blinder, getting back to the sporting analogies.

JB: OK. Fair enough. I asked the question, you answered it. You mentioned a few minutes ago that back in the day, you were a serious blogger. Let’s talk about that. There’s something I’m super curious about, and I’m sure you’ve been asked before.

What is the, or a, Jackanory? It sounds like a mythical animal.

AH: If you were Irish or English, you would know all about this. When we were kids in the 70’s, there was a children’s television show called “Jackanory,” where a celebrity, a writer, or a reader would basically read a story, from a book, on television. You don’t get any more high tech than that.

It became a slang term. What’s the Jackanory? means what’s the story?

I knew early on that something interesting was happening with the blogs. I wanted to be involved, and I wanted to figure out how to use this tool, partly for fear of getting left behind too (laughing).

The idea was to treat the blog as if it as my own online magazine, so it wouldn’t be Andrew Hetherington’s blog just about Andrew Hetherington. Whats The Jackanory? seemed like the perfect name. So I searched the URL, it was available and I bought it. And that was that.

JB: I expect that our readers will know who you are, and that you’re working like crazy for the biggest magazines, but how much of your current success would you attribute to the fact that you built a following, got name recognition, and people learned more about you through the blog? Do you think it had a significant impact on what came next?

AH: Yes. I really do. I’d been in the game a long time. I started off in Ireland, and began again in the US. In the late 90’s, I started shooting for magazines like “Cosmopolitan,” and “Mademoiselle.” Primarily doing fashion and beauty photographs, but mixing it up with portraiture and music photography.

Like a lot of young photographers, I thought I could do it all. After the tragedies of September 11th there was a period of uncertainty in the publishing world as companies circled the wagons unsure of the immediate future. A few of my clients closed up shop including “Mademoiselle” who would have been my biggest at the time. I also realized I had got as far as I could in the world of fashion photography.

I do appreciate the art. I think you have to live and breathe fashion to for the work to be genuine, and I was losing interest. Throughout my career, I’ve always tried to adapt, and change.

I saw the blog as a chance to be creative, to promote myself and also as a way to promote other people and work I liked. It was a great venue for me creativity because I could do little photo projects, little videos, little whatevers. If it didn’t work no worries, move on, next. It pushed me.

The timing was right too, because it was pre-Facebook, pre-Twitter, pre-Instagram. The feed was less cluttered. It was also a very exciting time, with bloggers like Alec Soth, or Rob here at A Photo Editor, the Bitter Photographer.

People in the photo industry started to use blogs to find photographers, look at work, information and so on.

JB: You’re talking about being adaptable, and being slightly ahead of the curve, by setting up a blog at the right time. I discovered the blogosphere in 2009, back when Jörg Colberg had a blog roll on Conscientious, and for me, that was what was going on. I used that as a portal, and found your blog that way.

AH: That’s what happened to me too. When I was working as an assistant, I worked a lot at rental studios. It was very social, and I got to meet other photographers and assistants at the studios or at the labs.

Then when you start to shoot, it becomes a little less social, but at the time there was a communal darkroom called Print Space where everyone went to make C-prints. That’s where I met just about everyone: established and young photographers.

With the advent of digital, naturally the darkroom wasn’t as heavily trafficked as before. So someone turned me on to Jörg’s blog one day too, and I went through the blogroll as well, and started clicking, and before you know it, I’d spent two days on these links.

JB: It was crazy.

AH: I said, “Wow.” Because this was what I was missing. I used to see all this new work, and prints before they were in magazines, at that darkroom. I missed that whole community thing, and with Jorg I discovered a new community online.

I was curious and I reached out to Jörg and said how much I liked what he had going on. As well as being a friendly email, there was a method to the madness, because I sent him the link to a photographer friend of mine whose work I knew he would enjoy.

I knew my work wasn’t for Jörg, but I said “Check this out. I think you might like it, and it may be something you could feature.” He posted it a few days later, and I said to my friend, “Hey, can you check your site visits?”

He did, and the numbers were phenomenal, and I thought, this is really something. Things are moving in a new direction.

JB: You had your finger on the pulse then. Good things happened. You’re in a prime position in the industry now, so let’s look forward a little bit. Do you ever think about what comes next?

If you were to theorize about what the industry landscape might look like in five years, what would you say?

AH: (laughing.) Wow. That’s a loaded question. I don’t know. Is it all going down the shitter? Who knows?

JB: Nobody KNOWS. That’s the whole point.

I’m putting you on the prognostication seat. You can choose to sit there, or you can choose to pass. That’s your choice.

AH: I might have to pass on this one, I always feel like I’m just beginning anyways. I like to think I am still emerging. But then someone said I was a veteran recently and I took umbrage (laughing) to that so a photographer friend said I was an emerging veteran and I liked that (laughing).

JB: Well, let’s go there then. When we’re starting out, I think we all have role models. People we admire and want to emulate. Who was that for you? Who do you look to and think, “Damn, I just love how they conduct themselves, or what their work looks like?”

AH: I admire anyone who’s had a long career, whether it be a photographer, an artist, a filmmaker. Anyone in the creative field. That’s all I want to do. There are so many one hit wonders. So many people who come and go.

Being an assistant, and working with a lot of photographers here in New York in the 90’s who had very established and lucrative careers, a lot of them have disappeared. You never know what curveball life or your career can’t throw you at any moment.

I try to take a very measured approach, and be cognizant of change. I try to adapt. I want to learn new things, because I don’t have all the answers, by any means.

I admire people who are in it for the long haul. You’ve got to hand it to the Rolling Stones. Even U2. You have to admire them. You can’t not. How many bands started when U2 did, and are no longer around. I am not a fan of their music by the way.

JB: Looking at your website, you shoot people, places and things. Even among celebrities, you’ve got the hot chef foodies, like Tony Bourdain. You’ve got actors, comedians, athletes. Anyone who knows photography understands that to do that kind of work, you’ve got to be good with people.

What are your go-to moves to put people at ease? Beyond presumably just being a grounded human being, what are your tricks to make people comfortable, when you don’t have a lot of time with them?

AH: I put the accent on thick, for starters (laughing).

JB: That’s why it was my first question! I’m no dummy, man.

AH: (laughing) I’m usually a bumbling idiot I think. I like to be engaged so I try to have a conversation, which might be detrimental, if you only have 30 seconds with somebody.

JB: Did Tony Bourdain actually eat the pig in the photo, when you were all done?

AH: So the Tony story was great, because I’m a big fan, and I like to cook. That one was for “People” magazine. Anyone who knows Anthony Bourdain will know that he’s had a colorful past, so the “People” angle was that he’d recently gotten married and had a young child.

This was the new, post-heroin Anthony Bourdain. Softer around the edges. So the magazine had arranged for me to scout his place in advance, which was great. I remember that it was a really wet day here in New York, and I got totally soaked.

He lives in Mid town, in one of those hi rise towers, and the door man sends me up, and I’m just drenched. I knock on the door, half expecting there to be an assistant or housekeeper to answer, and there’s Tony.

I was like, “Oh Shit!” I said to him, “What if this doesn’t go well? If I say the wrong thing now, will that scupper the shoot? Will you request somebody else?”

He was incredibly gracious, showed me around and when we came back to shoot a week later, he couldn’t have been more professional. He knows how it works, and said, “Let’s just do this,” so we got stuck in and did it.

At the end of the shoot, we hung around and ate pig, and he had a spread of cheeses, and we chilled out for a half an hour which is very unusual. And he was sweet enough to sign my copy of “Kitchen Confidential.”

Every now and again I’ll do the selfie thing or get something signed, but that’s always the furthest thing from my mind on the shoot.

JB: So the answer is that he ate the pig. He had to eat the pig. That was a given.

AH: Yes. That was a given.

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JB: You’ve interviewed people. You know how this works. That’s why I led with the accent. In my mind, I imagined that it would go over well.

It puts people at ease, when you can be a bit self-deprecating. Not seem full of yourself. Do you see your job as putting people at ease, and getting them to feel relaxed and comfortable in your presence?

AH: Absolutely. I’m looking for a moment. I’m hoping that a moment’s going to happen at some stage, whether it be in someone’s office or on seamless. The more relaxed and comfortable they are with me the more likely that’s going to happen.

I like to keep things pretty simple technically, so I’m able to move around and react to whats happening in front of me.

I like to watch people when they’re doing what they do. That’s not always possible, but I encourage people, “If we weren’t here, what would you do? Or how would you sit in that chair?”

Obviously, once the camera comes out, people can become very self-aware and I have found that some of the best moments come when I am physically packing the camera in the bag, and I look around and say, “Hold on! That’s perfect!” So I bring the camera back out.

What was the question?

JB: Well, you got it. Don’t worry. The answer was good enough.

AH: (laughing) So I tend to ramble along like that. I know my assistants have problems understanding what I say sometimes. Maybe it’s the accent (laughing) not the mumbling or its a combo.

I do take the work seriously, but I try to have fun.

I’m fortunate to shoot regularly. When you’re working for a magazine or a commercial client, and there are time constraints, if you work once a month it’s very difficult when you get that one shoot, you’re totally invested. You’re nervous, and you over think it. It’s difficult.

But if you’re shooting regularly, for me anyways it’s so much looser and freer. The pictures come so much easier. If I have a bad day, I know I get to go again tomorrow, so some of the pressure is off, somewhat.

Will I beat myself up? Yes. Am I ever happy? No. But I do try to have no regrets after a shoot. If only I had done this or that or asked the subject if they would be willing to do such and such. So I always ask and if they say no that’s okay at least I asked.

JB: You’ve used the word creative several times, and we’re talking about portraiture. And about the fact that you’re out and about in the world.

This interview is being sponsored by the Santa Fe Workshops, because you’re going to be teaching a workshop there this summer called…Creative Environmental Portraiture.

AH: (simultaneously) Creative Environmental Portraiture.

JB: There you go. It’s what you do, and what we’ve been talking about. So we covered that, with respect to being a working photographer. But what about teaching? Is this something that’s in your wheelhouse? Do you do it a lot? Do you enjoy it?

AH: This the first time I’ve done something like this, so I’m really excited. I have done quite a bit of mentoring, which I thoroughly enjoyed, because it’s actually quite therapeutic. It gives me new ideas too.

Usually, it’s with photographers starting out, and we get into a dialogue, and I’m good for that, provided I have the time. I’ve learned just as much through these sessions.

With respect to the workshop, I’ve been brainstorming the curriculum. I value people’s time and money, so I am totally invested in making it worth their while on all levels.

JB: It’s a few months out, so I don’t expect you to have it all dialed in, but what do you think your students can expect to learn?

AH: All the things you don’t learn in photo school (laughing).

Participants will execute portrait assignments in various situations under real shoot conditions.
I have a lot of experience in the school of how to make something out of nothing and I’ll throw them the crazy curveballs that have been thrown at me over the years.

More often then not its these type of shoots are more about problem solving on your feet all the while having to create a compelling image no matter how shitty the location, weather or what not turns out.

Also, how do you work on developing a signature style, because I think that’s important, especially when you’re starting out. It’s important that the photo editors and art buyers can recognize your photographs. That’s definitely been important for me.

In the beginning, I thought I could do everything, and I’d go into meetings with photo editors with three or four different portfolios. While the work was decent, people were confused, because there wasn’t a single visual language.

The course will be the full immersive Hetherington experience, accent and all if that takes your fancy.

JB: Have you ever been to Santa Fe before, or is this going to be your first time?

AH: This is going to be my first time in Santa Fe too.

JB: What are you expecting out of New Mexico? Is it all informed by “Breaking Bad?”

AH: I have been to Albuquerque, so it is all informed by Albuquerque. Yes.

Hetheringtyon_OReillyJB: How did I know? I’m mildly psychic. Because you’ve been so diplomatic the few times I tried to draw you out, I had a question where I was going to put you on the spot about Bill O’Reilly, but I won’t do that.

AH: Try me.

JB: Is he Satan?

AH: (laughing) (pause)

JB: You’re like, “Damn. He’s right. I do have to be diplomatic. I can’t answer that.”

AH: When you’re shooting someone like that, and you do not share their political beliefs, does that taint my approach? I have to say not.

JB: Of course. You’re a pro.

AH: I try to be even-keeled. But someone like that, he’s smart. He’s not going to fall into any visual traps. The image that ran in “Newsweek” was shot right before he taped his TV show.

The bane of a lot of these shoots is these guys end up getting caked in TV makeup, which really isn’t photo-friendly at all. So I liked the fact that he looked like weird made up old white guy.

JB: Regular people have a fascination with fame. That’s why fame exists, and why those famous people make so much money. When you do your job, you have to become inured to it. It doesn’t shake you up.

When you’re so used to shooting people like that, would you admit to having a bucket list? Is there anyone that you really want to photograph, and you’d get all excited about it? Obama? Rihanna?

AH: I don’t even care. I don’t.

JB: Nobody?

AH: Nobody. I’m just happy to be anywhere with anyone. It’s not just the pictures it’s the life experience and the best have come from the most unexpected assignments.

The celebrity thing is not the be all and end all for me. And I don’t necessarily go out of my way to make people look attractive. My lighting is pretty in your face. I don’t come with a lot of bells and whistles.

I’ll be looking at stuff in magazines, or online, and think “I wish I could light like that guy. It’s just beautiful.” And then I’ve got to remind myself, “That’s not what you do.”

JB: I figured you were going to say that. But what if you got hired to shoot Putin? How would you deal with that?

AH: Well in my case it would be on camera flash and boom.

Platon has a great story of his shoot with Putin.

JB: Right.

AH: I assisted Platon a little bit, so when I had to photograph Clinton, I emailed him, because I knew that he’d photographed him. I wanted to get his advice, which was stellar.

Basically, he said, “Be yourself. But be prepared. Be prepared. Be prepared. Be technically prepared. Make sure nothing will go wrong, technically, and if it does, make sure you have a backup to the backup to the backup. Be prepared and be yourself. Oh and enjoy the moment.”

I took his advice and made sure that if Plan A failed, Plan B would work, and that my assistants and I were all drilled. You realize that in a situation like that, the time you’re given is the time you’re going to be given.

There is no extra time. 10 minutes quickly becomes 5 minutes which can become 30 seconds in an instant.

In that case, the magazine had two scenarios they wanted covered in limited time, so I had to make sure that was possible. For me, it was a little harder too because he’s not going to pick his nose. Or bend over and scratch his bum. Or do anything wacky. In this case I knew going in that these pictures were going to be relatively straight forward and I was comfortable with that. It’s a photographic record of this man at this time in his life.

JB: I once saw a video with Platon discussing that shoot he did at the UN where he got something like 30 seconds with every world leader. It made me realize how little your average photographer knows about that level of cutthroat perfection.

AH: Platon is a great example of that. Delivering a telling iconic image in a signature way, in challenging situations. Not only do you need to be a talented photographer but you literally need to be a diplomat too to navigate all the stuff happening on the periphery.

JB: He’s got the accent too.

AH: He’s got the accent too. I learned a lot from him. Including how to exploit the accent (laughing).

JB: Well, I’m from Jersey, so I could always amp it up and pretend that I sound like Tony Soprano if I had to. But then again, I don’t do that kind of work.

If you don’t have an accent, you have to make one up, I suppose.

AH: But it still has to be genuine.

JB: Dammit.

AH: I can’t have a funky haircut. But I do have an accent and a beard (laughing).

JB: There it is. It helps with the branding. But we’ve covered so much ground, why don’t we bring it back to the beginning. Since you’re going to be in New Mexico in the not-too-distant future, why don’t we have a friendly little wager on Saturday’s game.

How about we bet a pint on the Arsenal-Liverpool game?

AH: Sure.

JB: We’re going to end the interview on a wager.

AH: By the time the interview’s published, we’ll have a result.

JB: Exactly. Maybe we’ll do an editor’s note. (Editor’s note: Arsenal won the match, 4-1.)

AH: If Arsenal win, it’s an all expenses paid trip to Santa Fe. On me.

JB: OK. It’s on the record. Thanks again for doing the interview, and I hope all is well in NYC.

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