how to make it as a teenage photographer with tom emmerson
Just 17 years old, Tom Emmerson has already shot campaigns for Helmut Lang, Burberry and Converse.
In a new series, we speak to the young photographers making a mark online and offline, about studying, social media and creativity vs. commerciality, to better understand what it takes to work in one of the most competitive industries.
There aren’t many young photographers who can say they’ve shot a Helmut Lang campaign before turning 18. But for Tom Emmerson, 17 years old and already shooting some of fashion’s biggest brands, it’s the latest feather to add to his cap. “I try to only take on jobs I'm excited about,” he explains, a couple days after his shots of London black cab drivers wearing Helmut Lang's latest collection hit the web. Working with Burberry and Converse, and contributing to the likes of i-D, Dazed and Recens, Tom’s portfolio combines an eclectic mix of different work with a definitive style.
Currently living at home in north west London, studying for his A-Levels, and shooting campaigns and editorials in his spare time after school and at weekends, Tom’s developed a photographic aesthetic that is decisive and confident. It’s not hard to see why he’s enjoyed such success so young. His subjects -- friends, skaters, local kids hanging out in parks -- are open and uninhibited. There’s a complete naturalness to the way he shoots, finding purity and spontaneity in each moment. “Shooting exactly how I want is when I produce my best work. That's why I've enjoyed working with Gosha Rubchinskiy so much. Having someone put full trust in your vision is amazing. Some of the work I'm most proud of was for his brand.”
Like many of his young contemporaries, Tom eschews digital photography and opts entirely for film. “In an increasingly digital world, holding a physical copy of a photo gives the image a very tangible quality. I always look at printed photos for much longer than I do ones on screens. I was given a digital camera on my 13th birthday and dropped it the next day. I ended up buying a cheap point and shoot and shot a roll of film. After getting that first roll back I was hooked.” He tries to avoid Instagram as much as possible -- “on a job I have to consider Instagram, but for myself, not at all” -- and seeks inspiration from “films and classical art”.
And like many photographers i-D covers, he’s also entirely self-taught (though at 17, he’s not actually old enough to enroll at university yet). “I've never studied in a formal capacity so can't comment but the idea of sitting down in a class and learning passively doesn't appeal to me. The fun comes from going out, taking photos, and learning through trial and error.”
What Tom likes most about being a photographer is the freedom that comes with it. “Part of my initial attraction was that it wasn't work. It's a creative outlet. I shoot what I want when I want. I'm never forcing inspiration. If I don't feel like shooting, I don't.” The downside is, of course, how the cost of shooting on film can quickly add up. “£8/9 a roll. £14 per roll to be developed and scanned. 16 or 36 photos per roll depending on what I'm shooting. It's not cheap.”
When it comes to inspirations, Tom doesn’t list any, but he did recently discover Joel Sternfeld's iconic document of the rich and varied landscape of the USA, American Prospects, published in 1987. “I've never been more moved by any body of work/art piece than I was by that book.” Though smaller in scale, Tom’s personal work and its authentic portrayal of kids hanging out on summer evenings, car boot sales and skateboarders around east London, is an arresting document of British culture, and one that shows promise for a bright future in photography.
Photography Tom Emmerson