Laura Pannack is a London-based, award-winning photographer. Renowned for her portraiture and social documentary artwork, she seeks to explore the complex relationship between subject and photographer. Pannack’s work has been extensively exhibited and published worldwide and won numerous awards.
In this three-part interview, Laura Pannack shares with us
- an exciting insight into her working methods
- a behind the scenes look of her latest work: “Islands symmetries”
- a behind the scenes look of her latest work about the double life of a jewish teenager
- and how Picter transitioned her way of working
Laura Pannack’s working methods
Simon Lovermann (Co-founder Picter)
Hey, Laura, thanks for taking the time. Please introduce yourself.
I’m a social documentary photographer. I work on very long term projects, predominantly focused on portraits. A consistent theme that runs throughout my work is youth and adolescence.
Are you solely working with photography or does video also play a role for you?
In the past two years I’ve started shooting film as well. It’s nice. I never really wanted to transition over, or even try it. However, I felt there was a lot of pressure within the industry to do that. I rebelled against it, because it felt slightly disrespectful of people who were making moving images, since it’s a completely different art form. I want to leave it to people who know what they’re doing. And I’m predominantly interested in photographing, but then as part of the latest commission we had to shoot a film. It’s been an incredible learning curve for me technically, it’s been really interesting. I didn’t expect that.
Now that you’ve done a shoot, do you feel more comfortable with moving images? Do you think it could add to what you’re interested in expressing with still images?
I think it’s definitely given me some kind of inspiration in regard to working with a different format. I’ve never closed my mind to using any different kind of art form.
But we’re talking about two different worlds here, which is art and commerce.
For my artistic practice the transition began by just picking up my camera, and giving it a try. It was me on my ownI was just holding a DSLR without a rig, the audio was absolutely unusable. But as I didn’t have to think about every single element that went into it, I really enjoyed it.
In a commercial term, it’s been a nourishing experience in regard to having to learn new skills really quickly. I went from knowing absolutely nothing to pretty much being on my own, sometimes with one other person, shooting, recording audio, etc.
I would like to keep shooting moving images – especially commercially. When you’re doing a shot, you have the opportunity to change your narrative, your mindset and your creative approach to break the format off a bit. But it’s like taking my first photo. I’m at the beginning.
I think in terms of framing a picture one can use a lot of the photographic skills. When it comes to moving images, there are just more layers. In terms of creating a picture from a craft side of things, it’s different – the subject moves within the frame. But the general capability of mastering that craft, of creating pictures that are enticing and beautiful, is definitely something you can apply to moving images as well.
It’s exciting. My best friend from childhood has been a director for as long as I’ve been a photographer. For me she is the Oracle of shooting. And the stuff she shoots is incredibly different to what I would ever shoot. She would say: “Well, I’d never compose it like that, or “I’d never put that person in the frame there.” or “That’s not the way that you do it.”
And I thought that’s such a strange thing to say, because for me, when I was shooting photographically, those rules would only apply if a tree was coming out of someone’s head – you know what I mean? [laughs]
For me there weren’t really any rules. So I’m sticking to my guts with the idea of where I would put somebody in the frame. I think that comes from this transferable skill of having an instinct of seeing something and being like: “This is how I see the world. And this is how I want to capture it.”
But like you said, people move, which is not the same.
How much time do you divide between the artistic practice and the commercial side?
It’s inconsistent in the sense that the jobs really depend on the opportunities that arise. And also the financial state that I find myself in. In order to be creative, and produce work, I have to be in a certain sort of headspace, a postive mentality and drive to really want to go out and shoot something. That means coming from an idea that I really care about.
There was this beautiful illustration, this circle: 95% of it is worrying about making that dream project, and 5% of it is making that dream project. But I have this itching hunger to make pictures, produce artwork and explore and meet people to feed my curiosities.
The other part of my brain is constantly pushing for commercial work, because it’s something that I definitely gain more than just financial benefit from. It’s working with a team, working with difficult lighting setups, or new technical challenges or in COVID times practical challenges.
So balancing art and commerce is a mixture of serendipity and life.
Behind the scenes of Laura Pannack’s latest project “Island symmetries”
What are you currently working on?
I’ll start with a project I just finished. It was a commission for Multistory, which is a charity who work in the Midlands. They gave me the opportunity to make any piece of work, as long as it was about one of the areas they look after.
I ended up making a piece of work about an area called the Cracker, kind of a wasteland in a small area that they look after. For me, it was about reverting back to the shelter of where we hung out. I used to hang out at the rec during my teen years. So I knew I wanted to do something working with teenagers. I basically just hung out there and met people that hung out at the Cracker.
I wanted to enter that world and just capture that community. The friendships and interactions that happened in that place reminded me of my youth. And hopefully it reminds everyone of that time as a teenager.
Some time later a friend of mine, living in Tasmania got in touch and said “You should really shoot young people out here, I think you’d absolutely love it.”
So I went out there and after about a week, I found an area I wanted to work in. I did the same thing as I did in the Cracker. I just kept going back, meeting the young kids that hang out there. And what I ended up creating was a mirrored project. It was exactly the same project from the other side of the world.
I was talking to a really cool writer called Alice Su, who said :”Oh my gosh, this is ‘Island symmetries’.” It’s a geographical term that describes the furthest that you go away from where you are, the most similar thing you will find. Whereas the nearest thing to you is the most dissimilar. So I thought: ”Wow, what a beautiful poetic reference to what I’ve just shot.”
I found these kids in Birmingham, and then I found exactly the same community in Tasmania. So the project is called ‘Islands symmetries’. It’s the overlap of small details. Both groups of young people loved drinking energy drinks. So in a lot of the shots, you’ll see energy drinks, they’re vaping the hang of it.
There are certain characters that are parallel crossovers. It was a really obvious and simple reminder that youth exists all over the world. There are all these beautiful alignments that we all go through during that time. It reminded me that I really love working with people of that age. I love their sense of adventure, their wonder, their curiosity, their sort of naive invincibility and just how keen they were to get involved as well and just share their world with me.
That was one project that I did and Picter was super useful for that, because I find editing really hard work. And Picter absolutely housed everything I had, so that I could keep coming back to, and I still do.
A behind the scenes look of Laura Pannack’s latest work about the double life of a jewish teenager
For the other project, I was given an opportunity, as well as two other photographers to do a commission for Panasonic. The rule was to use two Panasonic cameras. A video camera, and a stills camera. It was a wonderful opportunity. We had a very limited budget, but we were given free rein to do whatever we wanted to do. I went to Israel, because I remembered a project I wanted to explore.
The only premise of the project to be created was that it had to be around the theme “Stories for change”. So I was looking for something or someone being in transition. The idea that I settled on was a place that I had taken me to Israel in the first place.
When I had my last trip there, somebody told me about these places called a ‘burrata’. Think of a burrata as a halfway house almost like a youth club. A safe space, where people who are from a very, very orthodox community, go to experience Judaism and Jewish life in a slightly more relaxed way. So away from the confinements and the rules of their community. People that have just come from a restricted life to just being a bit more liberal.
I was really interested in that and wanted to meet somebody during the teen years because I thought what an interesting transition to be going through adolescence, you’re making life changing decisions. You know, when you’re 19 and you’re from an orthodox background, you’re married, you have children. It happens very young. So I want to meet somebody before that and just see how these jew identities play out.
And then I met this guy Baruch. He was 16. He’d never seen TV, he’d never listened to the radio, he’d never learned English, math or science, he just learned the Torah. Just the Torah. He never had a smartphone. And at age 16, somebody slipped him a podcast. So he heard a podcast for the first time. And it was about evolution and science. And he thought: “What is this craziness?
But he thought maybe there is some truth to this. His mind was blown. So he started exploring the topic very tentatively. But in the meantime, he was living his very orthodox Jewish life. So when I met him at the age of 19, he’d made more of a transition, his community knew that he’d made this decision to step outside the community. But he’s Jewish, and he wants to be Jewish. He’s very proud of his identity. But he was dancing these two worlds, so he would hide in the toilet and have a smartphone. He’s living this double life.
So these are the two projects, that I’ve been working on – using Picter. And I genuinely mean this: Picter has been a lifesaver. It has actually transitioned my working method, and how I work.
It has become a really good archive for me. It’s a great visual storage space. I have Dropbox, I have Google Drive, I have Drobo. I have hard drives coming out of my every single orifice. But Picter has been amazing when I’ve been travelling, and someone’s like “Oh, can you make a PDF of this work?” or “Do you have any images like this?” And I would answer: “Let me just go to my Picter account.” I’ve separated it into collections of ‘Smiles’, ‘Kids’, ‘Jamie’ etc. So it’s a super accessible and simple mini archive of my current and most recent work. It’s just great.
How Picter transitioned Laura Pannack’s working methods
How are you using Picter and why do you like it.
I have to admit, when you first approached me years ago with this I think we were just drinking rosé in Arles. And you’re like: “We have this new thing….” And I was like: “Yeah. Great. Cool. And I remember saying: ”Be warned that I’m a bit of a sceptic.” My default is critical with these kind of things, because I’m incredibly impatient and very, very demanding. [Laughs] Which is kind of ironic. So when you sent me a link to Picter, I was like: “Wow, this is actually really awesome!”
I think the first thing that struck me is the visuals. I was speaking to my agent about this yesterday: if for example, you sent me a spreadsheet, I would want to print it out to look at it, because I can’t hold it and I’m just really bad at navigating things on screen. But Picter is so simple to use. It’s so, so easy to use. And over any kind of software, like Dropbox, Google Drive and things alike, because you have the visuals straight away. Everything is in front of you. When I access my Dropbox, everything’s all over the place. All the folders just look like folders. Do you know what I mean? There’s no visual indication. So that was the first thing that really struck me: It’s a visual tool made for visuals.
And the second thing that I was very impressed by, and I don’t think this is just my internet speed, is how quickly things went on it. So I could just shove a bunch of files and they were there and I thought: “Jesus! That was quick!” So that was the second thing: Speed
And then the third thing, which is obviously for me the main purpose of it, is the collaborative aspect – the sharing aspect.
As ususal, also on my latest project I had to be in several conversations, whilst I’ve been travelling and then when I came back. With Britney, my producer, with the BJP team, with Panasonic, the client, with those I photographed. With all these people. And with Picter we’ve all been able to filter the images really easily, come down to a final edit together.
The funny thing is: Usually when forming a final edit, you’d either all have to be clustered around one screen or have endless calls and frustrating back and forth of emails. Now I can go down to the café. My producer makes her edit, I come back do mine, someone else can do theirs in the morning. And then with just a click I immediately see what matches. And voilá – we’ve got a final edit! Which is just so much easier than all the bloody calls and all the emails and the being in one room at once. So that’s the main thing: Picter makes collaboration so easy and smooth.
What’s interesting is how many different areas it’s touched. For editorial, the way that it helps me is: I complete an editorial assignment, I’ll smash it all up, retouch it, put the low res on straightaway, send the link to the client, and they will make their selects. Usually in the past, some of them would just email me an image number or email me an image name and you know the chances are quite high of that being wrong by one number, or them sending me the wrong thing and then needing a different one.
And then the other thing is, if I’m going away, or if I’m out of office, one of the main things I learned very quickly about editorial was you will get an email or text message or phone call. And they’ll be like, “Hi, Laura, we need the high res right now”. And you’re like, “Oh, really, I’m up a mountain in Romania, sorry, can’t help you there”. Or: “I’m having dinner guys, chill out.” And I remember the Sunday Times texted me once. I said “Yeah, I don’t think I can get it to you today.” And they said, there will be a hole in the page, if you don’t get it and I remember being like, Oh my god, there’s gonna be a hole in the page. [Laughs] And now with Picter I send them the high res link, a day after I’ve sent the low res. Anytime they want that high res image, they can just grab it, they don’t even have to email me. So that’s been great.
It’s great to hear that Picter helped you so much with editorial work. What about advertising?
It’s been amazing!
Usually, selecting photos is an endless back and forth between the agency, the client, my agent, me and sometimes the person being photographed. All these people have a say on the selection of photos.
I remember once I was in Marseille, and it was my birthday. We just finished an eight hour shot. And then we were just about to go out for dinner. And then the client said, we need these tonight. [Laughs again] And I said, it’s my birthday, can I not have dinner, but they insisted on getting it the same night. So I had to go back to the hotel, and go through all the Slack messages that night for five hours.
And I was thinking: Surely there’s an easier way. And the easier way would have been: They’ve got everything. They just make their selects. I make my selects. They all combine. Being able to do this now with Picter is just such a time saver. And it gives me so much more flexibility.
How do you think other photographers and image makers could benefit?
I think it’s really unusual to meet a photographer who loves editing as much as they do shooting. I just want to be out there taking pictures. I do not want to be sitting at my computer for a million hours a day or be tied to time to do that. So for me, it’s having the flexibility of being able to share those images with other people and collaborate in a remote way.
In a very personal way, I’m naturally disorganised. Picter let’s me easily manage my imagery on the cloud, have it accessible, share it with others in a visual way, and seamlessly collaborate. It just works.
Last question now: How are you sharing your projects in general and with whom?
It ranges. It will be editors of magazines, they’re the ones that need everything quickly and easily and have it on demand.
If it’s an advertising shoot, it will be the agencies, their client and my agent who will need to access the photos. With Picter I can easily share it with all these people, giving them different viewing or edit permissions, without any duplicates. That’s really nice.
Another thing I do with my personal work is to share the images with the people that I take pictures of. So on my Picter I have a main folder just called “For those I photograph”. Inside there are projects with their names, and I can just dump their images in and give them to people and they can access it whenever they want. That’s so easy because the images just live there. Without Picter just imagine the amount of times somebody would email me: “Hey, remember when you took a picture of me in 2010?” You know what that means… [laughs] So it’s really nice to be able to keep that going.
There is no limit to what I would use Picter for. There’s multiple different folders for multiple different things. But it’s also just great for high res. If I need to get high res to a client I did use WeTransfer sometimes but with Picter, it’s just there. If I’m trying to find a WeTransfer link from you three weeks ago, going through my inbox would just be a nightmare.
It makes me happy to hear that Picter had such a positive impact on your work. Thank you so much for sharing your experience, Laura.
Yeah, for sure. Just don’t ever go bust because if I lose Picter, I’m fucked. [laughs] Yeah. I’m a bit reliant on it now. So there’s a lot of responsibility. With great power comes responsibility.
We’ll be here.