Photographer Sophie Harris-Taylor is known for her effortlessly truthful and intimate imagery. We speak to Sophie about her work focusing on her ballet school series
Photography By Sophie Harris-Taylor
Photographer Sophie Harris-Taylor grew up in south London. She now shares a home there with her partner and two young children. As a teenager, she discovered a love for being behind the lens rather than in front, and photography felt instantly natural to her. Now she’s an established photographer, she works mainly on personal projects and commissions that explore people’s stories and shared experiences, always hoping to shed some light on topics which often go unnoticed. Among her recent projects was a series about the Yorkshire Ballet summer school, focusing on the in-between moments of the children who take part in its rigorous training. We talk to Sophie about her work and how she approached her ballet project.
Glorious: How did you get into photography?
Sophie Harris-Taylor: Before the days we all had camera phones, as a teenager I loved using disposable cameras to document friends. I wasn’t the most confident so I kind of hid behind the camera and it became a bit of a safe place. I always gravitated towards art subjects as I wasn’t that academic and having dyspraxia meant I was a slow learner.
Glorious: Did you always want to be a photographer and did you study it at university?
Sophie Harris-Taylor: Being a photographer had never crossed my mind, I was actually studying fine art at uni and after the first year realised I was predominantly using the camera to make most of my work. I soon switched to a photography degree and felt at home straight away.
Glorious: Have you always worked in photography?
Sophie Harris-Taylor: After university, I had tons of jobs – completely unrelated to photography – anything to get by, from reception work, sales assistant, telesales calls. I moved into event photography and shot lots of bands too but I wasn’t very good. So I got into lecturing and then concentrated on my own personal projects which felt a lot more natural for me. Later down the line I gained agency representation and was able to get some great commissions, which are more in keeping with my own work. So nowadays I spend my time taking on commissions and making personal projects.
Glorious: Your work is easily identifiable, there is an intrinsically intimate and quietly beautiful quality to it. Is this something that’s important to you?
Sophie Harris-Taylor: Even in my early work I was always drawn to natural light; I liked the ease and the depth it can bring to an image. To me, taking someone’s portrait is a really intimate thing and I try to show honesty without ever exploiting anyone. I’m always drawn to the line between strength and vulnerability. Aesthetically, yeah, I do control the environment I shoot in but I think it happens quite organically.
Glorious: You photographed the Yorkshire Ballet Summer School, capturing the in-between moments, when the young subjects go back to being just children. What drew you to this project?
Sophie Harris-Taylor: I was really fascinated by the dedication and determination of these children, their whole life focus becomes about dance and when performing it’s so easy to forget that these are just kids going through everything that comes with being young. I wanted to capture some of the more intimate moments we don’t often see.
Glorious: Whilst they look serene and fragile they must be the opposite – incredibly strong and mentally resilient to be considered some of the best young ballet dancers in the country. What was your experience when meeting these young people?
Sophie Harris-Taylor: Yeah, I think, when they’re training and dancing, we see their strength and resilience, there’s a real sense of competition and determination. Behind the scenes after class, you see they have the same conversations and mannerisms as any other children. Some loved the camera and wanted to show off a bit while others were a bit more weary. They didn’t seem any different really to other children.
Glorious: What is the purpose of the summer school? Why are these ballet dancers prepared to give up their summer holidays?
Sophie Harris-Taylor: A lot of these dancers attend ballet schools all over the world and this summer school means they don’t break from practice and they manage to keep up with their training during school holidays. The teachers are some of the most respected in the industry and it’s a chance for the attendees to showcase their ability and gain an intense period of expert tuition. Many of the students are actually there on scholarship so it’s a real opportunity.
Glorious: Do you have any interest in women’s sport? And why do you think so many young women give up sport?
Sophie Harris-Taylor: I’m not a huge fan of competitive sport but I do love tennis! I’m interested more in health and fitness. I think it’s a real shame so many women give up sport after school, but perhaps if more of a range of sport and fitness was taught at school, people would be able to find what suits them best. I hated sports at school but enjoy being active now a lot more.
Glorious: The women you photograph are often exposing their private and sacred moments to the camera, such as breastfeeding in the Milk series. Or showing their vulnerability being photographed without filters and makeup in the Epidermis series. There must be an element of trust between yourself and the subject. How do you find the women in your images and establish trust?
Sophie Harris-Taylor: Absolutely, it’s all about trust really and finding subjects who are open to work with me. I really do see it as a collaboration. I’m quite an open and honest person and most of my personal work comes from my own preoccupations and life experiences, so I guess there’s a common thread between me and my subjects from the start. I’ll always happily open up about my own experiences which in turn builds that relationship between us and ultimately make them feel more comfortable in front of the camera and with me. I tend to cast through social media, often trawling through people’s profiles to find the right subjects as well as generic casting calls, hoping they get shared and noticed. Castings are usually the bit that takes the longest.
Glorious: Earlier this year you had your second baby. Congratulations! I’m guessing you’re in full-on new mother mode and your recent project Milk, centred around mothers breastfeeding, is deeply personal to you. How do you select the subjects you cover?
Sophie Harris-Taylor: Thank you. I began to capture the subject after just having my firstborn and hadn’t realised how much of a minefield breastfeeding could be. I wanted to share some of the realities of breastfeeding which we’re not so used to seeing. So I tried to connect with other mums going through similar things who were willing to share their experiences. As long as the mothers were open and had a story to tell I captured them. I wasn’t that interested in getting picture-perfect nursing images as we see this a lot, so I strived to capture the in-between moments, ones that are awkward, challenging, emotional and amusing. Making this work I found really therapeutic, and I think for others who resonate with the series it’s a real comfort knowing you’re not alone in all the challenges.
Glorious: How important is social media such as Instagram in terms of promoting your work/ getting noticed/ casting?
Sophie Harris-Taylor: It’s become a really vital part of my practice. I use it a lot for casting my own projects and I use it for sharing work and connecting with others. I’m not the best at sending emails out and newsletters so keeping my feed active hopefully means I’m reminding people my work exists!
Glorious: What advice would you give a woman looking to break into photography?
Sophie Harris-Taylor: It’s a bit of a cliché but stay true to yourself, make work that interests you and don’t try and people please. If it’s interesting to you it will most likely be interesting to others too.
Glorious: Who are your female heroes and why?
Sophie Harris-Taylor: This is always a tricky one… Nan Goldin’s work has always been really inspiring to me. My female friends that get me through day to day are up there too!
Glorious: What’s next?
Sophie Harris-Taylor: I’ve recently been making an edit on a bit of work about my own experiences of pregnancy, birth and the postpartum period. And I’m looking forward to starting casting for a new idea soon.
Glorious: Are your books available to buy?
Sophie Harris-Taylor: Diary, my first book is still available to buy through my site, Milk has currently sold out but I might do another run soon. Sisters is available to buy through Hoxton Mini Press and sold in quite a few places too.