Charlie Sarsfield is the Photographer & Director behind some of the most iconic moments in UK Grime & Hip-Hop. His clients range from up-and coming juggernauts like Koffie, J.P Cooper & M22 to well established giants like Stormzy, Jorja Smith, Wiley & Avelino. He has long been a photographic inspiration to all those who cover underground culture, however his career was catalysed by the success of “Crown” by Stormzy. No small part of the records success was down to the incredible visuals that Charlie had created to contrast the brutish stature of Stormzy with the fragility of stained glass windows and foggy camera flare.
We are extremely lucky to get to chat to Charlie about his career, his relationship with the Grime scene & top tips for aspiring photographers. Big up to Charlie for the support and his time. 2&6 Presents, 10 questions with Charlie Sarsfield: Capturing the Grime Scene.
Crown was obviously such a big tune and the music video was a big part of its success. What was that experience like to work with Stormzy on that video and what was it you wanted to convey and capture when you were planning for it?
Hahahah, well this shoot was crazy, I got back from Italy on Monday morning and then had the first call about it at 2PM and then we were on set at 8AM the next day, then it came out on the Friday. Stormzy is one of the best humans Ive met in the music industry, he knows what he wants, and he knows the people to do it.
We joked that everything lined up perfectly for it, and that month was particularly mad for me because i shot, i think, six videos that month, one in Ibiza with Craig David, a number of different commercial jobs for K Swiss and Under Armour, and then that video just squeezed in it all, but i think it was one of my greatest experiences.
Working with artists that you respect and admire is why you do this job, so doing it with someone you deem to be a great friend as well was special. I think for me, we shot it at church studios which is iconic in itself but i knew we could get some amazing still moments, which leant itself to the track just before it drops into each verse. It also gave us enough variation to play with in a one shot video, matched with the choir on the balcony, it just all felt perfect.
I remember the day it came out i went to the supermarket and three kids were talking about the video whilst i bought some pasta, which was such a surreal and grounding moment for me, so I’ll always look back at that video with so much love which really pushed things forward.
Who or what was your entrypoint into filming & photographing UK Grime & Hip Hop videos? Were you a fan of the genre before you started directing and who was the first MC that you worked with?
My career really started out working for MTV, I was a runner there and we basically just stole all the cameras from the studio and shot stuff at weekends. Funnily enough i think Stormzy was actually the first rapper i shot with, who i met through Maya way before he was headlining Glastonbury… But most of those videos didn’t come out because the track never got released, or they chose another video or whatever but after meeting him i knew i wanted to make visuals for all artists, but always leant towards rappers/grime just because i felt they said something harder, and weren’t afraid to do something differently visually.
It just kind of grew and before I knew i had ticked off my favourites (minus a couple like Skepta or J Hus but there is still time), but i do think it’s half luck, half being willing to work hard, go to every party/gig/event, I don’t do the second bit as much as i should anymore but that time for me is now just spent writing treatments or shooting.
Who are some of your key Photographic & Musical inspirations?
Tough question, straight off the bat hahah! I think obviously artists like Stormzy, Avelino, Dave are all sick and then the new breed of rapper like Dutchavelli (Amsterdam born) all inspire me a lot. But I’m also into more chilled music so spend a lot of time listening to one man and a guitar kinda music, I have a sick photographer friend called Joe Howard (@joewhoward) who has been making music for years and I often just jam to his soundcloud.
In terms of photography I love Rut Blees Luxembourg and Todd Hido, their work blows my mind but also love the work of like, Charlotte Patmore and Vicky Grout, who have just consistently documented their music scenes perfectly for like the last decade. So it’s varied but they are a few names for people to check out.
Cassius Clay is perhaps one of my favourite projects that you’ve directed. Why did you make the creative choice to not feature Dave or Avelino as the protagonist in video and instead focus on the local community?
Oh wow thank you, that video is marmite for a lot of people, the DOP on that job was sick and rolled with the blows, but he recently rewatched it and messaged saying its low key hard, which is a compliment coming from him hahaha.
I think the conversations we all had was about the visual were all about the community, how everyone is fighting for a better life and the grind and the hustle that surrounds it all, which directly related to not only the title of the track but also the bars in the track. We didn’t wanna take away from that and instead celebrate the culture of North London, where Av hails from as well as all the other greats from North – we just felt it was time to put focus on the hard working community that had birthed all that talent
How do you always infuse this rich and vintage looking colour palette or glow to videos like “How Does It Feel” “Crown” &” Lessons”. Is there specific equipment, presets, camera settings or after effects that you use to create this effect?
I grew up shooting film photography so Ive always tried to stay away from an overly clean look. For me i never want my videos to feel unreal, or too polished, so i try everything I can do to either shoot on vintage glass if we are shooting on an arri/digital camera or even be known to rub vasceline all over my lenses (that’s what all the blurring is in Crown round the edges) to get a different visual. This matched with a more surreal lighting aesthetic is where i like my work to sit, its real, with a dreamlike twist.
I try to do as much in camera as I can and more recently Ive started shooting 16mm, and I just shot a big video (which may be out by the time this interview comes out so check it out) with a sick DOP called Joel Honeywell, who’s amazing, and he shoots how I visualise stuff when writing the treatment, but also is great with 16mm.
I think it’s all the tricks i learnt back when i was shooting photos or stupid videos of my mates, like the vasceline trick, or using 4 different filters to give a certain look, but i think it all stems from my experiences with photography.
How much fun was it directing the MERKYAIRWAYS campaign? What was the experience like?
hahahah, yeh i get asked this a lot. It was fun for sure, but also making a ‘film’ on an event like that is super hard. We were lucky to get an interview with Stormz which acted as almost the harness or structure for the whole piece but in reality it was a ‘shoot the shit out of it’ situation….. it was mayhem.
I remember one of our cameramen fell in the pool with one of the mini’s, Stormzy insisted in making sure he was trying to get me and my whole crew drunk, insisting it would make the film more ‘wavy’. However in all honesty again, one of the greatest jobs I’ve done, not many people get to do something like that, and i feel honoured to have documented one of our cultures biggest artists 25th birthday.
I feel like simplicity in the surroundings of your videos is a commonality between all your work. Do you like to keep the focus fixed on the artist and keep your videos uncluttered? Does this come from your background in portraits?
Yeh for sure, the photographic arts definitely have played a big role in how i make videos for sure, from everything from the art design to the way its shot. I always go back to this idea of a moving photograph, and if every shot has that feel I’m generally happy. I’m still exploring and having fun with my style and certainly not settled but I’m glad you can see some consistency across the work, sometimes i worry every project is so different.
What your best tip for taking creative / original looking portraits of an artist if you only have 10 or 15 minutes with them. Do you have some go to poses/techniques?
I mean this is a lot of time for me normally, i normally shoot a lot of my stuff on set of a music video, where we have the artists photographer there and then I’m trying not to offend them by taking photos as well hahah.
I think the most important thing is trying to get that person you’re shooting across in your photos, i try not to ever tell my subject how to pose because then it’s me projecting myself on to the artist or model. I like them to feel natural and hold that strong essence of who that person is.
The second biggest thing, don’t give a fuck about how it going to look on your instagram wall, or how many likes it’s going to get, or doing something because its an insta trend. These photos will exist forever and not a fleeting moment, so document history, don’t do it for a few likes on the gram.
Lastly, have you ever been to Amsterdam? Next time you’re here we would love to show you some great places to shoot.
Yeh Amsterdam is one of my favourite cities, I’ve spent quite a lot of time there and have seen some of my favourite artists in Dam, last year we came to see Protoje and Buju Banton there.
Also i love the clothes there, Daily Paper is my favourite brand so whenever I’m there i spend way too much money, but yeh lets definitely link up, I’d love to see more of the secrets of Amsterdam.
Big love guys – thanks for having me!
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