Feature Interview: Charlie Sarsfield – Photographer on the set of ‘Skengman’ by Ghetts & Director behind ‘Crown’ by Stormzy

Charlie Sarsfield is the Photographer & Director behind some of the most iconic moments in UK Grime & Hip-Hop. His subjects 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 record’s success was down to the incredible visuals that Charlie had created to contrast the stature of Stormzy with the fragility of stained glass windows and foggy camera flare. In part one of this interview, released in November Of 2020, we spoke to charlie about his experIEnce working with Stormzy, HIS ROUTE INTO MUSIC PHOTOGRAPHY, AND HIS WORK WITH AVELINO & SANTAN DAVE. In part 2, charlie walks us through his experience shooting Jorja Smith, working with ghetts and stormzy On THE SET OF ‘SKENGMAN’, & HIS TOP TIPS FOR YOUNG PHOTOGRAPHERS.  

You recently got the chance to capture some stills for the SKENGMAN music video. How do you approach a project like this, where your role is more documentary-based rather than creative direction? Do you enjoy being a fly on the wall as much as being the lead creative on a project?

First off, this was an honour to be a part of. Ghetts is a true Legend in my humble opinion and one of the greatest to ever do it and to capture the stills of him linking up with Stormz is Iconic. It was funny because I had actually shot a video with Shaybo that day and then after we wrapped that we walked over, she did her thing and I took photos so it was a funny one.

I was only on set for like three hours and it is tricky because obviously Nathan, who directed the visual, has so much he needs to get DONE for the video and then i turn in to that annoying person who is jumping in between takes to try and make magic in 10 seconds. Obviously the set and styling was amazing so I JUST USED the lights they had set up for the video  and had to move quickly before they moved one hahah.

I really enjoy the challenge, and if I’m being honest I don’t think people expect much from BTS photos so the challenge is to make an image or series of images that exist in that world, adding a layer to the whole narrative. But I love it and also when you are shooting artists like Ghetts and Stormz it’s great anyway, but especially when you have a relationship with them and they respect your art and vision, IT means that you can be cheeky and continually push them to stand for some more portraits hahah.

I would love to find out a bit more about your shoot with Jorja Smith. What was the context for this shoot? what was Jorja like to work with and what was the creative direction for you going in?? These photos are some of my favourites and give a real old-school Hollywood look.

Well this was hella cheeky and maybe like 4 years ago, but i was actually shooting a BTS film of one of her music videos for VEVO and I just used to always take my stills camera. I would just get what I needed for the film for VEVO and then be shooting stills around it. Everything on that shoot was super photographic anyway in terms of the music video so it made capturing stills easy, but again I didn’t have anything to do with the creative, I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. Also JORJA is lovely so she again would always play up to the camera and was happy to pose for me.

I did actually go for that old school Hollywood feel by under-exposing the images and then pushing them in post to give the images that grainy look.

I can’t believe i didn’t ask this in our first interview but if you could see any 3 bands or solo artists from history perform live who would they be?

Jheeze, this is a tough question, and be prepared because its probably going to be a bit of a mad collection….I think first off would have to be Tupac. I don’t feel this needs any justification, I just think seeing him live would have been a whole crazy experience. 

Next would probably be NWA, just the attitude is unrivalled. 

Then I think the last one would probably have to be Elvis. My mum was a huge fan when i was really young and I just would always have elvis playing around our tiny flat in Streatham, but i loved him back in the day. 

If you don’t mind i would love to ask a few more boring technical questions about your camera set ups and gear: 

1) What’s your biggest tip in terms of camera settings when you’re shooting in a concert/club environment where lighting can be harsh or non existent?

I would say don’t be afraid if the image looks too dark on your camera when you are shooting, digital cameras are crazy now and the detail you can get out of a near completely dark image is amazing. I think this takes practice but my rules are always try to stick to 250th of a second shutter (unless getting arty on it) and then i try not to push my iso above 800. the aperture is then your main friend, so it means you only have to focus on one thing whilst running around like a mad man trying to shoot. Work out what the light is going to do for the gig in the first song, sometimes I don’t start shooting until the second or third song just so i can work out the best place to be.

2) If you’re travelling for a few weeks and you can’t bring your whole camera bag, what camera and lens combo would you take to allow for enough versatility no matter where you end up or what you need to photograph?

I’m the kind of guy that would bring one hoodie and no coat so i could bring my cameras. I mean i think most people would chuck a 24-70mm lens on a digital camera and be on their way, but i think for me I’ve really fallen in love with my Pentax67, it’s big and so are the lenses but I just love medium format so much that it’s worth it for me. ThAT means bringing loads of film and hoping you don’t run out, but i think I’d always rather bring my Pentax67 than my 5D mark 4, i just know I’ll have more fun shooting, and also be happier with my results.

3) At this stage in your career you are firmly established and have a large array of clients, but no doubt this wasn’t always the case. What’s your best advice to young photographers who love music related photography to grow and develop a client base?

Hahahah, i mean thank you for this statement but i suffer from imposter syndrome daily, so ‘firmly established’ is a hard thing for me to agree with. I feel like I’m really just settling into my style of photography and am still growing constantly. I studied photography but really used the music videos or TV shows that I directed as ways to also push my photography, so I’d shoot stills on every music video i did, and then artists would see them and then often ask to shoot down the line.

That’s what happened with Ghetts, I directed ‘Drill Work’ with him and Swindle and took photos on the day as well and then Ghetts loved those photos and that’s why he then sent me a voice note asking me to come and shoot some stills on ‘SKENGMAN.’ I suppose what that means is you never know where something may go, be nice to everyone and always listen to what they want.

You can always push your aesthetic but sometimes people know the picture they want and THEY want you to do it. In terms of finding new work, it’s all about putting the work in when you start. I’ve been on tour with artists, always taken my camera to festivals in case i end up backstage and get the opportunity to shoot some artist- it’s just about always being on standby with your finger on the button. There IS no real concrete way to do it and a lot is down to luck, meeting that one person who can change everything. 

My final question for you is about the ‘Drink’ music video that you filmed with Jamie Cullum. How did this shoot come to be? How challenging is it to create an emotive and personal video like this when you only have one set to play with? How challenging is it to create an emotive and personal video like this when you only have one set to play with?

This whole video was quite crazy. I grew up from the age of ten with my grandparents and my gran was the biggest Jamie Cullum fan. She died a few years back, but when i got the brief for this I knew I’d get it. i just knew that it would fall in my favour and then in a weird turn of events the shoot day was actually my gran’s birthday so it all felt like fate.

Anyway, less romanticism. That shoot was a lot of phone calls, watching old cartoons and going through loads of archive footage to find imagery that could take us away from the one set we used for that video. 

We wanted the cartoons and archive footage to almost represent a childlike daydream. Jamie was a pleasure to work with and WAS super involved and always available to chat and watch stuff I’d send over, or he’d send me stuff and it was a super fluid experience. I think the personal and emotive side of the video really came from Jamie, when we spoke early on i put a lot of pressure on him to really dig into his childhood and find moments and memories that we could lean on to really make it his truth and i really think we achieved that. I’m glad you dig the tune, it’s a banger.

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