Interview by Jain Lemos. Photos ©2020 Inti St. Clair.
© Inti St. Clair.
Some people can light up any space they walk into and lifestyle photographer Inti St. Clair has effortlessly perfected that talent. Put a camera in her hands and the phenomena continues. As an award-winning commercial shooter with an envious client list—AT&T, Chase, Kaiser Permanente, Hilton and Honda to name a few—Inti is an approachable and congenial artist who shares her gifts wherever she goes.
About 20 years ago, Inti was working in Portland, Oregon as a chef. She realized the long hours and the industry demands were too brutal to endure and that career path wasn’t going to allow her the freedom she craved to explore the world. Soon enough, tongs and microplanes made way for strobes and memory cards. With a new passion for a new century, Inti set out to capture an extension of herself in the lifestyle, travel and portraiture images she creates.
Raised in the Pacific Northwest and settling in Austin (for the warmer weather) about five years ago, it’s clear that Inti is dedicated to sharing her enthusiastic knack for life to bring out the best in us. APA is fortunate to have her energy and know-how in her new role as their National Board Vice President, where she will work with representatives from each chapter to help with advocacy, membership and marketing initiatives.
Congratulations on joining APA’s National Board. Tell us how you are going to approach your position and what do you hope to accomplish?
I am so grateful for the guidance I’ve gotten over the years from a number of mentors I’ve had, and I fully believe in doing whatever I can to help other photographers and lift up the industry as a whole. I hope to do what I can to create community, provide resources and assistance to other artists, and promote greater diversity both within the realm of APA, and the greater professional photography community.
I think it's important for photographers to have more honest conversations with each other and not to work so much as competitors but as allies in a competitive marketplace. For example, we can do things to help the industry keep rates reasonable and consistent. Too often, jobs are going for way less than they should and, naturally, clients will take advantage of the situation. Having honest conversations about pricing will only serve to help sustain the industry for all of us. I will also encourage local chapters to expand their outreach to ensure representation in APA includes members with a range of different social and ethnic backgrounds, orientations and genders. I’d also like to explore mentorship and grant programs and find ways to make photography a more reliable income source.
© Inti St. Clair.
When I looked at your work to select images for this piece, I noticed you have a tendency to put someone or something randomly out of frame. I’m thinking that’s probably deliberate.
My goal is always to capture true slice-of-life moments. I want my images to draw the viewer in with their authenticity and believability—to give a sense of what might have gone on before this moment and what might happen after—as if they’re a grab from a film. I like to create a sense of the unexpected, of wonder, of curiosity.
I’m not someone who story boards or rehearses. On my own self-produced shoots, I rarely even write shot lists. I think a lot about what I’m going for before I shoot based on the talent, location and so on, but I very much want things to unfold naturally based on overall concepts as opposed to getting specific shots. I like things to feel unstructured, unposed and real. Having a hint of someone other than the subject in frame really adds to that feeling. Of course, for clients I’m working with their shot list, but even then, I’m using it as a guide. I keep in mind all the parameters of the messaging they’re trying to convey, as well as the platforms they will be using the content on, and I try to capture the magic moments that unfold while also working for those desired uses.
Seeing your photo of a couple kissing in the city, I really felt a pang. Has depicting social distancing and other safety precautions during the coronavirus outbreak changed your approach?
I understand this 100 percent! I was watching a movie and a dancing scene came on. I got all choked up, wondering when I’ll be able to go dancing with my friends again! Hugging my friends sounds dreamy, too.
Absolutely, there is a big shift in what clients are looking for now. I’m seeing requests for smaller, more intimate groups of people doing things. Of course, family situations—working from home, home schooling, doing chores and hanging together—is huge. Outside of the home these days I am far more mindful of showing activities that illustrate smaller groups of people practicing social distancing no matter what they’re doing.
© Inti St. Clair.
And you’ve been doing work in the healthcare industry, so that means you have to depict everything accurately, right?
Yes, I think there is always a need for most healthcare-related imagery to reflect our current situation, and right now this includes safety precautions. Outside of that, in terms of advertising shots, the mask thing is played out. While it’s still very relevant in daily life, brands are already shifting to look for visuals that show people living their life as they best can while still being safe and aware.
You mentioned you set up a self-funded project to create a portfolio of health-related subjects. How did this come about?
About three years ago, an idea came to move into shooting healthcare, but before getting assignments in that space, clients almost always want you to demonstrate this type of work before they'll consider hiring you. With the intention of building a portfolio of healthcare related imagery, and knowing how expensive it can be to produce, I called a friend of mine who I had collaborated with on several projects before, St. Louis photographer John Fedele. Thankfully, he and I make an amazing team, and we’re able to seamlessly work side-by-side to really make the most out of our efforts.
© Inti St. Clair.
I can imagine that was quite an undertaking. What was involved?
Well, a lot! To keep costs as manageable as possible, we did the producing, casting and styling jobs ourselves. John did most of the motion and I did stills. We shot at multiple locations in Houston and St. Louis for a total of 4 days. Just the fee to shoot at a surgical center ran us $10,000 a day. We had two assistants and put in some extremely long days, but it was amazing, and well worth the effort.
One critical thing was to hire a medical consultant to check for authenticity and to make sure the talent was doing things correctly. One time, we forgot to put socks on a patient undergoing an MRI and they called that out right away—things we’d never think of if we didn’t know.
Wow. And have you seen a return on this investment already?
We have. The project resulted in hundreds of usable frames and clips and has led to several assignments for both of us. The ongoing stock sales from this effort have paid back our costs of production, and are really helpful during this recent shutdown and recession.
What is the percentage of self-assignments vs stock shooting vs clients right now?
The past few years I was so busy shooting for clients I rarely shot for stock. This year, that’s flipped, and now I’m spending most of the time self-producing shoots. I’m always looking to put the imagery I self-produce into stock with the hope of getting some return for my investment. Sadly, the money in stock isn’t where it used to be, but I love self-producing! It’s the best way to create new work for my portfolio, and truthfully, most of my favorite images are the ones I’ve captured on these self-assigned shoots.
© Inti St. Clair.
There is that fine line between authentic and a pretty picture. Do advertising photos depict how we really live or how only the most privileged among us are living? I was envying this laundry room in your shoot for Arm & Hammer.
I’m so grateful that throughout my career as a photographer there has been a major shift away from highly-curated perfection. It’s always been my intention to photograph all people. All races, genders, body types and so on. I firmly believe that you can create imagery that is both aspirational and authentic, and the imagery that achieves that is far more powerful than the imagery that relies on antiquated stereotypes and ideals.
I can say I used to have to push to have a greater level of inclusivity in my shoots, but now I am happy to say brands are initiating this a lot more frequently. We can always do better, of course, but I feel the momentum is pushing us in the right direction.
Not too long ago, everyone wanted a “user generated” look to their images. Are things swinging back to more finessed, message-centric looks though?
It’s always my intention to create images that feel intimate, connected and real. That said, I’m also always seeking to elevate an image beyond the “user generated” snapshot feel. There are a number of ways I accomplish that. Sometimes through styling and propping, shooting through or past things, lighting, varying my lens lengths and apertures, showing movement…
How do you see things playing out for the rest of the year for you?
I’m dying to travel again. I also hope to get back to Portland to continue a personal project, “A Day in the Sweet Life of Sisters” that I’ve been working on for the past 9 years. Every year since they were 4 and 2 years of age, I’ve been photographing sisters Naiya and Anandi for a single day. My aim is to continue this each year as far into their adulthood as I can. It’s a big commitment, but it’s become my favorite day of the year now. The girls are family to me, and I look forward to having an amazing body of work that truly captures who they were and how they grew throughout the different stages of their lives.
The project is also shifting me to think from an editorial standpoint. I have to hold myself back from wanting to make them do something. I set out for the shots to be reflective of who they are in that moment, so I don’t want to direct them. For someone who is normally directing everything, it is challenging. I welcome this, though, as I always get something unexpected and often magical that I wouldn’t get otherwise.