russ o'connell

INTERVIEW: Russ O'Connell - Picture Director at Q magazine

Hanging out with Lana Del Rey when she’s wearing a tiara and has blood dribbling down her face: we’ve all done it. But Russ O'Connell does other things too, including managing and commissioning the photographers at the UK’s most prestigious music magazine, Q. Previously, he had the same role at celeb-obsessed weekly Heat. Ever licensed a set of photos for 40 grand? He has. Read on, this is fascinating stuff…

Interview by Danny ‘I Don’t Get Out Of Bed For Less Than 39 Grand’ North*

Danny North: Let’s get our readers acquainted with you first.  Tell us a bit about your background, what was your first picture editing job, and how did you get into it?

Russ O’Connell: I studied photography at Camberwell College Of Art, then went on to do a degree in photography down in Exeter. When I finished university, I started to go in the direction of wanting to become a photo illustrator, managed to get a few commissions, but it was like being stuck out in the middle of the sea without armbands, so I began to investigate getting work placements at various photo libraries and magazines. Heat magazine was one of the first to come back to me, four months unpaid work experience turned into a seven-year career there where I eventually made Picture Director at the pinnacle of the magazine’s popularity, I then made the move over to Q magazine where I have been the Picture Director for the past three years.

Danny: I suppose that would make a good argument for unpaid internships?  How did you manage for four months of unpaid work?

Russ: I wouldn’t choose to be unpaid, but often that’s the only way to get your foot in the door, especially in the current climate, companies are tightening their belts, trying to get more for less. If you are going to go down the internship/work experience route then you have to make yourself indispensable and prove your worth, that way people take notice of you, of your commitment and passion. I had to sign on to the dole and was getting housing benefit to help me during that period, luckily my parents helped to fund me too. I think the key is to work out if you can afford to do it, if you are really really passionate about it, then you will find a way to make it happen. Most companies only offer a week or so work experience, I decided to stretch that out to four months as I knew that way I could make myself indispensable to them and also be in a great position to be there when an opportunity arose, which it did. Fate? Maybe, but also determination that paid off.

Danny: Picture Director at Heat must have been an intense job, that magazine is wall-to-wall images… and weekly! What’s your best memory form working there?

Russ: It was intense, but also really exciting, I was lucky enough to work there at the magazine’s peak, selling 600,000+ issues a week. I used to bid crazy money on paparazzi sets of images, £3K, £5K, £15K, even £40K – there was a hunger for those type of pictures, to be the first magazine to have them exclusively, it was a real buzz winning a bidding war, or getting a set of images first through your relationship with photographers and photo agencies. I think in terms of buzz, it was probably winning a bidding war on a set of Beckham images that rose up to £40,000!

Danny: Having dealt with pictures from agency photographers and then worked with editorial photographers, do you see them as completely different kinds of people?

Russ: Very much so, unfortunately now the majority of paparazzi photographers aren’t trained photographers at all. They have limited, if no, concept of photography or the understanding behind it, they are purely employed to serve as image-making machines to feed the hungry media disposable images of the current person/‘celebrity’ of the moment. The job of the paparazzi is simple, to try and capture that person before anyone else and get the pictures off to the agency or picture desks as quickly as possible. The role of the paparazzo used to be a skilled, almost covert role, staking out someone for hours or even days on end, using long lenses so not to intrude on that person directly in hope to capture someone doing something they shouldn’t be doing or something out of the ordinary that will genuinely make an interesting set of images. I think those days at large are fading, the Phil Rameys of this world and Frank Rosses are now shadowed by truck drivers and kids with no photographic training or understanding, being given a digital camera, putting it on A or P mode and literally jumping in the face of their subject in a scrum reminiscent of an England rugby match.

On the flip side, the editorial photographer’s job is more calculated and planned, a real understanding of composition, exposure and subject all plays a part in a good editorial photographer’s working method, the editorial photographer needs to develop a rapport with his or her subject, understand that person and what it is they are trying to say and develop that into an image worthy of standing up a feature or story.

Danny: Q is Britain’s most prestigious music magazine… in an age where the competition for photo work is fierce, what does it take to become a Q photographer?

Russ: A complete understanding of your subject, and a good understanding of composition and technical skill. You would be surprised by the number of photographers approaching me who have never shot a band or musician before claiming that they feel that they are suited to shoot for Q. I’ve even had pet photographers approach me for work. I understand it’s tough out there and people are more than ever looking for new ways to make money, but I’m not going to employ someone who has no concept or experience of what it is like to shoot a musician or band. To shoot for Q you really need to know your subject, be a skilled photographer and be different, offer something different that sets you apart from the rest of the pack.

Danny: What are the most common mistakes by up and coming photographers when showing you their portfolio?

Russ: Overuse of images, if you have two great shots of someone from a live gig or studio session or even just one, just show those, there’s no need to show the whole session to prove you can shoot a lot. I think self-editing is a really important skill that photographers need to take time to develop. Often it helps do have someone else edit your work as you can become blinded by your own work – it’s hard to become self-critical of work you are proud of, but you need to take into account who you are showing it to and if it’s the right thing to include in your folio, whether you think it’s great or not.

Danny: Do you strive to give Q a specific ‘look’ with its photography, and how specific are the briefs you give your photographers?

Russ: Quality control is very important to me on Q, I think it’s important to retain a visual identity to a magazine so the readership knows what quality they can expect to see. With that in mind, when I joined Q I very much pushed the photography in the magazine further, I was getting bored with seeing the same old style press shots and basic lighting used for the shoots, so along with the then Creative Director I made it my mission to revitalise the photography in the mag and create some sort of visual identity, upping the level of photographers and concepts.

Danny: One thing that springs to mind is a comment you made to me about noise in images. It seems like pixel-peeping photographers (aren’t we all?), and the industry at large are insanely paranoid about noise. You seem to understand the nature of it from screen to print more than most. Does this understanding come from working with film back when you first started?  Explain the major differences between how we see it on our screens and the final results in print.

Russ: I think many people have started to realise that it’s about the image rather than the ‘noise’. Even if noise is present in an image on the screen it will look very different once it is printed. I believe it’s mainly down to viewing distance, you don’t look at a magazine page with your nose touching the page, so of course it will look very different viewing the whole image printed on a page as opposed to blown up 100% on your monitor. My thoughts are that if you like the image it shouldn’t matter about noise. With 35mm film, some of the best images have been taken with really grainy black-and-white film, 1600 or even 3200 ISO film, yet back then no-one complained that the images were too grainy, they simply accepted it as part of the image and character of 35mm film – it makes it what it is.

Danny: What’s your favourite Q shoot from your three years there?

Russ: Biffy Clyro on a roof in LA shot by Austin Hargrave. I briefed Austin that I wanted them playing their instruments, giving attitude to really show the energy of Biffy Clyro, needless to say he hit the nail on the head, the image has everything going for it, the energy of the band, the setting/location, lighting. It’s one of those truly great rock ‘n’ roll images.

Danny: Having started out as a photographer, do you recommend becoming a Picture Director as a career path to others?

Russ: Definitely. It’s a role that I wasn’t even aware existed when I was at university, we were led to believe that becoming a photographer or photographer’s assistant is the only option out there, but becoming a photo editor to me is the best of both worlds: you get to work with some of the world’s best photographers, look at amazing imagery everyday, meet some truly talented people and you can also get the chance to shoot stuff yourself if you are confident enough. 

*N.B. That was a joke… he actually won’t get INTO bed for less than 39 grand.