Wednesday, January 19, 2022

The Birth of a Photographer: Interview with Lea Sharples

Lea Sharples is a photographer from South Africa

Modelrecs approaches fashion and creativity with an irreverent spirit. We hold contests on Instagram that offer creatives the opportunity to submit their work with a chance to win a prize. A few weeks ago, we held a contest for the most fashion-forward South African photographer. The winner of that competition was Lea Sharples. Lea is a talented photographer with a unique ability to tell stories with her lens. As a winner of the competition, we interviewed her to capture everything that makes her photography practice unique. A chance to tell her story.

Lea Sharples is an immensely talented photographer with over five years of experience in crafting magic with her camera. She is known for her unique style of storytelling via her photography. Her bold and dramatic personality shines through her work. With five distinctions in high school and a degree in Motion Picture Medium, she is ready to break into fashion and commercial photography. She is born and raised in Johannesburg, South Africa, and is currently working on her latest photography and acting project. 

Check out her portfolio.

See behind the scenes for the shoot discussed in this interview.

Q: When did your interest in photography start and why did you start taking pictures?

A: As a one-year-old, there’s a home video of me reaching out to my dad, wanting to see the baby on the digital screen he had turned around. It was strange as an adult watching my interest in a camera from that little. There’s another one where Dad had set it up on the kitchen counter with the screen facing me and my sister. We danced and played, watching our reflections repeat the movements pointed back at us. It was magic. My sister soon lost interest but I continued to perform and interact with it … knowingly speaking, to whoever would watch it in the future. I recited what I had done that day and who I was with. I was about 4.

So growing up I did have a fascination with all my parents’ various cameras, especially recording video. At school sports events, birthday parties, and holidays, I was always asking to hold the camera and film by myself. I got a small digital camera for a birthday but eventually grew tired of the picture quality and wanted to try my dad’s nice camera (standard Sony DSLR).

One December my parents believed I was old enough (with a little begging from my part) to handle the expensive device and allowed me to photograph to my heart’s content. I strolled around a plot of land along the Vaal River, photographing small flowers and my pets. That one little journey sparked the ‘love’ for taking photos.

My mom soon after enrolled me in an extra-curricular photography program at my junior school. I slowly learned the basics of photography, developing my eye for composition, and exploring different genres and styles. A few years later the course was introduced and available again for us when we were in high school. I learned about techniques and camera functions. It was a hobby for me in my spare time during school. It was only in Matric I realized I wanted to have some kind of start-up job during my years in varsity. So I thought, I’ll just charge people a small fee to take reasonably okay photos. And it was with time I learned and grew into my style. As much as I love working for clients and doing lifestyle work, I push myself to do more creative stuff in my spare time to broaden my portfolio to show my range to future clients. I enjoy my growth through this process and am keen to see it further in years to come.

Your pictures seem to suggest a narrative. Are you conscious of storytelling? Can you describe your process?

In short. No, I’m not that conscious of storytelling. I just like to build and create visuals. The end results are never certain and I enjoy hearing other interpretations of what they can read.

But in long the process:

My conceptual shoots always stem from a moment (or few) of inspiration I’ll have had one time or another and taken note of. Whether watching a movie, finding myself in a space where my eye picks up on visual parts I like, or listening to an obscure song that makes me experience a certain atmosphere. I’ll record, write it down, take a picture just document it in any way for later cause my eye saw something I liked and want to explore deeper.

And Instagram. Instagram is a huge factor in how I generate ideas. I follow a bunch of photographers and visual artists whose styles I admire and learn from through their work. (For interest’s sake, said photographers are: Cindy Sherman, Ellen von Unwerth, Annie Lebowitz, Mehran Djojan, Polina Washington, Xenia Lau, Ashley Marie, Rebeca Saray, Justin Dingwall, Dylan Bolivar, Andre Badenhorst, Daniele Pomposiello, Laura Makabresku, Haris Nukem, Laura Zambelli, and Elsa Bleda) My Modern Marie shoot was heavily inspired by Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette which I’ve repeat watched, countlessly. I’ve always been in love with the eccentric, grand dresses they wore in those times, and Coppola’s meshing of then with an alternative, the modern soundtrack was a dream.

Once I’ve taken care of location, wardrobe, props, and models, I’ve established a framework for ‘storytelling’. I set up my lights, get behind my camera, and direct the models through poses I imagine might work. A lot of the time I let them move around themselves and yell “stop, don’t move!” when I see a moment I want to snap. After each shoot, I consider what I can improve on and take notes for the next. I’m learning to take my time to add a certain prop in-frame giving away a fact about the subject or make the model hold their form in a certain way that silently conveys an emotion or state of mind that could work for the shot. I want more practice to get better at it. My flair for storytelling must have come from my years being a drama junkie in school, and loving movies. I think I use my years of exposure to the theatre world to aid in my creation of conceptual fashion shoots.

As technical and lengthy as that all is, once I’ve put in the time to conceptualize and plan, the story builds itself when it all comes together in those few hours of shooting.

Do you use references before a shoot? For example, a mood board? For the That 70s Shoot, did you have a specific reference that informed your approach to the shoot?

Yeah, as mentioned above, I use Instagram a lot as a reference tool, saving photos of photographers I admire whether it be for their subject, use of light, framing, composition, color palette, etc.

That 70s Shoot was inspired by my already established love for 70s fashion and the actual location that we shot at. It’s a school friend’s formal family lounge that overlooks half of Johannesburg. They graciously allowed us to play in their house for a Sunday afternoon. With inspiration, I start to collect or source clothing pieces over months. From Bruma mall, Mr. Price clothing, thrifting, and my own cupboard; I build up a themed rack of interesting, statement clothing pieces I think will photograph well and enhance the vibe I want to get in my shots.

The clothing is essential, helping the model embody a persona that is most fitting in the scene at hand. My wardrobe is an important part of the mise-en-scene I try to build up. For That 70s Shoot I’d say Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time in Hollywood was an obvious source of inspiration. But also the songs: Shelter Song by Temples(2014), Sunday Morning by Flow Morrissey & Matthew White (2017), which are not of the time but instantly send me back to the atmosphere of what I dream the 70s were. 70s Fashion was creeping back to popularity at the end of 2019 so it wasn’t hard to find some great pieces. The palette leaned towards warm colors and shades of red, orange, and brown. The colors are seen in the clothing reference the colors taken from the set itself of brown woods and stone, with abstract light fixtures that oozed golden light.

Another great reference is the costumes and sets in the film Diary of a Teenage Girl (2015) directed by Marielle Heller. I could write an essay on that film, especially on its themes.

Here is the PDF document I compiled to pitch to my team:

Lea Sharples Moodboard

Lea Sharples photo shoot process document

My approach was just to have everything ‘70s’ I could get my hands on. From a record player to my grandmother’s ancient scrabble set, I was made for anything that could be considered ‘of the time’. The location was the statement part of the whole shoot, so I styled the colors to mutually vibe with the colors and textures already in the room. I picture who I can ask to feature in the image I have in my mind. Like casting characters, I keep my eyes open on social media for faces I’d want to capture and reach out to either them or various friends I can see suiting the part. I pitch them my theme and concept, with already secured make-up artists and venues. I’ve made it a rule to myself to always secure my locations or be in the process of it, before reaching out to models. With that the chances of them saying yes increase. I cast the 3 ladies for various reasons. I wanted all females, in a relaxed and laid back setting. Hinting a little bit to Charlie’s Angels, I wanted them to be in sync somehow, so I specifically chose ladies with fiery red hair. They’re… Lea’s Angels. I had worked with Suzi before and adore how photogenic she is. I had met Scarlet years ago at Rumours Rock City (the old one) and followed her work as an alternative model and jumped at this chance I had to get her on my set. Lyndsay and I share a mutual friend and I just had to work with her too. Especially with her detailed ink work which added a unique element to the pictures, making them that more interesting to the eye.

Lea Sharples’ That 70s Shoot story on the Modelrecs fashion publishing platform.

What role does location scouting, casting, wardrobe, props, and setting influence how you take pictures? Take us through how you made the That 70s Shoot.

All of those things matter a ton in their own ways. Just like a film, all roles and departments are of equal importance. Without one of those things or a sub-standard version of it, the production standard is lowered, with the final result suffering.

The location is the shell in which everything else will take place. I try to find locations that don’t need much to be altered and most importantly I plan shoots around locations I know I have access to, or can easily enquire and secure. My location scouting is constantly happening. When I’m driving around town for errands, watching social media and local Instagram location tags, when I’m on jobs for clients, I’m just always on the lookout.

Casting happens through social media. I’ll either approach people myself or put out a casting call and see who applies because you never know if you could stumble on the next Candice or Charlize. I do like to have an open mind to casting because there’s no such thing as perfect and I don’t have time to be picky. I’m able to see something in someone that I can work within regards to the theme of the shoot at hand.

The wardrobe with hair and make-up transforms the models. It helps them get in tune with the scene they’re going to interact with. It helps support a character if they choose to portray one. The more they feel a part of the set/scene, the more confidence they’ll give you that they belong there at that moment you’ve created from scratch. And the same goes for props. They’re there for the model/actor to interact with in order to convey a more authentic depiction of reality. It gets a bit boring when all they do is sit posing for a camera. So I made my models look through records, play a game of cards, drink something. Giving them something to do makes posing all the easier.

With all these things taken into consideration, your scene is ready and it’s all a matter of framing up the shot and taking the picture.

How would you describe the qualities of the characters you are interested in photographing? What are their stories?

I like creating fictional people from my head. I find it so powerful. I pictured this person in my mind and now here they are in the flesh by my hand. It’s how I fell in love with filmmaking and landed up studying the craft. Making something from nothing. I’d hope that viewers of any of my styled photos can create their detailed sense of who the characters are to them. I don’t think about the characters beforehand (at least for now) and rather let myself build and build with what I have at my disposal. It’s by chance that I get the end characters that I do, which is exciting. Who am I going to meet in these photographs when I sit down to edit and contemplate them?

I love finding everyone’s best angles and making them feel amazing about how they look in a photograph, both models and clients. It’s the best feeling seeing them set my photos as their profile images on social platforms. It’s their own visual story of themselves through my eyes. I have a habit of seeing good in everyone, which sometimes leads to my detriment in personal relationships. But that trait feeds into my photos of people & ‘characters’.

The only way I can try to explain their ‘story’ is just capturing them as they are at that moment in time. There and then, that was their truth. Because a picture is a ‘thousand words’ and visual evidence of the natural and amazing truth I saw from them in that one moment I took the photograph.

The models in the shoot That 70s shoot have a confidence about them that invites the viewer to want to know that person. They seem interesting. As a viewer, I think I would want to sit in a bar and have a conversation with them. Do you try to elevate the confidence level of your models to capture what makes them unique? How do you bring out the personality of your models or characters in your pictures?

I’m forever trying to make my models feel beautiful and confident in how they look when they’re working with me. I’m always shouting “yaaas” or various other affirmations to let them know what we’re doing is working.

The best part of these 3 is that they are so interesting on their own in real life, so their personalities naturally came through in the pictures. It also helped that we had been hanging out since noon, cracking jokes and swapping stories. We just brought our friendliness to location which allowed for relaxed energy while we shot. During each model’s turn, the other two would stand behind me and encourage her, letting her know how good the scene looked even without it being in a photograph yet.

I brought my Bluetooth speaker and we blasted some 70s tunes to completely set the tone for ourselves and keep the mood up while we went on for 4 hours of shooting.

I have a tendency to let everyone know when I’m excited about something. So when I was happy with what I started to see, I yelled praises to each model when I saw how fire they looked. Letting them know what they were doing was working and that they looked beautiful. Every so often I would show them some of the shots to help them see what they looked like. This got them excited and boosted their confidence to play with poses more. The more they saw how well they were doing it, the more they showed it on camera.

Some of the pictures in That 70s Shoot suggest sly sexuality. How do you enable the character or model to feel comfortable in hinting at something sexual?

I mentioned to the models that I did want there to be a sensual element to the theme. We had to reference that the 70s was a time of sexual liberation, especially for women. Pornography and premarital sex were normalized amongst other things. The pill was a big part of the Feminist movement allowing women to freely enjoy sexual relations without concern of falling pregnant. For Feminism, sexual liberation for women was focused physically and Psychologically.

But I didn’t rely on nudity to try to convey this. I think the least clothing we went which was a baggy shirt and no pants on Scarlet and no bras. Females’ favorite “chill at home” attire. It was a time-sensitive shoot in a private residence and I did not feel like pushing boundaries that day. But I enjoyed the challenge of creating a sensual atmosphere in the photographs without removing their clothes. Not to say that photographers who do opt for implied or complete nudity isn’t good, but it makes it so much easier.

To help the models feel comfortable being sexy for photographs I think it helps that most of my sets, if not all of them, are filled with ladies. So there’s that female energy that allows models to relax, and when they are they’re more inclined to experiment with me. I’m also very confident in directing posing if they need help, and try to communicate with them what pose I want.

How do you direct the action and posing of your characters or Models?

I’m aware of composition and framing. Over the years I have developed my skill in finding visual balance. I like to shift and move things around, especially models. Once I like my overall shot set up, I direct the model to move her arm up or shift her weight to a specific side to have their body balance up the frame. I’m sure most ladies who have sat for me can confirm I ask them to tweak and move in the smallest and seemingly most insignificant ways until I take the pictures.

I’m also conscious to make sure they look natural in their posing, which unfortunately means the models are never comfortable. It’s a known thing when it comes to modeling, that in order to get the perfect and most flattering pose you have to hold the most strenuous positions. Back and shoulders have to be straight and upright, chest stuck out, gut sucked in, arms away from sides, one leg in front of another, etc. Missions.

Do you shoot men in a different way than women? If so, can you describe how you go about communicating and directing them? What are the differences between shooting men and women?

Men are really hard because they’re awkward and tense. Ladies are flexible and can play with ‘girl-like’ and dainty things in photographs. I do find it harder to pose men because I’m not one. My go-to with male clients is hands in the pocket or cross-armed. But I see it as a challenge now to get more comfortable with it. As I said before, I love capturing everyone in their best light. Men are just harder than ladies for me.

With females, I just naturally look at their bodies and see ways they can bend and twist in order to hit the best spots. Shoulders back, chest out, head tilted, hands hovering over the face, lean, knee bent, turn a little, blah blah blah. Boys don’t bend or twist like that. Because I have given them the same kind of direction I would ladies, but they just don’t hit the marks I see them in, in my head. But it’s not their fault, I just haven’t practiced with as many as I have with Women.

And knowing that I find it harder to shoot men, my styled shoots have always been female orientated. Any man I’d cast, I wouldn’t know what to do with. So I think you’ve for sure reaffirmed to me that I want to look into shooting more men. I’ve been watching the work showcased on an Instagram account @themanpr0ject for many months now and I’m itching to shoot more guys after seeing the work from there.

Do you like to have music playing while you shoot? What is the soundscape like in a Lea Sharples shoot? In the That 70s Shoot, did you all listen to the records Suzi Visser was pulling out from the record sleeves during the shoot?

I honestly have this ambition to be that ‘cool’ photographer who plays my obscure and edgy tunes. But when it comes to shooting day it’s the last thing on my mind. I make speakers available to anyone on set and normally the person with the most confidence in their music tastes syncs up and plays what they want. It’s cool letting your team create their own space and vibe, getting in the mood. Lyndsay at the 70s shoot played some songs from back then and it was like being transported back in time while standing in that house, surrounded by pretty redheads. My head is normally overseeing the set and putting up my gear. But in the perfect world, I would play a mixed genre, chilled playlist first while we prepare and then a more upbeat one when we shoot.

I also want to give a special mention to the SA music artists I listen to, and have been immensely inspired by. The songs I’ve included in my little “playlists” are ones you’d mistake for internationally produced music, so I asterisked them **.

Anything by Billie Eilish

Billie Eilish story on the Modelrecs fashion publishing platform


• Help Me Lose My Mind (feat. London Grammar) – Disclosure

• Eye to Eye – Jordan Rakei

• California & Contention – The Great Yawn**

• Fade Into You – Mazzy Star

• Good Luck – Broken Bells

• Angel – Gavin Friday (From Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo+Juliet)

• Jigsaw Falling Into Place & Talk Show Host – Radiohead

• Porcelain – Moby

• Fortythree – Jejüne**

• Salt – B.Miles

• World Sick & Hotel – Broken Social Scene

• 1979 – Smashing Pumpkins

• Holy Holy – Wye Oak

• Shelter Song – Temples

• Sober – Childish Gambino

• Oceane (feat. Olivia Escuyos) – Rini

• Coming Home – Kaiser Chiefs

• Bloodbuzz Ohio – The National

• Nomi – The Kiffness**

• Goodbyes (feat. Young Thug) – Post Malone

• Because You Move Me – Tinlicker & Helsloot

• Walking On a Dream & We Are the People – Empire of the Sun


• Dive (feat. Enya & Alex Aris) – Salvatore Ganacci

• Spliff – Bilderbuch

• Tongues (feat. Kopps) – Joywave

• Gold – Kiiara

• Sthlm Sunset – Ehrling

• Hallucinations – Pvris

• Heavy – Powers

• Anti-Fan – Joy Club Cassidy Cassidy**

• A Taste of Silver – Until The Ribbon Breaks

• Breathe (feat. Ina Wroldsen) – Jax Jones

• Heads Will Roll (A-Trak Remix) – Yeah Yeah Yeahs

• Not Givin’ Up – James Deacon **

• Midnight City – M83

• R U Mine? – Arctic Monkeys

• Relax – Frankie Goes To Hollywood

• Mother’s Daughter – Miley Cyrus

• Sussudio (Remastered) – Phil Collins

• Sex on Fire – Kings of Leon

• 3 Nights – Dominica Fike

• I Feel It Coming & Blinding Lights – The Weekend

• Natural’s Not In it – Gang of Four

• Smalltown Boy – Bronski Beat

• Easy Love – Ben Dey and the Concrete Lions**

• Clap Your Hands – Sia

• Get Some – Lykke Li

• Miss Murder – AFI

• Mess Around – Cage the Elephant

• No One Knows – Queens of the Stone Age

• I Can’t Quit & If You Wanna – The Vaccines

• I feel Like I’m Drowning & Go f*** Yourself – Two Feet

• Slide – Calvin Harris, Frank Ocean & Migos

• Under My Skin – Byron Foxx

• Can I Sit Next to You & Let Me Be Mine – Spoon

• Elephant – Tame Impala

• Tuesday & Bambi – Hippo Campus

• Odd Soul – Mutemath

• Might Be Right – White Reaper

• Bowsie – Shortstraw**

• Past Lives & Dopamine – BÆRNS

• Lift Off – Kid Violet

• Children (Dream Version) – Robert Miles

(I have no shame including this song)

• Ubu – Methyl Ethel

• Beverly Blues – Opia

• Holy Dove – Civil Twilight

• Left Hand Free – Alt-J

• Tout va Bien – Orelsan

Wholesome Sounding

• Excuses – The Morning Benders

• Not Cut Out for This – Rubblebucket

• Amour T’es La (with Magda Giannikou) – Snarky Puppy

• Eastbound & Girl – Sobs

• Publish My Love – Rogue Wave

• I can’t Stand It – Blossoms



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