Interview: Zebak | Forward & Production: Ness
In the midst of a busy work schedule, a very approachable Ben Watts took time to speak with us last week for a brief phone interview to discuss his most anticipated book to release entitled Lickshot. British-born and Australian-raised, the photographer has made New York City his home now for the past 12 years capturing the essence of street and lifestyle culture. He is a notable force within the entertainment industry, providing his eye for detail and beauty for company giants that include Nike, Apple, Polo Ralph Lauren, Sony Music, GQ, Rolling Stone, New York Times Magazine, VIBE, Elle, Vanity Fair and Harper’s Bazaar just to to name a few. Lickshot is a personable scrapbook collection of photographs and Polaroids that ventures into the world of high profile celebrities and youth driven counterculture. With a fervor for life, Watts has the uncanny ability to capture any subject’s most intimate moments and raw spirit by putting them instantly at ease in any given setting. With that being said, we provide you with a look into the creative process of the dynamic photographer, Ben Watts.
RAW: To commence our session properly, we thought that it would be fitting to start with the most basic question. Can you give us some insight into your creative process?
Ben Watts: I prefer to have a set idea whenever I begin any photo session. From that point comes a sense of spontaneity which helps to convey the integrity and continuity similar to my previous book “Big Up”.
RAW: What was the initial spark that prompted you to begin your photography exploration?
Ben Watts: When I was in college I studied graphic design and all of my assignments were submitted in the form of pictures. I found that photography was my strength and the best medium which allowed me to be able to best convey and express my ideas, so naturally I gravitated towards that.
RAW: Back in 1995 you decided to make NYC your home. Aside from the obvious appeal of N.Y. being a city of diversity, dreams and opportunity, was it the aura of the past, realness of the present or the promise of the future that prompted you to move here?
Ben Watts: All three. I consider NYC to be the mecca. I subscribe to the philosophy that “If you make it here you can make it anywhere”. NYC is culturally one of the world’s leaders. If I had to rank it, it would be number one in the world, and the rest of the cities would fall in line thereafter.
RAW: Since 2000 you have released seven books that all capture the authenticity and spirit of your youth and counter culture driven subject(s) in an urban setting or landscape. Your newest book “Lickshot” also celebrates these moments in time. What is it about the street culture community that inspires and intrigues you?
Ben Watts: Initially I had been inspired by cult fashion and music, which led me to become focused on the Mod and Ska scenes in the ’70s. In the ’80s I gravitated towards the Rockabilly and Hip Hop culture. In addition to this I was also affected by the U.K. and U.S. Pop culture. What intriques me most about these subcultures is the self expression and the independent mental state that exists within all of them.
RAW: Throughout your work in “Lickshot” you have provided a unique experience with each new setting. We are particularly interested in the street shots which seem to supplement the subjects’ character. Are you responsible for the environmental settings you photograph your subjects in, or are they organic?
Ben Watts: I’m responsible for the initial environmental setting. For every photo shoot I always come prepared with a set idea in mind, especially for my celebrity shoots. I get the first shot in the bag and then after that things happen organically. I subscribe to Juergen Teller’s philosophy which states that one should always allow subjects to express themselves. It’s important to never over direct, and more about the power of communication. I never discount any subtle actions.
RAW: How are you able to transcend the two worlds of high fashion and street realness? How do you stay relevant in both realms?
Ben Watts: Communication is the key no matter whom I’m photographing. Just by being down to earth and letting my participants know that I respect their character gives them a sense of validity. Everyone I photograph is a willing subject, they appreciate and respect realness. Its that realness that allows them to be who they truly are. The modern person has no boundaries to confine them.
RAW: We understand what you mean. It’s the respect garners respect philosophy. When traveling with your professional gear even on street excursions, have you ever “been run” for your equipment?
Ben Watts: I’ve never encountered any hassles and have always been a smart traveler. Even when traveling to the more shady parts, I always make sure that I travel with a guide that is well respected within the area I am visiting. I am able to sense and feel a situation before it happens and am thus, able to avoid it all together.
RAW: Do you feel that camera equipment is a passport which allows you to connect with situations or individual that you would never have access to otherwise?
Ben Watts: It has its pluses and minuses. While I feel empowered by the camera, I also feel hampered down by it. Interestingly enough street characters are very cautious of me at first. They sort of treat me like paparazzi, but as soon as they realize that I am there to shoot a celebrity, they then start to warm up. It gives them a sense of self worth and becomes an open invitation for others to shine.
RAW: Lastly, if you had a chance to be photographed by anyone, who would it be and why?
Ben Watts: I don’t really know. I don’t really feel like I am that interesting. I do draw inspiration from such photographers as Bruce Davidson and Danny Lyons.
We beg to differ with you Mr. Watts, we find you quite interesting. Get the down low by joining the Lickshot Facebook for additional book images and details. To purchase a copy visit PAPress, otherwise get to know the man behind the lens with this video short by Nike .