A Question of Photography: Fashion Photographer, Sarra Fleur Abou-El-Haj

For our second interview, PhotoOp spoke with Fashion Photographer Sarra Fleur Abou-El-Haj about how she got into fashion photography, the importance of assisting, and sexual tension on set…

Sarra has worked for a host of notable clients like Avon, Chanel, Victoria’s Secret and Betsey Johnson, as well as publisher’s including W, Harpers Bazaar, Elle and Marie Claire.

PhotoOp: So, a New Yorker born and raised?

Sarra Fleur: No, I grew up on the West Coast. In Santa Monica. But it wasn’t like Santa Monica is today. It was more of a laidback surf community then. It’s a different place now, much swankier.  

PO: How did you get into photography?

SF: I always wanted to be an artist. Growing up I loved painting and drawing. But it wasn’t until I was 14 that I first picked up a camera. We were in Paris, and my mother lent me hers. She showed me the basics, and I was off. The light was amazing. I was hooked. I just went around shooting everything I saw.  

PO: And you just gravitated to fashion photography?  

SF: When I was at UCSC - where I was studying photography - I thought I would be more focused on fine arts. But honestly, I found the art world a bit pretentious at the time. And while I was there I started reading some of the fashion magazines coming out of London and Paris. Magazines like The Face, ID and French Vogue. I was amazed - the work was so innovative! 

It didn’t take itself so seriously. It wasn’t what I knew of as fashion photography. I just ate them up. I had always set up shoots with my girlfriends. Doing the hair and makeup, then taking photos of them in my mom’s old clothes from the 70’s. I realized this is what I wanted to shoot.

PO: Do you just shoot fashion? Any other disciplines you’d like to shoot?

SF: Fashion, intimates and beauty.  

PO: No interest in shooting anything else?

SF: Honestly? No. I feel like you really need to specialize. Particularly here, in New York, where it is so competitive. I don’t want to diffuse my work. I feel like some photographers think they have to shoot everything because they need to make money; but from a career perspective, I think you have to concentrate.  

PO: How long have you been a professional photographer?

SF: 10 years completely on my own. I started first as an assistant in San Francisco. It is a regional market, and the photographer I was mainly assisting shot everything - from chocolate to architecture and everything in between. I got a lot of great experience with different types of photography. 

But I knew I wanted to shoot fashion, and that meant moving to New York. When I got here I spent a couple of years assisting again. This helped me find my feet and meet others in the industry. 

PO: Do you feel it’s important to be an assistant first?  

SF: Yes, I think so. It’s like an apprenticeship. I currently have fantastic assistants who are very talented. I respect and trust them. Being an assistant is a really good right of passage. I think you should assist several different photographers. You observe them, learn from them, take what works for you and disregard the rest. You don’t want to mimic another person’s work, you need to find your own style; but there are so many technical tricks you pick up on set. It’s a lot of problem solving.  

Every shoot has different challenges and just being on set and figuring it out gives you a good understanding of how to approach unforeseen problems when you start shooting on your own.  

PO: Are there any photographers in particular that influenced you?  

SF: Originally, Irving Penn. Oh my God! He could photograph anything: fashion, still life, it didn’t matter. It was all beautiful and shot with such care and with so much intimacy. And when I was in school, Steven Klein, Steven Meisel and Nick Knight were the ones shooting amazing images. Surprisingly, the reason is nothing to do with fashion. They just shot cool, beautiful images in a way no one had before. So inspiring.

PO: Are there any interesting photographers you’re watching right now?

SF: I really love Vivian Sassen. She’s Dutch, and has a very unique take with her imagery - she’s developed her own distinct voice. It’s tight and so beautiful.

And I like supporting fellow women photographers.  

PO: Do you think there should be more women photographers?  

SF: Well, let’s just say that I like seeing more and more women photographers in the industry.

It’s always been a bit of a boys club. Even ten years ago, when I was assisting. I know of a lot of bigger, better-known photographers who wouldn’t hire women on their team. Partially this was to do with the fact the equipment can be so heavy. 

So I always made a point of picking up the heaviest equipment. I never wanted my size to be a reason for not getting work. But quite honestly the issue was perpetuated by women too. A lot of the people in charge of hiring photographers would be women - and they wanted to hire cute boys!  

PO: Where do you find your inspiration?  

SF: Inspiration is everywhere. I live in New York, so just walking down the street I can find so much to inspire me. I love it here, there is this kinetic energy - the creativity feeds off itself. I also find inspiration in books, museums, movies.  

And the other artists I work with are a huge inspiration; the hair and makeup artists, stylists and models are so talented and interesting. I have a lot of friends who are photographers and we talk about our work. This can inspire you too.  

PO: What is the worst cliché about photographers?  

SF: I guess the “Sleazy photographer who wants the girl to take her clothes off” one! But it’s funny - because when you are shooting lingerie, for example, a bit of sexual electricity on-set can make for a better shoot. 

There’s a tension that can get exciting. But this is different from being sleazy.  

And just because I’m a woman shooting another women, it’s not to say the tension isn’t there. It’s just a little different. It’s fun! Interestingly, a lot of models say they’re glad they’re being shot by a female photographer for the more intimate shoots. I guess they prefer the different vibe or maybe it feels safer.  

PO: Are you currently repped by an agency?

SF: No, I just left an agency after 6 years.  

PO: Why?

SF: It was time for a change. I was hustling and getting my own jobs, and they were basically being paid 25% for forwarding me a call-sheet and doing my invoicing, in many cases. 

They are good people, but it wasn’t getting me to the next level. I have met with other agents and I’m weighing my options. They’re helpful for the advertising jobs, where there is a lot of work with usage, etc. That for me is worth 25%.  

PO: You’re obviously a well-established photographer at this point in your career. But what would it take for you to get to the next level?

SF: I would love to be shooting jobs with bigger productions and bigger budgets!

PO: How do you get most of your clients?  

SF: Referrals mainly. I’m lucky to have some very loyal clients who hire me regularly and recommend me to others. I also update the art directors and creative directors I have done jobs with previously. 

It’s important to keep them up-to-speed with what I am up to. And I’ll send some some cold emails too. Though I like to have one degree of separation, at minimum. It’s much easier to get someone to look at an email if we know someone in common. It has to be organic though, it cannot be forced. The hardest thing for a photographer is getting your work in front of the right person.  

I once sat opposite a creative director at a dinner party. He asked what I did, and when I told him he wanted to see some work. I showed him my website on my phone. He saw the first image and said he wanted me to shoot a beauty campaign for him in Paris 2 months later. He has been a client ever since! So those little miracles sometimes happen also.  

PO: Do you use social media? Does it get you work?

SF: I use some social media. I have had people contact me through Instagram, but generally they don’t have the budget. It’s beneficial in that people can constantly see my new work and what I’m shooting, but it hasn’t directly translated into new clients.  

PO: What do you think are the main barriers to you getting more work?  

SF: There are just so many talented photographers out there. You have to be on your toes. It pushes you to do better work. But I don’t begrudge anyone a job, I want us all to be successful.  

PO: What do you like most about being a photographer? 

SF: I get to do something different every day, I work with my friends and can choose my clients.  

PO: And what do you like least about being a photographer?  

SF: Probably the business of it. I am a left-brain person, and I find the right-brain stuff really challenging. It just doesn’t interest me.  

PO: What’s the difference between a good photographer, and a great one?  

SF: A good photographer gets the work done. A great one will make the shoot special with everyone collaborating on set, and leaving super-happy. The client is taking photos of the screen because they are so excited with what’s being shot.  

PO: What are you strengths?

SF: I’m good at working with clients. I like making them happy and I like to push the boundaries of the shoot. I might not deliver exactly what they thought they wanted, but it will be a better version of what they wanted.  

PO: And your weaknesses? Any areas you feel could use improvement?  

SF: I really struggle with the business side of my business. Too much procrastination!  

PO: Any insecurities you have with the industry? 

SF: Sure, I think any artist does. I’m worried my work isn't strong enough, that it isn’t relevant or interesting. But you need to embrace that; it keeps you moving forward and trying new things.  

PO: Any funny or interesting stories from you career you’d like to share? 

SF: I was shooting a fashion campaign and we wanted to get a really grand, sweeping shot. The producers hired a basket lift that would get me 60 feet up in the air. But the production team had assumed it would come with an operator. It didn’t. So the Creative Director, who was from England, shouted “I grew up on a farm, I’ll figure it out!” and jumped into the cabin. It was hysterical. And terrifying. But he figured out how to operate it and we got an amazing shot. This was 3 years ago, and I still use the shot today.

Photo taken "in a basket lift 60 feet in the air"

Photo taken "in a basket lift 60 feet in the air"

Quick Fire Questions (no more than 10 seconds thinking allowed):  

PO: In a word: how would you describe your photography? 

SF: Effortless (or that’s how I hope it ends up looking)  

PO: If you weren’t a photographer, what would you have liked to have been? 

SF: There is simply nothing else I am remotely qualified to do  

PO: Best city in the world? 

SF: New York. Come on!  

PO: On-set pet peeve?

SF: Techno music. It’s not a 1995 rave!

PO: What’s a dirty little secret about photography that not many people know?

SF: If you’re photographing on your iphone, turn it landscape. It’s a wide angle lens, it’ll make the subject look smaller and not so distorted.  

PO: What’s the worst thing you can say on a shoot?

SF: “The model looks fat!” And I have had a client do that in front of the model. First of all I hate the word fat, especially for women and especially in our industry! The model was in fact tiny, but the dress was ill-fitting and unflattering.  

PO: Apart from a camera, what’s the one thing you can’t do without on a shoot? 

SF: Music (just not techno)  

PO: Best photos: Instinctive? Or planned? 

SF: Instinctive. You can plan and plan and plan, but you have to let it evolve organically. That’s when you get the shot.  

PO: Finally - and you’re allowed more than 10 seconds - what advice would you give an aspiring photographer who wants to get into your field?  

SF: Keep shooting. Shoot as much as you possibly can. And then shoot more.