Liz Seabrook, Photographer | International Women's Day
Whilst Sahara operates as a strong, female-founded business, we know too well that our structure isn’t as common as it needs to be in the modern world. Progressing the narrative around equality will inevitably lead to change, and we take the opportunity every International Women’s Day to show solidarity.
This year’s theme, Break the Bias, aims to educate on and encourage actively calling out gender bias, discrimination, and stereotyping. Bias, whether intentional or unconscious, makes it difficult for women to move ahead. It is not enough to recognise bias; action is required to level the playing field.
Our contribution to the conversation involves highlighting the thoughts and incredible work of women in creative fields. Hear from a painter, woodworker, potter, photographer and storyteller about how they manage, orchestrate, lead, and make vital decisions regarding their businesses. Learn about their unique journeys, insights around unconscious biases, and visions for an equal future.
Liz Seabrook is a portrait and lifestyle photographer. Celebrating women through warm, honest portraiture has always been at the core of her work, whether they’re chefs, beekeepers, authors, actors, or anyone in between. Her characterful photography has been published in the likes of The Guardian, Riposte and Hole & Corner, as well as The Female Chef, a book published by Hoxton Mini Press in 2021. She loves to explore places and meet new dogs. And people.
Working in creative fields can often mean a non-linear career path – how did you come to work as a maker and what sparked your love of artistic expression?
If I’m brutally honest, self-deprecation led me to photography. At secondary school, I sat at a table with the three best artists in my year and my comparisonitis got the better of me. My drawing and painting skills are passable, but they weren’t a patch on the other three. I started taking pictures and no one else was doing it, so I could carry on without looking around at other people. As I started to play around more with the medium, it turned out that I was actually quite good at it.
From there I went to university in Birmingham to study French; my parents weren’t keen on me going to art school because they thought it would limit my options down the line. At the time, I was a bit pissed off–and more so when my little sister was allowed to study photography–but with hindsight, I’m really glad that I didn’t put myself in that environment. If I had, I’m not sure I’d be taking pictures now.
In between my third and final year of studying, I decided I should get some work experience and wound up doing picture research for a little car and motorbike magazine based in Bath. The editor, Mike, turned out to have been the first-ever features editor at Dazed, and amongst a bunch of other great accolades had helped fund the publishing house that prints HUCK and Little White Lies. After I graduated, he put me in touch with Andrea at HUCK and I interned for a while there. That’s where I started building my portfolio.
Following that, I studio assisted, assisted photographers, shot mannequins for eCommerce and started working for publications and brands. I always say that I just stumbled about and good things happened. Maybe that’s true, or maybe I had more focus than I remember. I definitely worked hard and I knew I needed to earn to survive, so it all had to work, stumbling or not.
As a woman in the creative industry, can you speak to a time you have been on the receiving end of other people’s unconscious biases? Perhaps you have had a positive experience you’d like to share instead?
I feel like I’ve broadly been pretty lucky, but then again, it’s often difficult to know in this industry! I’m also white, grew up in the countryside in a supportive home and it (sometimes) seems that I’m one of the lucky few women who has never had an experience that has led me to be wary or even scared of men. I guess starting out as a studio assistant was pretty hard as a female. The manager at the studio–who was female–put the boys on the bigger studios with the more prestigious photographers a lot quicker than she did the girls. I had been there a good few months before being put into a bigger studio, whereas some of the boys were there only weeks. It’s an incredibly physical way into the industry: I was carrying trestle tables, kit, moving sofas, painting the cove, with an average day being about 14 hours. I’m 5’11 and grew up throwing the hammer, so for me, a trestle table isn’t a big deal, but for another woman who’s maybe 5’4, of course, it’s going to be more challenging. Nonetheless, my baptism into the photography industry in London came with that manager’s bias towards women–I can’t say whether it was unconscious or not though. I also never got taken away to shoot as an assistant and in the back of my mind, I did always wonder if that was because I was female, but I never asked. And I always worked with lovely photographers, but that was partly because if I worked with someone I didn’t like, I didn’t assist them again.
“As women, it feels like the two main topics of conversation around our gender and careers are safety and motherhood...Part of me wonders whether my career would finish were I to have a child.”
Too often unconscious biases affect how we view ourselves; have you had to overcome biases of your own in order to achieve what you have, either personally or professionally?
As women, it feels like the two main topics of conversation around our gender and careers are safety and motherhood. I have a fairly laissez-faire attitude around my personal safety. What I mean by that is that I don’t tend to think too much about whether I’m at risk–I ride a bike around London and if I wondered if I was safe doing that, I’d probably never get in the saddle again. Likewise, things like travelling alone, working on all-male teams, or making my way home late at night aren’t things that worry me, so that’s not something I’ve had to overcome. On the other point, I’ve decided that I probably don’t want to have children. Many factors led me to that decision, but part of me wonders whether my career would finish were I to have a child. Another part of me wonders if I’ve spent so long trying to keep up with the boys that I’ve in part renounced my femininity.
Your book, The Female Chef, highlights the gender imbalance of women in professional kitchens; how did the journey of creating the book impact you and others when given the space to speak and collaborate openly?
I was so excited when Hoxton Mini Press approached me to work with Clare Finney on The Female Chef. I’ve long tried to be an ally and a support to shout about other women, and so this book really felt like the next step to continue in that process. There are some big hitters in there like Andi Oliver and Angela Harnett–who are both such warm, talented, brilliant women and chefs–but for me, photographing the women who haven’t spent so much time in the spotlight was such a high. I knew from the beginning that I needed to get my good friend Julie Lin included amongst the line-up of women. The book celebrates women who are changing the landscapes and narratives of top kitchens, and she, for me, has really done that. She got to the quarter-finals of Masterchef, worked under a few Glasgow based female chefs and then opened her own tiny restaurant, which has been in the Michelin Guide for the last two years, and she’s only just turned 30. Meeting Sam and Shauna was a real treat too; they both exude so much passion and excitement for what they do, and they both lived very different lives before coming to hospitality. I was so inspired by each of the women in the book, for so many reasons, but something across all of them really was this subtle blend of warmth with ferocious tenacity.
What action do you think women can take to support and empower each other, and what role do you think men have to play in achieving equality?
Sometimes, it’s really hard to remember that there is enough room for all of us to do what makes us happy, but in some ways, I think that’s what it boils down to. At our core, to support, celebrate and raise other people up, we need to believe that we deserve our seat at the table as much as they do.
I think the advice to men broadly is that if you find yourself in a position of power, make sure you consider if you are actively thinking about diversity–and I don’t just mean gender–when hiring. And in a workspace, make sure that there are safe spaces to talk and get some safeguarding training. Invite women into spaces that are typically occupied by men, be that the office football team, office drinks, whatever, but also be kind and make offers without obligation.
While I think that female-only spaces are important for communication, I’m sort of sick of women being portioned off (female-only photography prizes are a particular gripe). I always remember when a female-only boardsports magazine closed (I think the only one in the UK), it felt like a loss initially, but what it meant was that women began appearing in the more mainstream media with the men.
“Getting together with women - and men - has made me feel a lot less isolated in my profession...Only by sharing our experiences can we progress.”
What piece of advice would you give to aspiring younger women in the creative industry?
“When a man looks at a job description, he sees one thing that he can do so he applies. When a woman looks at the same description, she sees one thing that she can’t do, so she doesn’t apply.” It’s become a bit hackneyed, but I still think it’s a useful thing to keep in mind. There have been jobs that have come my way to pitch for which I’ve thought I couldn’t possibly do, but often they just need a little reframing internally and a tiny bit of false confidence externally. Play to your strengths and remember how strong they are. Don’t be afraid to bullshit a little, because, in all likelihood, you’re probably completely competent.
Why do you think reflecting on and sharing our experiences as women is so powerful?
It’s interesting; in some ways being in the photography industry is very similar to how we’re raised as women. That is to say, that it’s often made to feel like we’re pitted against each other in vicious competition when actually we’re much better suited as allies.
Systemically, it’s been shown that women getting together and speaking out can bring about wholesale change via movements most notably like #metoo. On a smaller scale, and more generally in the photography industry, getting together with women - and men - has made me feel a lot less isolated in my profession. It’s useful to get together to have a moan about work, clients, and most frequently, the secrecy surrounding budgets (!), but it’s also reassuring to have a little pack of almost colleagues to call on when things don’t feel quite right or uncertain. Only by sharing our experiences can we progress.
Lastly, have you been inspired by another woman working in the creative industry that you’d like to spotlight? If so, what qualities led you to choose them?
This is such a huge question. So many women inspire me, and I meet so many through my work! As I mentioned before, Julie is such an inspiring woman for me. As is my friend Laxmi Hussain, an artist who specialises in drawing and painting the female form in all shapes and sizes. It’s also been amazing to watch and work with Sarah Bell – who runs luxury candle brand Evermore –go from pouring candles in the spare room of her house to being stocked on Net-a-Porter and collaborating with Mulberry. Then there are the women I’ve been lucky enough to share a studio with: designer Angie Power and embroiderer Rachel Rousham. Both are so talented and really in the grand scheme of their careers only just getting started. I can’t wait to see where they both find themselves in the future.
"At our core, to support, celebrate and raise other people up, we need to believe that we deserve our seat at the table as much as they do."
Liz’s featured work, left to right:
Papier, Liv & Dom, Soho House, Rose McGowan, Liz Seabook, Self Portrait, Oh Comely, Oh Comely Portrait Archive, Suitcase Magazine, N by Norwegian, Moroccan Feminists Series.
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