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Shine A Light: Portrait photography by Chris Saunders

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Fem Sorcell, street artist

The portrait photography of Chris Saunders is ever-present in Sheffield, from his hundreds of shots of local musicians to his Objectors series, which captures subjects "who have spoken out about how the world is being run".

As part of this year's Sensoria Festival, a free exhibition of Chris's work runs upstairs at Trafalgar Warehouse from 27 to 30 September. The man himself told us more.

Your upcoming exhibition is called Shine A Light. That seems like a good description, since photography is the art of light, in a way.

I tend to use lighting that I think's appropriate. There are a lot of photographers that use much more complicated and spectacular lighting. I always appreciate when I see that - the technical ability that's gone into it - but I think in some respects that can be a photographer drawing attention to themselves, showing off a little bit. I tend to light my subjects quite simply and hopefully quite effectively.

You did a lot of band photography in the 2000s.

Yeah, there was the New Yorkshire thing and all that, which brought a lot of attention to Sheffield, but alongside all those kinds of bands were bands like Pink Grease and Hiem, all the Thee SPC lot Long Blondes, Kings Have Long Arms. They all had a great image, which is a treat for a photographer. It was a very vibrant time for eccentric people in the Sheffield scene.

A large part of the show will be your portraits of artists. What got you interested in photographing them instead?

I got commissioned to photograph the Feature Walls Festival a couple of years ago. The University, Kid Acne and Florence Blanchard organised a street art festival with artists from Sheffield and abroad, painting murals all over the city. Initially they wanted me to document their processes, but I took portraits of them as well. Because the murals were such large scale, I could find a way of incorporating the subject into the mural, looking at the shapes or colours to get a composition. That led on to me photographing other artists, painters and sculptors - always with a piece of their work, because I want to emphasise the work as much as the artists.

Will there be any of your classic shots in the exhibition as well?

I've narrowed it down to all being photographs of creative people film directors, authors, actors, comedians and a whole bunch of artists and muralists from Sheffield. There's Bill Hicks, the first famous person I photographed back in 1992, right up to Michael Sheen, who I'll be photographing in September.

How were you so lucky getting Bill Hicks as your first ever shoot?

I was at uni in Manchester as a photography student at the time, floundering on the course. I didn't know what kind of photographer I was going to be. I was in my flat and this comedian came on the telly. He blew me away, talking about politics, religion and social issues, and being so direct and funny about such serious subjects.

About a week later I was walking down Oxford Road and I saw he was appearing. I thought I should go and, rather than ask for an autograph backstage, see if I could photograph him. That's pretty much how I got into portrait photography. I got such a buzz. Going in there, not knowing what the hell I was doing and coming out with that shot, made me feel like maybe I could do this.

If that had gone badly, if he'd brushed you aside, you could be on a different life path.

Absolutely, but maybe I would have come to it a different way. I decided then and there that I was going to do it, even if I wasn't much of a people person.

I think some of your older images have become iconic, particularly Bill Hicks and Jarvis [with Richard Hawley and Alex Turner].

I saw Jarvis a couple of years after I'd taken that picture and I asked him what he thought of it. He said he thinks it's a really good picture, but he joked that it looks a bit like him and Richard are pimping Alex. His wide eyes, like a kid in the middle. Alex was still in his teens at the time, around 2005-6.

These days how much do you direct your subjects?

Meticulously. To the slightest lift of the chin. Often, they'll be in slight profile as I like the way the light catches them like that. One of the artists said to me, "You're really meticulous. It's like you're taking a still life of a real person," which felt quite on the money.

People say about portrait photography, 'You can really see that person's character in that photograph,' which I disagree with. People are complicated. I think a photo might say something about what the subject does, but they have hidden parts of them too. It's more of a document of that moment between photographer and subject.

Sam Walby

Shine A Light runs at Trafalgar Warehouse from 27 to 30 September. Entry is free.

The full programme for Sensoria, which runs 27 September to 5 October, is available at sensoria.org.uk.

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