“I didn’t really enjoy it,” admits Fraser Chatham, director at Fish&Clips, when he remembers his time at Elam School of Fine Arts when he studied Fine Art there for his bachelor’s degree. In fact, he didn’t graduate, but went to work for a few years, before returning to complete his studies. Fraser believes that his time at university had its pros and cons – the pros being that this time allowed him to explore different mediums he had been interested in and experiment with them. “Initially I loved painting, but went off the idea the more time I spent in the photography studio at Elam.” These were his first steps into exploring is passion for photography.
“After my second year at university, I was hellbent on becoming a photographer. I started contacting people; I didn’t have an in, so it was cold-calling.” Eventually, Fraser ended up at an evening job cleaning, painting and packing gear at a rental house. One can easily imagine that balancing university work with evening shifts will at some point burn a person out. “I decided to leave university to work at the rental house full time and learn as much as I could about equipment and get a general feel for the industry, so I could eventually start doing my own thing.”
This is where Fraser had an epiphany – he started to slowly piece together the innerworkings of the industry. ‘Before that, I had absolutely no idea how to become a freelance creative,’ he admits. Not only did the work at the rental house till late night help him get a better grip of the industry, it also gave him the opportunity to have free rein on the facilities after hours. “After work and during weekends I’d go in to shoot and learn as much as I could; I knew it wasn’t going to last forever. At the end I had a decent foundation to start showing my work.”
This is when another hard part came around – pitching. Fraser admits to have realised a bit late that there’s ‘not much bureaucracy surrounding the job’ and that a lot of the time one won’t lose a job solely based on their approach. “In the early part of my career I got super depressed if I lost a gig, gradually I realised there’s a lot more moving parts than just the work itself and you just have to move onto the next one.”
And he did; Fraser’s first commission was with Spark and Colenso BBDO, for which he admits to have been super nervous about. The evening job at the rental house might have taught him a lot about facilities and equipment, but his first gig taught him a lot about the client, agency and production company relationship, as well as the overall structure around commercial shoots. “These are aspects I didn’t really think about until I was in the thick of it.”
Later on, he was commissioned to photograph one of the largest vintage car and motorbike collections in New Zealand, which Fraser thinks back to as one of the most ‘make or break’ moments of his career. “Some of the pieces were worth upwards of ten million dollars and extremely rare, so it was an amazing experience. A year or so later, I was one of the youngest photographers ever accepted into Lürzers Archive Top 200 Advertising Photographers in the world on the basis of the project.” This experience launched his career into a new tier of commercial work quite quickly.
When it comes to his favourite part of his job, Fraser loves the most creative periods – when one really has to come up with the foundations of how to approach a shoot, after the initial briefing and scripts get out of the way. “Once you’ve done that it’s more about the nuts and bolts, how you’re actually going to pull it off. I really enjoy the part where you’re trying to develop it into what you believe the best conceptual approach is.” On the flip side, the most challenging part of the job to him is the feeling of isolation and loneliness that comes with the work. “Accepting that what we do is extremely subjective, there’s no fundamental right or wrong. The by-product of this is that your mental state can really affect it if you think your work is hitting the mark or not.”
That occasional feeling of alienation, however, never gets in the way of his aspirations to stand the test of time both aesthetically and conceptually. “I believe that the best creative work in any medium doesn’t date, if anything it gets better with age.”
It definitely helps that he is in New Zealand, where he maintains that the quality of the crew is outstanding and keeps him excited to gain progress in his work alongside other talented people. Film is an extremely broad creative industry, encompassing many disciplines in one ‘umbrella medium,’ which Fraser believes gives a creative a lot of freedom and room for expansion.
That expansion, he thinks, must not be clouded by frustration – “It’s counter intuitive to the creative processes, you can’t make sound decisions or come up with an idea if you’re pissed about what the client said.” Although he admits to not enjoy having an extreme amount of ‘cooks in the kitchen’ making a lot of creative decisions at the same time on one project, which “is a quite common director frustration, as we’re all control freaks.”
“I think film has issues that are a by-product of general social issues,” tells Fraser when talking about what can get better in his industry, “Like pay discrepancies and needing a more diverse range of perspectives in positions of power. I’m so genuinely worried I will end up making all my work in six second vertical crops for social.” A very logical worry, having in mind the attention spans of audiences and overall treatment of creative media in recent years. However, it seems that while there are directors that are willing to stay late nights at a random rental house only to hone a craft they’re so passionate about, we might all be safe.