An Interview with Issey Gladston | Hosted by Millie Norman

Updated: Aug 12, 2020

!GWAK member Issey Gladston is known for her stunning, intimate portraits of life in all its chaos and colour. We speak to the photographer about networking and navigating the industry, the role of place and location in her work and her nuanced creative process.

What drew you towards creating, and eventually towards photography?

I’m just unhappy if I’m not making something-for me, it really is an outlet.

Growing up my mum encouraged my sister and I towards more creative hobbies. She was forever driving us between ballet and piano lessons, taught us how to knit and, later, how to draw up patterns and make clothes. Rather embarrassingly, I wrote a blog when I was 11-15 to document what I was making—that’s where the interest in learning about in photography came in: I wanted to take better pictures for my blog. After that, I always enjoyed taking pictures of my friends, but it just remained one of many hobbies.

Then I went to university and was completely miserable in my first term. I was very close to dropping out. My sister helped me to realise that this unhappiness was partly because I had stopped creating anything—all my emotional outlets had gone. So, to make myself a bit more excited to return to London after Christmas, I decided to book onto a three-month course learning how to shoot and develop 35mm film at CSM.

Every Friday, I would go there with the film I had shot that week; we’d spend half the time learning about technique and critiquing each other’s work, and the other half of the time in the dark room. Afterwards, I would jump onto the tube with my prints and head to whatever party was happening that week with my hands still smelling like chemicals. I felt happier and happier about my life in London, and I suppose that’s why I’ve continued with photography.

How do you decide what and who to capture?

This really depends on the scenario, but I guess for me it really comes down to two ‘methods’.

One tends to be when I’m shooting on the street/in a more spontaneous situation like a party or a night out, its more instinctive than anything. I just shoot whatever/whoever catches my eye—sometimes taking one shot and putting my camera away or waiting for a few breaths for something more to happen in the frame.

Otherwise, I’ll see another image that will then springboard an entire shoot concept. Once this concept is in my head, it gets to the point where I can see the shots I want and it’s just a matter of getting them out of my head and onto the film.

What makes someone a muse?

Ah I struggle with the word muse, because I think that the idea of a muse can be quite contentious; traditionally, it is linked to a rather hierarchical relationship between the male artist and female muse.

But taken for its basic definition of “a person or personified force who is the source of inspiration for a creative artist”, what makes someone a muse, for me, is love; so far, the people who have inspired me have also been very close to me.

Someone once told me that the pictures I take of Georgia make it seem like we’re romantically involved, but I think what they meant is that they could feel the love that exists between us as a result of growing up together—and as a result of the tunnel vision that we have around romantic love at the expense of all the other types of love in our culture, they could only fathom that this love existed in a romantic way.

I think I’m also inspired by people who are close to me because there is already an intimacy and trust between you. This helps the subject relax more in front of the camera, and shake off the self-conscious façade that we all present when a camera comes out. I think this is also why I love photographing parties and nights out because people also tend to relax a lot more in front of a camera with a couple of drinks in them!

A lot of your work has a strong sense of place-what role does travelling and location play in your work?

I love this question because I’ve never really noticed that in my work before, and it really emphasises how two people create the image: the photographer and the viewer.

I love travelling, just like any other person, but the part I find most exciting is when your eyes are still hungry. A weird turn of phrase, but it’s how I would describe the first few days in a new place—where nothing is mundane yet, like you have fresh eyes in your head and you’ve just begun to see. Everything is exciting and inspiring, right down to the differences in simple items, like manhole covers. Of course, this fades over time as you begin to adjust to the location, but this is the period that I love to shoot in, and I suppose the feeling that I am always chasing by travelling.

As for the sense of place, I think that comes from being nostalgic, but painfully forgetful. For me, photography is a way of trying to hold the experience for a little longer and to fix it so that it doesn’t slip from my memory. I love visiting my Grandma, as she has the most amazing photo albums from her life, but also further back into the family. It was from actually from an afternoon looking through photo albums with her that I found out that my Great-Grandma also used to be a photography assistant when she was in her early twenties and living in London. So, I think the sense of place probably comes from this desire to preserve things, so that I’ll also have the ability to share them with people later.

Tell us about your time assisting Chloe Sheppard and Arvida Byström.

Just a dream come true! I was obsessed with Tumblr and Rookie as a teenager and would come home from school and sit on my laptop scrolling through all of these beautiful images—that’s how I found Chloe and Arvida’s work and became a big fan. At the time I was harsh on myself and would feel guilty for ‘procrastinating’ by doing this, but looking back on it, it was really central to developing my understanding and taste in photography. It was actually down to following the likes of Chloe and Petra Collins, coupled with being completely disheartened by the prospect of three years of essay writing during my first year at uni, that I decided to learn how to shoot 35mm film.

I had a few months off before studying abroad in Japan and interned for Ione Gamble, the editor of Polyester Zine. I loved it—I learnt so much, had the most fun and met some really great people, one of them being Chloe. When I got back from Japan, I said to Ione that I’d still love to work on shoots now and then if she needed an extra pair of hands. She then recommended me to Chloe, and we’ve been working together since September of last year. I really like working with Chloe because you learn so much from just observing another photographer, but we also just have a great time on set because we’ve become good friends.

Then working with Arvida Byström came about from ‘sliding into her DMs’. I replied to a story she put up saying she needed an assistant in London for the following day (This is also how I got my internship at Polyester!). I ended up squealing in the library with my friend when I found out I got it! I missed uni that day and headed to East London, where I ended up positioning and helping to dress the sex doll that we were using as a model—which is definitely the strangest thing I’ve done so far as an assistant. It was really great to meet Arvida and to see yet another photographer’s way of working.

Sometimes I do wonder what 14-year-old Tumblr loving me would make of it all.

What is the most important part of your work-in both the creative process and its presentation?

Just making time to do it. As I’ve been in the final year of my degree and working as an assistant, I’ve not had a lot of free time. Scheduling blocks of time to create has been really important. This sounds very dull, but otherwise, for me, it becomes too tempting to fall into the trap of feeling like you’re too busy or too tired to do it. This is also part of the reason I took my camera on nights out with me this year—so that even when I didn’t have as much time to actually do planned shoots, I was still making something.

Then the other part of my process is just constantly collecting other images or things that I’m inspired by, because otherwise It’ll just fall out of my head. My camera roll and computer are full of screenshots of things that have caught my eye from other shoots and photographers, films, music videos, paragraphs from books etc, that I’ll go through if I’m planning a shoot or just look at if I’m feeling a bit uninspired.

With regards to presentation, I’d say the edit is the most important part of my work. This was something that really stuck with me after an intensive documentary photography course with Magnum, and also from interning with them and working in their archive. Seeing how much photographers produce that they don’t share really emphasised the importance of being strict with yourself.

What are your current and/or future projects?

I’m currently working on a zine about Japan with my images from last summer and my upcoming trip back there at the end of this month.

When I’m back in London this October and November, I’m going to work on a project about skin conditions that I’ll be casting closer to the time. Other than that, I just have a lot of smaller shoot ideas that I’m trying to get through but, as always, I have too many ideas and too little time.

Where do you want to take your craft next?

The main thing I’m focusing on now is to really build my authorship; as photography is becoming more ubiquitous with so many more people having access to cameras through their phone, I really want people to be able to look at my images and know that they are mine.

I’m a little adrift in life right now having just graduated, but I hope that I can get to a point where I’ll be using my craft to make a living—but if that’s not possible, I just want to continue creating and sharing my work, for as long as I’m enjoying the process of creating.