© Idil Sukan
Idil Sukan knows comedy. Although arguably best known for her photographs of comedians, she has also produced comedy shows, designed visual marketing for live comedy and written/performed stand up herself. It gives her a unique multi-layered perspective on what it takes to be funny, and what it takes to capture ‘funny’ in a piece of visual design. Velveteer Mog caught up with her as she prepared for her forthcoming exhibition and comedy show:
Idil Sukan is a bundle of fascinating contradictions. On the surface of it, what she does seems to be the embodiment of superficial pop culture: she photographs famous people from the world of entertainment. However, her approach and attitude to what she does displays a degree of focus and contemplation more typically found in academia.
A conversation with Idil is less an interview and more a lecture in the philosophy and ethics of the captured image. And it’s all the more interesting for it!
She’s quietly well-spoken and intensely thoughtful – but she has a fire in her belly that ignites quickly whenever the conversation touches a nerve, be it feminism (which she feels very strongly about), the responsibilities of being a photographer, or the joyful geekery of space photography.
© Idil Sukan
Idil discovered photography by accident when she was designing posters for comedy shows, and realised that taking her own pictures would provide a more efficient approach to finding the right images for her designs. Even now, having shot the great and good from the worlds of film, music and comedy, she’s not sure that she would describe herself as a photographer.
“Technically, I’m a creative director, because we take on visual marketing projects; we develop a coherent design and photography solution – the entire creative direction,” she says. “I have a team of stylists, make up artists, hair people; we develop a creative idea and direction, then we do the photographs. It’s a team game.”
I wonder if there are differences between the people she photographs, depending on which field in the arts they come from. She sees only similarities: “Everyone has their hang ups and everyone has a way that they want to portray themselves. People who go into entertainment to express themselves exhibit this paradoxical combination of being incredibly confident and drawn to the limelight, alongside this crippling sense of self-doubt. Maybe that’s what drives people in the arts? Maybe things are never quite good enough.” she says.
© Idil Sukan
Idil recognises the power that she wields for a group of people for whom image is so important, explaining. “When you have a photograph taken of yourself for publicity reasons, you’re basically defining yourself as an artist. You’re committing to that definition of yourself, you’re publicly declaring that you’re moving forwards with this for at least the next 6 months. I’ve always found that really interesting and inspiring.”
She prepares thoroughly for every portrait that she takes, because it helps her understand exactly what it is that she’s looking for in the images she takes: “It’s like comedy – the more you plan and research, the more confident you are in the craft and the more open you are to improvisation. Then you can get excited and creative…and you know when something’s hit. It’s why people will laugh at one joke and not the previous joke, even though it’s all coming from the same person. It’s the same with photography: one frame is 95% the same as another one, but the other one is the killer frame, and this one you’ll delete and never see again.”
© Idil Sukan
She places a huge amount of responsibility on being a photographer, noting that anyone who produces images for a living has the potential to influence societal attitudes. She’s particularly angry about how women are often portrayed in visual media: “These photographs go on the front covers of magazines, so it’s a bit cowardly and lazy to not take responsibility.”
“I’m a constant ball of fury about it! You can’t say ‘but the magazine wanted that kind of image’ or ‘but that’s how the comedian wanted to be portrayed’. You should take responsibility for the photographs you take. Refuse to be a part of the system! If all the photographers today refused to take misogynistic, sexist or reductive images then the problem would be solved.”
I wonder if what Idil’s suggesting borders on censorship? Visibly annoyed, she animatedly explains: “It has nothing to do with censorship! It’s illegal to be sexist, it’s illegal to be racist. So why are we creating sexist and racist images? It’s not censorship, it’s taking responsibility for not being an asshole.” It’s a strongly held and refreshingly clear point of view that she tirelessly expresses through her social media channels whenever the need arises.
© Idil Sukan
Idil’s portfolio of photographic work includes studio-based portraiture and live photography. Being familiar with the logistical limitations of the latter myself, I ask her about her approach to live photography.
She explains that the main challenge of shooting live action is that it takes place in 4-dimensions (3 spatial dimensions + time, in case you were wondering), while you’re trying to capture the experience in only 2 dimensions. “You’re trying to interpret the show, not just trying to photograph it. A lot of live gig and live theatre photographers make the fundamental mistake that they’re simply documenting it, like anyone with an iPhone sitting in the stalls could have done themselves. But understanding the show is crucial.”
Idil’s passion for live performance has crystallised in a new stage show, This Comedian: LIVE which takes place later this month on 26th January (see below for details). It features regular TV comedy faces Robin Ince, Sara Pascoe, Katherine Ryan, James Acaster, Romesh Ranganathan, Simon Evans and MC Michael Legge, who will be making us laugh with stories and anecdotes about comedy and being a stand up comedian. Arthur Darvill will also be performing the short long lost Beckett play ‘Pointless Anger, Righteous Ire’ as part of the evening – as directed by Robin Ince and Michael Legge. It has the potential to be a fascinating evening for anyone with a passing interest in comedy. Thoroughly recommended!
The intention is to make it a regular night, expanding the list of comedians involved over time to create a community. If we’re lucky we may even get to see Idil on stage at some point in the future; she enjoys performing stand up, but can only squeeze in one live show every 6 months due to the writing and planning it needs. This is a person who takes preparation very seriously indeed.
Idil’s list of accolades are impressive; she’s been the official photographer at both the Edinburgh Festival’s Fringe and the British Independent Film Awards, and her work has also recently been recognised by the National Portrait Gallery, which has acquired a print of her portrait of actor Celia Imrie for permanent acquisition. She’s even photographed the Muppets! So what’s next for her? She’s interested in making the step into moving pictures and is currently teaching herself about film. Based on the thoroughness of her approach to photography, I’m guessing that she’ll enter the film industry with more knowledge than some of the people who have worked in it for years!
© Idil Sukan
In the more immediate future, however, she’s holding an exhibition of her comedy photography and design from over the last decade at the Embassy Tea Gallery, Southwark, London. It consists of several hundred photos (including a fair few TVO-connected faces) – and entry is absolutely free. The exhibition runs from 19th February to 2nd March 2015, and for more information click here. You can also purchase limited edition prints of Idil’s work here; seriously, take a look – there are some truly stunning images.
Tickets are also available for Idil’s big launch and fundraiser gig This Comedian: LIVE (mentioned in the main article above), which takes place on 26th January 2015 at the Duchess Theatre, Aldwych. For more information about the live show and to purchase tickets click here.
The Velvet Onion would like to thank Idil Sukan for taking the time to talk to us, and we wish her every success for her forthcoming exhibition and live show.