I still remember my first meeting with Sean Fennessy. We caught up for a coffee at Mario’s restaurant in Fitzroy not long after he relocated here from Tasmania in early 2012, and I sent him on his first assignment for The Design Files the very next day. We’ve both come a long way in the few short years that have passed since then!
Sean was really the first professional photographer we ever commissioned to shoot anything for us… and for a long time I felt The Design Files’ visual aesthetic really was very closely entwined with his distinctive style. These days, of course, we’re lucky to collaborate with a host of other local photographers and contributors, which is AWESOME… but it all started with Sean!
Sean is an intuitive talent behind the lens. He didn’t study photography in the conventional sense, instead undertaking a journalism degree. I’m convinced his early experience working as a cadet reporter at The Advocate newspaper in Hobart really helped to shape the way he shoots today. Though his images always feels bright and sharp and clean, a Sean Fennessy photograph is never set up or over-considered. First and foremost, Sean is an atute observer. For me, Sean is the ultimate documentary photographer – there is no ego, his work is honest and raw, characterised by a sort of ‘looseness’, and always driven by the subject.
We consider ourselves incredibly lucky to call Sean our friend and collaborator, and we’re proud as punch of his immense achievements over the past few years. With a growing client list and ever more stamps on his bulging passport, we’ve come to accept that Sean won’t always be around to shoot houses for TDF! We’ve no doubt 2016 will bring many more accolades and adventures for this talented lad… even more reason, then, to shine our little spotlight on him today!
Tell us a little about your background – what path led you to becoming a photographer, and to doing what you’re doing today?
Photography was my biggest hobby as a teenager, apart from playing golf and Sega Mega Drive (as you can imagine, I was fighting off the girls!). I studied photography up until Year 12, but when it came to choosing what to do at uni I wimped out and enrolled into a journalism degree. That led to a job as a reporter at The Advocate newspaper in Tasmania, but I soon convinced the editor to let me start taking photos instead. So my photography background is definitely more practical than academic.
How did you first start out in the industry, and what eventually led you to going out on your own?
After a couple of years at The Advocate, I started my own business in Hobart. As Hobart is such a small city, I had to shoot a combination of interiors, freelance press jobs and corporate commissions. Over the years I narrowed my focus to editorial, lifestyle and travel work. In my last year in Hobart, MONA commissioned me to document their grand opening, which led to some interstate work for Time Out magazine and the Melbourne Festival. When I eventually moved to Melbourne, the first meeting I had was with Lucy Feagins who sent me on a job the next day. I’ve been lucky enough to be busy ever since, largely due to the exposure and contacts I’ve made through The Design Files. Thanks Lucy!
How would you describe your work?
I try to keep things simple and clean, but hopefully not too sterile. I always prefer to observe and document rather than to manufacture, although this isn’t always possible with a commercial brief. My portraits tend to have a certain awkwardness, which is definitely a reflection of my personality.
Who is your photography hero and why?
In high school I would look through The Australian every day and cut out photos by Trent Parke for my journal. At the time he was working as a sport photographer and everything he shot was incredible. A few years later he released his Dream/Life project and it blew my mind. This series in particular made me so excited to get out and take photos. Although the style of photography that I eventually pursued is very different to his, he was still a massive influence.
A lot of travel both interstate and abroad is involved in your job. What has been one of the most memorable places you have visited for an assignment?
I had some great trips for Feast magazine, which sadly ceased publication this year. Being sent to Myanmar was probably the most exotic. We didn’t have enough time to organise a proper visa, so I went in as a tourist with just one camera and two lenses. I’d heard stories of camera gear being confiscated at the border so I was pretty nervous going in. Of course everything was fine in the end.
What does a typical day at work involve for you?
Shoot days generally involve an early start to load gear and get on the road or head to the airport. If it’s a big commercial job, the next few hours tend to be a blur. It always amazes me how quickly a full day can disappear during a high-pressure shoot, but it’s always fun. Luckily I work with two legend assistants, Tim and Sam, who keep me under control.
On non-shoot days I’ve always got a long to-do list including quoting, invoicing, pre-production meetings, retouching, file management, coffee drinking and getting 10 tabs deep on the B&H website.
What have been one or two favourite recent projects or commissions?
The past couple of months I’ve worked on a wine story in South Australia for British Airways magazine, and a Melbourne coffee story for Air Canada magazine. Now I just need to shoot a feature on fried chicken and all my interests will be covered.
Flying into outback Queensland for Monocle was an experience. It was close to 50 degrees and the reporter (in typical Monocle fashion) was wearing all black. After a long and sweaty shoot day we drank cans of XXXX Bitter with the cowboys and tradies in the Windorah pub.
Which other Australian photographers, designers, artists or creative people are you loving at the moment?
Lucy Feagins’ constant enthusiasm and support for young and emerging Australian creatives is incredible. I’ve experienced first hand the influence and reach of TDF.
The world of fashion photography is pretty foreign to me but Jo Duck’s work has such a unique personality and tone.
I can’t explain the feeling of walking into the incredible Cairns home of Jesse Bennett and his wife Anne-Marie, which I photographed last summer. Two legends living the tropical dream.
Can you list for us your top resources across any media that you turn to when you’re in a need of creative inspiration?
Magazines. Conde Nast Traveller (the US version) is iconic and always has beautiful and unexpected layouts. British Journal of Photography for reference and inspiration. Monocle for quasi-intellectual inflight reading. The Travel Almanac is my favourite independent magazine.
Many of my favourite photographers, particularly those in America, use Tumblr a lot. It’s not as popular in Australia but well worth a dig if you’re in need of inspiration.
Cooking Shows. Not the competition style shows but the great series that mix food and travel. Anthony Bourdain is the best. I also love Food Safari, mostly for Maeve O’Meara’s outstanding fashion.
The New York Times is so great to read online. And buying a physical copy when overseas is one of the great pleasures of travelling.
What has been your proudest career achievement to date?
Just being able to work full-time as a photographer. I really am so grateful for everyone that has given me a shot and trusted me. It’s a cliche but I feel like I’ve never really worked a day in my life.
What would be your dream creative project?
Being given full creative freedom and a loose brief that includes travel, food and architecture. Surely that’s not too much to ask!
What are you looking forward to?
Travelling with Jess. Working on a big personal project. Collaborating with friends. Making lots of prints. Renovating our apartment.
Your favourite Melbourne neighbourhood and why?
I’ve lived in Brunswick for a few years now and it has sucked me in. Compared to Hobart, I initially found it industrial and flat, but there is a charm and community here that is hard to deny. Sydney Road still bugs me, but there are plenty of gems scattered around.
What and where was the best meal you recently had in Melbourne?
Supernormal for the Tokyo vibes.
Where would we find you on a typical Saturday morning?
Generally at home with a newspaper and coffee and Rage on TV. I’m still looking for a proper hobby for when I’m not working. Any suggestions welcome. Maybe I should dust off the golf clubs!
Melbourne’s best kept secret?
You can fly to Tasmania in less than an hour.