Q&A: Boudoir and empowerment with Blackfish Collective (Victoria, BC)

Running a photography business can feel like a solitary endeavour. Victoria's Blackfish Collective are proof it doesn't have to be. A co-operative model that "arose out of the notion that creatives can always learn from each other," the group counts photographers, videographers, models, and a makeup artist among its band of creatives.

Co-owned by Stephen Ban, Xavier Déry, Emilee Wilson, and Paige Wells, Blackfish brings a collaborative approach to its photoshoots with models and clients. The result is a "broad palette of styles and approaches" that can offer "a completely different perspective on the same scene." We spoke with the Blackfish Collective's Ban and Wells about the benefits of working together, and how boudoir photography has led to some of the most rewarding moments of all.

This interview has been lightly condensed.

How did the Blackfish Collective come together?

SB: [Back when] I started doing portrait work, I launched my own brand. I was just Blackfish Photography — me as a sole proprietor. And I wasn’t really doing a lot of business; I’d sell the occasional print here and there. It was very shortly after I started doing portrait work that I met Paige. I think our first shoot was about three years ago.

PW: Yeah, about three years ago.

SB: ...And another person I met through the camera club workshops, Emilee [Wilson], who’s also a model and a photographer. I think it just came up in a post-shoot chat, because Emilee had a studio in her house at the time. We’d just finished a shoot with Paige, and [photographer] Xavier Déry [was there too]. We were all shooting the shit after the shoot and talking about how we could collaborate and share resources. Emilee had the studio, I had a camera, Paige had started doing model coaching...

Photo: Blackfish Collective

PW: What really happened, [laughs] is they were having some sort of meeting amongst themselves. I just decided that I was going to stay and listen. So that’s kind of how I got into it, in a way. They did have something established already, but one thing I noticed was that there were three creatives and no businessperson — so that’s how I came into it  [laughs].

SB: Yeah. The whole formal cooperative model came later. It was kind of like a loose coalition or collective before that — a bunch of people working together with a common artistic vision. But it wasn’t until last year that I started looking into actual formal business models for this sort of thing. There’s a nonprofit that runs out of Manitoba that helps cooperatives get started, so they basically wrote our charter for us.

You’ve mentioned before the tenet that “creatives can always learn from each other.” What have each of you learned from forming a collective?

SB: Yeah. So, Xavier, who’s one of our photographers, he’s a big natural light guy — he doesn’t like using flash. And once I discovered flash, I [was] like, “that’s it, I’m just using flash from now on.” Once we started shooting in studio, he realized that, “well, I kind of have to learn how to use flash now,” [laughs]. So I think I’d like to claim that I partially converted Xavier to flash photography.

Our styles are different enough that even if we’re shooting the same client or the same subject, our pictures will look different — and that helps distinguish us on the website, so if someone is coming to us for headshots or boudoir, they can pick someone based on style. And having Paige on-board to coach models just makes you as a photographer appreciate how much work actually goes into the modelling side of things. And it helps us learn how to direct models better as well.

Photo: Blackfish Collective

PW: I've learned so much, honestly. I’ve always been purely in front of camera, so it’s been really interesting to learn all of the lingo. I didn’t know what a “stop” was on a light. It’s really helped me with my modelling as well, knowing a little bit more what’s going on. But actually learning more behind-the-camera stuff has been really interesting; it’s been a whole new learning curve.

Let’s talk origins for a moment. Stephen, you started with a Nikon FA. Tell me about that.

SB: My dad was always into Nikons. My dad was Japanese, and because we used to have relatives in Japan, growing up, my dad would always get a hand-me-down camera from his sister or [other] family members in Japan. Eventually that would trickle down to me, but I didn’t actually get my first real camera until I got my dad’s hand-me-down Nikon FA. It would’ve been probably in the early nineties, I think. And that’s kind of what I was working with for most of my early days in photography.

I wasn’t shooting people at all [in those early days]. I did a bit of wildlife and landscapes. I was big into air shows and airplanes, and that sort of thing. Occasionally, one in a thousand shots would be a keeper. Once the age of digital arrived, then I really hit my stride. My first digital camera was a Nikon D200. I didn’t have a lot of money for lenses, so I had a really shitty 35-105mm Nikon lens. It probably improved from one in a thousand to one in a hundred good shots [laughs].

About the same time that I sold my D200 and upgraded to a Nikon D610 with better glass, that’s kind of when I realized that maybe I had a bit of ability. A lot of people say that your gear doesn’t matter, but I can tell you the gear did matter [laughs], because I noticed the difference right away. The sharpness and the clarity of the photos was just a night-and-day difference.

As far as portrait photography, [it was] an off-camera flash workshop that got me into portrait work. Although I’d used flash before, it was always on-camera flash, and I was never happy with the results. Off-camera flash opened up a whole new world for me. I think it was the techy side of lighting that really got me into it, because there’s a lot more technicality to lighting that’s involved with off-camera flash — and that really attracted me.

Photo: Blackfish Collective
Paige, your story begins — in some ways, at least — with YouTube. What’s the story there?

PW: Yeah! I started out doing influencer-kinda stuff. I had a YouTube channel that I was running through [my] university [years]. It was a bit of a side gig; I was still at [the University of Victoria] at the time, but I was making okay money doing that. I was doing makeup tutorials, fashion videos, cooking videos. But then, the Logan Paul “adpocalypse” thing [happened]. Essentially, I got fired, because I didn’t quite make the view quota [to stay eligible for the Partner Program].

I was in university one day, not paying attention to my lecture — it was some ridiculous biochem fourth-year class where I was super bored — and I saw an ad pop up for a modelling agency. I was like, “ehhh, I’ll apply.” I ended up getting signed. I think I stuck with it for so many years because my first job, I booked within the first couple weeks of beginning modelling — which is very difficult, as most models know. I was lucky I charmed somebody. But yeah, I was modelling for quite a while, and that’s how we met.

I’ve always liked the business and sales side of things, so I saw it as a good opportunity — as well as, I’m getting a little bit older, and you kind of have to think of the future a little bit with modelling. But yeah, it was luck of the draw, really [laughs].

Having that modelling experience in your back pocket, Paige, how do you bring that to helping people from the other side of the camera?

PW: There’s a lot more that goes into it than people think. Even just the simple way of holding your face [for the camera]. From when I was doing research before, a lot of photographers struggle with posing their clients and making them feel comfortable, so I can basically take my five years of [modelling] experience and break it down into smaller chunks so they feel and look more like a model. It elevates the client’s photos in a way that maybe someone without that background wouldn’t know [how to do]. For instance, even if it’s just a shot from [your mid-torso] up, you should still stand on your toes anyways, because it helps create the proper curvature of your spine. Little things like that.

Photo: Blackfish Collective
Stephen, you’re best known for “low-key, high-drama lighting.” Could you talk about that and why you prefer it?

SB: Yeah, that’s a good question. I actually take a lot of heat for that [laughs]. My non-photography friends are like, “your pictures are all underexposed.” I’m like, “it’s not underexposed, it’s just a different way of shooting.” The subject is still properly exposed; the background might be dark.

PW: When I first started shooting with him a long, long time ago, I was amazed at how we’d always be shooting in broad daylight, and everything would look like it was nighttime [laughs]. In a good way! But it was really interesting.

SB: It sort of goes hand-in-hand with embracing off-camera flash. You can create much more dramatic lighting with artificial lights. I mean, you can always block out natural light as well and create dramatic lighting, but it’s so much easier with artificial lighting. And I’ve always sort of been drawn to film noir and vintage styles. That, I think, has sort of become my niche — whereas Xavier prefers natural light, and his portraits tend to be a lot brighter. So as with any photography, you kind of have to find your stylistic niche and work within it, but at the same time, know enough about other styles to be able to do them if that’s what the client wants.

But that’s kind of my groove. I like shooting period piece stuff and kind of figuring out how people did other lighting styles, whether it comes from cinema or another photographer, and trying to recreate that. I like that technical challenge.

Photo: Blackfish Collective
How did the studio space come together for Blackfish Collective?

PW: I think that was partly, well, [Stephen] bought some new property that had the space available. But also, COVID was a little bit helpful [in that] I suddenly had a huge amount of free time that I could spend on things like painting, all that physical work.

SB: We’ve all definitely got a hand in it. Paige and I probably have the most time put into the studio. I [have] a garage, it was basically a total workshop before, so there [were] paint splatters all over the floor, industrial tables. But it’s a lot friendlier space now. We painted the walls, changed the fluorescent lighting to track lighting, put up backdrop holders, organized all the gear into bins that are on storage shelves, and painted the storage shelves. It’s like a night-and-day difference in there. But there’s always [more] to do.

PW: I feel like he’s understating everything we did. We also built a fully-functional shower from plexiglass and wood pallets, an entire living room with flooring and carpeting, we had to upgrade all of the tech and make sure that was good, install speaker systems. Most of the work went into building different sets, so that way, we could have one studio space that we could use for every type of shoot imaginable.

What’s the most meaningful part of all this work for you?

SB: I have a feeling Paige is going to say this, but especially for boudoir stuff, you realize that it’s really a transformational experience for them, and it actually affects their self-esteem and the way they see themselves. That’s probably the most rewarding part of it — which is something you don’t normally get with a lot of other genres of photography.

Photo: Blackfish Collective

PW: I had an incredible experience with one of our photographers, Emilee. In all my modelling stuff, I always do a campaign for Eating Disorder Awareness Week, trying to raise funds for that. You kind of lose track when you see something has 10,000 views — it’s like, “what does that even mean?” One woman, she had booked a shoot with Emilee and me right after we had done our campaign together, and she didn’t say anything [at first], but right at the beginning of the shoot, she said, “I have to tell you something.” The whole reason she booked the shoot was because she’d suffered from anorexia and [had] recovered. She’s healthy now. She said, “the whole reason I booked the shoot was a big ‘eff you’ to anorexia, and your campaign really inspired me.”

I went home that day and happy cried. To think you can affect one person is amazing. I think I’d sort of lost the magic of photoshoots for a little while there, and to have contact with that one person was beyond moving. I don’t think I’ll ever forget it.

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