When I caught up with photographer Jade Keshia Gordon from her desk space last year in a studio in Peckham, London, there were lots of things I wanted to ask. Our conversation was recorded in the wake of the first Black Lives Matter protests, and Jade was planning her talk at The Photography Show: 'The Dos & Don'ts When Shooting A Black Model'.
So what advice was Jade planning to cover, and was she was starting to see attitudes in the photography industry changing? “Everything is changing. My talk will cover the technical aspects of lighting different skin tones, but also just things you should and shouldn’t say. I’ve been on castings and on set before and I’ve heard people say some things…”
Jade doesn’t like to consider that discrimination works against her, but recognises there have been times in the past where it might have hindered her progress. “In the industry, being a woman itself is already a difficult thing. And then I feel like, you know, being a black woman is also a thing. And then being plus size is also a thing.
So there are these three elements that technically should go against me. I try my best not to think about it so much, but I’m sure it’s happening. I look at people who get chosen for certain jobs, and I think, ‘I could do that.’
“I love to see more women shooting. When I first started, there weren’t many of us, and it’s so, so good to see so many women just coming out and enjoying the craft. It’s more balanced now. I’d say it’s still got a little while to go, but it’s definitely going in the right direction.”
Jade is a good barometer for noticing industry changes, having been shooting for almost ten years from the age of 17. “I always liked photography, and then I got given a low-level camera, which I used for about five years at the beginning of my career. I started off by doing photoshoots with friends, who were like, ‘Jade, you’re actually quite good at this!’”
When Jade’s friend then booked her for an official shoot – and modest commission – she was ecstatic. “I was thinking, ‘Oh my gosh! I’ve been paid to do this job now. This is my job.’” Afterwards, Jade tried her hand at college and university, with photography playing a part in both.
“I did photography at AS-level, but I didn’t do well. I think I failed. I also went to uni to study photography, but dropped out. I was already doing quite a bit of work on the outside, with new studios, so I told myself then that I was just going to do it myself.”
Jade is a strong believer in using what you have, and learnt her craft through trial and error, online tutorials and initially modest photo kit. “I’ve upgraded my camera now, but that’s ten years in. I had my Sony Alpha 290 camera up until 2015-ish, and used my last bit of student loan to get myself a full-frame camera, the Canon 6D.”
She switched to the Canon 5D Mark IV last year, having used the Mark III before that. She’s a fan of the brand, and loves to look out for compatible second-hand lenses that are still in excellent condition.
When Jade was starting out in the industry, she went straight into the world of portraits, fashion and beauty. “I was emailing people, just offering my services to them, within the music industry as well. I used to watch a lot of YouTubers, and I thought, ‘Ooh, I can contact them as well’, which I tried.”
The tester years for Jade were 2010 to 2015. “I was still being paid, but you know, little money here and there. But I was being paid to do it, even from such an early stage. And then 2015 came, and that was probably my changing year, when I started working with a well-known influencer. So I kind of tapped into the world of bloggers, and I became the photographer that everyone knew: ‘Okay, this is Jade, she does that sort of thing.’”
Jade does plenty of studio work, too – with a now-permanent space in Sugar Studios, London – and always works to improve her lighting and technical skills. “I don’t think I’ve ever really changed what I wanted to do, just enhanced it. I’ve been trying to shoot a lot more indoors, just to kind of get my head around certain lighting. Especially last year.”
Even pro portrait photographers sometimes shy away from using artificial lighting, either through fear of getting it wrong, or believing that it makes a shoot too complicated. Jade, however, loves to test out lighting setups – a lot.
“I invested in some new Broncolor lights in December, and I also work with the Vitec group and Lastolite. As much as I love outdoor shoots, what you can create indoors is just as good. I think if you have the ability, try and do both.”
Lighting aside, another key skill for portrait and fashion photographers is working with models. Did direction and posing come naturally? “[Working with] models was interesting. I think, because I always shot people anyway, direction was something I never had an issue with giving. But finding models was always a problem. Talking to agencies. It was very trial and error, especially early on in my career.”
Jade likes to go for new faces. “I have go-to models. But I like to work with new faces as well because I feel like some fresh faces are amazing. Often, they also need the testing, or they need that extra experience. If there’s a big budget, I might go towards a mainstream model.”
The next step for Jade – beside hosting her latest masterclasses and talks – is to open her own studio. “That’s the only step that makes sense really. Everything else I’m very much content with. Equipment-wise I’m great, and I’m working with a really good set of people.”
She wrote a mini-book last year on the subject of branding and marketing, but she’s recently been in the process of writing a ‘proper book’ over the last few months in particular.
“Lockdown’s been good to me, because I was able to write a lot. I’m going to probably self-publish at some point next year. But I’m also just taking each day as it comes, because you never know what’s going to happen…”