I don’t expect to bump into my new Photographer in Residence at a party in a law office. Especially when neither of us are lawyers. But London is like that; it belies expectation. You may feel anonymous scuttling through the crowds – just another pair of hands holding a coffee, just another figure scratched onto the scenery – but then you look up, and see a familiar face across the room. It makes you feel like you belong, in places where you thought you’d be a stranger.
And so, it happened a law office was the first place I met Rio Blake. I recognised her from photographs. The second time we met, in a comfortingly traditional ‘work interview’ format, we discussed this medium, and so much more.
Born and raised in Kentish Town Rio is one of a new generation, the kids that don’t care for convention. Recent spikes in university fees have young people thinking twice about formal education, particularly when common sense shows careers can be forged just as successfully through hard-work. “I used to take photos all the time,” Rio tells me, “mainly of me and my friends, and I realised I really enjoyed it and wanted to focus on it. From about 15, I just always had a camera. By the time I got to sixth form, I really knew what I wanted to do.”
After studying photography amongst other subjects for A-Level, Rio left school, determined. But no art is easy. Although social media fulfils a quasi-portfolio function these days, it can devalue work too. Rio notes that new photographers who are approached on Instagram often aren’t sure about pricing and what to charge, or they get persuaded to give away images for free, which puts those trying to make a living from camerawork in a difficult position. It also means big brands can shop around for the right target, instead of the right artist. “Plus,” Rio adds, “it puts people on a follower base system. The more followers you have, the more jobs you’re going to get. That shouldn’t be the case. Sometimes the PR companies managing the campaigns just pick for popularity and they don’t care about the quality of your work. It’s really sad if you love what you do.”
Issues of respect and value have long plagued the creative world. But where we frequently hear about the importance of paying for music downloads and subscription services, or about supporting filmmakers and the performing arts, we don’t hear much about photography. “Things like Instagram and Tumblr, I guess they help, but then again, I feel like there are a lot of people who would buy a music album, but wouldn’t buy a photobook”, muses Rio. The problem, in a way, is that since camera phones people think everyone has the potential to take that magical shot. And yet as we well know, street photography is all skill. Knowing how to snap the moment in a way that makes it speak forever is a talent. “People just overlook those moments in everyday life”, she points out.
Rio’s bread and butter tends to be corporate events and club photography, although she’s netted some big-name projects with the likes of Adidas. But the real meat of what she does is street photography. Like only a Londoner can she sums up our city by capturing not landmarks, but daily lives. A gaggle of girls on a hen-do sporting pink bunny ears block a street in Shoreditch. A Turnpike Lane butcher wearing his white coat stands solemnly in his shop window. Teenagers in low slung jeans sit high up on railings. Delighted dancers decked out with plumes of lilac feathers shake their stuff at Notting Hill carnival; one holds her iPhone, the other a takeaway food box, as though to remind us that this perfect shot was not set up. Rio’s ability to catch our inhabitants in their most natural state has a documentary precision. So expert is her eye, so emotional are her portraits – the joyous abandon of the grinning dancers, the hopelessness of the greying butcher – that you almost recognise the subjects. You feel like you’ve seen them before. Sometimes you’re sure you know what they’re thinking. That dancer? You could swear you passed her at carnival. That butcher? You just want to tell him it’ll be ok. “My friends at uni always say they love looking at my pictures because it reminds them of home,” she laughs. That’s no surprise. The art of Rio’s photography is that it makes you feel at home, no matter where your home is.