When I was home from my travels, I was able to interview Helen from ‘Helen hates peas’ photography. Helen’s openness and enthusiasm came across throughout the interview and I hope you are also able to share it here. Having seen the Christmas project photos she talks about in the interview, I can certainly recommend it to you, so please go check it out.
How did you get interested in photography?
When I was 21 in 2001, I knew I wanted a proper camera for my birthday. So, I asked my mum for that and we went to a camera shop in Northwich and found a Minolta SLR which my mum bought for me. I didn’t have a clue what I was doing with it, I just liked that it felt heavy, that when you pressed a button it clinked and clunked in the right places and I just experimented really. I made loads of mistakes with it, learnt about shutter speed quite quickly from having lots of lights trailing and ghosting going on which was quite arty but it was all a bit hit and miss. Then in 2008, my Italian friend was getting married and I decided that I wanted to update my SLR to a DSLR entry level Nikon because I wanted to take proper pictures at the wedding. So, I got the Nikon and suddenly I carried it everywhere and took photos of everything, such as food before it was fashionable to do that and I used to have albums of food I’d eaten and coffee, all of that kind of stuff. Then people started to see me as a photographer even though I hadn’t badged myself as that. I’d unwittingly found a passion, been able to look at something and capture it which really appealed to me so that’s when it went digital and was the starting point really.
What led to you setting up your photography business?
After I’d been shooting with the camera in Italy, I’d started to do small projects so in 2010 I did a 365 project which is a photograph each day of the year. In 2011 this became a bench project where I photographed whoever was sitting on the benches at the Cathedral in Chester at the same time everyday. I uploaded the photos to Flickr and people started to tune in to see who was on the benches and even if it was empty I would still shoot an empty bench.
So, in terms of it becoming a business, I was working in local government in Chester and Michelle, a friend who was getting married in 2011, had seen these personal projects online, really liked them and basically said ‘I want you to shoot my wedding’. So, there is quite a step from being a bit creative with a camera to suddenly the enormity of someone wanting you to shoot their wedding with nothing in between as a step up. She badgered me for weeks and I kept deflecting until in the end I agreed to meet her and her fiancé and my plan A was to say ‘I’ve never shot a wedding before’. I knew for sure that if someone said that to me then I wouldn’t hire them. So, I said ‘I’ve never shot a wedding’ and her fiancé said ‘That doesn’t put us off’ and I had no plan B. So, I said ‘OK fine, if you are in agreement that this might all go wrong, you might end up with no pictures from your wedding, then fine’ and they said ‘we’re OK with that’.
Because of that I could treat it like a college project so I wasn’t constrained by a brief and I could just pootle around taking photos of things which interested me and give those photos to them at the end. That wedding got blogged and then people just started to see me as more of a professional than an amateur.
Then in 2014, the Lord Mayor of Chester asked me to shoot her portrait for the Chester Town Hall to be on display for 3 years. That was a real moment and I knew I needed to be registered as a business as if people like that were hiring me, it needed to be bona fide. So I registered and have been picking up all sorts of projects along the way. I’m into double figures with the weddings, I’ve done brand photography, family and dog shoots, a mixed bag really so I’m excited to see where it goes.
How did you come up with the name ‘Helen hates peas’?
The ‘Helen hates peas thing’ was really funny in college when I needed an email address and it was either going to be ‘Helen hates peas’ or ‘Helen hates melon’. I just thought there were too many innuendos for melon so I went with peas which is still funny but hard to say on the phone and you have to repeat yourself when you’re giving your email address but nobody forgets it. When you leave college and realise how your email address is attached to so much then it’s easier to just go with that and become ‘Helen hates peas’. I was always conscious of if there was any change to my name in the future due to getting married or whatever then if you’ve used your name then you’re immediately out of date with your own branding. I wanted something with my name in it as I knew through working in fashion that designers use their names like Calvin Klein or Donna Karan so I wanted enough quirk about it that it would reflect me.
What/ Who inspires you?
I think ultimately there is always inspiration from whoever crosses your path. I believe you come across people at the right time either you to them or them to you.
In terms of encouragement then my mum was my biggest champion as she didn’t see any barriers and believed I could do absolutely anything even when I knew I couldn’t. She would really advocate for me and put me forward for anything. As I’ve got older, I’ve seen more value in believing I can do things without seeing the barriers before they are there.
People talk a lot about finding your tribe or finding your people or the people you resonate with and I think that is true. There have been certain clients I’ve had where we don’t really have much in common and it’s a lot more difficult to build that rapport up quickly and to feel like you understand them enough to give them the images they need. I find my best work comes when I don’t need to think about the client when the work is creating itself, when I’m recording what’s happening and what I’m seeing with my own eyes, I’m recording that with the camera rather than thinking about what I’m seeing.
A friend in London who I would describe as a muse for me, Gadge (Roberts), he’s an artist in his own right and we’ve been friends for years. Whenever I do any photography of him it just feels like I’m on a day out with my friend (which I am) but the images which come from that are always profound, capturing a side of him that he knows he can’t do himself and that’s really special for us both.
It’s also rewarding when you see somebody appreciates what you’ve captured enough to put it on their wall and just this morning I saw a friend’s selfie on Facebook and in the background I could see 2 images I’d shot of her and her wife. There isn’t really anything like that or if they use it as their Facebook picture or whatever, you feel like a sense of yes you’ve done alright there.
Tell me about your recent project.
My Christmas project was dreamt up much earlier in the year. So last June, I had a significant relationship breakdown which led me down a particular path personally where I decided rather than saying no to things, I’d say yes to more. I’d take on more opportunities and push myself further, take on more projects. So, that was fine as far as the summer was concerned and as the nights drew in and it became darker and colder, there’s a definite shift then personally as to what you can and can’t do. Christmas was looming and it was going to be the first Christmas I was going to be on my own since forever. That isn’t to say that I didn’t have a ton of offers from my friends but there was something within me which wanted to kick against that despite being a born again Christian and despite understanding the enormity of a Christmas day in the calendar. Those people, they are my friends but I wasn’t getting that invite on a wet Tuesday in October and yet you would get it on Christmas day and I decided in a very dramatic fashion that if I was going to be alone then I would be completely alone and I would go and be alone in the city.
So, I decided to pack myself off to Manchester for the day and I took a tutu in a bag cos you know needs must. I took my camera and I decided that whatever I found in Mancheser, I would photograph and I fully expected it to be deserted. I’ve got an Italian friend in London who has done a similar project and he’d done it 2 years on the trot as he was single at the time, he had no family over here and he was going to be alone. He decided to do a bit of a walk around London and take pictures and his images were amazing because to see real tourist points of London completely isolated and dead you could really appreciate the architecture behind it and just see how the people make the place really.
So, off I went fully expecting it to be dead but it wasn’t, it was really full, full of people who weren’t celebrating Christmas, people on holiday, people who had come from Church Outreach’s to do Mission, lots and lots of homeless people. Obviously, it wasn’t as busy as it would have been on a Saturday on Market Street in the middle of Manchester however it was busy enough to say it’s Christmas day and all these people are here. I went into Starbucks and had to queue to get a coffee and the Spar was open and I remember saying to the man in the Spar ‘How are you open, it’s Christmas day?’ and he replied ‘Well nowhere else is open’ and I remember thinking well I don’t have an answer to that because you’re right.
Before going, I put it on Facebook and that held me accountable because I could have easily slipped into watching really bad films with a box of celebrations. However, I just felt that it was a project I knew I wanted to do and even if none of the images worked, I would feel like I’d done something and marked it in my way rather than feeling bad about how much chocolate I’d consumed.
It ended up being a significant project because I expected it to be a dead city and it wasn’t when I got there, it became about the people really. There was a big slant towards the homeless aspect and Shelter pointed me towards their Manchester offices after seeing the images. They are really interested in how they might pick this up and take it forward so that’s been really positive. The reaction online was huge, there’s about a 100 images which had 30,000 hits in 2 days so it’s really significant, lots of people messaged me about it and lots of people were really effected by the homeless aspect.
I didn’t intend to edit it in a way to show that but the project itself definitely highlighted that and actually having conversations with the homeless people on the day challenged me. For example, there was a guy with a holographic hat with all fairy lights on it and I told him I loved his hat and he replied that he’d saved it for that day. This challenged back to me that I could see all his life before me in all the bags around him yet here he was marking Christmas day with a hat that flashes. There was another woman who was really angry as she felt that people were staring too much at her as if she was an animal and they were to a certain extent. She said to me ‘Andy Burnham wants us off the street by 2020, well they’re going to have to give me something better than I have now to move me.’ I remember being so challenged by that thinking she’s sleeping in a shop doorway and wants better than this to move on but I realised that there is a whole community within the homeless community where they feel safe in the middle of the city so that was another challenge.
In terms of it being a photographic project, I think it transcended that and actually challenged me as a person. All the signage in the streets was gearing up to the Boxing day sales and all the people who are usually there making up the majority are there to spend money and it’s all about the things they need and the capitalist side of it. Yet, the homeless people are still there and they are kind of overshadowed by those shoppers and almost overlooked and ignored but when you take those other people away the homeless are still there and they are part of the city. That was quite stark really, that it’s 2019 and this is the reality for a lot of people.
I’m hoping that rather than being a project that just sits online, that maybe by the end of this year there can be an exhibition or it ahead of Christmas this year but how that looks, I’m not quite sure yet, I’m still thinking that one through.
You mentioned you were challenged by certain aspects, are there any learnings you have brought back into your daily life?
I suppose the classic of ‘expect the unexpected’ as I had a fixed idea of what I was going to find but it wasn’t that at all. After the sun had gone down, I decided to go to Rusholme and get a curry as even though it was Christmas day, that was what I wanted to eat. The whole of Rusholme was so busy with people out with their families and they even struggled to get me a table for one person and that was quite interesting.
The interaction with the homelessness side of it made me reflect on what I have and actually how I have it and yes, I have a job, good health and I can drive but I only need to lose one of those things to be on a slope to unravel my life quite significantly. It made me view the homeless community differently. I am a shopper who would often look the other way rather than interact and that challenges me as I don’t know where that comes from as I don’t want to be that person. I suppose it’s the embarrassment of not knowing what to do with it and yes it’s made me realise that you don’t know what’s behind a person until they start talking to you. If you dress those people up in suits and put them in an office then I probably would treat them differently than if I find them in the doorway which is a very sad admission but yes it’s something I took away from the day.
I know Manchester, I understand it as a city and I’ve lived there as a student and there is that feeling that I own part of it in some way. Yet, I came away from it feeling that actually no, these people are part of the fabric of this city and I don’t think enough is done with that as a society. I don’t think we reflect on that as we see them as a problem which needs to be solved rather than individuals who have possibly had chaotic lives or whatever reasons they have for being there and it’s made me reflect on that and not judge people so quickly.
What other projects do you want to share with us?
I’ve got an ongoing project of self portraits that’s been going on since 2012 which is always in the background and peppered though my Flickr site online and makes me look like a total narcissist. That was more about building confidence in front of the camera because when you pick a camera up to take a photo of someone there are so many who say they hate having their photo taken. I felt I can’t ask people to do something I wouldn’t be prepared to do myself so that whole shooting myself, understanding what works aesthetically and what doesn’t work and what you need to consider in the frame of a picture, that’s always ongoing. I’m always learning about that and there are certain things I now recognise as my style and things I will gravitate to more than others but that’s all part of a learning curve.
What advice would you give to our readers wanting to set up a creative business?
1) Protect your passion: Be sure that the passion that you’re going in with isn’t compromised by the pound notes by the end of it. You also never want to be in a position where you hate your passion because that’s the worst place to be.
Previous to doing photography I’d done dressmaking and loved it, I loved the joy of making clothes and being able to realise a creation on a mannequin, I loved it so much and thought that meant I could do it as a business. Then I learnt very quickly that there is a difference between the joy of doing something for the love of it and then having to do it to bring in the money. Very quickly, I started to hate my sewing machine and couldn’t pick up sewing to do as a joyful thing for a while.
I was conscious of that with the photography as I never wanted it to become a chore because it’s a go to thing for me. It’s fundamental to my own mental health at times when I’m feeling like sometimes words aren’t enough, sometimes you can’t express yourself and you need an image to do that. You have a germ of an idea and it won’t go away until you’ve committed it to an image. I never wanted to lose that ability through saturating myself with clients and doing it as a job.
2) Transition into the business full time: If you don’t want to jump in with both feet as some do, then it’s OK to transition into something. I’m less risky so I’ve kept a day job as it’s helpful to me to have the routine of going to a job, meeting with people everyday and getting a regular salary coming through. That means that when I do take on clients and jobs, I can give it my all and bring that passion for the art to it as opposed to seeing them as pound notes. I think if I ever got to that place, well I don’t think I could as that wouldn’t feel authentic, genuine or in line with what I would hope to produce.
3) Know your reasons: I would say search yourself and ask yourself what are your reasons behind wanting to do something. Have a passion behind it as that will come through and people respond to that as well. If you don’t believe in what you’re doing or if you’re doing it for the love or the need of the money then that will come through especially in a creative environment.
Where can readers find you?
If you google Helen hates peas then I am the first page of Google, so there is something to be said for having a quirky name. I’m on Facebook, Flickr which is where the majority of my work is, Instagram and Twitter.
I wasn’t on Instagram for a long time and people really questioned that as a photographer as that’s your medium. I’ve decided to really keep my Instagram separate to the rest of my work rather than posting the same image across all the accounts as then there is a discovery. People do have different aspects to their personality and what they do and I like that reflected across my social media.
I hope you have enjoyed ‘meeting’ Helen as much as I did. If you have any comments about the interview or her photography projects, then please let us know by using the comment form below.