As far as years go 2020 sucked, hard. A miserable year to be forgotten by all unless of course, you’re photographer, Tim Dunk. Who over the course of the last year has become something of a pioneer. He sat down with our editor Elliot Linden to discuss everything from his latest project FaceTim Photoshoots including how the project came to be through a screenshot, what it’s like photographing strangers in their bathrooms and to be gaining commercial success all from the comfort of his couch in Leeds.
“I was a wedding photographer before all of this” Tim tells me as we sit over Zoom looking at each other’s slightly pixilated faces. “A bit of portraits, weddings, commercial stuff but you know I am a full-time photographer, and this last year has obviously had something of an impact on that.” Tim tells me he usually manages about 35 weddings a year “but this year I’ve only managed five, three of them were at the start of the year  and two have been squeezed in between lockdowns. Kind of like 15 people weddings. It was just surreal!” He says with a chuckle. For many creatives in the UK and around the world the last year has been the toughest ever, with losses left, right, and center and because Tim was ineligible for government funding he was struggling to find a way to stay afloat “it [lockdown] left me in a place where my options to get creative, socialize, or just hang out with people making images together, was suddenly reduced to zero.” So, just how did a former wedding photographer transition into capturing people all over the world? Well, it all began in the unlikeliest of ways, as Tim explains.
Tim Dunk: So I was Facetiming with my daughter and I get a notification flashing up on my screen that says she had taken a photo of me. And I was like, “What? What did you just do?” and she said “I just pressed this button and it takes a picture and it saves it to Mummy’s phone.” And I was sat there like – alright, I love that! And I had just posted on Facebook that I was bored out of my mind, did anyone want to have a go at doing a photo shoot through FaceTime? And a couple of my pals were also bored out of their minds and thought let’s give it a go. And so we get on, and it was the most fun thing that I’ve done in ages! Like just catching up with a couple of my mates running around the house looking for light, just having a playful time and being creative. And as well as that the photos turned out pretty good. At that point I thought, more people have to experience this. So I decided that if people made a small donation of £10 to The Trussel Trust Food Bank Charity then I would do this thing with them, and it just absolutely blew up. Like some of the newspapers and big tech websites picked it up and it just kind of spread all over the world really quickly.
And word had indeed spread, what started out for Tim as a creative past time with friends had soon turned into “staying up past my bedtime to work with people 3000+ miles away.” and, as he further recalls, “I just got up one morning and I looked to see that I had seventeen shoots, like all over the world, in one day. And by the time I was done shooting the last person later that day, they said “Oh, your voice is so relaxing Tim” and I said ‘I am just falling asleep actually!'”.
Listening to Tim talk about his work it’s incredible to see the success he has gained, I’ve only seen one other photographer do a photoshoot through FaceTime but the output from Tim is outstanding. By now, he will have photographed over 800 people, probably more than any photographer in the world has shot over the past year, as well as raising generous sums of money for charity. However, despite all of this noise around his work, it became apparent that he had to transition from doing these shoots from just a donation to charity to actually supporting himself too, and just like before, he had his mates to help.
TD: One of my mates was like “Are you getting any work outside of these shoots?” and I said “No.” and he said “Do you like, get any money? and I replied, “No, no.” And he said “How many of these shoots are you doing? And I said “You know, about 50/60 a week sometimes.” and they finally said, “Do you not think you could start charging for them?” And I thought, “Oh, you might be onto something there!” And so I started charging for them and the bookings just kept coming which was very gratifying. It’s just been the most fun to shoot all over the world, you know, I’m off to Ukraine or Siberia or Uganda and places like that. It’s brilliant!
EL: And it must be thrilling to interact with a new person all the time!
TD: Oh yeah, absolutely!
EL: And tell me, what’s it actually like running around their house asking them to pose in their living rooms or hallways? What’s that experience like?
TD: Honestly, it’s like the best low-budget game show ever! It’s hilarious. You’ve got half an hour with someone, just them, you, their phone and whatever is in their house. It’s the hunting for the light that’s the most fun. That’s actually helped me improve a lot as a photographer, like my ability to shape light now and mess about with it, so that it does what I want it to do, has improved massively.
EL: And because you don’t know the environment then it must be quite frantic trying to search for the light.
TD: Absolutely! Very often people will say, “Oh I thought it would be really nice to take pictures here” in front of whatever it is – and they are always wrong! It’s never the right place to take pictures! I’d say about 30% of the pictures on my feed are of people sat on their toilets because the small windows in bathrooms are just really great for light.
It all sounds like tremendous fun and very simple to conduct which begs me to ask the question, why did no-one think of this before? With ever-evolving technology and apps like Snapchat that rely on images and screenshots, you would have thought someone would have put two and two together when the world went into lockdown and photographers couldn’t get close to their subjects. As it turns out, someone had. CLOS or “close without the E” as Tim puts it, is an app designed to enable users with the ability to produce high-quality images in the most efficient way possible by using just their phones all whilst being protected by end-to-end encryption. To be fair, looking at the website it is really remarkable and how it works is even better, as Tim explains.
TD: So the app lets you shoot with the full resolution of somebody else’s phone and with the latest iPhones or whatever the resolution is just amazing. Rather than shooting just through FaceTime, like I was in the early stages, where I had a video to pull stills from and having to do so much extra work to compensate for the crap resolution as well as the lack of control over the exposure. I was using this app which gives me the person’s full resolution and lets me control the exposure manually, it was an absolute game changer!
And don’t worry Android users, there’s now an app called Shutter which Tim uses to shoot across Android users as well.
Whilst Tim was achieving success photographing strangers in their bathrooms he was also being approached for commercial work and “earning quite a fair bit of money”, something he tells me that he never could have dreamt of when all of this took off. Although Tim can’t tell me about all of his commercial work due to NDA (Non-disclosure agreement) he was able to share one or two with me.
TD: The kind of doors that have been opened and the projects that I’ve got to shoot have just been so incredible like I did a series of portraits for an American wine in Wine Enthusiast Magazine which was a really cool commission. I’ve done a few commercial jobs now and I quite enjoy them and the process of how the clients and the subjects aren’t the same people, it’s not just the person who’s paying you. It’s really enjoyable to have opened up other areas of work.
EL: And just on that, has the project altered your goals in terms of the work you now want to do? You know, you were a wedding photographer but now you’re doing this commercial work with these big budgets and teams of people. Is that not more appealing?
TD: It certainly has. I’ve definitely built up a lot of momentum with it and just seeing how far that can take me. And even the commercial jobs I don’t get, it’s just knowing the people involved knew who I was. Like I’ll get an agency in New York or something going “we’ve got this massive job and we’d like you to pitch some ideas for it” and I’m just sat on my couch in Leeds like “How do you know who I am?!”
It’s clear to me just how much fun Tim has with these shoots and why wouldn’t he? The easiness of the shoots themselves, the different interactions with new people every day, all the success right from the comfort of his own home as well as keeping himself afloat financially during the pandemic. Yet, despite all of this, he had one immediate thought. “It was to tell the world about it, and exactly step by step how to do it. There was no part of me that was like, I’ve got this amazing thing. And I need to keep it.”
And so, very unselfishly, Tim decided he would write a blog post featuring step-by-step instructions so that anyone could follow in his footsteps. He then shared this blog post on photography Facebook groups and rather unsurprisingly it blew up with positive reactions and adulation for his work, however, what was surprising to Tim was the sheer lack of people who actually went and used the step by step guide.
I, like Tim, am confused. Why, after the horrid year that creatives have had, would anyone want to turn away from the opportunity to work with people and maybe earn an income, albeit a small one, but it’s better than nothing. Tim shared his thoughts on the matter, “I had a lot of people who were saying, Oh that’s the thing that you do. I can’t do that. And I’m sat there thinking, it’s not that hard. If you’re a photographer and you know how to take good photos then it’s just a different camera. It’s kind of like when people say they normally shoot with Canon so they can’t do it with a Nikon, that just doesn’t make any sense.”
Since Tim mentioned his step-by-step guide I was curious to know what his process was. I knew how he captured the photos but I wanted to discover more about the final part of all of that work, the editing. And as I talk with Tim more I soon begin to realize that everything he does isn’t as complex as I thought it might be. “So the app lets me download them [the photos] and I’ll grab them and put them into my photo gallery on my laptop and I export them from there to Lightroom. Do like a super quick edit…” He pauses for a moment. “It just doesn’t take a lot. I’ve got a generic pre-set that I just slap on and tweak the contrast a bit, if somebody has a massive zit or something then I’ll fix that but other than that it’s kind of pretty quick.”
TD: Everyone’s like, Tim, you know you’ve really positioned yourself as an expert or the expert in all of this and why aren’t you charging x, y, and z? And I’m like because I’d rather be doing a lot of shoots and for everyone that I do that means that another person is talking about it. I’ve just found that it’s worked best that way. The whole process from shooting to edit takes no more than an hour and you know I could charge like £100 or whatever but actually, I’m getting a pretty good hourly rate compared to nurses or anyone actually doing anything important. People are always asking how I get their work back to them so quickly and I mean, the volume has definitely eased up a bit, but it was mad. I didn’t want to wake up each day and think I’ve got eight shots to edit from yesterday and another eight shoots to do today and so on. I wanted to go to bed each night all caught up and knowing that I was starting fresh the next day.
As mentioned earlier Tim will have shot close to over 800 people since he began last April, I was curious to know what the very first shoot was like and what some of his most memorable shoots were.
TD: So the first shoot was with my friend Sally and I had sent her a message about what I wanted to do and she was immediately like “Oh this seems fun!” We had a laugh and it was great fun to see her.
EL: And what was it like trying to explain to her the idea for this because you didn’t have any examples to show her?
TD: Well fortunately I’ve got a lot of friends who are used to me saying “I’ve got something I want to try out” and they just go along with it. I’m always the one on the night out with the camera asking people to do wacky things like, “Go and jump in that bush!” or something. It’s good to have people who trust me and my vision cause they know the resulting pictures tend to be pretty good.
EL: I suppose it’s easier with your friends cause as you say, they know what to expect but tell me what it was like trying to explain your idea to the first stranger you shot with?
TD: It was all word of mouth really, people would approach me and say “I’ve heard this is a really fun thing to do” and at that point, people were really starved of fun things that they could do. It always starts with friends and then their friends and it eventually reaches the point where it’s like “I don’t know who you are or how you found me but let’s get on and do this.”
EL: And out of all the people you’ve shot with, is there a shoot that’s particularly memorable for one reason or another?
TD: Everyone is unique. I mean photographing new-borns is really special, shooting with a 97-year-old was just amazing. Literally, every single one is just amazing. Like the best ones are where I’m shooting with people with no shared language and I’m there typing things into Google translate and messaging them through Instagram. It can be hilarious! I’ve also certainly had some eyebrow-raising ones that I’m like “Oh, okay! Is that what we’re going to do?” There have been a few surprises for sure.
EL: Care to share any of those surprises?
TD: Let’s just say for some of them I really try and focus on finding the light instead!
One thing I wanted to ask Tim was about the intimacy he experiences when photographing with these people in their homes. “The whole set-up is really intimate and comfortable for people. I haven’t had anyone that wasn’t a bit awkward but the ratio of awkwardness when you’re there with a big camera is different.”
EL: Well if the big camera causes people to be awkward, as well as having the apps such as CLOS and Shutter, could we see a time in the future when the big expensive cameras are not necessary?
TD: Well it’s funny you ask that because I bought a GFX 50 S this year and I’m looking at the pictures on that and I’m sat there thinking I kind of prefer the ones I took on my phone, using their phone! The GFX just glares at me while I sit there taking pictures of people through the internet. I mean it’s great fun and it plays to my strengths really which are composition, lighting, and people skills. It really just distills everything down to those three things which I like a lot.
EL: In a way, it was almost made for you.
TD: Yeah it kinda was. God, I mean 95% of my work this year has been shot on my phone, actually not even my own phone. But I’m absolutely not ready to give up my actual camera yet, I still massively enjoy shooting with them and I still massively enjoy shooting in person. It’s not like I’m going to sell all my cameras and lock myself away and never see anybody again because I’ll just shoot on my phone. But it’s going to be interesting when real work comes back in again and trying to find the balance on the money side of things.
EL: How do you mean?
TD: Well this year it makes a lot of sense to be charging 50 quid a go because I don’t have any other earning potential, whereas when things go back to normal and real-life photography returns it will make less and less sense to be charging £50 per session or whatever.
Speaking with Tim it is remarkable to hear about the success of his project, from its humble beginnings to garnering attention from top commercial photography agents you would be right to argue that he has made the best out of a bad situation, life gave him lemons and he made plenty of lemonade so to speak. What were his thoughts on how the project has turned out? “I love that it wasn’t started out of an entrepreneurial spirit, it was more like: I’m bored, I want to create something and see my mates.” He says with a smile. “There’s something really nice about starting something for those reasons and it then growing and becoming a success. It’s very gratifying to do something that I wanted to do for me and thankfully the world wanted it at that time too. And I honestly believe a month earlier or a month later and it wouldn’t have taken off the way it did.”
EL: What makes you say that?
TD: I feel like it just hit a point when the lockdown was really tense at that time but people weren’t just sick of it. Like, do you remember when everyone was doing the Zoom quizzes and things? Nobody really does that now. Everyone’s like: “I just want things to go back to normal!” They’re done playing and pretending that everything is alright. It just hit the right point where everyone was bored and looking to be a part of something. And I had a few people say that this was something they wanted to be a part of rather than them wanting just some nice photos of themselves, they want to be a part of this big cool project. For some people, it was one of their favorite things about last year.
There are many things I really admire about Tim whether it’s his modesty, his attitude, or his ability to create something so ingenious with this project. To create that sense of community and fun all rolled into a project that raises people’s spirits as well as money for charity, to me that’s rare to find in a project of any kind. Much like the environments he finds himself in when shooting in people’s houses he has made something incredible out of whatever he had available. Tim has managed to carve his way through the mess of last year and provide an outlet for people who otherwise would have had nothing to look forward to. You need only read the testimonials to realize the effect that he has had on people. “Our shoot lifted me out of my tired, grey isolation funk that morning and it was like a little escape through FaceTime. Such a fab idea and it really lifted my spirits.” one testimonial reads. “It’s heart-warming to feel like while we’re all separated, I could connect with someone across the world and make art.” says another.
Without question, Tim has been a shining light in an otherwise dark and dreary year, I was, therefore, keen to know what he made of all of this besides the project just being fun (which it is). What were his thoughts on the project and was he proud of the impact it’s had on people during the pandemic. “I’m not somebody to whom pride is a regular emotion. Like this thing kind of happened to me really,” he says with a chuckle.
EL: But you have to give yourself some credit, surely?
TD: Yeah I should, probably begrudgingly, but yeah I feel very fortunate to have stumbled upon a really great way of continuing to work, staying paid, and connecting with people. It’s been a wild and weird year. During any other time, this level of success would be celebrated but it’s just tempered this year with the thought of “God it’s been a weird year for everybody hasn’t it?”. I feel very fortunate and conscious of the fact that a lot of people have had a more difficult time of things than I have. Which makes it a little bit harder to celebrate properly. But I’ve had fun.
EL: It’s been surreal hasn’t it.
TD: Yep, absolutely bonkers.
To view more of Tim Dunk’s work or to book a session with him please visit his website.
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Special thanks to: Tim Dunk, Emerald Arguelles, Carson Sanders and Taylor Curry and to You for taking the time to read this in-depth interview.