In a world where so many of the models are so very young and the photographers sometimes much older, it was refreshing to learn about a new gal on the scene who is only 19 and already shooting for Beyonce. Susannah Benjamin is currently studying at Yale, but in her free time she is shooting, editing, retouching and writing. Interviewing her was not child’s play, but the moment she mentioned that many of the models are her age and they sometimes go out together after a shoot I realized how very young she is.
Read on to hear how she preps for a shoot, the problems with working with an assistant who is 16 years older than her and why Yale was her second choice.
What inspired you to start taking pictures?
When I was 11 my mother gave me a “point and shoot” since I was constantly telling stories. I was always writing and drawing. I remember thinking - this is not an art form! But I pretended I liked it. In the end I really, really loved it. I take it from a very literary angle.
Where are the ideas coming from?
Photographers rip out photos from Vogue and redo them all the time. But if people study philosophy, history, literature, mythology- those bring new ideas to the table. So photography is great because I think of it like writing a story. Instead of a mood board I write a story unless requested.
When did you decide that photography would be your career?
I always knew I was going to be an artist. So I kind of transitioned into it from writing and drawing. People ask if it is worth it - I am up so late editing but I think of it as- this is what I have to do and the results are always worth it.
What was your first professional shoot?
I had just turned 17 and it was a 10 page spread and cover of a shoe trade magazine called Footwear Plus. They wanted the shoes in a surreal context. It was a lot of fun and I realized that it’s what I love to do but also - can I lead a team, coordinate properly, make it a pleasant experience for everyone? I love how people interact and how people work together. I prefer not to take pictures of a skinny girl on a white background.
How did you meet your agent?
I was going into my senior year and got an internship at her agency. I thought I was going to be carrying coffee and filing papers for her. When I applied I knew I would be an intern but in my wildest dreams I hoped someone would see my work, but that was a fantasy - until it happened. She saw my book and signed me. Rona is like my surrogate mother and she is helping me adjust to all of the work.
How did you end up shooting for Beyonce?
Jenke-Ahmed Tailly, was repped by Rona before becoming Beyonce’s creative director . Jenke showed my work to Beyonce and she really liked it. Beyonce liked the specific stories I had created. She looked through my entire book and I designed a couple of concepts for her. We wanted to do it but I was off to school and she was pregnant at the time, so we couldn’t fit it in. But I was the press photographer for the night at her concert. I had never done that before.
I had to push through the crowd to get the right pictures and it worked. My mother got me her DVD for Christmas, opened it and there was my picture on the back of her DVD. I had no idea. I was thrilled. To see the credits with Patrick Demarchalier and others was amazing. It was a landmark.
What drew you to Yale?
It’s very close to New York so I can work while going to school. They have great visual arts and literature departments so it made sense. I didn’t plan to go to Yale at all. I was all set to go to Oxford but you can’t do photography there. So I decided on Yale. It was the best decision I ever made. Although it is harder than I ever thought to be doing all of this at the same time. But I can sleep when I retire!
Do you ever have issues with people treating you differently because of your age?
Definitely. Sometimes they don’t know I am 19. When my assistant is 35 it’s awkward! I usually just shoot solo now. When someone on a team won’t get out of a shot and I have to be in charge it gets stressful, especially when my parents taught me never to talk back to elders, it’s hard to yell at someone who is 40 to get out of the shot.
What is next for you?
I am shooting all the time and have 30 stories in my notebook ready to go. I am continuing to meet people, understanding the industry and seeing where it goes. Then I go to Italy for a week with a friend and then back to school!
Susannah is represented by Rona Represents.