- Words Notion Staff
London-based portrait artist, Rachel Sherlock, aims to bring inclusivity to the mainstream. The photographer shares her greatest achievement, bucket list, and what needs to be done to change the industry for the better.
Since she first picked up a camera, Rachel Sherlock aimed to empower people with their beauty, initially photographing her family and friends. Now, she champions bringing body confidence, sex positivity and gender exploration to the fore.
Boasting an impressive portfolio shooting for Lovehoney, Singapore’s F1 Grand Prix, as well as an array of impressive names from Annie Lennox to Nyome Nicholas-Williams, Sherlock is particularly grateful to the LGBTQIA+ people who have brought her work to life. Rachel also acts as photographer and ambassador for The Sharan Project, a non-profit organisation aiming to raise awareness and prevent forced marriage and honour-based violence.
For the artist, capturing what lay beyond the exterior of her subjects proved to be fertile photographic material. “There’s a myth that for a photo to be fashionable, editorial feeling, or general of a high quality, the model has to adhere to a ‘traditional’ look, and I aim to use my portfolio to prove that notion wrong,” Rachel explains. By capturing those who are underrepresented, society’s scope of beauty will inevitably crumble, shift and grow. Yet, while strides have been made towards inclusivity in the creative industry – “certainly in front of the camera, less behind it” Rachel notes – there’s still a lot to be desired.
Notion catches up with Rachel Sherlock to discuss who she’d love to shoot (“The list is endless!”), why it is essential to remodel the notion of beauty, and what’s next for the photographer.
Let’s start off by hearing about your journey. How did you get to where you are today and what first intrigued you about portrait photography as an art form?
I love taking a good photo for the same reason anyone loves taking a good photo – because you’ve captured a moment exactly the way you wanted to. For me personally, capturing a portrait holds the most significance. When I was a teenager I took a brief photography class and fell in love very quickly, so I started taking photos of my friends and family whenever I could and it was (and still is) my favourite thing to do. I loved how I felt when I showed someone their portrait and you saw them light up, I wanted to chase that feeling forever because it seemed so magical to me that you could impact someone’s confidence so positively and deeply just with a camera and a room full of light.
Where do you draw inspiration from? Is there any avenue that might surprise people?
For me, I’ve always been obsessed with drag, burlesque, and cabaret. That kind of bold, bohemian freedom is exactly how I wanted to approach my portfolio – all love and no shame. Films like The Rocky Horror Picture Show made me realise how much sense there is in artistic madness – why be traditional when you could throw on some blue eyeshadow and take photos with a metric tonne of charisma?! Then for a less obvious source of inspiration, London Underground. I know it’s criminal to make eye contact with a fellow passenger but if you take a look around you’ll see almost every kind of person you can think of. You could see a priest sat next to a drag king sat next to a nurse sat next to a show girl and it would just be another Sunday morning in the city. I guess I can take inspiration from anything that demonstrates how fantastically varied the world can be.
What’s been your greatest achievement to date?
I know this might not sound like a big deal, but the thing I’m most proud of is being a full time, freelance photographer. Up until 3 years ago I had to take on any work I could find and juggled cleaning/bartending/call centre jobs while I built my portfolio. Every single day I kept telling myself I’d be a full time artist soon and I just had to keep going, and now I’m finally here I feel so SO lucky that I get to do what I do. Every Sunday spent scrubbing fish counters was worth it because it paid my rent while I learned my craft, so managing that situation long enough to reach my goal is easily my biggest and happiest achievement to date.
Is there anything you’d still like to cross off your bucket list?
I’m hoping to release my first coffee table book of portraits in the next couple of years, it’s one of my biggest goals and I’m ready to make it happen. I want to showcase all the f*cking amazing people I’ve had the good fortune to photograph and demonstrate how high quality, editorial feeling portraiture isn’t just for the typical “industry standard” model. Seeing yourself reflected positively in a photo is a powerful thing and I want my book to do that for as many people as possible.
You’ve shot some incredible people, from the influencer Nyome Nicholas-Williams to presenter Sara Pascoe, GBBO star Antony Amourdoux and more. Is there anyone you would love to shoot if you had the chance?
The list is endless! I would love to photograph the queer icons paving the way like Elliot Page, Jameela Jamil or Billy Porter, but also some of my personal heros who have shaped who I am as a person, e.g. Jacinda Ardern or Annie Lennox. If I sat here and talked you through all the photos I have planned for all the wonderful people who inspire me we’d be here for decades. They say you shouldn’t meet your heroes but I’m going to meet every single one of them and I’m going to take their picture too!
Inclusivity and sex-positivity are central to your portfolio. How can other photographers be more inclusive and open with their work?
For me, step one was realising that having the ability to take a good photo has nothing to do with what you look like. If you’re a photographer looking to step away from shooting your stereotypical model, start looking for qualities in a person beyond their outward image. For example, if someone’s body language is very expressive and brings a lot of life and movement to a conversation, there’s a good chance they’ll bring that same energy to a portrait session if you make them feel comfortable enough. Or maybe you bump into someone who’s gone on a self love journey and they want to find a way to express that, invite them for a photoshoot and take pictures that reflect the love they’re learning to feel for themselves. We are rapidly moving past the need for a model to look a certain way, the next step is reaching beyond the aesthetic and seeing a photo in a person’s personality, not their appearance.
Do you feel that the photography industry is changing to be more inclusive – for both those in front of and behind the camera?
Certainly in front of the camera, less behind it. Behind the camera we’re still seeing a lack of diversity, we need more women and POC in directorial positions so that is definitely a work in progress. But in front of the camera the media we’re seeing day to day is finally starting to shift towards inclusivity which is wonderful to see. There’s still a long way to go but the improvement has been incredible to witness over the last 10 years and I’m excited to see diverse line-ups eventually become the norm. The end goal has always been for a wide variety of people to be featured routinely in positions of power and beauty, and I trust that will one day be the case.
What’s next for you?
Right now I want to keep bringing inclusivity to the mainstream and hopefully put all that work together into one big book! If I could use my portraits to create a resource for people who feel underrepresented then that would bring me endless happiness. As a plus size, mixed race, queer woman I have a full understanding of how hard it is to not be considered a ‘classic beauty’, so I’m going to continue to remodel what it means to be attractive and make sure it’s new definition includes absolutely everyone.