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Thomas Moke: ‘I love the long journey that’s brought me here and possibly leading me somewhere further’

Italian born photographer and cinematographer Thomas Moke talks about his unwavering passion for his art and what it’s like to shoot for the advertising and fashion industry.
Tell us about yourself and your work.

I’m a workaholic for my passion, the one that has been my day job since the age of 22. I’m 40 now and I haven’t tired of it yet. I’m also a person who loves humanity. I’m driven by a deep sense of truth, equality and freedom, so I run my life and work trying to follow that path, constantly pushing out of my comfort zone and always thinking that there is something more to learn. I can also be a mess and socially awkward but hey…yin and yang, right?

I’m from a little nameless town in the province of Bergamo, close to Milan in Northern Italy. I grew up in a simple way; an only child of the most opposite parents ever, who granted me with a funny, enjoyable, and troubled childhood and adolescent. The wonderful drama involving my pre-adult age made me think that I wanted to build my life differently, so I decided to study in Spain for a few months. While attending my last year in Fine Arts in Italy painting, engraving and drawing taught me that I needed a different way to create and I quickly found that medium in film photography. Inspired by the Magnum agency photographers, I wanted to become a war or documentary reporter, but at the same time I was growing a strong fascination for the visual pleasure of architectural lines and geometries.

I started off my professional career working in architecture and interior design photography. I did it for a while and decided to move to Spain in 2007. Since then, I’ve been based in Barcelona and after developing a strong interest for working in cine as a cinematographer I did a master at ESCAC film school and start working on music videos, short films and commercials too. I eventually shifted my photographic interest towards fashion, beauty and advertising. I’ve been trying to do both photography and cinematography for a while, but I painfully discovered how demanding this job is, both mentally and physically, if you have high goals. So at some point the universe spoke to me; I was pushing my filmmaking business but I was actually receiving more and more interesting job offers for shooting photographs. Plus, I had more creative freedom than as a director of photography, assuming the role of director or head of the team, talking directly to clients. So nowadays 85% of my commissions are for photography and the remaining is video, whilst I try to do both stills and filming for personal projects.

Talk us through the shot commissioned as part of 100 Days. 100 Commissions.

I chose this shot because of personal and aesthetic reasons. It was a recent commission from my friend and fashion designer, Barbara Torrijos, based in Valencia. We met in Barcelona 10 years ago after the film school on some common assignment. I guess we just got along easily; then we lost touch for a while after she went back to her city. She started her own clothing brand which nowadays is very successful; so sometimes I shoot her campaigns and we spend a couple of days together with her team and husband. Besides being a job, it’s more of a pleasant gathering between long-distance friends who once in a while join forces to create something new.

I wanted to try my luck at this “award” with something meaningful beyond the image itself, which I really like from a visual point of view, by the way. Shot on a hot cloudy day in July, I decided to use natural light and focus on the shadows. I wanted a moody collection with a warm feeling, more editorial than commercial, more organic and natural. Plus the model was very young; her features were smooth, defined but not too strong, so the sunlight fell great on her skin, creating those nice volumes. I’ve worked with Barbara long enough to know how her textures and fabrics react under different lighting, so I was not afraid of the changing weather. I put an 85mm on my camera; I wanted a “squared” composition and an elegant look. I’m quite sure I was using my beloved polariser filter to kill some specular light on the dress. I wanted to be sure to see exactly that colour all along the dress. While waiting for a little beam of light to sneak in from the clouds behind me, I picked up a few straws from the field and put them in her left hand, a quick fix on the hat by Barbara and her assistant Elena, and the sun came out just long enough. I only shot two exact frames for this one. I knew I had it.

Barbara Torrijos SS20 Campaign by Thomas Moke - Part of our 100 Days. 100 Commissions.
Talk us through your equipment setup on a typical shoot.

I feel equally comfortable working in the studio, on location, mixing lights or going completely natural. I try to create an ideal shooting situation for every new concept, without putting the equipment in the first place. First comes the idea, then I build the ideal way to achieve it. Nowadays in the industry, we could easily say that there’s no standard way to shoot this or that. There were days when some type of commercials, advertising or high-end productions were meant to be done in a studio, to give that studio feeling. Very roughly said, shooting natural was more seen of a fine art kind of shooting, or experimental, or glamour, unless you were doing a documentary of course. Today, especially due to the imagery produced by social networks, we can see brands approaching their visual communication without those industry standards or limitations anymore. Therefore, I like to be more open anytime I get a new offer because I also know to have more freedom and chances to propose something different and possibly closer to my personal taste, which is one of my final goals.

In regards to the equipment itself, I care more about lights and composition than the technology used to capture the shot. This means that I rely more on having good lenses and exactly the light that I want—with that in mind, any pro camera is good enough to do the job. I like to use round lights (there are no square lights in nature), from big reflectors to beauty dishes. Less is more to me, so I generally prefer using 1-3 lights in a smart way rather than having heads and tripods everywhere. If I can, I rig lights from the ceiling or a crane, so the crew is more versatile moving around during the shoot and we have less dead times in between sets. I have the same general approach for video. When I’m in the studio I work 99% tethered to my laptop and possibly another bigger screen, so everyone can see what’s happening without piling up around my station. The crew can have a better view of all details, quickly correcting some weak spot, and the client is comfortably sitting somewhere else evaluating the live outcome with more privacy. Working this way also gives me the timing and the rhythm of the shooting, double checking my progress on the go and having an instant backup of the images.

“If the energy on set is right, you can clearly see it in the final image.”

I really believe in the benefit of being a team. Everyone has a reason to be there and something to bring to the table; so making everyone comfortable, talking through what’s going on, being available and relying on the confidence, creativity and professional attitude of the team is essential to me more than any other tool. If the energy on set is right, you can clearly see it in the final image.

I like to experiment a lot, pushing my knowledge, trying new things in every project, learning more for myself and being more creative time after time. I have my favourite setups, of course, especially for beauty, sports or architecture, but I try not to stick to something if it doesn’t flow anymore or my inspiration has shifted.

How do you prepare for a shoot?

I give a lot of importance to pre-production; scouting locations is on the top of my list. When possible, I go through the shooting in my mind step by step on the ground to understand and organise all the things I need to do to achieve my purpose. I prefer to get on my nerves during this process by covering all my weak corners, leaving the fun for the shooting day.

Being in a good mood on set is essential to me and I think that it’s something that everyone involved should try to achieve. Crews sometimes are made up of a lot of people who barely know each other, with no other choice than getting along with everyone for the greater purpose. We’re all people with our own stuff going on, this is an artistic world with big responsibilities and a lot of drama, where you never know which personality you’re going to encounter next. It can be stressful, painful, frustrating but also very rewarding.

Being responsible for the shooting makes me feel like I have to be the one who sets a positive atmosphere in the first place, and communication for me is essential to create trust and smoothness in the process. When I’m in a low mood for personal stuff, working is a therapy for me. I turn the negatives into fuel to shoot and at the end of the day, I’m happy, exhausted and mentally restored!

You’ve been using Affinity exclusively for the past two years now. How did you discover Affinity Photo, what made you make the shift and how has it changed the way you work?

I got to Affinity Photo probably by following some ad on my usual social networks. I was looking for an alternative software to Photoshop that could deliver the same potential and but without being chained to a subscription fee. It’s a very trendy marketing strategy now, but I don’t really support it. I also had in mind to slightly improve my workflow with a retouching portable tablet which could share the same app/software as my main station, allowing me to increase my mobility while working.

I tried Affinity Photo on desktop first and then bought it for my iPad Pro, which has become my main station for skin or general retouching now. I use Capture One for the capture and raw processing, then export to Affinity for the second part of the edit. I mainly work on skin and clothing textures. I like to take my time to keep it natural using frequency separation and dodge & burning mainly. Then batch processing before delivering to the client.

It took me very little time to make the transition from the previous software. Keyboard shortcuts and general design features made it a no brainer, it works powerfully. I also found the Personas structure very intuitive. I’m a nerd when it comes to some specific retouching processes and I can’t hide that I’d love to see a few useful features in the next versions. What I’ve also found nice about this company is the support and feedback that you can have on the official website forums. At least at the beginning, I felt heard when it came to giving feedback in order to improve some tool or functionality. I’ll be honest, I’ve not been using any other retouching software since then, so I’m not aware of what’s happening with the competition, but as far as I can say, I’m happy with the tool that I have. It just feels powerful and reliable on a real-life production, and at the end of the day, it’s what makes a tool really count for me.

What led you to work in the advertising and fashion world in particular?

I would say that it was most probably for the need of working with human beings, the ability to be more creative and the vibe that I was getting from the city. I’m from a little town in the middle of not that much. I was used to shooting quietly in an architectural environment, nothing to do with what advertising is in terms of human encounters on a daily basis or in the long term. Working in that field is different on multiple levels. What I most appreciate is the ability to do this job with very few tools and becoming sort of a Zen photographer: it’s just you, the building and the light. Composing a frame for architecture or interior design is extremely enjoyable and satisfying to me, lines and volumes are magically creating timeless worlds. But I felt a fascination for working with humans. I’m sure that film school helped me a lot to create a professional relationship with bigger crews and the different types of characters. I loved it, I was getting more social myself, and the idea of creating fashion or personal concepts containing human beings instead of buildings became quite interesting. But I was in my thirties and coming from a totally different environment I felt like a rookie again but wanted to understand and use a visual language that was new to me. So little by little, I built a portfolio of things that I wanted to be hired for. I started with beauty and headshots and fell in love with that tiny 5x7in space. Then I found a way to feel comfortable and personal with fashion and advertising concepts, mixing some aspects of my way of doing architecture or video with a personal point of view on my reality.

What advice would you give to people wanting to start out in the industry?

To be stubborn, humble, real, open to change, fearless and daring. Absolutely do it for the passion, for the thrill of creation and not for the glamour of the industry.

Be ready to be poor and rejected for a long time or forever; if you are in this for the long run, don’t burn it, but build it. I see a lot of nice professionals in their mid-thirties getting sick of this industry because the emptiness they feel from it. Maybe they just evolved to something different in regards to their priorities, maybe they came to this job for the wrong reason…if you’re here for the passion, then very few things can break you down. Celebrity, money and being on the wave could maybe last only for a little while, so build your life and career on something personal and meaningful, anything that makes you feel good. Be open to people and feedback, be the person you’d want to learn from. The rest will come.

Meditate twice a day if you can. Embrace the world as a projection of yourself, don’t blame anyone else for your mistakes, take responsibility, look at any change as an opportunity and study! Whatever you want, never stop your brain from working on something new. Evolve whenever you feel like it. Listen to your body, walk barefoot. Drink water. Believe in yourself. Believe in yourself. Believe in yourself.

What is your proudest achievement in your career so far and do you have an ultimate goal?

My career and personal goals highly influencing each other all the time. My biggest challenge was my conflictive personality. In the past few years, I faced aspects of my background and character which I eventually discovered to be negatively affecting my career and personal relationships for a long time. Living in a more conscious way would have helped me to feel more comfortable sooner and grow quicker as a professional. But it went differently.

“My goal is trying to live my life as much as possible in a way that allows me not to wait for retirement but to do the things that I love”

So far, I can easily tell you that I’m absolutely proud for facing some challenges in my personality and become more open; for learning how to visualise and ask life very strongly for what I want; for positively accepting the flow of everything instead of trying to control it.

My goal is trying to live my life as much as possible in a way that allows me not to wait for retirement but to do the things that I love. This way of thinking really gives me a different type of mood and inspiration. It fuels my days, my working personality and creativity. My goal resides more in a consistent present than that in a far-away future. We live in the now.

But more specifically talking about my work, one of my current goals is to establish more consistent relationships with international photo agencies. I’ve been working on set, behind a screen and answering phones/emails for long enough and I just feel like I need to give the 100% of myself to the shoot and not looking for clients. Having one or more agents allows you to really focus on the good part of the work, leaving politics to politicians.

The main goal and struggle of an artistic creator is achieving some sort of unity of her/his style. Being versatile and getting an interest in different mediums of making art was a destabilising factor for me when trying to establish my own brand in photography. It’s only in the recent years, when I could detach a bit from my own work I was able to look at it from a different perspective. For a long time I felt disoriented from the frequent deviations or shifting of my visual interests; but now I just see how all of them contributed to establish some pillars taken from here and there, and what I do now is just the result of it, and for me it carries a distinctive feeling. Being recognisable is also a two-way street; one part is coming from you being visually true to yourself and consistent, and the other is coming from the audience’s sensitivity to find a ‘leitmotif’ in your work, for any kind of reason. That’s where the market comes into play, with its trends and fluctuations…

On a not-so-long term timeline I visualise myself living a very comfortable life thanks to my business; also diversifying at some point to dedicate more time to projects and ideas meant to move and help people.

What do you find the most challenging and, in contrast, the most rewarding part of your work?

From my experience, getting noticed and hired by your ideal clients or agencies is possibly the most challenging, frustrating, yet rewarding part. Besides the long path to create a portfolio that represents your personal style while being attractive to your ideal clients, you should also be a business person (and most likely an extrovert), making contacts and forming business relationships, which need to be nurtured and maintained. It’s also hard to understand how to run this business and have a personal life, but I guess I need to learn a bit more on this matter before sharing an opinion about it!

I would say that being a professional or an artistic image maker means that at some point you want people to see your work. For me it’s a big high when you’re proud of your team, your work, the final image, and you can finally see all that effort being rewarded by being published. I’m happy when I can share what I’ve done with my family and friends, tell them to buy a magazine where I’m featured in their city, send them a print copy or a link to a publication.

Satisfaction comes in a variety of forms, it could be money or celebrity, but at the end of the day you know when you did something to feel proud of, hopefully meaningful to the public, as well as for yourself today, and a good memory for tomorrow.

How do you think the current pandemic is changing your industry?

I guess most people had the chance to take a break and focus more on themselves, on what really matters, how important simple values are like meeting with other people or enjoying the outdoors…we’ve already seen some personal and commercial visual work underlining a new way to look at this new world we are living in. There is something spontaneously social in all this and it’s good to be open about it, it’s a chance we never had before so it might be worth it for anyone to give it a try.

I personally feel very inspired by these times, I started painting again a little and recently found the time to produce a fashion editorial project which is kind of personal, currently relevant and social. It was published recently in Neo2, a Spanish magazine which I love, and the title is: “Armed with a mind”.

Fashion Editorial “Armed with a mind” for Spanish magazine Neo2.

Everything is so digital, public and shared that it’s easy to see how this social feeling has an influence in our lives, and consequently in the advertising industry, which is based on people’s tastes, habits and needs by definition. There’s a feeling of embracing what is local and genuine, on every level; from the product or concept itself to what the crew’s having for lunch. Due to the general situation, it looks more unpredictable or risky to plan any big production abroad or too far into the future. Crews still have transportation restrictions so it’s probably more viable to produce locally.

Right after the lockdown we saw brands approaching their visual communication through concepts featuring models or actors remotely recording themselves with their own phones and sending it later to the production editor. Most products were advertised in a more homey environment, marketing strategies definitely went in that direction. Fashion catalogues/campaigns are being made by smaller crews, infrastructure is reduced and outdoors is often preferred to studios. Acting attitudes and screenplay moods are largely meant to diffuse a more positive vibe. And the images coming out of this process are different, symptomatic of these times even if they’re not meant to carry any social meaning. Graphic design and illustration absolutely had their best over photography and filming. Mainly during the lockdown.

“We could all be living in a conscious way and be way richer than we could ever imagine.”

We are multi-layered creatures living in a multi-layered society. It’s so interesting to observe how some changes in our daily habits rapidly influence the rest of them when we’re forced into survival mode.

There’s way more to learn and practice from this lesson, we’re an amazing species with a very short memory and too much hunger for nothing. As human beings, all together and along with what nature has to say, we could all be living in a conscious way and be way richer than we could ever imagine.

This planet doesn’t need us to survive, but it looks like we need it. What are you gonna do about it?

You can see more of Thomas Moke’s work on his website and Instagram.