Fashion and portrait photographer, Ester Keate may describe herself as being ‘based in South-East London’ but her search for innovative yet inheretly rooted imagery takes her far beyond the capital’s boundaries.

From a Sweden-frequenting childhood to her photo-opportunitistic family jaunts, Keate’s taste for adventure has played no small part in inviting an eclectic clientele from Addictive Daughter and the Museum of Friendship to Pepper&Mayne and Teresa Georgallis. With her travels taking her to Myanmar in Burma, Keate skillfully and delicately captured the lives of the country’s inhabitants in ‘Life Under Seige’ for PETRIe’s February 2016 eMagazine. Today, I speak to the woman behind the lens to discover her founding inspirations, creative inclinations and photographic intentions.

From the series "Life Under Siege" for PETRIe

My parents were photographers, and so I always had cameras around the house to play with. I was shooting on the same Mamiya RB67 I have now when I was about four.

Elizabeth Neep: Please begin by introducing yourself. Where did you grow up and how did you first get into photography?

Ester Keate: I was born in London, but spent all my school holidays in Sweden as a child. Both my parents were photographers, and so I always had cameras around the house to play with and to use as a creative outlet, I was shooting on the same Mamiya RB67 I have now when I was about four. I am sure that is what led to me becoming a photographer.

EN: In terms of your craft, what formal training have you received? Where would you say you have gained the greatest experience? 

EK: I did a foundation at London College of Communication and then my BA at Westminster. I then worked as a studio assistant and photographic assistant. I think all of these were equally as important in gaining experience.

Portraits of dancer, Cree Barnett Williams for PETRIe

Basically, I shoot what I enjoy shooting, I think that that is the most important thing. Photography should be done for the love of it.

EN: Photography is such a broad discipline. Where did you discover your niche? How would you describe your aesthetic?

EK: I photograph people, fashion, portrait and documentary. I really enjoy using natural light and stick to that whenever possible. Basically, I shoot what I enjoy shooting, I think that that is the most important thing. Photography should be done for the love of it.

EN: And you get to go to some amazing places! You’ve relatively recently been on some exciting trips…

EK: I went to China last spring for three weeks, and I recently spent three weeks in Burma. The China trip was a work trip primarily. I went out to photograph workers for a company that has factories out in China. Burma was a family holiday. However, whenever I am anywhere for any reason I always try to take as much time as possible to shoot some personal projects as well.

From the series "Life Under Siege" for PETRIe

I try my hardest not to form any preconceptions that might influence my work. I prefer my work to be a natural response to a place and the people.

EN: Your work captures a moment in time. How do you secure your shots?

EK: When I travel to a new country, I start off slowly, getting to know the place a little before I choose exactly how and what to photograph. I prefer not to plan a project too much, I do some research into the history and current affairs of the country, but try my hardest not to form any preconceptions that might influence my work. I prefer my work to be a natural response to a place and the people there, rather than a way of influencing people with my opinions.

From the series "The Sunday Market"

Often for the first few days I photograph everything I see, unselectively. Projects then normally start to form in two ways. Firstly, as I start to notice patterns developing in the images I have taken. For example, in my recent trip to Burma I discovered I had started to photograph a lot of boys on bikes. Once I had noticed this I started to see and photograph boys on bikes wherever I went and this became one of the projects I worked on throughout my time in Burma.

From the series "The Sunday Market"

I am not someone who plans every detail of a shot before hand, much preferring to feed off the person I am photographing and the place we are in.

The second way that clear projects start to develop is that as I get to understand the area and people a little more I start to hear about things that I find interesting and set out to photograph them. For example, another project that developed while I was in Burma was photographs of markets and market traders. This developed after having heard from a few local people how important the markets are to their social life; that is the place where they see family and friends from other towns, where they make money or where they are paid by their employers and where young people make friends and meet their future partners.  I thought that this was interesting how integral the market place is and so decided to photograph the people working in them.

Now and then a project is based on something I read up about before I get to the country. When I photographed Dafen artist village in Shenzhen it was because I had read an article on the area before I left for China. However, even in situations like this I do not over plan the project. I had not planned any shots; the project still developed organically as I walked around Dafen and photographed the artists and area.  

From the series "Dafen Artist Village" for PETRIe

In a similar way, when I shoot a portrait I normally just choose a few key aspects before the sitter arrives –location, backdrop, set options, light etc. - and then the rest of the shoot develops much more organically and in collaboration with the sitter. I am not someone who plans every detail of a shot before hand, much preferring to feed off the person I am photographing and the place we are in - if it is a location rather than studio - and see what happens.

EN: On the topic of ‘seeing what happens’, what exciting things do you hope 2016 will have in store for you and your work?

EK: I hope this year will bring more exciting places, people and projects!

Words: Elizabeth Neep

Photography: Ester Keate