Words by Nicholas Bonde
Illustration by Anna Lewenhaupt
A penchant for men’s fashion - combined with a genuine interest in people - prompted Canadian Neil Watson to walk away from a future career in law to pursue his true passion for photography.
As he was gearing up to complete his pre-law studies at university, Neil Watson found himself immersed in work in a completely different field. One that spoke to his heart much more than entering law school and possibly spending his future within the confines of a courtroom.
The Montreal native was working as a writer, creative director and an amateur photographer covering menswear and style all through his university years. On top of this, he was also working full time, first at Ralph Lauren as part of their visual and brand team in their shop in shop, and later as an assistant buyer at TJX Global. Endowing him with an eye for detail in menswear that would prove to come of great use.
A trip to Europe became a turning point for Watson, who decided to dive head first into the fashion business. Pretty soon, he was a talked about street style photographer who now had revered fashion houses commissioning him for work. The budding lawyer was now on a different path. One he felt was the right one.
Today, the photographer, writer and menswear aficionado spend his time traveling the world with his camera, living his dream as a well-respected professional photographer who has made it his mantra to never cut corners.
Born and raised in Quebec, Canada, Watson is currently based in Toronto after several years spent in both Florida and his hometown of Montreal.
We spoke to him about professionalism, defying the expectations of others, managing time and the importance of establishing trust when taking someone’s portrait.
Hey Neil, explain to us how a law student ends up becoming a sought-after photographer in the fashion business?
– Well, I was doing what my parents had told me, which was to seek out the best and most lucrative way to get out of university and create a career for myself. I was a freelancer alongside my studies and wrote articles on style and subsequently ended up as the senior editor for Art & Hustle magazine, which at the time was run by my current business partner, Corey Knight.
– At this point, I was in my fourth year of pre-law studies and was contemplating whether I wanted to go into law school or not. I attended New York fashion week to do a post for the magazine and brought my camera to shoot some pictures, since the articles were in a blog format. After I saw the pictures I thought: “maybe I could do this”. That summer I spent three weeks in Florence shooting at Pitti Uomo together with a friend of mine, and it was then and there where I decided that this was what I wanted to do with my life.
So, what was your next move in light of this epiphany?
– During the start of my fifth year of university I took a job at Ralph Lauren in Toronto. At the time, I was writing, shooting, going to school and working pretty much full time at Ralph Lauren. I had to make a decision on my future, so I opted out of going to law school and pursued a career in fashion. I got a position as an assistant buyer at TJX Global, which is like the Canadian equivalent of Marshalls in the US. I helped open up their luxury buying department. Now I was working full time as editor-in-chief for A&H Magazine and as an assistant buyer for TJX, so my desk had dual monitors where one was my buying and the other was A&H Magazine. When I went to Pitti for the third time, I was going with buying in mind on my vacation, but also to shoot. Don’t ask me how I pulled it off, I was almost fired. About a month after Pitti, I get a call from the high-end Italian men's clothing brand, Luciano Barbera. Their head of PR and marketing said they wanted me to come shoot their campaign for the upcoming FW-collection in Milan. So, I shoot the collection in a week’s time and they said they had never seen work like that before, because I shot it from a photo journalistic perspective with a keen eye for attention and detail for men’s fashion. And above all, with a lot of passion and love. Their response got me thinking that I should start taking this way more seriously. So, I invested in a better equipment and before I knew it, I was not only called upon to shoot the second collection for Luciano Barbera that same year, I was shooting a ton for A&H, which was growing at an exponential rate, and did the cover shoot for our very first print edition. So, at this point, the reasons were really stacking up for me to continue what I was doing.
I imagine great photographers have to have great people skills; how important is personal chemistry when taking someone’s portrait for example?
– To me, it's more important than your skill set. At the end of the day, you have to make sure the camera is removed from the situation and not have it come between you and your subject. The photographer Platon for example, he has an amazing ability to bring out people’s personalities as well as their vulnerabilities. He is someone I have studied for years now. Sure, you can be personable, I can be the life of the party, but if you can’t establish trust - then you are not worth much as a photographer. You merely become a camera operator at that point. I try to establish a genuine friendship with my subjects, so to make the viewer feel as if he or she were there at the time the photo was taken. I would say my interest in people has helped create my personal style in photography.
"The short game is: take pretty photos, put them up and become popular. But if Instagram were to fail tomorrow, would I still have a job? A hundred percent. Would everyone else? Probably not..."
Cuban boxer from the series "The Stay: Cuba" by Neil Watson
Being an entrepreneur alongside being a creative demands great effort. What is your advice to aspiring creatives who feel their creativity can become decimated by the demands of handling the business side of things?
– It’s a matter of understanding your limits, just as with the craft itself. To admit how much there is to learn, as well as having the foresight to bring in competent people. Whether it’s handling your booking, bookkeeping or organizing your schedule, you must focus on your own strengths and delegate. You need to alleviate the stress that comes with the business side of things and focus on being relaxed in your creativity. The best of the best have teams around them, but in order to be able to have a team you need to excel at your work first. If you are great at what you do, there isn’t much energy left to focus on other things, because the work takes so much focus and time.
In times when the iPhone has granted immunity to anyone and everyone who wants to call themselves a photographer, how do skilled and experienced photographers keep one step ahead?
– When it comes to something that looks pretty and appealing to the eye, anyone can accomplish that with some degree of knowledge and taste. I have come to learn that what really separates my skill set is experience. Just because you have the ability to jump on anything and take your slice of the pie and become part of the conversation, doesn’t mean you will sustain. The best work will always live apart from the noise. I am back in school now for example, re-learning studio photography. Because understanding light and how to bend it to your will, that’s the long game. The short game is: take pretty photos, put them up and become popular. But if Instagram were to fail tomorrow, would I still have a job? A hundred percent. Would everyone else? Probably not. The years of experience is what counts. I read a quote the other day that said: “You’re not paying me because it took me 30 minutes to take a photo, you pay me because of the 10 years it took to learn how to take that photo”. That’s the essence of it all.
What four traits would you say are crucial in making it as a professional photographer?
– The first is definitely humility. The second would be patience. Third is passion, not only for what you do - but for understanding people, learning and improving at what you do. The fourth is to be a little bit obsessed. That will get you through the days when nothing is happening.
"If you can’t establish trust - then you're not worth much as a photographer.