Working on yachts can be a feast for the eyes, rich pickings for the observer with an artistic bent in a hotbed of sharp design, remote locations, the colours, the light and the people.
For stewardess Katie Jane Howson it all started there and, after training to become a professional photographer, she's back on board on the other side of the lens. We recently met up in Antibes to find out more.
How did you first get into the yachting industry?
I graduated from university in the midst of the 2008 credit crisis. London was a pretty miserable place to be.
I started in a PR internship but watched long-term employees be fired around me and more and more interns being taken on. I left to work for a property company which had equally poor morale. After 18 months I decided I was young and this wasn’t how I wanted to spend my early 20s… so after a lot of Googling and speaking to friends of friends who had done it, I set off for Antibes to do my STCW.
For my first position I had my interview on the beach on a Friday (the captain called and said he was in Antibes, where was I?!) and I started work on the Monday. I was thrilled with my sole stew position and earnt more money than ever before!
Was it how you expected it to be?
I think after being so stressed in London it was just incredibly refreshing to be thrown into an energetic thriving industry. I didn't have particular expectations, more hopes, but in this sense it exceeded what I was looking for.
Returning now after three years away, I think this industry still has an amazing buzz to it, it’s rather special really.
What was the most important thing you learned while working on board?
Probably the realisation of how English I am; that other nationalities have different ways of thinking, socialising, working (both crew and guests). I found this fascinating and an important life lesson.
Why did you decide to leave and what did you do next?
I only meant to come for a summer to rejuvenate, so three years was far longer than I had envisaged. Once in it, it’s pretty easy to just keep going, like any job really. My decision came after a bad experience and I realised I didn’t have any inclination to get on another vessel. It was time to move on.
Having some downtime to reflect (after the rollercoaster of boats!) I realised two things. Firstly I felt I was losing touch with friends in the UK, missing weddings etc. Secondly I admitted to myself that there was a deep rooted fear I was being left behind by friends who had now been in careers a few years and were working their way up. I had no regrets but I needed to prove to myself that I could still do that if I wanted to.
Yachting has it’s own complexities and difficulties, but it's so far from an office job and I think it’s easy to lose confidence in your other abilities - to lose part of yourself - being away from loved ones and having to be continually subservient and meeting others' needs, not your own.
Did you find it difficult to re-establish yourself ashore?
In a word: Yes! But nothing worth doing is easy. I decided that a Private PA role could be ideal as I wanted to be back to London. I had gained experience of working for high net worth individuals, and it didn't involve being at a desk all day (that scared me!).
I went for various interviews and realised I wasn’t projecting confidence, as I wasn’t feeling confident. I realised I needed to do something for myself and regain control, so I took an intense DSLR photography course, just to do something for myself that I’d always had an interest in. After that I felt invigorated and inspired and I was offered two roles in a day. Your state of mind is so important.
What do you think are the most common challenges for crew moving ashore?
Firstly, I think for many it's difficult to decide where ‘home’ is now. Many leave the industry with belongings, properties, friends and partners spread around the world, and friends from home may have moved on. It’s a difficult change and I understand why many put it off. I would say don’t though; once you’re ready or have achieved all your yachting goals, take it on and embrace it as the next chapter.
Secondly there’s the decision of what to do. Luckily most will leave the industry with savings they can put towards new training and skills if they want to, but the decision still needs to be made. I took six months to decompress and consider between leaving my last yacht and moving back to London.
The final hurdle for me was how to convince recruiters that I had gained skills in yachting that are transferable to ‘normal’ jobs. I spent a lot of time considering this and I believe there's a lot of value in being ex-yacht crew.
When did you decide to become a professional photographer?
I'm proud of myself for making the transition back to London and getting a good job. I worked really hard - weekends, evenings, holidays. But after the initial relief and excitement wore off I realised it didn’t really feed my soul (apologies if that sounds a bit hippy-dippy!). So photography was a natural progression; I started doing as many courses as I could afford during weekends and evenings while still working and I had never enjoyed anything as much! The rest, as they say, is history. By the time I wanted to leave my job I was ready to take the plunge on my own.
What are your favourite subjects or chosen specialty?
I’ve always been a ‘people watcher’, even as a small child I found other peoples' actions and expressions fascinating. I thrive on fly-on-the-wall style photography, capturing fleeting expressions and intimate moments which otherwise go unnoticed and undocumented. I’m really enjoying doing events on board the yachts at the moment, the intimate setting is perfect.
How would you describe your own photographic style?
In terms of final images, I lean towards a ‘hyper real’ vision - I aim for an elegant but accentuated version of the reality. Artistic licence you might call it - my edited images end up bold in colour and/or lines. I want an image to have energy.
Beauty aside, why are some people more photogenic than others?
‘Beauty’ is so subjective and really doesn’t enter into my mind when I’m behind the lens; it’s more ‘interest’ I look for, and it's very personal, but this is where I try to find a truth and an energy to portray. I find raw human emotion very beautiful.
Of course I also have to consider what the client will like or enjoy but I only have my own eye to use and have to trust it!
What or who would you most like to photograph?
It would be a wonderful indulgence to set off travelling with solely photography as the focus. Travel and photography go hand in hand - both force us to look at the world differently. The aim of the game would be to capture non cliché images, it's such a guilty pleasure to seek out and capture unusual scenes and situations with your own eye.
I couldn't choose a particular subject; people, animals and environment are too intrinsically linked. I do have phases though. One week I might be obsessed with reflections and the next I might find water-sport stills far more interesting! It’s location dependant of course, but also my mood.
Which photographers have influenced or inspired you?
I’ve been in awe of Yann Arthus-Bertrand’s aerial images for years, since school. Not only are they stunning visually but also humbling and humanising and have played a part in my own vision of the world. Now that is something to aspire to. If you are not familiar I recommend you Google him immediately!
In my own work I am passionate about faces. In terms of portraiture I am drawn to quite raw, gritty images, thus usually of older characters. (I find little appeal in the airbrushed portrayal of babies and suchlike). I love the strength, honesty and use of black and white in Yousuf Karsh’s historic images for example, but I also follow various modern photographers whose candid shots I admire and can relate to - Andrew Billington is my favourite at the moment, he describes his wedding photography as ‘documentary style’, which is a perfect description.
Is there still a place for old school techniques or has digital taken over in the world of photography?
I think there will always be a place for the old arts, and that they should be treasured. Anything creative from which people can gain pleasure should be nurtured. I remember many hours spent in the darkroom at school, it was fun, and that education is still valuable to me now. In contrast to digital it's more of a science, it takes patience and is higher risk. I’m glad I experienced it firsthand and my understanding of the development process started there.
Commercially, old school techniques are less popular due to time, money and practicality, but in terms of artistic practice there's still a devout following. The wave of vintage/retro ‘cool’ that has come about in this generation also helps, which is great.
How do you keep control over copyright with so much sharing online and on social media?
Controlling movement of an image on the internet is impossible. There are a lot of blurred boundaries regarding rights/copyrights, especially on social media. Social sharing is inevitable and it can also be valuable for marketing, but credit is needed.
There are various decisions to make - should I watermark over the whole image and make it impossible to use, or just the corner where someone dishonest could crop it? What resolution to put out? Shall I just give public shared rights and let it go? I have been lucky so far but there have been stories of photographers' images being spread far and wide with no credit to them and no control over where the images go or what they're used for.
Print publications are different, there is a clearer responsibility and they require higher resolution so they usually need to contact you. It's alo different in every country so photography law is an ever growing profession!
Which is your favourite yacht and why?
In terms of motor yachts I like Phoenix II. Her lines are beautiful, I love the grey hull - it seems less intrusive in the water as it either melds with or reflects the water beautifully in different lights. The night lighting design is also very elegant and her aft really stands out from others along the dock at night. As a friend aptly put it, "She has the best ass!" In terms of sailing yachts, Maltese Falcon every time. I’m mesmerised by the liquidity of her design - she’s a stunner and I’ve followed her for years. I would love to get on board either of these beauties with my camera!
Which is your favourite destination?
I was a terrible yachty and always just wanted to come back to France - I fell in love with the French Riviera from day one! My firsts four seasons I was based in Cannes, then Nice, then Monaco, then Cap d’Ail… I love it here!
What will you be doing in five years?
I hope I will be thriving in my photography business, with a strong reputation and still enjoying it! I also hope to married with a family - the future is exciting.
Which three objects would you take to your desert island?
Camera (of course); a friend (is that allowed?!); a lighter (campfires are essential).
What is your motto?
Take precious time to know and respect yourself, apply to all areas of life and the rest will come. Know when to say sorry, when to forgive and when to say goodbye. Always be kind.
To contact Katie Jane:
UK: +44 78 60 95 58 68
FR: +33 646 230 072
Or send a message via 'Contact Author' below.