Seizing opportunities: a few minutes with Tony Stewart

Paul Gummer talks to Christchurch photographer Tony Stewart about opportunities, confidence, and success

Having confidence in what you do has the ability to open doors. It is so easy to play it safe, and avoid trying something new to save the perceived embarrassment of making mistakes. If I had one piece of advice for new parents it would be to get their kids to try a wide range of activities. Taking opportunities as they present themselves builds confidence, and I admire people who are gutsy enough to throw caution to the wind and jump in with both feet.
Photography seems to be a profession that attracts this type of person. It’s rarely nine-to-five, and more precisely, it’s a way of life. It is a passion rather than a job — it has its ups and downs, but we all love it. Why?

For many it’s a creative outlet, while for others it’s an opportunity to travel. Some people delight in making someone else’s day with a portrait, or maybe illustrating a social issue. For Christchurch photographer Tony Stewart, meeting different people and recording what they do in their lives is a driving force. Tony has photographed all sorts of people from the Prime Minister to kids in a kindergarten, and he says the best jobs are not always shooting those in the public eye.

Tony Stewart

Tony’s working life kicked off by teaching primary and secondary school students. He lived in France, Scotland, and Israel before spending a year in London teaching. When the time came to return to New Zealand, he questioned whether this was the best option. Years before, he had been given a camera, and when overseas — and with the desire to record his experiences — a fascination for photography emerged. Landing back in Christchurch, he decided to enrol in a course at Christchurch Polytechnic Institute of Technology (CPIT).     

Taking a course works for many people, especially those wanting a structured learning environment. But having said that, I know some great photographers who are self taught, and others who began as assistants. Whichever way suits you, the key is that learning builds competence, competence builds confidence, and most importantly, confidence builds success, because it unleashes potential. This is an upward spiral, and if you seize the opportunities along the way, success breeds more success. 

At the end of the first year of study, Tony’s dilemma was whether to spend his savings on a second year, or buy a camera and some lights. He took the plunge, went into business, and never looked back.

Tony has found that having set out to shoot weddings, these occasions still form an integral part of his seasonal work, as they have done for more than 15 years. With weddings booked for the warmer months, he shoots team photos and ball images during the rest of the year, along with numerous commercial assignments.

Tony Stewart

In the first few years of self-employment he had a good business opportunity, photographing Japanese weddings in New Zealand. Working with an interpreter, Tony shot plenty of these weddings, and although the demand was for a formulaic style, the clients were always happy. 
“The best job I ever had was shooting a wedding in France,” Tony told me. Some friends he had met during his travels said that they would ask him to photograph their wedding if they ever decided to get married. They flew him to Limoges, near the Dordogne, for an amazing experience.

In contrast, the most difficult job to deal with was experienced by one of Tony’s colleagues, who was photographing a wedding, when the bride’s grandmother died during the service. Surprisingly, the only two people who seemed unflustered were the bride and her mother — they were both nurses. 

One of the advantages of working for a regular client is there is a mutual understanding that leads to the confidence that you can deliver. Tony prefers this way of working, as there is a sense of collegiality, and having sole charge in a job probably leads to better images. 
He is also drawn to assignments that combine both people and outdoor locations, so he sees himself primarily as a people photographer, but within a commercial context. Working with so many interesting people is an education in itself, he says. Subjects have included the Crusaders and the All Blacks, and architect and television personality Kevin McCloud. He says that away from the camera, these people are all very much down to earth. 

Many jobs involve waiting around for hours at events, such as conferences, but “listening to the various speakers and respective issues can be fascinating,” he said. A commission to photograph Sir Richard Hadlee meant being at the location for four hours, but the actual window to shoot in was a mere 30 seconds of exclusive time as key shooter. Tony says that complete confidence in your gear, and the ability to spontaneously adapt are essential, as well as the indispensable element of having a sound knowledge of on-camera flash.

Away from commercial work, Tony is a member of the NZIPP Honours Council, and maintains a number of personal projects frequently shot for the Iris Awards. In the end, it comes down to making the most of opportunities.