Photographer Suzannah Gabriel on how postgrad study helps you grow professionally
Most people think of university as a one-and-done route into your chosen career. So once you've landed your first job, there's no point in going back into education, right? Well, not necessarily. For published photographer, retoucher and visual artist Suzannah Gabriel, it made perfect sense.
Having previously studied BA (Hons) Media and Communication at De Montfort University, Leicester, Suzannah landed a job in marketing and gave no thought to doing a postgraduate course. However, after five months of full-time work, she realised she needed a change.
As a result, she's currently taking an MA in Fashion Photography at London College of Fashion, University of the Arts London (UAL). And it's turned out to be one of the best decisions she's ever made. In this interview, Suzannah explains why and offers tips to anyone wishing to follow in her footsteps.
Why did you choose to study at UAL?
I initially had no intention of doing a postgraduate course. After a year passed, though, I realised I did not enjoy working full-time and missed being creative whilst learning simultaneously.
The desire to continuously grow, both personally and professionally, drove me to apply for a postgraduate course. Studying MA Fashion Photography feels like a full-circle moment. My sixth form was a partner with the London College of Fashion, so I had the opportunity to go to their Lime Grove and John Prince's Street campuses as part of the Insights programme and speak with the students there.
At that time, I decided not to pursue a fashion course for my undergraduate study. Looking back, I'm happy I didn't because it allowed me to really understand what I wanted to do. And so, I ended up coming back to London College of Fashion with a clear, concrete idea of my ambitions.
Could you tell us a bit about one of your postgrad projects?
To date, one of my favourite projects is titled '1 of 1'. The project investigates the interplay between self-esteem and Instagram amongst creative women of all races, ethnicities, classes, and creative disciplines.
It investigates not only body image but also the skillset within an industry that is still male-dominated. It features eight women ranging from makeup artists, models, stylists, and photographers. It was lovely to hear their own anecdotes and accounts regarding body issues and self-esteem.
I found most of the women on The Dots. I conducted questionnaires, interviews and then did the photoshoot. The beautiful thing was that I didn't arrange a stylist or makeup artist for them, and I simply said: "Come as you are". I then took quotes from the interviews and hand-embroidered them directly onto A4 prints.
This experience taught me much about empathy, trust, rapport-building and confidence. I had to showcase all those qualities for the subjects to share their intimate stories and feel relaxed in front of the lens. The biggest compliment was: 'You made me feel so comfortable in front of the camera. I loved the images you took of me.' Hearing that meant a lot.
What are the highlights of being a student at UAL?
UAL as an institution holds a lot of weight. UAL is ranked second in the world for art and design, so I've had a lot of opportunities simply by being a student here. It is almost like people are in awe. It's kind of insane...in a good way.
The facilities are good, the support from lecturers is great, and there is a wide community of creatives spanning everything you can imagine: designers, photographers, creative directors, stylists...the list is endless.
How has being a student in London influenced your study and life experience?
Studying in London has opened so many doors. When I was doing my BA in Leicester, there was nowhere near as many opportunities. Studying in London means I've collaborated with many people, attended events and networked, and rapidly built on my photography portfolio.
What's a typical day for you as a UAL student?
I'm currently working on my final major Master's project, so a lot of my days are filled with photoshoots, interviews, location scouting, managing a team of makeup artists and stylists, in conjunction with managing models too. Other days are filled with researching and reading books. The course is quite intense, so it requires a lot of energy, enthusiasm and attention. Long days indeed!
Be proactive, ask questions, and, most importantly, enjoy the journey. Postgraduate study will give you time to reflect, gaining an understanding of your true passions.
How has your course prepared you for your future career?
It's allowed me to intellectually engage with photography and art as mediums. My work typically falls into the artistic field, as I continue to work with embroidery and collages, as opposed to just a final photograph. The course has allowed some flexibility in my ideas and has really helped with honing in my skills and interests. UAL's facilities have allowed me to experiment with lenses I typically wouldn't use, as well as mediums such as large format film and 35mm film.
What are your tips for somebody thinking about postgraduate study at UAL?
My top tips would be, firstly: to be proactive! To get the most out of postgraduate study, you have to independently source information and opportunities for yourself. Secondly: ask questions. You are here to learn, and the saying 'no question is stupid' applies to postgraduate study. Pretending to know it all does more harm than good.
Thirdly: enjoy it! Too often, we can fall into the pit of studying just for the grade; I was this person during my BA. But instead, you should really take time to reflect and enjoy the journey. Finally, explore new things. UAL has so much to offer in terms of facilities, and you have access to it all. Try out new things, even if it is just a passion or side project.
What advice would you give to new students coming to UAL from outside London?
Explore. London has so much to offer in terms of activities, but also people. If meeting new people is your thing, then certainly do not shy away from this. London is one of those places where you can freely express yourself, and nobody will look at you in a funny way. Be free, be sensible and enjoy! For those who do not speak English as their first language, UAL has lessons and classes available, so do check that out.
Personally, my favourite thing to do is visit art galleries. I've been a regular at Tate Modern and Tate Britain, alongside the V&A, where I once saw the Mayor of London walk by as I took a photograph of a sculpture. There are also so many places to eat, with a range of different cuisines. Vapiano's is one of my favourites: their pasta and pizzas are great! Hakkasan is another cool place to try. But my favourite thing to do in London is taking bus trips and going for spontaneous walks.
And finally, any tips on balancing postgraduate study with work or other commitments?
I worked a zero-hour role as a UAL Post-Grad Community Ambassador and other casual/contract jobs to earn some money. It really depends on how you allocate your time. I worked throughout my undergraduate study and still did well. Postgraduate study is extremely busy and demanding, so I wouldn't have wanted a permanent part-time role, where certain days are set. Working a zero-hour role meant I could earn money, study, and also do extra-curricular photography gigs outside of that.
Boost your personal and professional growth at UAL!
Want to change your life by pursuing your passion and finding a job you truly love? University of the Arts London (UAL) is a great place to start.
UAL offers a wide range of postgraduate courses, covering areas including 3D and product design; animation, film and sound; architecture, spatial and interior design; communication and graphic design; fine art and illustration; design for theatre and screen; fashion design, textiles and materials; photography, and more. Check out the complete list of postgraduate courses here.
Taking place from 24 to 28 January, UAL's PostGrad Discovery week is an opportunity to explore your options for postgraduate study. Each day focuses on different subject areas taught across UAL, with presentations, panel discussions and Q&As. Choose an event and book your place.