Julia Fullerton-Batten is a worldwide acclaimed and exhibited fine-art photographer. Her body of work now encompasses twelve major projects spanning a decade of engagement in the field.
Julia’s use of unusual locations, highly creative settings, street-cast models, accented with cinematic lighting are hallmarks of her very distinctive style of photography. She insinuates visual tensions in her images, and imbues them with a hint of mystery, which combine to tease the viewer to re-examine the picture, each time seeing more content and finding a deeper meaning. These distinctive qualities have established enthusiasts for her work worldwide and at all ends of the cultural spectrum, from casual viewers to connoisseurs of fine-art photography.
Julia now lives in London with her husband and two young boys.
Julia's work pushes the envelope in areas you wouldn't expect. Whether she's documenting the complex relationship between mothers and daughters, or capturing the raw energy of feral children across the globe, the worlds she creates are as immersive and detailed as they are thought-provoking. Each viewing brings new meaning and clarity to solid and purposeful vision, and we can't look away.
This interview has been edited for clarity and content.
Pretty hectic. I’m trying to get my book out. I’ve just had my latest project The Act published. There was a delay in printing it and people are asking, “Where’s the book that I ordered 3 weeks ago?” I’m having to tell them that they’ll get it very soon!”
It’s self-published, so I have to do all of the marketing, sales, etc. I’m sitting here writing addresses and trying to get the orders out now. Thank goodness it’s a limited edition of only 300 books, not 3,000 or 30,000!
It’s incredibly time consuming, amazing how much time it’s taking. I’m also trying to get it into the right competitions and in front of the right fine-art photography loving people. For me, it’s not really about selling it, not about the money, but getting it out there.
No, no. Maybe a third, something like that.
Um, 2 weeks.
To be honest, I’d hoped there’d be more sales and quicker, but it’s fine. To be honest, I would probably hold back 100 anyway so that I have some available for galleries, competitions and that kind of stuff.
But I have seen some press about you and your work in Aesthetica Magazine.
Oh, okay this is not a new thing then, just them kind of…
Right, right. I’ve got to say, I’m a huge fan of your work, I love it.
Oh, that is a long time ago! That was probably my second project ever, so quite a long time ago.
My very first project was Teenage Stories, then came School Play.
School Play is the girls in school uniforms, but Teenage Stories are the giant girls in model villages.
To be honest, I’ve been hoping to get a book published much quicker, but it’s been hard to find a publisher.
After I’d finished the project I was approached by a printing company, I was doing a small brochure type thing to publicize The Act.
It’s on sex-workers in the UK sex industry, I don’t know if you’ve seen it anywhere.
The publishing company approached me and said that their company wanted to showcase art-based books more, and would I be interested in printing a book with them together. We’d jointly find someone to design it, they’d give me a certain amount of copies, and then could use it to get it out to the galleries, and into the art world. So that’s kind of how it happened, and why would I say no. It’s a large-sized, hand-crafted book. I was very lucky.
They basically funded the whole thing, and I thought, “let’s go for it.” We had many meetings, it took a long time, but we’re finally there. I would love to get more books published. It’s really great to see your work in print. ‘The Act ’is a cohesive body of work, and it’s fantastic to see it in a fine-art book form rather than just one image at an exhibition or online.
It’s something that I’ve now become very passionate about.
Very different. The first book, Teenage Stories, was part of the HSBC Awards, as part of a big award that I won. I wasn’t even really an art photographer yet, and the book effectively launched my career as an art photographer. Another part of the award as well getting the book published by Actes Sud was exhibiting my work in 5 different galleries around the world, and organized book signings, so they very much promoted the book. It was all very new to me, I was very inexperienced, and they held my hand through the entire marketing process. When you self-publish you must do a lot of all that work and self-promotion yourself, and hope that your galleries help you to do it as well. So, yeah, it’s been very, very different.
I’ve also had much more control with The Act as I could decide on the choice of designer, what materials I wanted, the size of it, and how I wanted it to look and feel. For my first it was very much, “okay this is what we’re going to do, as this is how our books look.” Back then it was all part of an award, so they had a specific look and size, and the design was quite minimalistic.
Yeah, yeah. And if you’re “self-publishing”, even if there is a publisher involved, but not yet really a publishing company, as in this case, you have a lot more say, and it’s much more your own baby. It’s also more time consuming, because there are innumerable meetings with many more back-and-forth discussions. We were continuously making lots of changes. We had already chosen the cover material, but I kept protesting that it didn’t feel quite right. In the end, I chose a slightly tactile material with a kind of bare skin feel. I felt it suited the subject matter much better. So, there was a lot of difference in the experiences.
Oh, thank you. Again, there is a story about this choice. Because of the subject matter, I was continuously looking at the material for the exterior finish. For quite some time, I looked at G-strings, or a G-string with a small imitation pearl attached to it. I also thought about covering it in fishnet tights, but then you’d have to rip it open to get into the book. Then I felt that if I pushed it too far, it would become a bit kitschy, but this project isn’t about being kitschy. It’s more a very serious, thoughtful subject matter, but with a bit of playfulness. There’s a fine line with the subject matter and I finally felt that a single piece of very delicate black lace wrapped around the book would signify the subject matter, and was enough to finish it off. There was a great deal of consideration went into making that particular decision. It’s been very favorably commented on.
You try all these different options and end up going with something actually very minimalistic, but effective. Which often I think works the best. It depends on each situation.
Absolutely! Thank you. It’s a huge challenge because first you have an idea, work on it, then execute it. I didn’t actually think I had produced all that much. But when I look at my work as a whole during the years, I think oh, I actually have produced quite a lot.
Now, it takes me a year to produce a project, which, if you think about it, is quite a long time. In between, I’m doing other work, and I get commissions, so I get a little bit side-tracked, and have to keep returning to the project when there’s a quiet moment. Sometimes, I’m busier than other times and the delays are longer. With my first projects, it was all about my life and my experiences as a teenager, then there was Mothers and Daughters, which was about the relationship that I had and my sisters had with my mother, or my mother had with her mother. A lot of that was about soul searching, I guess. I was in therapy at the time and it was a help to me to focus on my life and my past. Very therapeutic.
I finally finished with those inward-looking projects, and it was really refreshing from then on to stop doing that and focus on other people’s lives. I now find that much more interesting. I’ve now photographed blind people and recreated the stories of feral children. There are a quite a number of different and interesting subject matters that I’ve shot since then. But, for me, they have to be meaningful, ones in which I’m really interested. There’s no real point for me to research and photograph a project if I’m not passionately interested in it. For example, ‘Feral Children’ was one such theme that I found really disturbing but very interesting. That these children exist in the world, that they become so feral they’re nearly animal-like, many of them have no human connection whatsoever, and I thought, “oh my god, I’ve got to shoot this.” Once you get this idea in your head… you can’t stop. I don’t think I realized at the time what I was getting myself into.
“How am I going to do this?” I start thinking of ideas, then kind of go full steam ahead and start mapping it all out in my head. But somehow, I don’t think, “how am I actually going to shoot this?” It’s only a bit later that hits me, I’ve gone so far down the line, that I’ve put so much energy and effort and passion into it. Then I feel, “well, I’ve got to create this now because I feel so passionate about it, I’ve just got to do it.”
I’m in this situation right now where I found a very difficult subject matter again, not difficult in the stories, but more the logistics of shooting, it’s the River Thames in London, I’m recreating historical stories of the river.
Yeah, yeah. But I didn’t realize when I set out to research this project how hard it is to shoot on the River Thames, as more often than not you need permission and licenses. It’s a tidal river, so they’re very strict about health and safety. Often they say no to my ideas and turn me away. Yeah. It’s a very difficult project.
Yeah, I do, but I sometimes get frustrated and envy people who create their images in a studio and they’re beautiful, like those in The Act. I do miss that comfort of just being in a studio, no permission problems or concerns about the weather, just having a blank canvas and to be able to concentrate on a scene.” The sets I used in The Act were all built to my design. They were not particularly complicated to make and set up, but they were very effective for the scenes.
Each set related to that particular girl’s profession or something about her life, so I had met the girls again to discuss with them what I was really trying to say in their images. I really love storytelling in my projects, as you do. I see that you, too, love creating stories.
Korea was somewhat different, but still very difficult. Different but difficult, yes. I was invited to go and visit an exhibition of mine at the Gong Dang Photo Festival. I soon thought, “well, if I’m traveling all the way to Korea, I’m not just going to go there for a day and then just fly back, I’ll make a project out of it.” I started researching the history, customs and pastimes of Korea. In doing so I came across the beautiful Hanbok dresses, and started creating stories in my head. But that was caused by me going there, rather than, “oh, I must shoot something about Korea now.” In that way is was quite different. We formed a team of people with which I could work. I’m very much a control freak, and I prefer to visit locations myself. I do a lot of the production myself. But I didn’t have the same control overseas, being in an office in London and talking to Korean location scouts and producers. They struggled a little bit with some of my ideas, because what I found out later, and I should have known better, is that the Koreans are very sensitive about the history, and also what is still going on even today between North and South Korea.
For example, when I showed two groups of women having a tug of war and the one group is more beautifully dressed than the other, or richer-looking, to symbolise the North versus South Korea struggles, they got quite sensitive about it.
When I started explaining my idea to the Korean producer, who was open-minded, she just said, “I want you to approach each girl individually and tell her your idea, and make sure she is happy which the context you’re putting them in.”
I contacted each girl as suggested. They, too, were very open-minded. Not one of them said, that they had a problem with the idea and wouldn’t do it.
Yeah, so the more colorful, richer, silkier dresses represent South Korea, and the women wearing Hanbok in grey tones are North Korean.
Yeah yeah, absolutely, yeah.
No, they didn’t have a problem with it.
Yeah. In another scene, a group of women are pulling a rickshaw to show the invasion by the Japanese. Again, they didn’t have a problem with it. They knew exactly what my story was about. They just loved my work and the idea of modelling. They knew fully what they were trying to represent, what I was trying to represent, and none of them had a problem with it.
All my projects are self-funded.
I’ve entered a couple of things where the award is a sizable chunk of money. Entering for it you have describe your idea of what you’d like to shoot and submit examples of your work relevant to the competition. If the judges like your idea and the work, they’ll fund you to do that project. I entered a couple of those, but I didn’t win, but I know photographers who do get funding this way, also others who get funding from galleries. A gallery will approach the artist and say, “I’d love for you to do a project on this, go do it, here’s a chunk of money.” But I, unfortunately, have not been approached yet. It would certainly make life much easier.
The other thing I never do, I think it would terrify me, is to sit down with my calculator as I’m entering these ideas in my head, and think okay, how much is this actually going to cost me. If I did, I’d probably end up not doing anything.
I’m very lucky because I have a group of people around me who want to work with me for the experience or the referral for other jobs. Consequently, I don’t always have to pay everybody in my team. I’ll give them a call. I’ll brief them on the idea, we’ll have meetings, and I’ll ask, “are you in on this project, do you want to do it to create some beautiful images?”. So, a prop stylist, stylist, hair and makeup team will sometimes work for nothing.
They may say yes, but obviously if they get offered paid work for the day of my shoot, they prefer to do that, which creates a problem. I could put a shoot on hold to accommodate them, but even if I had that particular team, I’d still have to pay for rented lighting equipment, my assistants, the sets or the locations, and my models, for the day I’d postponed.
A shoot does get very expensive, but hopefully the print from that shoot will be bought by a collector. I’ve also got this thing in my head that I’m in fact building a pension, or some sort of future for my children, by having images that will become collectors items sometime in the future.
Prints of my images are limited edition. Maybe one day when I’m not around anymore, and my reputation increases, my children will benefit from the income from the sales of my images.
Yeah! I don’t really see myself as a commercial photographer anymore, even though I shoot commercial work. I’m not a photographer who shoots commercially all the time, as even my commercial work is very specific. It could be weeks or sometimes months until I’m approached to do a commercial shoot. And if I’m competing against other photographers, I might be the creative’s first choice but not necessarily the client’s. I’m now concerned that they are scared off by the nudes of large people in my portfolio, my Unadorned series, and they don’t quite get the idea behind it.
Yeah, they’re very much like, “okay, well, this is a bit out there, so let’s just go with the safer photographer.” I’m definitely not always the safest photographer for their choice.
But now and then, I am. I shot the 2015 Campari Calendar with Eva Green as the diva, you know the James Bond actress? I was the first woman photographer in 16 years to shoot a Campari Calendar.
Now and then I get a lovely interesting shoot where it fits my style a bit better, and then I love doing it. I enjoy spending someone else’s money, hahaha! When you’re so used to spending your own money, and worrying about it, and you keep on saying to the staff at the equipment rental place, “it’s a personal art project can you give me 50% off?” It’s hard work, you know, having to do that all the time.
I agree. I really love the buzz of getting a commission and working with a big team of people, but I love shooting my own work even more. The feeling comes from really deep down within me – it’s my idea, my creativity. If I were rich and had the choice between the two, it would concentrate on my personal work.
I would love to be in the position where if I were to get commissioned work, I would be allowed to look at the layout and say, “no, sorry, that’s not for me, try somebody else.”
But with the high cost of living in London, having a family, my husband’s a commercial photographer confronted with the same difficulties of getting irregular assignments, you don’t know how next year will be or the year after or for the next 10 years – you’ve just got to take what comes.
I approach my fine-art projects in much the same way as a commercial shoot, everything is thought out, planned and scheduled beforehand.
I scout locations two or three times and determine the best angles to shoot. I’ll know beforehand which story I’m putting in that specific location, what I want to say with that image, which models, the scenario, the props, precise details so when I actually come to the day of the shoot I am fully prepared. I’ll turn up with my crew of assistants, models, etc. having already briefed them on how I want to light it, where I want the props to be, etc. As an example, for one of the images in In Between, the location already had a really beautiful bookcase filled with books. I said, “I want all the books out, and we’re just going to hire loads of ferns.” I don’t know why, I just liked the idea of the inside-out world, and felt that it was going to be more aesthetically beautiful than just rows of books on the bookshelf. So, I’ll do things like that – for Unadorned, I let fruit rot in my garage as props for the nudes that I was shooting, having been influenced by the Old Masters’ artists, so everything is very thought through.
But sometimes, if something doesn’t work, I can be very flexible. I remember when shooting Mothers and Daughters, going into the house and finding the really lovely dining room I’d seen when I’d viewed the location, I’ve still got many images of it. I put my camera on it and started lighting it. I don’t know why, but I suddenly felt that it wouldn’t work how I’d planned it. In the back of my mind were the thoughts of negative things that had happened in my life. My parents getting divorced, my father got custody of us children, we moved from Germany to England, and my mother staying in Germany. I went back a month later to visit my mom in our old home to find her packing up the whole house. My father had left her everything. He’d decided to start a new life as she’d met somebody else. He filed for custody, got it and took us children and four suitcases to the UK where we were to live for the first time in our lives.
I decided that I wanted to recreate this scene of my mother in our old home, everything packed up, the house totally empty, except for all the boxes strewn everywhere. I suddenly had the look and the feel for this scene in my head, all those boxes and I was in that house in Germany again. The scene I had envisioned wasn’t going to work for me. I walked outside to get some fresh air, and was getting frustrated and worried about time. It was then that I decided, turned around and said, “I’ll just put a mattress on the floor, the mother will lie on it as if she’s exhausted, we’ll put boxes around her. She’s outside waiting for a removal lorry to pick up all the stuff.”
The shot looks so much better for the changes I made. I feel that it’s important for me to be open-minded and flexible in my approach to a setting, even one that I have planned so meticulously. It was the same with ‘The Act’ project, where we had an enormous studio, in which we made it possible to construct two sets, and when they were ready, I’d shoot the first setting, once that was finished we could take elements from that to create a third set. It was like assembling a jigsaw puzzle.
It was really cleverly thought out. I was quite proud of the idea, but sometimes it didn’t work out as intended and we’d run out of time, or were missing a wall. I just had to be open-minded and flexible in how we overcame such problems.
For example, I arranged that we had a large curtain on hand, so that if anything of this kind happened, we could improvise and use it to complete a set.
There were fifteen main shots plus fifteen portrait shots, which incidentally aren’t on my website but are in the book. I also had Question & Answer sessions with the models, which we videoed. We photographed and videoed three ‘models’, sometimes paired, a day.
So over five days.
I think I totally underestimated the time it took to shoot these, and I think so did the set builders to build the sets as well. We were in the studio at 8 in the morning and often didn’t leave until 4 in the morning. We worked almost through the night.
I had a big team of eight assistants.
In addition, I had two stylists, a hair person, and separate makeup person. But we were constantly running out of time, probably because I added these extra portrait shots, with the thought of perhaps producing a book, recognizing that fifteen images would not be enough for a book.
And then in between all of this, I would rush in and do the video interviews of the girls, on the same days as their shoot.
I would brief my assistant, I want that light there, light that, hang an Octo there with a grid. I was running back and forth, overseeing what the models were wearing and their makeup. It was crazy busy. I don’t think I’ve ever worked so hard in my entire life.
Oh my god, was I exhausted! Yeah. And I know, “I do this with every project!” I just shoot it. Then editing takes forever because I can’t ever decide which is the best image. After that I brief my retoucher and think I’m going to have some time off, but get a new idea in my head and start working on a new project right away. It drives my husband mad; like, “Look you just finished a project why are you rushing into another one?”
I just love taking pictures! And as you probably know, yourself. Imagine, you have spent nearly a whole year producing something, and cram it into five days of super-activity. It’s no wonder that in the ‘behind the scenes’ shots I’m constantly frowning and looking very glum, hahaha, I’m never smiling! I’ve got a friend who’s a fashion photographer, she just looks so happy in all the images, like she’s having such a great time in all her shoots.
Exactly, totally right, her environment is completely without stress. She might have spent a day producing it, but I’ve been working on this for a whole year, and it’s all mayhem for five days. My faithful team of assistants know what I’m like now because “God, it’s another Julia shoot, what are we getting ourselves into.” So, I always say to them with a great big smile, “you’ve got to bear with me guys.”
But yeah, it’s intense, super intense. At the same time, I don’t have sleepless nights, I don’t worry. I don’t know why, but it helps my sanity. I’m just overly organized and overly collected, confident that I can handle everything in case anything goes wrong.
My call sheets are endless with where the nearest equipment hire place is in case we need it, and what time they close. Oh my god, we’ve got to feed and water all these people! Everything has to be very very organized, and I can manage that pretty well and cope with any emergencies that may arise. It all probably comes from my five years of assisting advertising photographers, way back in the past.
Then I had to produce shoots for other photographers, and you just get into that headspace of doing it for yourself. It just needs a lot of preparation. After a while it all just comes naturally.
Sometimes I actually think, when I see someone with merely one camera, maybe a few lens you know, reportage photographers, I ask myself, “why have I created this world where I actually need whole huge vans full of lighting equipment, props and so on, and must rely on all so many people to support me?” Do you feel like that ever? I just want to take photographs; and I do, I go and photograph my children. Sorry I’m raving, carry on! Hahaha!
Yeah, yeah. With your work, you’re probably closing streets down, right? You’re having to make sure your work plan is super-organized when you must close things down.
Yeah. I don’t know either, hahaha!
Well, I’ve always worked from home and always wanted to, because I’ve got two young boys, 8 and 10. I just didn’t ever want to be one these working mothers who never saw her kids. It keeps the overheads down too.
I pick them up nearly every day from school, and can spend time with them in the afternoons. The downside is that I have to go back to work in the evenings. It’s intense combining motherhood with a profession.
Last week we went skiing. As you probably know, skiing isn’t the most relaxing thing either. I’m not a natural skier and am a bit afraid of heights. Going off skiing with two young boys who have only skied once before, it’s getting them ready in the morning, getting used to walking in their boots and carrying their skis on their shoulders. I just went, “oh, I don’t think we chose the most relaxing holiday.”
But at the same time, the holiday was just so beautiful and incredible to be able to switch your mind off and concentrate on only one specific thing. I had private lessons every day and was able to focus on technique, balance, looking at the view, and leave London life behind me for a few days. I took books with me about the River Thames; I didn’t touch them once. It was comfortable to ignore that commitment for a while …to me that was the way to switch off. In fact, I prefer that rather than lie on a beach in the hot sun. I get really bored sunbathing. I’d much rather be trekking somewhere in New Zealand or just being very active. For me, there are other ways of relaxing by doing something like that rather than just lying there and doing nothing.
Yeah, I go to cinema. I watch films to get inspiration. Sadly, I probably don’t go to the theater often enough even though we live in London. I often visit art galleries and museums, again for inspiration. I go to a gym three times a week, and treat myself to acupuncture, which is kind of not treating yourself because of the needles, hahaha!
I live in a green, slightly rural part of London to the west of the city, called Chiswick. Many visitors her don’t think it’s even part of London, but it is. There’s a tube station near us, but it’s a very quiet area. We have a big garden by London standards, it’s very green and I love spending time there in the summer I’ll just relax in the garden and really enjoy that. I cycle a lot around this part of London but wouldn’t cycle into central London because I think it’s too dangerous for cyclists as we don’t have great cycle paths.
I’ve recently ‘discovered’ the River Thames even though it’s always been there and is very close to our home. But since I’ve started my latest project on the Thames I have come to appreciate it more and more. I love the open space looking across the Thames. When we had some very foggy mornings a month ago, I went there to relax by walking or cycle along the river bank, of course taking a camera with me. It’s very therapeutic.
We have some beautiful parks close to us. One is the Kew Gardens, the world famous botanic gardens. It’s beautiful there with several massive greenhouses. One of which is the absolutely stunning Palm House with many kinds of bamboo plants in a tropical environment. There are great restaurants there, and we often spend family days there. Another family favorite for a visit is Hyde Park, which is closer to the center of London. I’m a watcher of people, again finding inspiration for future projects.
It’s outdoorsy stuff more than anything else.
Thank you, really nice talking to you!