Shooting Stars

Steffan Hill has spent the early part of his career photographing stars in top London locations. Why in the name of Jebus is he back in Belfast?

Steffan Hill has spent the early part of his career photographing stars like Jake Gyllenhaal, Juliette Lewis and William H Macy in top London locations.

Working for publications like the Independent, Classic FM magazine and the Telegraph, he often had only 15 minutes to capture images that would adorn the front covers of the next day's papers.

That's the who, what and where of the thing, leaving only the why. Why would he trade the excitement of London life for wind-blown Belfast?

'I'm so happy not to live there any more,' says Hill. 'The quality of life here in Belfast is so much nicer than London. It's mystifying, how I put up with London for so long.'

Hill has snapped Bob Hoskins and Boris Becker, David Byrne and Davina McCall. Some shoots have been more pleasurable than others, with some subjects hard to handle and other egos more difficult to work with.

Steffan HillA bugbear of Hill's is the paparazzi, the morally bankrupt underbelly of the photography world that suggests long-lensed opportunistic shutterbugs lurking in bushes, cashing in on cheap celebrity snaps that are devoid of merit.

What's the difference between those guys and 'celebrity photographers'?

'Apart from them being scumbags, you mean?

'In the last ten or 15 years the whole celebrity culture has been driven by magazines such as Heat,' says Hill. 'These magazines don't commission photographs, but buy them.

'I came up against problems myself because you tend to get pigeonholed. Photographers become portrayed as either glamour photographers or paparazzi.

'I've had that problem my whole life. When you tell people you're a photographer they ask if you photograph girls with their tops off.

'Anybody I've photographed has always been in a one-to-one situation. They've agreed to be photographed. I'd never ever hound anybody on a street corner. Everybody's entitled to a private life.'

As a 14-year-old, Hill left Belfast for Manchester. Despite his father Chris being a well-known photographer, it wasn't until leaving NI that Steffan first put his hands on a camera.

'I was born with photography around, but my Dad never once pushed me. It wasn't [in booming paternal tones] "you will be a photographer." After I moved to England I picked up a camera belonging to my sister.

'That was in the days of film, and I rang up my Dad and asked, 'how do you use this?'.'

His father sent a batch of film over, sparking the passion that has led Hill back to Belfast in the present day. He took it up photography quickly, snapping pictures and sending the film over to Belfast where his father would develop the images.

This correspondence moved quickly from developing images to his father sending contact sheets and prints. Before long the young Hill knew that photography would become his way of life.

'In those early days I'd photograph anything,' he says. 'To learn about light, shape, contrast, colour, composition. Like tree bark. Anything that had shape or form, I'd photograph. Horrible to look at these days, but that's the learning process.'

After the initial interest was sparked in Manchester, Hill studied in Wales for two years. After this the attraction of London was unavoidable.

'London is a magnet,' says Hill. 'It's where the magazines are based and it's where the most photographers are.'

Davina McCall, caught with her pants down by Steffan HillDespite the centrality and simple fact that the majority of work for photographers and so-called creatives is generated in south-east England, Hill sees the value in developing skills in the regions, in locations away from the capital city.

'It's a tough old game,' he says of the competitive life. 'I certainly wouldn't say it's a doddle. I feel lucky and privileged to have gotten as far as I did. It's not for the faint-hearted.'

Aged 14, Hill says that he had a sense of Belfast, but encountered odd presumptions from people who imagined the city of the time to be all roadblocks and pipe bombs.

'I'm the first one to admit that I led a very sheltered life,' he says with an uncertain sigh that suggests an ambiguity about the place.

'Coming from south Belfast, going to Inst, I maybe wasn't exposed to the Troubles as some people.

'As I argued over and over again to people in England, though, the Troubles weren’t what Northern Ireland was all about. It was confined to certain areas and the majority of people just got on with their daily lives, and enjoyed life. Everyone was convinced that I rode around in an armoured car.'

Returning to Belfast allows Hill to diversify as a professional, working to the highest level in a city re-born. His website shows a fine selection of portraits, along with landscape and reportage. Northern Ireland allows Hill to shoot, amongst other things, the horizons he knew as a child.

'My career isn't as a celebrity photographer,' he reiterates. 'My career is as a photographer and for a while I've specialised in celebrity portraits.

'I took a year out and went to Australia with a medium-format camera. No mean feat when you're backpacking, along with four lenses, a light meter and film along with your five pairs of underpants.

'Landscape is something I've begun to do more and more of, and is very much a love of mine. After dealing for so many years with personalities and egos it's nice to go out and photograph beautiful landscapes. Although with the weather in Northern Ireland that throws up its own challenges.

'When it does work, you get such dramatic skies and dramatic light. I'm glad to say I've secured a commission with the Northern Irish Tourist Board, on one of their major campaigns. We've shot two of five images already and now that the weather's getting better we hope to complete the next three.' 

Kiran Acharya