Rosie Matheson on how being selected for Portrait of Britain 2016 has helped shape her career

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London-based photographer Rosie Matheson has worked on a number of editorial projects for clients such as Nike, Adidas and The Financial Times, whilst evolving her own self-initiated projects. Her most recognisable series, Boys, celebrates the diverse and vulnerable beauty of young men. In 2016, she entered one of the photographs from the series, Elliot, into Portrait of Britain, and the image instantly became an iconic marker of British inner-city youth.

Since her great achievement for Portrait of Britain 2016, her work has gone from strength to strength. She has begun a new project in LA, whilst also working towards releasing Boys as a book. Rosie has been featured in several publications, including Dazed, i-D and The Culture Trip, garnering national attention with her intimate, documentary-style portraits of young men and women across the world.

Dennis photographed in London © Rosie Matheson

Can you tell me about the photograph you entered into Portrait of Britain in 2016?

I was first made aware of the subject of the photograph, Elliott, through a mutual friend. At this time, around December 2015, Elliott was spending most of his days skateboarding, so it made sense to photograph him at his favourite skatepark. When I arrived, I watched him skate around the bowl a little before we took some photos. I shot two rolls of film with him, in quite a short but meaningful time frame. In the final three frames, I just felt it was right for him to close his eyes. The second to last photo I took was the one I chose to enter into Portrait of Britain.

The portrait was part of your ongoing series, Boys. How has the project developed since your photograph was selected for Portrait of Britain?

The same day I photographed Elliott, I also took photos with a young man named Phoenix. At that point, both of these shoots were my favourites. I also noticed that they were receiving the most engagement from other people. Even though I had already shot a lot of young men, this is where Boys really began for me.

My confidence in my personal work has really improved since being selected for Portrait of Britain, and I have been spurred on to really believe in and get into this project. When the images of Elliott circulated the internet and gained some recognition, it made it easier for me to cast and shoot other young males. People really trusted my skills and work.

Seb photographed in Brighton © Rosie Matheson

How do you think you have benefited from being selected for Portrait of Britain?

The exposure of Portrait of Britain is priceless. My picture has become widely known, which has opened up a lot of doors. Not only have I benefited from the close industry following of the British Journal of Photography, but also through random people who have come across the image while waiting at a bus stop and have decided to share it online. This has resulted in the wide growth of my audience, and a huge range of new work opportunities.

Can you tell us about the new project you’ve been working on in LA ?

I recently went to Los Angeles to shoot a series of portraits and a reel of Super 8 for London-based magazine, Kiosk. The shoot was commissioned about a week before I left, and I spent several days using Instagram to cast 10-12 subjects. While I was out there I also shot a few new faces for my Boys series. The light in Los Angeles is my favourite out of anywhere I’ve been. The sunshine has a rich, golden tone, which casts a beautiful glow over anything you are photographing. This is particularly important to me as I shoot all of my work on Kodak Portra film.

Sofiane photographed in Paris © Rosie Matheson

How do you choose and work with subjects to achieve the final image?

My casting process is hard to define, but I know if I want to shoot someone instantly. I’m drawn to people who strongly show what they’re interested in – I like it when people have a hobby they love to indulge in. I also like to shoot people in their natural environment, as it makes them feel comfortable and they really own the space.

During shoots, I just chat to my subjects about their week, their hobby, what they had for lunch. I like to engage with people and find out about them. If they move about in a way that shows something special or captures my attention, I’ll make them freeze in that position and take some photographs. I like to either shoot relatively quickly in the first moments of our meeting, or spend a whole day with them.

Do you have any advice for future entrants about selecting a portrait to submit and, more generally, about getting into portrait photography to begin with?

Entering Portrait of Britain is a must for me. Nothing beats seeing your images around the UK in public places, alongside a variety of inspiring photographers – there’s nothing to lose and the rewards are career changing. Pick an image you love, which is representative of our times and makes you feel something.

The best advice I can give is to take pictures as often as you can. Learn from your photos and try to improve on every shoot. I started in portraiture by photographing family and friends, before turning to a wider variety of subjects like models and musicians. Try to photograph as many people as possible – you’ll learn how to interact with strangers and improve your photography skills by approaching them and taking photos. It can seem daunting and scary at first, but you’ll be surprised by how willing and intrigued people are to have their picture taken.


Tyron photographed in London © Rosie Matheson
Dan photographed in Manchester © Rosie Matheson

Future generations will look to Portrait of Britain 2019 to see the face of the nation in a historic moment. What will it look like? Enter your work today!