Portrait of Britain: Diversifying the Traditional Group Portrait

Frederic Aranda is a photographer specializing in group portraiture. His work has twice been selected for Portrait of Britain, with both his winning images standing out for their dramatic feel and quirky composure. Aranda works against the grain. His images shirk traditionally hierarchical, staid forms of group portraiture, and aim for naturalism and diversity.

Aranda was born in Switzerland but moved to the UK twenty years ago, initially to study Japanese at Oxford. A completely self-taught photographer, Aranda has since worked for a number of high-profile publications, including Vanity Fair and Vogue. He has also been shortlisted by The Times as Young Photographer of the Year, and his first photobook, Electric Fashion, was published by Skira in 2015, and launched at the V&A. Since being selected for Portrait of Britain, Aranda has won first prize for editorial in the Swiss Photo Award, for his portfolio of group projects.

Young Family © Frederic Aranda

How did you create the selected portraits that you entered into Portrait of Britain 2016, and what are the stories behind them?

I had two images selected: a young family at home in London and a group portrait of the chefs and sous-chefs working at Harrods. Both were commissions, one private and one an editorial for Harrods Magazine. For the private commission, instead of taking a conventional family portrait, I photographed the family with the mess their children had made while playing at home. So many people who see that image tell me how their home looks like that on a daily basis. To me, that’s a true family portrait.

For the photograph of the chefs at Harrods, I composed the group in their top floor restaurant. The aim was to bring them all together for the first time, to show customers who the people are behind the scenes. On the day, we decided to ignore hierarchies and to mix all of them up by placing some of the sous-chefs in more prominent positions than their bosses. Sous-chefs are the next generation and need to be pushed into the spotlight more. When some of them struggled, I told them: “Imagine you’re George Clooney. How would he sit in that chair?”

Archivists and Librarians, Vanity Fair UK © Frederic Aranda

Were the portraits part of wider series? If so, can you tell me about those series?

All of my group portraits are part of an ongoing project spanning fifteen years. The aim of that project is to explore the power of groups to present social realities. Certain things about us only become clear once we are placed in a group dynamic; there are lots of things that portraits of individuals cannot convey.

Portrait of Britain made me look at and assess my work more objectively. I noticed that in cases where I had control over the casting of my groups, the images were diverse, but in cases where I has no control over the casting of my groups, I’d been confronted with the lack of diversity in certain industries.

I have realised that diversity and representation is essential in order to shake things up, and by contrast, the lack of diversity in some spaces can feel incredibly stuck in the past. It is the job of the photographer to show diversity, or a lack of it. For example, at British Vogue in the last few months, my group portrait of the previous editorial team created a public outcry. The lack of diversity at British Vogue has now thankfully changed with Edward Enninful as the new editor in chief.

British Vogue © Frederic Aranda

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

Portrait of Britain gave me the chance to discuss my portraiture with people who had never paid attention to it before. For a whole month, the portraits were omnipresent in the streets so people had more time to contemplate them, instead of consuming them quickly on social media.

Portrait of Britain also helped me to think more about what I was doing with my group portraits, and after submitting a small portfolio of 8 images on this theme to the Swiss Photo Award this year, I won first prize in the Editorial category, which is wonderful!

The Vogue Editors © Frederic Aranda

Are you working on any new projects?

I’m working on my next portraiture book on the theme of California, which will be published next year, together with my co-author Christine Suppes. In the current political climate, California is a beacon of hope, but it is not without its own troubles.

What do you think makes for a compelling portrait?

I often find that some of the most compelling images are iconic in their simplicity, for example, Vanessa Paradis’ ad campaign for Coco Chanel in 1992 by Jean-Paul Goude. The portraits of her in a birdcage or spilling a giant bottle of perfume over her shoulder are deceptively simple, but their simplicity makes them iconic because of all the things that the photographer has decided not to show.

A portrait is also compelling if it appears to reveal something truthful, or provokes your imagination without giving you all the answers. I often find myself looking at Henri Cartier Bresson’s images and I forget that I am looking at a photograph at all, because I’m imagining these people’s lives and what they were preoccupied by at the time. The fact that he doesn’t give those answers is truly fascinating.

The Lady Garden © Frederic Aranda

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?

Shoot things that interest you and make you respond emotionally, and the rest will follow. Make sure you don’t try and second-guess what you think others will want to see.

Master Watchmakers, Vanity Fair UK © Frederic Aranda

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!