Peter Greig on Taking the Leap

After 15 years as an Art Director in Design & Advertising, Peter Greig decided to switch careers to Photography and Film making… and hasn’t looked back since.

Formerly a Head Creative for one of Australia’s leading boutique creative agencies, Peter is now an award-winning Director of Photography – specialising in cinema, broadcast and stills photography for the performing arts and outdoor adventure.

I met up with Pete a few weeks ago on a crisp morning at Circular Quay, Sydney. We grabbed a coffee and I endeavoured to capture this creative journey thus far.

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When did the wake up call happen for you?

PG – I was at a work Christmas party, chatting with a colleague and somehow let slip that design wasn’t my number one choice. He was really taken back, because for him it was his number one choice, and he had just assumed that it was mine as well.

When he asked what I thought I should be doing, I replied “probably equal first is music and photography”. He is the kind of guy who is pretty straight up, and so he laughed at me and asked “well…what are you doing?” and I couldn’t come up with a response so it was a bit of a much needed slap in the face.

That’s usually the thing. Most people need that wake up call, a slap in the face to just get off your ass and do something about it – more out of a fear that it won’t work than a lack of motivation. The seed was obviously already there, I had started thinking about taking my photography more seriously a couple of years prior and I just needed the final kick in the pants.

Now that you’ve been bitch slapped, how did you ‘make it happen’?

PG – I think the thing that makes it hard for anyone radically changing their career is the inevitable ‘step down’, the starting again from the bottom thing. In a creative career its particularly hard because you have to build your body of work, which takes time to do properly. My first challenge I set for myself was to be able to essentially step across rather than down, but by that point I’d already been developing my skills and portfolio for about two years. I had a 3 month overseas holiday planned, so I used that time to shoot as much as I could. When I got back, I dedicated the rest of my time off to collating my portfolio.

The tipping point was securing an Australia Arts Council 12 month residency, where they partnered me with Sydney Dance Company. So I thought – ok, there’s 12 months secured so now I can make the leap. Despite that though, it was still a really tough decision for me to make as I was getting to a great stage in my career with some really big campaigns. But I knew inside that it wasn’t really what I wanted to do. It was definitely a heart vs head thing.

I’m sure a lot of people can relate to that – being ‘stuck’. It can be hard when it’s paying the bills and it isn’t wildly different to the field you’d love to be in. I mean, you weren’t packing meat trucks, and even more so when you’re successful in that role – that can be really hard to give up.

PG – Yes, it took me almost 12 months to battle with that and be confident it was the right move and at the right time. It wasn’t until I had a year mapped out in front of me with the artist residency that made the decision, and transition, so much easier for me. But not everyone has that luxury, I just think the best you can do is do as much preparation as possible. Work on it every chance you get outside of your day job. The hard work will eventually pay off. I applied for the artist grant right after I had that 3 months off, so I was in the right head space, which is what I think got it.

Tell us a bit about your approach to photography and what you aim to capture.

PG – I’m completely self taught, so I constantly go through phases of learning. Massive two year learning cycles, made up of lots of small steps. For every project that I do, I always put something in there that I haven’t done before. Whether its trying a new skill, approaching new subject matter, or pushing the limits of my gear. So the result for every shoot, along with the shots themselves, is the built up knowledge that will no doubt benefit the next shot – even if its indirectly.

A big thing for me at the moment is being very self critical of my work, both in practice and again afterwards when contributing to my portfolio. Curating your own work is hard, and very few people can do it well. But if you take a step back and ask what message you are trying to convey, the puzzle becomes much easier to solve. I think learning that makes a huge difference in the overall quality of what you do, you can quickly tell whats not working and adapt to make it better.

There is a shot here from a surfing trip I went on the other week. I only took 3 frames because I knew exactly when I’d got the shot. The difference between frame 2 and 3 is simply me standing in front of the fire instead of behind it with everyone else. It needed a silhouette to work, and then done! I get a lot of comments about how little I shoot, but I learnt photography on film. My older sister is a great photographer and she’s basically been a photographer her whole career, so I kind of followed in her footsteps and observed. I ended up going in a different direction and I found my own path. But learning on film was so good, because you really think about your shots.

I learnt on black and white film as well, so I learnt a lot about natural light. That really helped me, because it’s got me jobs where I can create something out of nothing. I’ve been in the same room with other photographers, shooting the same thing with literally no light in the room and they’re freaking out – but for me it was normal.  It was only about 18 months ago that I decided that I should really learn studio lighting, I mean I knew how to light before but I’m talking about learning all the nuances of light and its character. It has completely changed my work.

Story-telling is really the most important thing for me now. Whether it’s a quick impact, in the moment or long lasting effect. I think a lot of people can get distracted by aesthetic and not delve into how a piece of art can make a person feel, evoke something out of them, make a difference – change them. Its not lost on me that the subtle art of story-telling is what separates the “Nick Caves” of this world from everyone else. So thats my next challenge, to tell a great story.

See more of Peter’s work here

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On music, Pete’s other great love, his band JOVA recently recorded their debut EP and is a finalist in the Battle of the Bands Australia…but that’s for another time and “chat”.

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