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Conversations with Creatives: Stephen Tilley

Renown portrait and fashion photographer Stephen Tilley puts down his camera to talk with us about his creative career, his passion for music, gratitude and why supporting children’s health is a primary focus in his life.

From the first time Stephen Tilley picked up a camera, he found it difficult to put it down.

“The ‘laws of attraction’ is a term that could describe my entry into professional photography – I simply loved taking photos and the commissions found me,” says Steve.  

As a teenager growing up outside of Wellington in the ‘90s, Stephen and his friend, Chris, would often spend days photographing. 

“We loved journeying through the urban streets to discover people and moments with our 35mm cameras, then seeing the pictures come to life as we developed the rolls in the dark room,” says Stephen.

Fast forward to his early twenties and a move to Europe sealed the deal: Stephen became a professional photographer, a career now spanning twenty years.

“When living in Europe I built a portfolio that helped me secure a job for an indie magazine in London. Capturing the zeitgeist of the turn-of-the-century music scene led to commissions in fashion.”

The Manchester sound of the 90’s as well as magazines such as The Face and Rolling Stone formed the basis for Steve’s early edgy aesthetic and approach to lighting and composition. Stephen's recognisable shots stretch widely across Kiwi music, starting with early 2000s NZ hip hop– artists including Scribe and P Money – as well as Shapeshifter, Julia Deans, Anika Moa, Neil Finn, Harper Finn, Marlon Williams, Shihad, Jon Toogood” …the list goes on.  His photographs of musicians have made their way to album and magazine covers, billboards, and video worldwide.

Stephen Tilley photographs musician Hollie Smith and Cure Kids ambassador, Eva.

What role does music have in his own life?

“Music defines the human condition, it has the power to unite and celebrate; to transport you back to a pivotal moment in your life be it the friends who were around you at a particular time, or the joy or sadness you felt," says Stephen.

"For example, my grandfather was a great pianist and the memories of sitting on his knee as he played current pop songs by ear from the radio are very special. Also, I spent many summers on road trips with friends to experience power-house performances such as Fat Freddies, Shapeshifter and Sola Rosa. Listening to that music makes me smile, a soundtrack to memories of those roadies.”

Stephen’s passion for music, for people and for children’s health fueled his contributions to Great Full’s Jams project. In both the studio and on location, Steve made portraits and filmed interviews with the collaborating musicians. Plus he got behind the lens at the Jams shoots with children, bringing the light hearted, upbeat energy that he’s known – and loved –  for.

Photographing and filming for Great Full gave me the opportunity to tell stories of musicians that I admire and respect.”

The project's artist interviews cover topics from music to gratitude, defining moments from each musician’s life – all of which inspired Steve. 

“I hope that people find inspiration in the interviews - words shared by these talented artists who have achieved career and personal success. It’s been challenging for artists through this pandemic which literally tore the rug from beneath them, when many were releasing new work. But each one has managed to find a silver lining in the situation never looking back, only forward,” explains Steve.

Stephen Tilley photographs Ladyhawke at Naumi Hotel in Wellington.

“I was personally moved by Ladyhawke who overcame low self-esteem and mental health issues. She’s now a happy mother, has a resounding strength and is creating interesting work.”

Practicing gratitude is a normal part of Steve’s life – he often starts the day with meditation, a walk through his inner city Kingsland neighbourhood and acknowledging what he’s thankful for. He doesn’t hesitate when mentioning his life’s abundance:

“I am grateful to be living in New Zealand, arguably the most beautiful country on earth. I am grateful for my friend and family’s health. I am grateful that the pandemic seems to be coming close to an end. I am grateful for photography and creating things. I am grateful to be working on such an amazing project and making a difference to the lives of families.”

Supporting our New Zealand community is important to Steve, which is why he’s been a core collaborator since Great Full’s inception.

“Great Full has joyful collaboration at its heart and brings together artists to create something tangible that has a positive impact – in this case it’s children’s health. My partner, Caroline, and I have two children and their health is something we never take for granted. To be a parent and see your child struggling with their health is barely imaginable, so to help make their lives a little easier by giving my time and sharing my passion for photography is something that I don’t even question."

When it comes to what Steve hopes is achieved through Great Full Jams, the conversation turns to the bigger picture.“If we help make the life better for even one single child, then for me, every minute that I've given towards this project has been worth it,” says Steve.