A Darkroom of Her Own: An Interview with photographer Ester Segarra

If you’re here then--whether you realize it or not--you’re familiar with the work of Ester Segarra. Since moving to London in 1997, Segarra has become one of the most prolific photographers in the underground metal scene. Besides capturing live shots of Motörhead, Twisted Sister, and Mr. Elasticity himself, Iggy Pop, as well as countless underground metal acts, Segarra is also responsible for shooting numerous Decibel covers. And beyond action shots and portraits of musicians, Segarra also photographs images all around the world--subjects such as regular, i.e. non-metal people, industrial machinery, and, lately, the forests of Sweden, just to name a few.

Recently I was granted the opportunity to catch up with Segarra, to find out how she’s come to dominate the world of metal photography, to turn the focus around on her. Not knowing what to expect, I found myself immediately fascinated by Segarra’s personality and life story. Born in Barcelona, but having come to age in London, Segarra has a warm and welcoming spirit within a steely, resolute constitution. She can shift volubly between candid and intimate stories of her struggles to get where she is today and a laconic no-bullshit attitude. After some enlightening correspondence concerning a recent Tarot reading, and astrology in general, Segarra and I got down to the interview proper. 

Who was the first band you photographed for work and who's been the most recent? 

First gig I photographed was Static-X at the Astoria, London in 2001. For Terrorizer magazine. The most recent one has been Gojira for the cover of Decibel magazine.

May I inquire as to your training? Did you study photography at a university, or did a hobby become your bread and butter, so to speak? 

I studied photography at college. My first year was done in Barcelona, where I am from. At the time there was no university option for photography. Then once I was in London I did a couple of part time courses at college as well. I was working 6 days a week and going to college 2 days. So, on Saturdays I would go to college in the morning and then to work till midnight. It was meant to be for a year only, but I ended up doing another year, and then another year of part time work and courses for about 4 years in total. As for learning photography, I still am.

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How often are you star-struck to be photographing some of the musicians that you do? I mean, Iggy Pop?! Lemmy?! Come on!

It is a privilege to be able to photograph artists that I admire, an absolute honour that I feel incredibly grateful for. But just because someone has earned my admiration as a musician/artist doesn't mean they have earned it as people. And not always the greatest artists are the greatest human beings. Meeting them can be a blessing or a curse.

Do you ever coach or direct the musicians you shoot for portraits, or do you just let them move around and get comfortable as you're just firing away? 

I tell them where I want to go and I let them find their own way to do it. It’s a constant dialogue. I usually approach a shoot with an idea of a story I want to tell. They don’t need to know the story, it’s just my guiding light.

I'm thinking of the recent shoot you did for Deströyer 666, with the flaming scythes and the cowled archer. Those are some of the coolest promo photos I've seen in a long time. Whose idea were those insane props anyway? And does working with fire like that ever get scary? 

Thank you. I’m glad you like them. In that particular case it was KK’s idea. We had rain, wind and fire, to this day I still don’t know how we didn’t burn the place to the ground. But, scared? Of what? Do you get scared of fire being used at shows? I have set alight all sorts of things and places. I don’t fear nature, I respect it.

I've been perusing your website and I must say I really love the "industrial" side of your work. How did that interest come about? 

I love metal, so when the offer to take pics of truly real metal came, I couldn't refuse! Hahahaha!

It was by chance, someone I knew had seen some pics I took of gigs and glass-making and offered me the opportunity to photograph products at the company they work for. I had no idea of what I was doing but decided to give it a try, so I did it my own way, rather than how are you supposed to shoot them. They loved the results so they sent me a week around factories in Europe taking pics. It was a trial by fire and I didn't get burnt. So I continue doing it. I enjoy the challenge and the financial rewards it brings.

It seems to me like those immobile machines are way different to shoot than energetic musicians, but how are the two camps (machines and metal musicians) similar, if at all? 

One is interactive, the other one isn't. One has personality, the other one has a function. In both cases I look for their essence and the best way to show it.

Who are some of the more photogenic musicians you've worked with? 

Women.

In a metal calendar, who would you shoot for December, October and July?

I hate December because I think of Christmas and I despise it, I like October because I think of Autumn and death. July is a special month as I celebrate my birth. I would put a power metal band for December, Tom G Warrior for October as only death is real, and Watain for July as my encounter with them was life changing and somehow I was reborn.

You've photographed portraits for some controversial people. I'm thinking specifically of Varg. As a huge Burzum fan and because the bass work on De Mysteriis is my favorite part of that album, I've got to ask: How was it to shoot Varg? 

I shot him on the 2nd of January in Norway so, extremely cold. But it went well. He was incredibly professional, patient, caring and with a very dark sense of humour. That’s all you need for a good shoot.

So the idea for this feature was actually suggested by a fan of yours named Diana--possibly she's a friend of yours as well. But she mentioned having given up on her dream of traveling the world to photograph musicians. So what I'm wondering is, what's your secret? How did you persevere when others couldn't? 

I don’t know Diana, but I would like to and thank her for suggesting this interview. I am a human being like any other, whatever it is that I do is no secret. I don’t look at how others live their lives, I care about how I live mine.

So I will tell you about my path. And everyone can draw their own conclusions.

I was born in Barcelona (Spain) and grew up there in a traditional Catholic family with no artistic background whatsoever. Seeing a picture of a sunset in a book when I was 6, sparked my interest in photography. But it was not until I was 16 that I had my first proper contact with it. I had a chance at college to take up on a course in photography. My parents wanted me to do a computer course so they opposed and discouraged me telling me that I didn't even have a camera. That was true. Regardless, I signed up and used my friend’s camera. That course changed everything, for the first time I knew what it was like to have a passion for something. But I didn’t go into it straight away. When I finished my studies, I went to university to study economics it was then I realised that I was not made for it. If that was gonna be my life I rather be dead. So again, against my family wishes I joined a photography college course. By the end of the first year, I decided to spend the summer in London and earn money to pay for my second year of photography. As the summer was coming to an end, after working 7 days a week on two jobs, when I finally had all my money, someone broke into the house and stole it. I was left with nothing. As going back would have meant doing it empty handed, I decided to stay for a year. That turned into over 15 years.

As for my start in music photography, I was taking pics of friends in bands at first. Then I blagged a photopass for a gig saying I was working for a Spanish magazine. Took pics and I sent them to a few mags amongst them Terrorizer who gave me my first job. From there, the ball started rolling.

I never really had a plan, just a very strong urge and fire within and an iron will to never give up. I wasn’t sure where I was going, but I hell knew where I didn’t want to go. Luckily I realised early enough in my life that the only way was to follow my heart. Not money or stability or safety or anything else than what my voice was telling me. And for that I did whatever it had to be done: living on a £10 spending money a week, walking across London to work to save money, taking any jobs I could get my hands on… it was all for a higher purpose.

What I do is my life, it’s not a job. And that is the only way I can live. Anything else it’s a certain death.

Have your parents since come around to your decision to pursue a career in photography?

Yes they have. They were opposed to the idea out of fear for my future. Although I had been working for music magazines for a few years before I got my first pictures published in a main Spanish newspaper. It was then when it felt real for them, they proudly showed it to all their friends. I think, until then it was all very surreal for them. I remember showing my granddad one of the first issues of Terrorizer that had my pictures, he didn't know a word of English, so just flicked through and look at the pictures some of them pretty blasphemous. By the end he thought that it was a very intellectual magazine.

Honestly, were there ever times when you doubted yourself, and how did you get through those?

I have always believed that I am fully responsible for the ground I am walking on. I have never blamed circumstances or others for my struggles, lack of work or whatever and I refuse to be defeated. It is a constant personal cycle of Life/Death/Life. I see difficulties, like fences. You know what is in this side but you don't know what will be on the other side. If you give up, you’ll never know. All you have to do is to find what you need to climb or destroy that fence. Usually a book will find it’s way to me, (currently Women Who Run With The Wolves) but I search for answers wide and vast and within. When I was a teenager I found my own way out of anxiety and panic attacks. A few years ago I thought I had reached the end, my body couldn’t cope with the physical demands of the job, eventually I found the way to heal it and strengthen it. Those who seek, will find.

Any tips for the atmosphere-ruining smartphone photographers out there?

They should put their phones down if they are not doing it in a respectful manner. To me, anyone who don’t know how to behave with a device that takes pictures, they are not photographers.

On a related noted, what do you think about this infrared technology that's allegedly going to disable smart phone cameras at concerts?

First time I hear about it. I don't like anything that is big brother state. I believe in personal responsibility. Be responsible for your own actions.

Do you get into any other creative endeavors besides photography? 

I have been exploring moving image and I also like drawing and writing.

So you're living in Sweden right now?

I love Sweden, I feel at home. Every time I leave I feel a piece of my heart is left behind.

What's next for Ester Segarra?

I have a couple of projects coming up, you’ll see. And from the forests of Sweden, I am also currently working on a book of my work. After 15 years of doing music photography and looking back to all the sweat, blood, fire, smoke, tears and effort from all parts put into those thousands of pictures, I feel they deserve to be collected and stories told in a book format.

When can we expect the book to be published? Is anyone else involved in the book besides yourself? Are you writing your own stories, too, or is a ghost writer?

Many questions I wish I had answers for. It is in the very early stages. At the moment it’s just me and the forests of Sweden. But it will be my voice amongst others and many, many pictures. I don’t do things half measure, I go all the way and stop at nothing. This book is no different.

On behalf of Decibel, I would like to thank Ester Segarra for her time and all of her hard work. Head over to Segarra’s homepage, her Facebook, and her Instagram to check out more killer pictures and to stay up-to-date on her upcoming book.

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