The Magic Behind The Lens of Mario Testino

While Instagram may have helped to democratise photography, it hasn’t made everyone a photographer. Well, at least not  Mario Testino. The acclaimed photographer has been shooting for over 37 years and managed to amass a 3.3 million following on Instagram, beautifully occupying both the print and digital worlds. 

During a talk at the 2017 Cannes Lions Festival, Teen Vogue’s editor-in-chief, Elaine Welteroth interviewed the iconic “magician” (her words not mine, although I wholeheartedly agree) to discuss the marriage of art and commerce, the world’s obsession with reality, and the importance of listening.

For Testino, being a fashion photographer in the luxury space was a challenge early on, relating his Peruvian heritage as a challenge in a field dominated by European and North American photographers. “To be Peruvian felt like being an outsider,” said Testino. “You spend so long trying to fit in. It’s when you start working with other people you stop thinking about yourself and start focusing on others.”

Shooting for the likes of Chanel, Gucci and Michael Kors, along with magazines such as Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, and Vanity Fair, Testino has mastered the art of capturing a company’s DNA in a single image. His success is in part due to his business acumen (he did study economics initially at university) which he claims is a strong part of his own DNA, and of course, sheer passion. “I started by being good at maths which is a mix of creativity and facts; that’s what I apply to my work,” he said. “I try to understand what the company is trying to say and reduce it to an image so people understand what the company is all about. I’m creative but my essence is commerce really.” While it’s difficult to measure success when it comes to campaign or editorial photography, Testino is so obsessed with sales he admitted to following up with magazines to see how an issue measured up against last year’s copy. “I like sales; to me that’s the only success. If my client manages to go up, that’s all that matters.”

All eyes and ears were on Welteroth as she probed Testino on the recipe behind his magic. The secret sauce? “I listen,” he admitted. “I enter people’s world and apply my know how and experience, then I can give them their own image. The image isn’t about me, it’s about them (the brand). Most people are surprised when I sit and listen to them.”

Testino also attributes staying true to himself as an ingredient for some of his success, as well as surrounding yourself with people you respect, but more importantly, people who will challenge you. “We live in a world where everyone is trying to emulate what everyone else is doing…if you’re true to yourself you may be the next person that everyone wants to follow.”

Despite his impressive social media presence, he wasn’t as quick to jump on platforms as he wish he had been. It was actually Angela Ahrendts (currently Senior Vice President of Retail for Apple, formerly of Burberry) who encouraged Testino to join Facebook, allowing him to see that it wasn’t just for products – he was the product! It’s no surprise that Instagram is his most beloved platform but it’s not for the obvious photography reasons. “I like Instagram because it’s my voice,” he revealed. “For 30 years I’ve worked for other people’s voice. All of a sudden this is my way of connecting to people who like my work.”

Featured image photo credit: Mikel Bastida for Cannes Lions (contact him at www.espadaysantacruz.com/projects/photography)

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