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How to shoot images of powerful women and vulnerable men

A shoot is a collaboration. There’s the stylist, make-up artist, hairdresser, assistants, set designers, clients, and input from the magazine if it’s editorial.

There are usually 20 people in the room, but in the end it’s about the relationship between the model and the photographer. I guess the best comparison would be like the relationship between an actress and a director.

When I shoot, I like to think of it as creating a parallel universe full of characters I’ve imagined. Most the time I’m living my life doing normal things, such as picking the kids up from school, so it’s interesting to work in a different space; you can create a whole new world.

I don’t get intimidated when I work with models. Even if it’s Kate Moss. When people hear I am a fashion photographer that’s what they want to know. “Have you worked with Kate Moss? What is she like?” She is amazing! So that’s out of the way! The best models in the world are the best models for a reason. They understand what you are trying to say and are not afraid to try. They push your ideas further.

Actors can be intimidating because they turn up without the script or the character you know them for, and just want you to make them look good. I understand that impulse – most of us want to look good in a portrait – but it’s a different thing. Models don’t need you to make them look good, they already do.

Sometimes I can feel uncomfortable when I’m taking photos. I’m getting older and the models seem to be getting younger. If you want the shoot to be provocative or sexy, it’s a fine line. The main focus is respect and an intelligent approach. You have to make the models look powerful, even if they are in a vulnerable position.

I have a daughter now, and while that hasn’t changed what I do, I think it has broadened the conversation. I don’t want to shoot anything I wouldn’t want her to see. I’ve stuck to that.

There’s the whole issue of body image and I’m really aware of it. I know it starts with princess dolls with teeny tiny waists and goes on as girls grow up, and fashion imagery, particularly advertising, affects that. I think women are very good at expressing what they think about this cultural pressure, which is a great thing. That doesn’t forgive the way our culture shows women’s bodies, but I’m pleased there is a debate.

I think the depiction of men is problematic too – and they are hopeless at discussing how they feel about it. I’m very interested in that. I think a lot about how I shoot men and like to photograph them looking vulnerable, not just strong and in control.

Some of the feedback I get from my work is that I make women look powerful and men vulnerable. I’m OK with that.

Sølve Sundsbø is a London-based Norwegian photographer who has shot ad campaigns for everyone from Chanel and Giorgio Armani to HM.

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