Commercial and Personal Work: Ewen Spencer and Olivia Gideon Thomson

To accompany the current exhibition at The Photographers’ Gallery, Vivian Sassen’s Analemma: Fashion Photography 1992 – 2012, we invited photographer Ewen Spencer and Agent Olivia Gideon Thomson (We Folk) to each make presentations related to the theme for the night: Commercial and Personal Work.

Given the success of Sassen’s work in a variety of contexts, including the pages of fashion magazines, independently published books, international advertising campaigns, and the gallery wall, we discussed the crossovers and distinctions for the photographer and agent when making and representing commercial and personal work.

Running the agency We Folk since 2009, Olivia Gideon Thomson brought the perspective of the agent, and spoke with specific reference to the career of Viviane Sassen. Photographer Ewen Spencer, who is also represented commercially by We Folk, talked about his approach to making photographs, and how making personal work has helped to establish a successful commercial career, in turn financing more personal work.

Key Pieces of Advice – Olivia Gideon Thomson

  • You can’t control the reception of your personal work. You need to create it from a place of clarity and truth. You really do need it to be personal. Let clever people get hold of it.
  • You should consider that the commercial field is full of clever people who understand photography very well and who are usually eloquent, articulate and knowledgable. Therefore, be prepared when you go and see people and don’t edit for what you think they might want to see.
  • Try not to imagine that the commercial world is just about making money. It’s not really – it’s about collaboration with money as the byproduct. It has the same pricing theory as the art market. Your rates can increase, you can become more valuable.
  • Look at magazines – they hold secrets in how to sequence and place images together. Don’t do everything online, print images off – the screen is a flat world and can’t teach you as much.
  • Educate yourself in commercial work, understand what’s a good idea and what isn’t. 

Key Pieces of Advice – Ewen Spencer

  • Commercial commission = freedom
  • Not having to work within dictated frameworks defined by a photographic establishment.
  • Having the capability to realise my own photographic works without having to rely on grants or external funding.
  • Establishing a business as a working studio.
  • Realising a vast amount of projects to draw on, particularly notable when publishing UKG with GOST Books.
  • To form a small publishing company to manufacture and distribute my own books.
  • Ewen Spencer on Photography Agents
  • Things to consider in advance of working with an agent:
  • Establish yourself
  • Let an agent find you. Don’t try and find an agent
  • Work with someone you like!
  • Guapamente: Collaborating with the right person 


Olivia Gideon Thomson started in the industry as a part-time office assistant at the legendary Z Photographic, run by Katy Baggott in London, which represented Juergen Teller and a host of other 1990s rising stars, including Donald Christie, Dana Lixenberg, Phil Poynter, Katie Grand and Stefan Ruiz. 

After studying an MA in History of Photography and Cultural Theory at LCP, Olivia took to the commercial world, and in 2009 started We Folk in the midst of the crash and chaos around the industry, instigating a shared belief system that combines the commercial with the personal.

Ewen Spencer (b. 1971) is a British photographer based in Brighton. His photography is primarily of youth and subcultures. He began his career working for style, music and culture magazines The Face and Sleazenation and has since transplanted himself into groups of young people and musicians to form numerous personal projects, as well as making films for Massive Attack, The Streets and undertaking commercial work. His photography series have included Wag Lad, Three’s a Crowd and Open Mic. He self-publishes his own photobooks under the name ES Books.