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Idil Sukan: Awarding the comedy creatives

By | Published on Friday 21 August 2015

Idil Sukan Artwork

If you’re a Fringe regular, there is a chance you’ve seen more of Idil Sukan’s work at this Festival than any other artist. Because for over a decade now, she has been behind countless photos and poster designs that you will have seen pasted up all over this city each August (including those pictured here).
Running her own studio in London, Idil works on photography, design and other creative projects all year round, but her Fringe output has been so prolific that those projects have tended to take over her life. And so earlier this year she announced that she would be stepping down as Edinburgh Fringe photographer and designer extraordinaire, to allow more time to focus on those other ventures.
If you have access to Underbelly’s VIP bar the Abattoir, you can enjoy a retrospective of some of the pictures of comedians and comedy actors that Idil has taken over the last decade, because the space is playing host to an exhibition of her work that debuted in London earlier this year.
Meanwhile Idil is marking her final year of Fringe work with the Idil Sukan Awards, designed to celebrate the next generation of creative talent at the Fringe, and the comedians and people she has most enjoyed working with at Festivals past. ThreeWeeks Co-Editor Caro Moses caught up with Idil to find out more.

CM: Why have you decided to quit doing photos and posters at the Edinburgh Festival.
IS: What can I say? I want to open up a little vegan boxing gym. I want to finally work on the 5000 photos of Havana architecture that I photographed last year in Cuba and which I have not even looked at yet. I want to cook like my grandmother used to. I want to enjoy the laughter of children. I want to see a sunset without being like “FUCK, THE DAY IS OVER AND I HAVE SO MUCH STILL TO DO”. And I want to get into juicing, whatever that is.

Edinburgh is glorious but the demands it puts on you are endless. It’s like a liquid and your life is an irregular shaped container. It seeps into every nook and cranny. I’m so happy with the work I’ve done here, but it really has been at the expense of every other creative pursuit I’ve ever been interested in. And the budgets are so limiting here that again you compromise and compromise and sure, of course, that can lead to fantastic invention, but I have felt really very constricted in recent years.

And ultimately, photos-and-design-for-the-Edinburgh-Festival is such a specific paradigm I’ve been working within my entire adult life. I’m an absolute specialist now – I can take the perfect photo that photo editors will want to use in their comedy sections, and on the front cover of their Fringe magazines and supplements – and the ideal photo that looks great on a four-sheet poster from across a windy street, or on the front of a damp flyer.

There is obviously a super secret formula which I have polished, and which I now keep under lock and key. I try and crowbar in as much artistry into that essential formula as I can, sneaking it in without anyone noticing or upsetting the balance, but I’d rather not have to sneak art in at all. I’d rather be making art shamelessly. And ultimately, I want to have more of a balance throughout the year so I can push and challenge myself to create new art, and take on projects that push myself further.

CM: So, tell us more about the Idil Sukan Awards.
IS: Well, it’s an informal comedy ‘awards’ programme, which isn’t offering any prize money, but which is designed to promote and celebrate another side of the comedy world. And it comes in two parts.

Part one celebrates some of those individuals at the Festival who are rarely mentioned: the designers, photographers, illustrators, make-up artists and hair stylists who help comedians build an identity for their shows. These people’s work will be seen on billboards, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and in the press thousands of times more more than the actual comedy shows they are promoting, and yet no one really talks about us, or mentions us.

And then there is a part two. The Idil Sukan Awards For Best Idil Sukans, celebrating everyone I’ve worked with in my final year and all the crazy work we managed to do in spite of it all.

CM: What motivated the awards?
IS: Comedy is way behind the music, fashion and film industries when it comes to this kind of creative work. For too long the comedy world has been limited by producers using the same old photographers and the same old designers, so that the majority of comedy show posters all look the same, even for the big name acts. You don’t have that happening in music or fashion, there everyone is trying to outdo each other all the time, creating a space-race for artistic prowess.

In comedy, people often don’t even book make-up artists, or they have that person along as something of an afterthought. That would be unthinkable at a music shoot. But things have finally started to change, and comedy people are finally starting to budget right, and to put time into fostering relationships with original and creative artists to represent their shows properly. And we need to celebrate the comedians who are doing that, and the artists they are working with

Those of us who do this kind of work in comedy do it for very little reward – and certainly very little money – and often with very little credit, because few people really find out about the work we do. So we need to be celebrated by our peers.

Which is how the Oscars work really. In each category the people voting are absolute masters in their area. Award-winning VFX artists vote for the best VFX artist of the year. Amazing. You’re getting the people that most understand the craft to recognise the ability and talent in others.

I’m now an expert in this very, very specific field – photography and design for Edinburgh comedy shows – so I thought it would be fun, in my final year, to support and celebrate the technical skill and artistic prowess of my peers, and to celebrate the work I did this year too, in collaboration with all my fine comedian chums.

CM: I sense this community of photographers, designers and artists working in comedy is growing. Is that right?
IS: Two years ago, when I wasn’t available to do photos for a comedian at the Festival, he asked me to recommend someone else. So I racked my brain. The only people who came to mind were a couple of photographers who I knew were cheaper than me, because they had been quoted at me by some rather horrible producers who were trying to drive down my prices.

But I didn’t feel I could actually recommend those two people, because their work was so limited. But I knew there must be other photographers out there who could do this project, it’s just no one had ever talked about their work so I didn’t know who they were.

After that I made it my goal to discover and meet and support the work of as many other artists, photographers and designers working in the comedy industry as possible. I started to teach and do seminars on this side of the business, I’d write about the mental and financial pressures of this industry, and I’d talk up the importance of crediting these people’s work at every opportunity.

I’m like a police officer on Facebook, I pounce on people who don’t credit their photographers, especially media. I’ve publicly told off national newspapers and Edinburgh Fringe publications. You guys at ThreeWeeks are usually great at this, perhaps unsurprisingly, I used to be a designer at ThreeWeeks after all! But since I started speaking out on this issue, there has been a change, and more and more people are getting their credits.

And sure enough, through all of that, I have met so many other people working on photography and artwork for comedy. So I’m now able to recommend dozens of photographers. This is a beautiful, thriving industry and it’s only going to get better. None of these people are having to make the same mistakes as I did. The thing I’m most proud of is that I’m leaving this little community in a much better state than I found it.

Since I announced I was retiring from the Fringe, loads of people have said to me, “oh no, you’re leaving, what will we do, how will we make our posters!” But… well, when I was a student I was the longest-serving producer of that little hot-bed of comedy talent that is The Improverts at the Bedlam Theatre. I served for five years and everyone was the same when I finally retired from there: “what will we do without you?”.

But I was replaced by a lovely team of three people. They didn’t do things the exact same way I did, but the show grew and is still running and still producing brilliant comedians and, importantly, also training up the next generation of producers, designers and photographers.

I can’t keep doing this forever. What’s the goal here? To do what? To end up doing everyone’s posters? Why? I’ve done that already! It’s time to let someone else do this and to let our little industry grow.

And this time, when I retire, instead of handing over to just three people, I really hope to be replaced by at least 100 new people – new photographers and new designers streaming into the industry, helping it grow. I hope all my past clients dig around and find amazing new artists to work with. And I’ll keep working with them definitely, but in new and different ways.

CM: So, tell us about some of the winners of Idil Sukan Awards so far.
IS: There are so many! First photography. Lucy Ridges shot the Norris & Parker campaign. What a discovery! There’s such interesting, tender work here. Really beautiful images. I want to see Norris & Parker’s show simply on the strength of the images alone. Boom.

Then there’s Thurston Redding, who shot the Lou Sanders campaign. Oh man, Lou is one of my favourite humans and one of my favourite comics. Thurston has been working with Lou for a while and they are some of my favourite images whenever they pop up on Facebook.

What is so great about these photos is that they’re so funny without being wacky or naff – they’re a clear creative collaboration between comic and photographer – both working off each other’s sensibilities. That’s the dream right there. Oh, and Lou also wins for best show title: ‘Excuse Me You’re Sitting On My Penis’.

For illustration, there’s Jem Henry Pippin Ward, who designed the poster for George Egg. Jem is George’s son and a fantastic new illustrator. It’s a beautiful poster and I hear George’s show is amazing as well.

And finally, a Standing On The Shoulders Of Giants Award for Rich Hardcastle, the only comedy photographer who preceded me who has taken the time to support and advise me. He is a genius and an artist. His work is so different to mine but I love it. It’s so honest and touching, curious, meticulous – but all done in natural light. And a lovely man to boot, I hope he becomes a household name one day.

CM: What about some winners from part two of the proceedings?
IS: Well, best collaboration would go to Katherine Ryan, with make up by Fiona Eustace, styling by Jen Michalski and PR by Amanda Emery. What an absolute crazy dream team that is.

Katherine really facilitated this project in every way, she allowed all of us to really push ourselves creatively and she trusted us. Fiona does exquisite detailed work and Jen is an absolute genius of high end fashion styling. Styling is a real specific skill, because what looks weird on a hanger often looks incredible in a photo, and it was wonderful to work with Jen and trust her judgement.

And the cherry on top is Amanda, who really understands the value of good photography and has pushed the pictures everywhere. We’ve had so many covers and double spreads. I hope we all work together again.

For styling, an award must go to Lex Wood, my partner in crime for many years now. She is a brilliant costume maker and stylist who has a great film and TV career. She worked on Ed Gamble, Sy Thomas and Impossible with me this year, and much much more.

Next, the Award For Best Last Minute OH MY GOD THERE’S NO TIME TO DO THIS Shoot. Shared by Adam Riches, Bridget Christie and Brett Goldstein. We all know each other so well now, that with each shoot, even though everything was booked in so last minute, we really dug deep and produced some really strong, personal, original portraits.

I think this is so important. You have to find a photographer who you get on with and really understands your comedy and your show, and who doesn’t just do the same old thing for everyone. The whole approach needs to be really tightly tailor-made, because all comedians are different.

As for the Award For Most Fun Shoot, I can’t decide on just one winner. There’s Sophie Pelham, because I got to work with an Olympic medal-winning giant horse. Bridget Christie, a shoot which involved us running away from security guards. James Hamilton, where we played with hand-made light-goggles, crafted by Lex Wood. The Dead Secrets, shot in a beautiful wood in Oxford. Mike Wozniak, because he shaved his moustache off in the middle of the shoot.

And, of course, The Beau Zeaux, mainly because of the sheer quantity of people piling into my studio, which normally houses up to four people: ie Thom Tuck, Rachel Parris, Deborah Frances-White, Marcus Brigstocke, Ed Coleman, Pippa Evans, Milly Thomas and Brendan Murphy, on top of make-up artists and stylists. And, of course, Cinnamon, an actual falcon, and his actual falcon trainer.

And finally, if I may, the Award For I Missed You In My Final Year, Where Were You, It Wasn’t The Same Without You, which goes to David Trent, Harvey Garvey & The Kane and Nathaniel Metcalfe. With commendations for The Penny Dreadfuls: Humphrey Ker, Thom Tuck & David Reed. And Elis James. Although I actually did make a poster for Elis in the end anyway which.. awkwardly, may be the best poster I did this year. Or, in fact, maybe ever.

There are so many more awards too! The full list is circulating on Twitter.

CM: What has the response been so far to the awards?
IS: So lovely. This hasn’t really been done before and I’ve had so many messages from designers and photographers and illustrators. There’s no annual photographer’s ball where we all get together and bang each other. Comics have the Edinburgh Festival for that. But we have nothing.

It’s a lonely experience, so it was kind of incredible to make contact and celebrate each other’s work. There was so much instant pouring-out of praise that, actually, I haven’t really seen before. I hope that, even though there’s no monetary award, these kinds of personal recommendations will lead to so much more work for everyone.

CM: Tell us about your touring exhibition in the Underbelly’s Abattoir.
IS: My debut exhibition was called ‘This Comedian’, and was a retrospective of the last decade of my work with comedians and comic actors . It was on in London in February and March of this year, and it is now touring for the first time, appearing in the Abattoir bar in the Underbelly on George Square.

It was fun in London in a proper art gallery, but somehow in the Abattoir it looks even better. I think it’s proper home is within a comedy venue bar, somehow it makes more sense. It will keep touring I think, and hopefully I’ll find a permanent home for all the pictures. They’re all on sale by the way! I keep forgetting to tell people that. So please get in touch if you would like a print.

CM: And finally, what does the future hold for Idil Sukan?
IS: I haven’t quit doing design or photography as a whole, and I’m absolutely certain some of my future photography and design will end up at the Edinburgh Festival somehow. But I hope to find different ways of working, and to produce fine art in photography working with comedians.

I’m an art director at heart and my favourite projects are those that are really cohesive and built by a team of collaborative people – make up, hair, styling, costume. So I’m currently building a team and planning some really exciting artistic collaborations in photography.

I’m going to be teaching more too, which might be my favourite thing to do in the world. I’ve been teaching since I was fifteen, everything from IT to thai boxing. The last few years I’ve been holding masterclasses and workshops in performance and publicity photography, feminism and the visual representation of women. I’ll be doing some more photography workshops soon, so please follow me on Twitter for news.

I’m also currently working on a book and two short films. So there’s a lot going on, more than ever in fact. Though somehow, I think, by not doing Edinburgh anymore, I’ll actually have more free time.

In the meantime, please go have a look at ‘This Comedian’ in the Abattoir bar, and say hi on Twitter #thiscomedian @idilsukan. Enjoy enjoy.

Idil Sukan’s ‘This Comedian’ exhibition appeared at Underbelly at Edinburgh Festival 2015.



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