photo (c) Genevieve Pierson for Project Girl Crush
Seattle-based photographer Hayley Young is a talented artist with clientele ranging from Atlantic Records to Entertainment Weekly to personal portraits. She believes “the work coming out of this place may very well influence and inspire larger markets to move past the sexist limits they have historically placed on their female content creators.”
Here, Young talks about making the transition to directing music videos (AWOLNATION, Hey Marseilles), why art should speak for itself, and why networks of other women artists are her “biggest muse.”
Why did you make the leap from photography to directing music videos? What are you working on right now? What excites you about it, and what makes you nervous?
What is crazy about my current role as a music video director is that this is what I always dreamed about doing, from as early as age 7. Having grown up in the 80s and 90s in a small rural town in Oregon, it never occurred to me that it would be possible. Same goes for photography, really. Growing into a young adult with a chance at becoming a professional photographer was never on my radar. It just organically developed from my process of exploring the creative arts, storytelling and the power of composition in my early college years. I’m thankful for that organic process because it serves as a comforting support system. It gives me grounding when I approach projects and ideas that might otherwise seem daunting. Being able to look back at various stages of my (albeit young) career also gives me a sense of accomplishment that fuels me moving forward. The confidence I gain from seeing a challenge to an end and the resulting effect my reaction to that challenge has on those around me (collaborators, artists, clients, viewers, etc.) is what excites me. Of course, the potential to not see something through or making a bad impression on those witnessing my work is also what makes me nervous. It’s amazing how much faster we can run if something is chasing us. The balance of what motivates me is naturally evolving, be it reward or fear. It all feels right, especially when I can look back and say I did something with it.
As a director, walk us through your process of letting the artist’s music influence the visual quality of their music video. How much is collaboration? How much is you, with your interpretation of their sound and your photography experience?
The process is often the same, or at least it begins in the same way. I take the song and my big, cozy studio headphones and sit in a public place and listen to it repetitively. While the motion of the outside world moves around me, I allow minimal amounts of stimulation from reality to occupy parts of my attention while another subconscious place in my brain introduces itself to the song. That place, that part of my mind, conducts the first “interview”. Rather than “what is this song about”, I ask myself “what does this song remind me of” and “what am I feeling now because of it”. I imagine it’s a mental process similar to catching a wave if one is surfing. I do my best to relinquish control, as to allow the song to steer. From there I ride it out, let it take me somewhere. It is important that I keep my feet up and my eyes open (figuratively) during this mental process. Once we land on something together, it becomes a matter of how to turn the dialog the song and my brain have created into a reality that can be conveyed to the artist and, ultimately, the viewers.
I’ve been fortunate to have a great relationship with all the artists I’ve worked with. They have historically held a great faith in my ideas and given me a lot of freedom to run with them. The most successful collaborative experiences happen when I write a treatment that the artist is excited by and is enthusiastic to get behind. In the end, we both have similar goals. They write the song to convey a feeling and I write a treatment to illustrate that feeling.
How do you feel that being a woman has influenced your career as a director of music videos so far?
I have always been someone who spends a larger portion of my life working than what many of my early peers deemed reasonable. While I was quick to rationalize it as being hungry and enjoying the pace of it all, in the years that have passed I’ve began to realize that my need to work this much stems in a significant way from being a woman. As a kid, when my brothers were hesitant to allow me (a girl) to join in our neighborhood football and hockey games, I had to prove myself not only to be as good as the average boy on the field but BETTER than most of them. Only when I could prove I was an asset was I allowed to be included. It’s crazy to realize that this sentiment has been following me throughout my entire career. In a way, I’m thankful for the inspiration. And I’m 100% sure I’m not the first woman to recognize this in her work.
Can you tell STACKEDD about a time when you experienced sexism (blatant or subtle) while working as a music video director in Seattle? Has Seattle been more or less sexist than other places on the road, based on your experience? (feel free to change names)
To be honest, I’ve felt Seattle to be more of an open and energetic environment to work in as a woman. If you bring an idea to the table here and present it with a clear and intelligent approach, there are large amounts of amazing people who will want to be a part of it. I believe that Seattle is full of amazing female talent who have excited and inspired this community. The genuine support and “get shit done” attitude that I’ve experienced from my Seattle crew and cast has only become more apparent when working outside of this community. I believe the work coming out of this place may very well influence and inspire larger markets to move past the sexist limits they have historically placed on their female content creators.
In your experience, is there a difference in the manifestations of sexism between the fields of photography and directing music videos?
It’s a bit difficult for me to speak to the motion industry as I feel I kind of crashed their party, finding myself in it without the traditional experience of paying my dues on set as a PA, AC, AD, etc. (I literally just learned what AC and AD stand for. Seriously. For those that can relate, it’s Assistant Camera and Assistant Director). But I do have an antidote that might lend perspective to the question. I was on set for a substantial video production in a large market with a crew that was hired by my Producer and therefore, unfamiliar to me. When I arrived, it was more than obvious that a large amount of the all-male crew had mistaken me for a stylist or makeup artist. I got this impression because at the moment I introduced myself as the director, their faces became visibly contorted. The fact became even more clear when one of the young PAs followed me into an elevator (after I had specifically asked that he unload the truck) to quiz me as to “how did (I) land this job” and “what (my) inspiration for the concept was”, etc. Because, apparently, explaining my career direction, client relations, and concept inspiration to a PA is exactly how I should be spending my time on set. That was a very crazy experience for me and one I had never felt in Seattle or on any photography shoot.
Throughout every project that I’ve personally produced (in which I am hiring the crew) I have always surrounded myself with people based on their ability to problem solve, work efficiently and exercise a keen grasp of common sense. Whether photography or motion projects, this approach has treated me very well. It also has resulted in many a diverse crew, which only enhances the overall energy of a set.
Who have been your mentors? Have networks of other women artists contributed to your success, in Seattle or beyond?
Absolutely. There are quite a few. One of my closest and dearest friends has also been one of my biggest supporters creatively and professionally. We met at a concert during my first year of technical photography school. I had long decided I wanted to be a music and editorial photographer. That night, I spilled wine on her shortly after I learned that she was an Art Director for one of my dream magazine clients in NYC. She not only accepted my nervous apology, she also agreed to have dinner with me later that week. At that dinner, she opened my eyes to the world outside of Seattle and gave me clear goals to consider while building my early body of work. We’ve been united by art, music, culture and wine/scotch ever since.
Another friend who was joined at my hip throughout some of my most influential experiences in music video will forever go down as invaluable to my career. A queen of problem-solving, efficiency, energy and the power of never saying “it can’t be done”, her support both logistically and emotionally is what helped form the path for me to push forward into the next level of motion projects. Also, her wardrobe was fantastic. She exudes a sense of confidence and positive attitude that can clear any set of bad juju.
My musician, dance, and artist babes are my biggest muses; The way sunshine makes the colors of your environment pop, these girls provide my life with a sense of vivid dynamic that I can only hope to capture in my work.
Are there enough women directors? If not, what do you think gets in their way? How can bands and fans create demand for female music video directors?
I think the female approach to directing only adds additional depth to the various styles of story making that can exist. I believe that our numbers are growing, not because bands are trying to maintain a political correctness, but because our work is catching their attention. In the current climate of content creation, audiences are being exposed to mass amounts of work by all types of artists. It’s really anyone’s game as to how to stand out to them, hold their attention and leave some sort of artistic impression on them. I think we are on the precipice of a world women directors have been waiting to jump into for A VERY LONG TIME. A world in which the demand for what we can do as artists surpasses the limits set forth by those who have historically controlled the streams of content.
How do we achieve parity for directors who are women in the industry without singling them out for their gender?
Despite my belief that women should get equal treatment in work and in life, I will always believe that regardless of sex, your art should speak for itself. That’s the magic of it. It doesn’t care who you are or where you came from or where you think you deserve to go. It requires you to fully devote yourself to it, to welcome the humiliation it brings and to push past your own ideas of what is “good enough”. What I think we are experiencing now is an over abundance of mediocrity in the motion picture industry, thanks largely in part to the boys club mentality. But I believe that the industry is on the verge of a seismic shift. I suspect there is a substantial amount of members of the industry that have been silently averting the truth that art is more powerful than financial success and giant day rates. I think we as women just need to keep our eyes on the prize, put out good work and put out a lot of it. The audience will follow and take the walls down with them. In the meantime, take advantage of your community. Work with each other. Assist each other. Collaborate. Make mistakes and face them. Then make some more. Until the things that go right feel right. Then take those feelings and navigate yourself to where you want to go next. Speculation is poison. Focus on “now”. “Then” will come. I feel my work is not a means to an end, but rather a trip that will last my entire life. If I’m lucky.
I read on Project Girl Crush that it took you 6 years to realize you didn’t know anything about photography. And so you went to school to learn! How did you balance your confidence in your own talent with acknowledging the need for training? What’s your advice to other women artists trying to figure out if they need more training or just more confidence?
That’s a really good question. I imagine it’s drastically different for everyone. My personality thrives on positive feedback from others. Maybe it’s the latchkey kid in me. I think what I said above plays into all of this. I don’t think you can have healthy confidence without first having your face dragged in the mud (again figuratively). For those 6 years, I had a false confidence that only youth and ignorance could sustain. It wasn’t until the heavy hand of a true artist’s incredible talent slapped me and my confident ass across the face that I decided I needed to adjust my attitude.
Now, almost ten years later, I have this to report:
If you feel fear, or hesitation, or that you are incapable of success, you are very right to. At least for the present time being. If you don’t feel fear, you find yourself doing your work without hesitation and find solace in the little successes, skip past the next couple sentences. You’re alright. Just keep doing that.
For those that have yet to leave the gate to find their own talent, this is just the beginning. It’s comparable to deciding whether or not you want to be an Olympic Athlete. They are not born that way and they certainly didn’t wake up that way. It, as everything that is worth devoting your life to, requires hours and days and years of trying, failing, and trying again. The bigger challenge is finding out what it is that you are willing to go that distance for. And once you figure that out, realizing that every mile traveled is done one step at a time. The farther you get into that process, the more you have to look back on and be proud of. That’s where I believe the confidence comes from, or at least where it should come from. Functional confidence can not be taught. You can only earn it. And as you do, the steps you make toward your goals become more substantial, the worlds you find yourself traveling through become more interesting and the fear you felt in the beginning becomes a friend that you learn to trust. It never leaves you. It inspires you to keep moving and lets you know when you are being an asshole.
Lastly, where would you like to see your career in 5 – 10 years? Who do you want to work with? What skills will you have?
If nothing changed aside from me having some type of retirement plan in place and the financial ability to step up and care for my family if and when they need me to, then I would be totally stoked.
If I got to be over zealous with my ambitions, I would be working exclusively with artists, and with more resources at my disposal with which to tell my stories, both photographically and cinematically. International travel would be peppered in there along with a larger network of creatives to collaborate with. And my plant collection would not only survive, the poor bastards would THRIVE.
Hayley Young’s work has been previously featured on STACKEDD Magazine.