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Tuesday, June 6, 2023

Life Through The Lens of Celebrity Photographer & DOP Shakeel Bin Afzal

London-based Shakeel Bin Afzal is the cinematographer and photographer with a strong visual style and unique eye.

He strives to put the story at the heart of his cinematography, regardless of working in fiction or documentary, film or television.

His calibre is so high, that work has been featured in Oscar, British Film festival and Cannes Film Festival.

Plus, he even shoots regularly with popular Bollywood actresses like Sonam Kapoor Ahuja.

Shakeel is excited to collaborate with visionary filmmakers creating images that serve the story and resonate with audiences.

The narratives he is drawn to centre on human experience, often demanding visceral, textured images full of feeling, which give an audience the emotional experience of the character’s world.

Filme Shilmy caught up with the acclaimed DOP and celebrity photographer on his life journey.

When was the moment you wanted a career behind the camera?

I studied photography and I have a bachelor’s in Fine Arts. That was more like sketching and everything.

I moved to photography and then from there I transitioned into cinematography, editing, like about 5 years ago professionally in London.

How tough were your initial days before becoming the reputable DOP and celebrity photographer you are today?

It was very difficult. Even my family were not supporting. They were concerned about how I would make a living.

I was working for Dubai TV full time, then in the meantime, I thought I would try to do my own photography.

So I began working as a freelance photographer for ‘Fashion Week’ events like London Fashion Week. That’s how I got connected with a lot of influencers.

The first celebrity shot I did was of Sonam Kapoor’s. That’s how I got everywhere so people started to book me for private events like Oscars, Cannes or the Met Gala.

How would you best describe your life as a celebrity photographer?

It’s a very scary road (laughs). It can be exhausting because there’s so much pressure on you.

When you work with celebrities, everything is instant. There’s no time for editing or experimenting with pictures.

You have to do with whatever you have available.

So if I have to describe it I’d say it’s challenging, but at the same time, it’s good because it makes you confident.

It gives you that assurance of being able to work under any circumstances.

It works both ways.

Which Bollywood and international celebrity do you enjoy capturing on the camera and why?

I’ve done so many of them, but I would say Sonam because I’ve worked with her many times.

Every time I’ve shot something with her, it turns magical. There’s no need to plan things with her as it happens organically.

Deepika Padukone is nice too. I’ve even worked with Aishwarya Rai Bachchan.

Since Sonam has that fashion sense, she knows how to improvise and even give suggestions.

I like working with Sonam, it’s always easy and done in a nice way.

As a professional, how do you know which shots work best?

It depends on what we are shooting… If we are shooting in studios or locations.

I’m not a person to make a storyboard, I decide the shots when I am on location.

I sometimes use my locations whatever is available.

Celebrities change their minds every second, so I just see whatever is available.

The short film Al-Masry Life got you nominated for a ‘Director Of Photography’ Award at Chelsea Film Festival. How creatively satisfying is it to get such recognition?

To be honest, I didn’t even expect to get nominated for this.

I knew our film was nominated in three festivals (one was recently in Las Vegas).

As a cinematographer, it was a very simple shot but the story and script were emotional/strong.

Whilst it was a simple shot, the way we shot it, in which the camera movement is very good.

It was a one-take shot.

As you mentioned, you also cover high profile events like the Oscars. Despite the glitz and glamour, how challenging is the experience for a photographer?

It is really difficult and I’ve been to the Oscars twice.

I first went as a photographer on the red carpet and the second time I went with my friends as a producer.

When you’re shooting on the red carpet, there’s a lot of pressure because you only have a few seconds with each celebrity and YOU HAVE TO get the shot done.

It’s important to have eye contact with the person through your camera because there are 100s of other photographers there.

Covering as a cameraperson is very challenging.

However, posing on the red carpet is different. You feel that those 100s of photographers are looking at you.

I found it difficult to look at one of the photographers because it’s such a huge platform and one feels privileged.

It’s a dream to be on the Oscars’ red carpet, especially with big celebrities like Lady Gaga, Jennifer Lopez standing next to you.

I found it surreal.

The filmy and photography business is extremely cut-throat to break into. What would you advise others who aspire to make it big in this industry, as you have?

Creativity is not bound by expensive equipment and fancy gear.

You just have to take whatever camera, do shoots and post it showing people what you’re capable of. That’s what I did.

I was working with on many different projects on a trial basis to pursue my passion.

When you love what you do and start getting paid for it (which you eventually do), that’s it.

I started from one camera and lens. One just has to continue pursuing their passion and not give up.

You will eventually succeed.

For more information and updates on Shakeel’s work, check out his website here

Anuj Radia
Journalist and film enthusiast.

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