Jennifer Lee O'Brien
Portia Hunt, a photographer, has spent her summer holiday studying peanuts. Specifically, peanut proteins. More specifically, the effect of boiling peanuts on the peanut protein.
“It’s been shown that boiled peanuts are less allergenic,” she says. “The belief is that you could use boiled peanuts in oral immunotherapy.”
We met Portia in late August at Outlaw’s Yacht Club in Leeds. She had just finished an eight week research placement at the University of Manchester, working in a food allergies-based research group. She really, really enjoyed it.
Portia tells us about a meeting she attended one day. All the food allergen specialists from across Europe were there; an American woman from the FDA joined in by conference call. They talked about food allergen management, precautionary labelling and the industry side of things. It’s the kind of work she’d like to do, someday. Or maybe something a bit more humanitarian. Like working for an NGO, or something to do with food security or food poverty. That kind of thing.
“I’m not too sure yet,” she says. “I still have a couple of years to decide.”
Three years ago, Portia moved from South Manchester to study medicine at the University of Leeds. Now, she studies biochemistry and chemistry as part of a Natural Sciences course.
“I really enjoyed studying medicine, but I preferred the science-y side of it,” she says. “I have an interest in science in general, and the workings of the human body at a molecular level.
“The world of fashion is different to the one I usually exist in,” she adds.
When Portia isn’t studying biochemistry and chemistry, she works as a professional photographer. She has photographed fashion weeks in London, Milan and Paris and worked for American magazines W and V, as well as the French magazine, Purple. She likes editorial work, but has a real passion for documentary style. She wants her photographs to feel candid and natural; more personality than pose.
Her interest in photography comes from her father, who “used to do quite a lot of photography at Uni as well.” When she was fifteen he bought the family a new camera. “I just slowly commandeered it as my own,” she says. “Taking photos for local band nights and asking friends to model for me.”
Back then, it was more of a hobby; it only “kicked off” three years ago, around the same time she started University. Portia was in London visiting her Aunt. It was London Fashion Week, and Portia had been “off somewhere” — maybe exploring the city or shopping. She was waiting to meet her Aunt, when she realised she was outside the exit of a Vivienne Westwood show.
“I decided to stand around and look because I’d never really experienced fashion week before,” she says. “Try to shoot a bit of street style.”
Outside, she met a photographer who was shooting backstage. He asked her if she could assist him the following day for a couple of shows. “But then I took some of my own photos and sent them off to magazines, asking if they needed someone for next season,” she says.
Portia has shot fashion weeks almost every season since, mostly in London but also in Paris and once, in Milan. “It just depends where the magazines need photographers, and also where they can afford to send you,” she says. “It’s pretty full-on during fashion week. Then it slows down and I focus on uni work, with an occasional shoot.
“You have to make your own luck,” she adds. “I had to be in the right place at the right time to get backstage in the first place. But you have to keep going out there and seeking out new opportunities to get the jobs season after season.”
During fashion week, Portia will wake up at seven in the morning. Depending on what she’s been commissioned for, she can shoot up to nine shows a day. If she has the time between shows, she’ll edit photos on her laptop. The women’s shows run later than the men’s, she says. Sometimes they won’t start till after nine.
“I’ll be shooting all day, and get in and edit after that, because everyone wants the images ready for people to wake up to the next morning,” she says. “I’ll send the photos at midnight, one, sometimes two in the morning, depending on how much I’ve shot. Then I’ll go to bed, wake up and do it all again the next day.
“You just run on adrenaline,” she says, laughing. “Lots of sleep afterwards.”
Portia would like to keep working in both worlds, someday. She’s still got a couple of years to decide.
“I don’t think I want to do photography full time; I enjoy having a break from that side of things, so I can come back to it with a really fresh mind,” she says. “Some sort of half and half situation would be good fun.”
Originally published in The City Talking: Fashion, Vol. 2