The girl behind the lens
ZARA Staples hopes her journey so far is just the tip of a very large iceberg.
The Gisborne-based photographer has recently received high praise from arguably New Zealand’s biggest fashion designer, Dame Trelise Cooper.
Zara, 17, has spent the last two years taking photos professionally and says hearing the news from one of Cooper’s designers, following a shoot for her label, makes her feel as if all of the stars are aligning.
“I was ecstatic to say the least. The first thing I did was run and tell my Gran. I feel very proud and to know Trelise Cooper saw and liked the photos made me feel like everything is coming together.”
Zara grew up in Gisborne and at age 10 she was given her first camera for Christmas — a pink Samsung — something a lot of young teenagers receive but for Zara, it sparked a passion she hopes to make a career.
When asked how it all started, she says it came naturally.
“It just kind of happened. People often ask that, but I honestly can’t remember how it happened.”
Although Zara discovered the passion herself, the artistic flair is in her genes. Both her grandfathers are creative, with one being into photography as well, she says.
Zara was a boarder at Woodford House in Hawke’s Bay from Year 9 to 11, where she says her passion became more apparent.
“In Year 11, I was offered Level 2 photography and after that year, I came back here and went to Gisborne Girls’ High School where I took Level 3 photography.”
Other than photographing people, Zara loves to take photos of animals, some of which have reached an incredible number of people.
Multiple images of her photogenic Japanese spitz Lily as a puppy have surfaced on social media all over the world, reaching upward of five million people.
Although that is an achievement in itself, Zara didn’t watermark her pictures and they were shared by big pages and accounts on multiple social media platforms — this caused her a lot of fustration.
“At the time I thought ‘Wow, this is cool’, but then I realised it wasn’t. It is just so frustrating. Now if I upload photos online I put my name on them. I’m not going to make that mistake again.”
Instagram accountZara’s rise to success has been largely due to her Instagram account. In 2012 as a 13-year-old she dabbled with the photo-sharing app.
“I think it’s kind of funny now where I am. I didn’t know how to use it back then. My name was something stupid like funky New Zealander. I ended up deleting it.”
But later that year Zara re-downloaded the app, which she still had no idea how to use, and started posting simple pictures which gained a small following.
“It started with pictures of a leaf or something simple like that and it grew from there.”
As it stands Zara has 28,900 Instagram followers, but there is no doubt that will grow. With her increasing popularity, Zara started receiving messages from brands wanting her to photograph their product. One of the biggest was Vans.
“In 2014 I got a message from a Vans distribution company. It wasn’t the first company to approach me, but I can remember how it all started.
“From then on, I posted photos of their shoes and Vans-girls, an Instagram account with more than a million followers, were using my photos so that really helped. I’m still working with them now.”
Lifelong friendshipsFollowing her work with Vans, other companies approached Zara, some of whom she is collaborating and working with. She says these collaborations have forged lifelong friendships. Among the names are Amazon Surf, North Beach, RPM, Thing Thing, Huffer and Thanks Store. Due to her work, she became recognised by industry experts.
“I was talking to a stylist, Sammy Salsa, and he took me to a shoot in Auckland for New Idea magazine and talked about fashion week. So I messaged him and asked him how I could go about it. He said there was a competition — so I entered it.”
The competition selected 20 amateur photographers, of which she was one, and placed them at fashion week, trying to get the best photo.
This opportunity gave Zara a chance to see all the workings behind a fashion show. It was not the greatest first impression but she says it was a massive change heading into the fast-paced competitive environment.
“It was really tiring, and quite repetitive — they were such long days. You have to arrive early and get a spot, but other photographers are in the ones you want.”
For a 16 year old to be thrown in the deep end, you would typically see them sink or swim . . . and Zara swam.
“I’m really happy I went. I met some great people, and was at places I never thought I would ever see.”
Zara’s photography style has adapted over time. She enjoys more unique fashion now.
“I like the vintage style. If you look at my Instagram you will notice they have a greenish-brown grain look, but also clean sharp lines. I prefer dressy things to photograph rather than just streetwear.”
The journey hasn’t been all smooth sailing for Zara. Her drive for perfection sometimes left her demoralised.
“The pressure sometimes gets to me — when it’s not working out, when I have done something and it isn’t what I hoped for. I didn’t like boarding school much and I was quite unhappy but I still kept taking photos.”
Photography as therapyShe used photography as a therapy and experimented with conceptual photography, which is dramatic and more emotive.
“When I take photos, everything on my mind disappears — I focus on the task at hand.”
After her rough patch at school, Zara was uplifted by the support of her online followers. The personal messages she receives from people all over the world amaze her.
“It makes me really feel proud when people say I am the one who inspires them, or I am the reason they got into photography.”
Photography has helped Zara grow as a person.
“I’m a quiet person and was shy, like super shy, but having to take charge of a shoot has improved my confidence so much.”
She says starting out was difficult, especially when working with new people, but now she’s fine with being a little bit bossy.
“But I always say please. I am very specific, and directive when talking with the models — if their foot is in a weird position and stuff like that.”
Zara is in the process of developing photography into a full-time career. In the meantime, she’s working as a salon assistant at Nova Hair Boutique.
“I don’t want to call photography a hobby because it is more than that to me. I wouldn’t want to do anything else with my life.”
Zara’s dreams of the future see her living in Gisborne but travelling the world and working with the biggest in the business.
“There are people I want to work with on a larger scale, working with international magazines. I have always wanted to work with Vogue. In 10 years I hope to still be based in New Zealand but travelling the world with my photography.”
Achieving her goal will involve hard work but she says fate plays a major part too.
“I think I’m just going to keep doing what I’m doing. I am a strong believer in what happens, happens for a reason. That is not going to stop me from working hard but I think if it happens, it is meant to be.”
From a girl who received her first camera at the age of 10 to where she is today at 17 on the verge of a potentially huge career, Zara says “everything is coming together and I’m stoked with where I’m at”.