Sonny Vandevelde, An Eye For Fashion

As the fashion show season approaches, Fashion Unfiltered spoke to Sonny Vandevelde, a photographer who has made a career specialty out of the world backstage.

How does Sonny Vandevelde get ‘the shot’?  Sometimes the process is simple. He just asks the girls and boys to smile. But a lot of it comes down to knowing what to look for.

“We’re here to document the moment, not make the moment,” is what the photographer reminds juniors starting out backstage.  There’s a story there, you just have to keep your eyes peeled. True to form, Vandevelde’s imagery relies on authenticity, motion, and technique, key for the person behind the lens who dares to capture the image that will define a space in time.

Like recording an extreme sport, photographers working backstage are moving along with subjects as they progress from fashion week in one city to the next. And as it turns out, if you’re going to catch the girl beaming from ear to ear, chances are it might not be after her first walk down the runway but it’ll definitely pop out after she makes her Prada debut.

“There are seasoned catwalk models, but every season there’s always going to be a new girl,” says Vandevelde. “A 16-year-girl from Liverpool who was discovered while she was shopping in London and four months later she’s about to walk her first every show. Fast forward three weeks later and she’s in Milan, and she’s already walked some shows but now she’s about to walk Prada. You can see the nervousness before they go on – but then that elation and excitement when they come off the runway and that joy on their face, it’s just beautiful to be able to capture that moment. You can’t replicate that.”

Whether it’s models stepping off the runway, surfers coming off a bitchin’ wave, or skiers plummeting off slopes, Vandevelde has caught them all: “I grew up shooting a lot of action. I spent three years photographing skiers jumping off of cliffs and stuff. I was always in the action.”

It was the late Eighties when Vandevelde, who loved surfing so much that he found it hard not to put down the camera to catch the oncoming wave, started frequenting house parties, drawn by the music. In addition to the dizzying beats, he found a crowd that clearly cared just as much about getting ready as they did about the party they were heading to. Vandevelde describes it as an era when fashion evangelists would construct a vision of themselves often with little to no money at their disposal: “There was no such thing as Zara or H&M or any of those stores and people would actually either go to thrift and second- hand stores and buy outfits or buy material and they would actually make an outfit.”

That DIY spirit kept Vandevelde coming back for more, snapping shots of the night’s more daring looks. Compared to the laid-back dress code of the beach bums he grew up with, it was another world for him. People would pose to have their pictures taken and ask to see the results. By word of mouth, he started to build up a fan base enamored by his imagery.

In between shooting editorials and Sydney’s nightlife, Vandevelde made contact with modeling agencies that would invite him to take test shots of their roster. Vandevelde highlights a point of tension between photographers who graduated from film to digital and the current group of contemporary photographers who work with Photoshop as much as the lens. Vandevelde likens photography to a profession such as medicine or, more prosaically, plumbing – photography for Vandevelde is a studied craft.

Some might dismiss him as a disgruntled elder. But Vandevelde doesn’t mind how photography has become more accessible to a new chapter of talent. He’s now 52 but “doesn’t feel anything like it”. He adores youth culture and its fresh energy along with the many talents from the latest generation. What he’s really against is shortcuts. Photography, a craft as much as an art, is not something you can just pick up (and clean up much as you like after). It requires an understanding of composition, the human figure and how the body moves to catch just the right balance of shadow and light – things you learn to pay close attention to when working in traditional analogue: “When you expose the film, you have to have it so spot on, there’s no such thing as Photoshop,” he says.


We’re nearing the end of a call that could keep going but it’s getting late in Australia, where Vandevelde is currently based. It becomes clear that what makes his images stand out goes beyond their candid quality – they are bubbly and full of positive energy. The photos capture models goofing around, not like they would in an editorial shot but how it happens among friends. This honest rawness on display is refreshing in an industry that has long been associated with cold, hard exclusivity.

More so, his work continues to breathe life into moments past, moments of fantasy given a jolt of energy. There is nothing dull about being in a bustling room of makeup artists and hairstylists putting the final touches on the models before they line-up. As the designer and the stylists make small adjustments before a girl heads out to walk the walk, you feel the energy, electric and pulsing. As the last model steps off the runway into backstage and the music finally stops, a buzz of excitement runs through the room. “We’ve done it! Everyone looked fabulous. Is fabulous. Let it soak in. Aren’t we so lucky to be part of this world?” That’s what a Vandevelde photo would say if it could talk.

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