Jess Wharehinga – Cool School

Jess Wharehinga - Nikon Creator - Photographer | Nikon Cameras, Lenses & AccessoriesJess Wharehinga - Nikon Creator - Photographer | Nikon Cameras, Lenses & Accessories

Jess Wharehinga is showing the online world that sometimes, style IS substance. 

Photographer and filmmaker Jess Wharehinga has a rare in-built radar for cool. The NZ-born, Perth-based style queen juxtaposes beauty with grit, creating atmospheres fit just as much for high-fashion mags as street zines. Since her mid-20s, Jess has been at the forefront of the artful influencer movement, combining craft with lifestyle to develop an enviable and highly marketable personal brand. 

Despite now being sought after by both big-name brands and musical artists, Jess still seeks out and helps kickstart the careers of promising modelling talent – a side practice that exemplifies her uncluttered eye for stylistic potential. She has worked with fashion staples Puma and Riot Hill, and created press shots and music videos for renowned artists Bru-C, What So Not and Lucille Croft. 

Recently coming on board as a Nikon ambassador, Jess continues to cultivate her photography career, while gathering steam on the filmmaking front. A rabid cinephile, she has her sights set on making both short and long-form narrative films. We look forward to seeing what she comes up with next. 

We sat down to find out what makes this young creative tick. 

Do you remember what got you started in photography? Or your first memory of using a camera?

When I was really young, I remember asking my mum if I could borrow her little digicam. And I would round up all the kids in my street and make them do all these different things. We’d make videos and put stuff on YouTube - funny skits and dance videos. I would go home and edit on our janky computer. 

Then I'd have a movie night and I'd invite everybody over. We’d have snacks and all the parents and kids would be crowded around the little computer with this crappy footage. Everybody would love it. We were doing the funniest stuff on camera.

How old would you have been?

I'm pretty sure I started doing it from the age of 10 or 11. When I was allowed to hold the camera, basically, up until I was probably in high school. 

Are they still up on YouTube? Or, have you gone back and looked at them with your adult eye?

Yeah, I have. Some of them got deleted, because I used to dress up my brother and my friends and put them in these fashion outfits. They were little boys and I'd be like “alright, we're gonna make you look like this”. Many of the videos got so many views, and then they made me delete them later.

It’s interesting that the seeds of your interest in fashion were already planting…

Yeah. Fashion is probably my biggest driver. 

So, how did it all progress from making fun skits on YouTube with your brothers and friends to the thought “okay, maybe I want to actually do something with photography”?

It was initially a bit of a pipe dream, because I grew up in the late 90s and early 00s. Back then, everything was like “it won't make you money.” The jobs that paid were office jobs - accounting and that sort of “boring” stuff. And I was never into that. As a kid, I was very creative. I was the best in art class and the worst in maths. I was mentally stimulated in any creative class. Anything to do with drawing or painting – I was super drawn to it. 

I started taking photography class and I applied to take it earlier, because I was so interested in it. I was a lot younger, but I said to the teachers “please, can I start this class earlier to learn.” So, I started at 14, learning about film photography, and how to develop in the dark room. It was really cool, because it was the essential bread and butter to doing photography. This was before everything was digital. I was really lucky because I was one of the last generations to get that experience.

It's awesome that you got your start in a dark room at 14. What do you feel you learned during that bread-and-butter stage – through learning on such a great medium like film – that you’ve taken forward into your career?

I learned a lot about composition. It also made photography feel very special, like I was capturing that fleeting moment. It put a lot of emotion in it for me, because when shooting on film you’re very limited in what you can capture. Whereas now with digital you can snap 1000 shots easy, back then you’d get 35 chances at a time. It’s all or nothing. You’ve only got this one opportunity to get it. It made me a perfectionist in the set up and the production – you’ve got to get all your ducks in a row before you get the shot. You’re on the edge of the rope. There’s a lot more risk. 

It made the process feel a lot more special. 

Makes total sense. Do you remember the first shots you took in the dark room and how you felt when you saw the results?

Yeah, and it's so funny because comparing the stuff I shot back then to now - it's not changed that much. I think one of my main projects that I did on film was of a ballet dancer. There was a lot of movement. I wanted to have the contrast of this beautiful ballet dancer in a minimal outfit in this really edgy, grungy environment – like paint peeling off the walls, graffiti, etc. 

Wow, yes. That is similar to your work now. 

I’ve always loved the juxtaposition of a composition. I’ve always loved having a bit of an edge to my work – any sort of work that I’ve done. And it’s cool to see how that’s shone through from my childhood too. 

How long after that time of shooting that ballerina did you get your first gig?

I actually ended up doing a lot of stuff in between – but it was always free. I’d shoot events, and musical artists who wanted their sets documented. I’d do those kinds of things here and there over the years, while I was working a boring job. I was still in fashion, but it was management in retail. It wasn’t my cup of tea, but I was doing that for years. 

I hit 25 and had a quarter-life crisis. I hadn’t picked up my camera for a while and I made a decision: I’m going to shoot every day for a year. I’ll shoot whoever I can. Whichever models I can. Just do it for fun. 

If all I get out of it is that I get to be myself and get to be creative, then great. I shot almost every day for that year and started posting stuff on Instagram. I’d take my friends out, put them in different cool clothes, take them to a cool location. Not a lot of people were doing that sort of thing on Instagram – at that point it was like, photos at a winery shot on an iPhone. So I kind of got in before everybody and it really helped being one of the first people to do that. 

Everyone started seeing my Instagram and it kind of popped off. I remember that after I’d been doing a few shoots for a few months, one person reached out and said “hey, I really want to do a shoot with you, how much do you charge.

And I was like “$40 for five hours”, or something. 

Jess Wharehinga - Photoshoot Early Work | Nikon Cameras, Lenses & AccessoriesJess Wharehinga - Photoshoot Early Work | Nikon Cameras, Lenses & Accessories
Jess Wharehinga - Photoshoot Early Work 2 | Nikon Cameras, Lenses & AccessoriesJess Wharehinga - Photoshoot Early Work 2 | Nikon Cameras, Lenses & Accessories
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Jess Wharehinga - Photoshoot Early Work 8 | Nikon Cameras, Lenses & AccessoriesJess Wharehinga - Photoshoot Early Work 8 | Nikon Cameras, Lenses & Accessories
What year would that have been?

It was about six years ago. 


Yeah, $40! Maybe $60. We were there for an hour. I gave her heaps of photos. I was still learning, so I didn’t feel right charging her a million bucks, but still, funny to think about.

How did that shoot go?

I remember feeling so excited. “Oh my god, somebody actually enjoys my work” you know? The shoot went awesome. The photos were actually sick and they still are. They’re still cool.

And do you still get random people contacting you and asking you to shoot them, like that first request?

Oh, every day. People see a photo and they’ll want to look like that. I used to also run model classes for people that really wanted to get into getting their photos taken and weren't sure what to do. Yes, so now, a lot of people are really curious to see how a shoot goes. They just want to have the experience because it's pretty and confidence-boosting.

Do you have flat rates that you charge them?

I have packages, then they kind of gauge which ones they want, whether they want on location or in a studio. 

On those modelling classes, I noticed that you wrote a guidebook The Model and Influencer Handbook. Was that created for those classes?

No. I did that because I was often scouting talent for brand shoots – sometimes big international campaigns. Scouting models can be difficult when you’re after a certain look. I did a Tik Tok video which I didn’t expect to blow up, putting out there that if anyone was interested in modelling and had a portfolio, to send it through to me. But then I also said if they didn’t have a portfolio, maybe I could help them out, because I shoot with a lot of new models or aspiring models. 

I ended up with hundreds of hundreds of people in my DMs wanting information on how to get into modelling. So, I wrote up a handbook that guided them into marketing themselves as an influencer or potential model, how to navigate the industry and position themselves in the right way. 

How was it received?

Pretty well, I think. I’m not quite sure because I haven’t followed up with those hundreds of people. I’m hoping they’ve found their way. I’ve got some bookings through that as well – new models that really want to invest in an amazing portfolio have come to me for it. 

Some people have come to me, without any experience, done a shoot with me and had a really uplifting time. But then they’ve also received really good photos that have been sent off to agencies. One of the guys I shot was very young – literally just came out of high school. He sent off the images, talked to an agency in London and was signed straightaway. They loved the photos so much that he came back and did another session. He’s now moving to London.

Jess Wharehinga - Model Photoshoot | Nikon Cameras, Lenses & AccessoriesJess Wharehinga - Model Photoshoot | Nikon Cameras, Lenses & Accessories
Jess Wharehinga - Model Photoshoot 2 | Nikon Cameras, Lenses & AccessoriesJess Wharehinga - Model Photoshoot 2 | Nikon Cameras, Lenses & Accessories
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You changed his life. 

Yeah, that’s pretty rewarding. So maybe that handbook does work. Who knows?

You’re featured occasionally in your work, in self-portraits. Do you think your image contributes to the success of your social media presence?

It's hard to say, because initially, I never posted myself at all. I'm definitely one of those people that love to observe and don't like to be observed. But eventually, I just kind of got over it. And I was like, people need to see me. It's weird, because photography really got me into a place where I was looking at everybody else and I noticed that most beautiful people in the world have massive insecurities. I’d think: “what do you mean? Like, you're, you're amazing, like, what are you talking about?” Then I looked at myself and all my insecurities just started fading away, because I just realised none of those insecure thoughts are real at all, for anyone. 

It made me want to share myself with my platform. I don't need to be insecure and I can put myself out there and market as I am. I always said to myself, even before I did photography, I want to be paid just to be myself. That's why I do what I do. Cool. So, I can just put myself out there for everyone and they can accept me or they don't have to.

I’m sure a lot of people would look at photos of you and think “oh, she’s so cool” and feel insecure. The grass is always greener, right?

[Laughs] I definitely want to be cool, but I want to show people that you can be whatever you want to be. You can dress however you want to dress. You don’t have to care what anyone thinks of you and you can put yourself out there. There’s no risk. The only risk is you might get the occasional troll, but at the end of the day, who are they? 

Comes from their own insecurities…


Let’s talk more about the style of your photos. Can you describe it in words or is it more of an instinctual thing?

Exactly. I kind of go by feeling. I base a lot of my images around the vibe – the atmosphere or the person or both. When it comes down to it, I try to go by instinct and I make sure that when I’m making things, I’m not boxed in. If there’s a brief, I will think: okay, that’s kind of weird, let’s do that. 

If you think about all the photographers across the world, what has nobody done yet? I’ll try an outfit that nobody has won, or style in a way that hasn’t been done. But still on trend. My brain is constantly trying to work in subtle ways. How can I make this different, but still pretty classic? Different, but classic in a way that’s NOT a boring model shot against a white background?

Jess Wharehinga - Editorial Photoshoot | Nikon Cameras, Lenses & AccessoriesJess Wharehinga - Editorial Photoshoot | Nikon Cameras, Lenses & Accessories
Jess Wharehinga - Flash Photography Portrait | Nikon Cameras, Lenses & AccessoriesJess Wharehinga - Flash Photography Portrait | Nikon Cameras, Lenses & Accessories
Jess Wharehinga - Editorial Photography 2  | Nikon Cameras, Lenses & AccessoriesJess Wharehinga - Editorial Photography 2  | Nikon Cameras, Lenses & Accessories
Jess Wharehinga - Fashion at Lourve | Nikon Cameras, Lenses & AccessoriesJess Wharehinga - Fashion at Lourve | Nikon Cameras, Lenses & Accessories
Jess Wharehinga - Stairway Photoshoot | Nikon Cameras, Lenses & AccessoriesJess Wharehinga - Stairway Photoshoot | Nikon Cameras, Lenses & Accessories
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Is the majority of your work these days coming from commercial brand work?

Yeah. Although all my money goes back into buying more equipment, or to styling. 

This is probably a good time to ask about videography, because I know you do that too. Now that I know you started off with video pretty early, it makes more sense. But could you tell us more about your video work?

A lot of my inspiration comes from movies. I’m in love with movies and I’ve seen so frickin’ many. I’ll sit there and rewatch a film like 30 or 40 times. I judge people by their top three films [laughs]

What are yours?

My number one is Black Swan. I’ve probably seen that film 50 times. I’ve written 10-page essays about it for no reason. 


It’s funny because, touching back on how I was photographing ballet dances when I was 14 – beautiful ballet dancers against a really grungy setting. When I saw that movie, it just hit all my buttons. 

Actually, watching that movie made me want to go to film school and study. I went to uni, only for a year, but I studied introduction to film. In that first class she was asking us about our general knowledge of film and then she played a snippet from a movie and said she was going to ask questions about it. She played the intro to Black Swan.

She asked “So what's your interpretation of the scene?” And my hand shot straight up. The whole class was looking at me like I was such a loser, spitting mad facts about the scene. 

So that’s my number one. Number two is Fight Club

David Fincher, yep. 

I just think it’s so well done. Obviously, it doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test with any female characters. Number three always changes because it’s whatever’s relevant to me at the time but at the moment it’s Beau is Afraid

I haven’t seen it. It looks like A LOT. 

After seeing that, I thought: “that’s what I want people to feel in my work, eventually,” But I don’t think Instagram is quite ready for that. 

When working with models, how do you make them feel comfortable or bring out what they have to offer?

I have this weird -maybe it’s intuition- gauge of figuring out people pretty quickly. It doesn’t even have to be through talking. I can just look at someone’s shoes and understand the person that they are. 

I kind of get their vibe. I think I can guess what they’re comfortable with in terms of posing, fashion, styling. When I’m working with people that I’m directing, I don’t change who I am. I’m always who I am. I try to make everything have really good vibes. I’ll put on music, set a really good atmosphere so that people feel comfortable. I’ll also crack jokes. 

They’ll be like “she’s fine. She’s fine to work with. She’s not threatening. She’s not bossy or loud or angry.” I just approach everyone like a friend because they become comfortable that way. And when they’re comfortable, they’re not stressed or freaked out and the work ends up so much better. People feel themselves, feel a lot more natural. Looser. Flow better in that state. 

Is that something you had to learn? Has it been a process getting to the point where you can do as you’ve described?

I’ve suffered from anxiety a lot in my life. When I started and I didn’t know what I was doing, the confidence certainly wasn’t there. I felt like I was rigid in the beginning. As I learned and things became a lot easier for me to wrap my head around, I relaxed and I think in turn, that made my subjects relaxed. It was a really good life lesson and journey. It helped me get from being quite a nervous, anxious person who was a bit insecure, not really sure of myself, into this relaxed, in-the-zone person. 

Some people spend their whole lives trying to get to that point and don’t. So, would you say your craft helped you beat your anxiety? Or at least manage it?

It’s also given me a lot of anxiety, by the way.

Different kinds of anxiety, though, right?

Yeah. It puts me under pressure which is cool, because it’s taught me how to deal with it. It’s made me come back to who I really am, at the centre. It’s been super rewarding. It’s been tough at times. It hasn’t always been this really smooth transition, but there have been so many good life lessons along the way. That helped me grow as a person. 

Social media is obviously important to a lot of photographers these days, as it is to you. Did you consciously go about growing your Instagram following or has it happened organically?

I really tried hard to build my Instagram in the beginning. That's what I was aiming for. I was super active, posting stories every day, the whole system of it. And then I think eventually, that just started feeling like a lot of work, and a bit unnatural to me. Now, when I'm really in love with a photo, or an image or a video, I will post. I use my Instagram as a tool to showcase who I am, and my work that I really like. I'm not actively trying to grow any social media at the moment. Because I'm just preferring to focus on my craft.

Your stories are obviously a mixture of the personal and the professional. Do you find that they help you engage with your followers on a personal level and that showing your life to them is also a necessary part of your business?

Yeah. And it's weird, because whenever I post anything of myself, that gets so much more love. People really want that sort of genuine personal connection. When it comes to social media, it can be hard as a photographer, because you just want to put your work up, but I think it is important that people do see the person who's doing all the work as well. And I think I probably should step into the light a little bit more. 

Say for some reason, everything you’ve ever shot was going to be destroyed and you could only hold onto one thing, what would it be?

Dude, that’s so hard. 

I know. 

You know, honestly. I think I’d just say to take all of it because I don’t want to take just one. 

Interesting. We’ve never had that answer before. 

I’d be like, take all of it. Don’t even save one, because this is an opportunity for me to create a whole new, better slate. 

Wow, touché.

If I just kept one, I’d be sad as I wouldn’t have the others. 

So, there’s nothing that holds crazy personal significance or significance to your career. It’s more your whole portfolio?

Yeah. Take everything and leave me with nothing. I’m fine.

Is there any model or famous person, or even location you’d love to shoot?

I want to go to the moon and take photos from up there. That’d be so cool. Like, if Elon could just fly me up and I could take photos with the world behind and a model in front of me, even if they have to wear a spacesuit… as long as the outfit is sick, with like, some breathing tubes… that would be cool.

Well, Elon Musk is known to spend a lot of time reading the Nikon Australia website so I’m sure that…

Alright guys, we’re going to do the first proper fashion model shoot on the moon.” We could get a fashion brand like Gucci or Rick Owens to sponsor. I’m sure they’d be down. 

With someone wanting to get into your lifestyle/fashion/social space, who might be too overwhelmed to know where to start, what would you tell them?

The same thing I say to everyone. Do what I did and just shoot every day for a year. But don't even charge anybody. Find your style, because every photographer has a different style. Follow your taste, follow the stuff you like. The thing that really drove me kept me going was the fashion side, that’s the thing that excited me the most. Everyone’s different. They might really enjoy editing. Cool, make that your focus, go out and shoot minimally, and then spend the extra effort on editing, if that's what you love. Or if you're really into pre-production stuff, and you want to be producing more – sweet. Go out and hit up other people that can show you about that. 

People often don’t understand that - they think it's just going to kind of happen for them, or maybe land in front of them. And they can just get it pretty easily. 

Say, like… well I want to make films eventually and make movies. So, I'm doing my thing right now, which is like, writing my own scripts. I’m figuring out little things but I’ve also been making connections over the years. I really want to put like an all-female cast and crew together and make a short film, and so I've been having meetings with people over the past few months to gauge if we would all be interested in working together. 

And everybody else that wants to do something. You gotta figure it out. And just do it. Like, don't even think about it. Just go ahead and do it. Good advice that Nike slogan.

Let’s finish off with - any other big dreams or plans for the future of your craft?

I just want to make a movie. A full, feature-length film. That’s probably my biggest dream. I just want to take part in it. I’m capable of wearing many hats. I’ve done a lot of styling, I’ve done a lot of production, I’ve done a lot of direction. Even if it’s only one of those roles, I’d be stoked. 

I’m manifesting it. 

See what Jess has already manifested on her website, here. Browse her Instagram here

Keep the inspiration going

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