There’s Nothing Holding Her Back: Sandra-Lee Layden Focuses Her Camera on Weddings, Babies and Shawn Mendes
Sandra-Lee Layden has always been chasing the music and documenting it with her camera so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that she recently found herself photographing the iHeart Radio Much Music Video Awards this past August. By the time Shawn Mendes opened the show with his single “Lost in Japan”, Layden was a veteran of this annual award show.
Layden, who was born in Toronto and raised in Dildo, Newfoundland professed that she “[a]lways chased the bands around the bay with a camera, and realized how much I loved it. I started learning and haven't stopped.” So it is no surprise that a good friend, Matt Wells who was working at Much Music directed Layden to the Muchmusic.com digital team as they were looking for a photographer for their annual award show. “[That was] around 8 years ago, he brought my name up to his amazing colleague and then sent me a message to ask if I was free and interested, and I've been honoured to be back every year since,” Layden told The Racket via email. Photographing big shows isn’t foreign to her either as Layden has also covered events like the Junos, Canadian Music Week, and George Street Fest. “[The MMVAs are] the biggest block party in Canada and the highlight of my year every year,” she said.
In terms of preparing for an event of this magnitude, Layden said you always have to make sure you have your memory cards and their backups. “[You need to make] sure your cameras and lenses are ready to and renting equipment needed.” Layden usually spends the day before the event performing a queue-to-queue rundown of the production with the event’s Digital Producer and photo wrangler (this person’s job is to edit and post Layden’s photos as soon as they are received) as well as the runner, who physically runs the memory cards to the digital office. “[I also like to] catch some of the rehearsals so I can get a better idea of what to expect. Sometimes my schedule doesn't allow me to catch the rehearsals so I am so grateful [when artists] do the run through with me.”
This year’s iHeart Radio MMVAs event highlighted a vast array of talent including arguably Canada’s most valuable export, Shawn Mendes, as well as Meghan Trainor, Tyra Banks, Halsey, Derek Hough, Alessia Cara and more. There was even a blast from the past as 90’s boyband 98° performed a medley of their greatest hits.
Seeing Nick and Drew Lachey, Justin Jeffre, and Jeff Timmons belt out tunes like “All Because of You” and “Give Me Just One Night (Una Noche)” was a highlight for Layden. “[I’m only] kind of kidding,” she said. “Honestly, [it was] watching the same friend [Matt Wells] who hooked me up with the gig those years ago, walk the Red Carpet for his movie filmed and produced here in Newfoundland, Crown and Anchor.”
One of Layden’s friends commented on the photographer’s personal Facebook account, expressing her disappointment about not seeing her friend on the nationally televised event, but she was quick to point out this was all part of the job; document but don’t be seen. We wondered if this takes a lot of practice. “In a huge event like this where it's a televised award show, they don't want to see you on camera, they want to see the fans and the talent, [so] it's easier to hide,” Layden told us. “[There is a] riser for photographers behind some of the cameras and I usually stick myself next to the teleprompter - because I know they won't show it and I won't be seen.” Layden did admit though that it is sometimes hard to shoot a concert if the band wants photos from the stage. “[I]t's inevitable that I'll be seen, I avoid it ninety percent of the time, as the people are paying to see the show - not [me]. Shooting from the pit and side stage makes this easy, as front row are the only people who really will notice me.”
The task of shooting one of the biggest events in Canadian music is one that Layden is very proud of, as she is a big fan and advocate for Canadian music. “We have the most talented artists in the world, just look at the top 40 charts - we're ruling it!” she exclaimed. “From Alessia Cara, The Weekend, Drake and Shawn Mendes - we're dominating!” She also expressed love for Canadians acts like The Flatliners who are based out of Ontario, “they've been around for ages and consistently release amazing music, and honestly just blow me out of the water every time I see them.” She also told us “City & Colour is my all-time favourite, never miss a chance to catch him! Big Wreck has been touring and blowing minds again, and that just makes me giddy.” She was also sure to note favourites such as Glorious Sons, Poesy, Classified and JRDN as stand out talents. She also told us to look out for Peach Pit and Little Destroyer, saying theirs were “two of the funnest shows I've shot in a while!” Finally, Layden added that she is “obsessed” with the Arkells, July Talk and Protest the Hero.
We had to know if Layden is as enamored with Shawn Mendes as everyone else seems to be and she is. “He's the wonder kid! What's not to love?!” she exclaimed. “He's starting to grow into his own with his music, and guitar playing - and it just keeps getting better.” Mendes opened and closed this year’s iHeart Radio MMVAs and cleaned up throughout the night, collecting four awards including Fan Fave Artist and Best Pop Artist or Group.
Huge, high-profile national award shows aren’t the only events Layden shoots however as she also photographs a variety of subjects ranging from children to weddings. “Weddings are the hardest thing on this planet, you have to be on your toes for twelve-plus hours and then you are responsible for memories that cannot be replicated,” she said. “Then the twenty-plus hours of editing, [which] just adds a bit more to the whole scene. The major award shows have a similar stress, as you have one chance to get the shot - but their mom won't be mad if you miss it!”
The hard work is paying off though, as Layden’s business Sandra-Lee Photography was named as one of the 20 Most Inspiring Wedding Photographers in 2018 by Weddingbells Magazine. “Thank you to each client who stands in the snow or rain, who lets wind ruin their hair, who hikes through dirt paths and especially, all of them who put their entire trust in me,” Layden wrote on her business’ Facebook page. “Thank you for being a little offbeat, hella adventurous and always, always, being true to yourself.”
Finally, when asked what advice, if any Layden has for aspiring photographers, she couldn’t understate the importance of practice. “Take photos of everything, [and] anything. Don't assume that because you bought a nice camera that you are a photographer; you're not. You own a nice camera. Study the art. Learn it. Photograph EVERYTHING,” she instructed, “[j]ust when you think you know it and have it down pat, do it again. Never stop learning or let your ego get the best of you, it's hard, HARD work.” It also must help, to flip a line from Shawn Mendes, photography, IS “in her blood” as she clearly has a knack, a love, and a passion for the art.