Following on from the recent interview with Shaun O’Boyle, we’re going to head off in a very different direction, with Jonathan van Smit! Jonathan has produced work that I have no doubt with inspire some of the documentary, reportage and street photography fans out there….
“I’m a 65 year old New Zealander (born in the UK) living in Hong Kong. I moved to Hong six years ago when I switched careers after working in technology. I’m now have a self-employed role in a wealth management partnership which provides more freedom to take time off for photography. I’ve been taking photographs semi-seriously for about 5-6 years, and am self-taught. I don’t believe in retirement so hope to continue my current lifestyle…..at least while I’m still kicking.”
Q. Lets start with the ‘Heart of Darkness – Phnom Penh’, which you describe as your most developed of the three projects we’re going to discuss on TPF. From our discussions to date, I get the impression that you tend to pursue questions or ideas, into the field… that ultimately this is why you photograph. Is this true and if so, which questions inspired you to shoot this project?
“The reasons I take photos is many layered, and I’m not sure I even understand most of them. I don’t consider my images to be documentary or reportage or street photos. They’re more subjective and personal.
Like many photographers, I’m always restless and curious, have an impulse to create albeit in a clumsy sort of way, and have a strong desire to see what’s around the next corner and explore worlds that are different to mine. I’m also interested in how people react to adversity in their lives, in economic marginalization and injustice.Usually, I simply walk around a lot in places that interest me, take lots of photos, and then later organize these loosely into an initial theme, producing a tighter narrative as more photos emerge and a ‘story’ develops. [Friend] Chris Minko’s lyrics haunted me, and I enjoy listening to ‘Krom’, his delta blues band based in Phnom Penh. It was a natural progression to try and use the lyrics as a basis for a photography project.” “she no like but she do no money, no eat love you like monkey i no lie, i speak true“ Q. There could be many ways to break into such a project. Where and how did you start?
“Access is probably the biggest challenge facing many photographers, and it’s certainly mine. On my first couple of trips to Phnom Penh, I just walked around for hours every day to get my bearings, keeping my eyes open, venturing into alleyways and small streets during the day, and bars at night. I also try to ‘go local’ as much as possible, and this leads to interesting encounters. Then the ideas begin to emerge, and we bump into people who can potentially help. After a few trips, I had a small network of people who could help. Tuk tuk drivers, bar hostesses, a drug dealer, and so on.”
Q. I think it was Salgado who described the immersion associated with shooting projects as being rather like a standard distribution curve, or ‘admirals hat/bell curve’ and this struck a chord with me. It takes time to get beneath the surface and your trajectory deepens and then, without necessarily knowing how or why, you head back towards the surface and things tail off. Can you relate to this and, if so, where are you with this project?
“I guess things tail off for many reasons. Perhaps lack of access to darker parts of the story, a desire to follow another line of exploration, even a need to let a partly completed idea lie fallow for a while. The Heart of Darkness project spooked me quite a bit, emotionally and also because some of the situations were a little dodgy. Human lives can sometimes take a tragic trajectory, and this certainly affected me to the point where I need to take a recovery break.”
Q. Not all projects end up going where the photographer expects when they start out. Where have Chris Minko’s lyrics taken you?
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