“I often decide these things on impulse. I might have the urge to get away, look at a map, remember something which sparks an idea, and then book flights.
For my most recent trip to what is now known as Kolkata, I didn’t buy a guidebook or take a map, and I stayed in the Broadway, a small local hotel in Bowbazar well away from the back-packer area in Sudder Street. It didn’t have hot showers or air-con, my room had décor like a 1950’s UK rail station, the TV set sparked, but the place did have a great bar and restaurant. I carry a small compass, and each day would walk in wider arcs away from the hotel. The Hooghly River became my reference point….when I got lost then I would just take an approximate bearing back to my hotel. I took over 2,000 frames: street shots, night shots, ghats, riversides, markets, red light districts, below bridges, truck parks, railways stations, and so on. Many of the photos were rubbish but I’ve been able to edit them down to around 40-50 which have enough meaning to potentially belong to a project which makes sense to me.”
Q. Much of your work is quite low-key and dark. Is this a reflection of the things you are drawn to?
“It’s not something I rationalize too much though I’m aware that many others think my photographs are too vignetted and dark. I think the low-key look started when I first came to Hong Kong, and only had time to take photos at night after dark. I like the night….it’s a different world then. Photographically, I find darker places more interesting too.”
Q. Which photographer’s work are you drawn to or inspired by? Are Koudelka and Moriyama among them? Is Film Noir?
“I like most well-known photographer’s work. The one that I admire hugely are Robert Frank, Chris Killip, and Don McCullen.”
Q. Your photographs almost universally appear to have been shot ‘on the hoof’. What equipment do you shoot with to facilitate this?
“I like the simplicity & speed of use of rangefinders and manual focusing so I use a couple of Leica’s: an M9 and a Monochrom. I’ve used a Fuji X-T1 and X100s, a Sony Rx1 and an A7S, but find them annoying with so many features, a lack of simplicity, and slow manual focusing. I don’t like the files much either though I could live with them if pressed. My standard lenses are a 24mm Summilux and a 21-35mm dual Konica Hexanon. For simplicity’s sake, and yes, I know it’s perhaps considered heresy by some, I mostly stick to ISO 1250 on both the M9 and Monochrom even in sunlight. As well as allowing smaller apertures for more depth of field, keeping to ISO1250 nearly all the time helps me guess manual exposure when I need it. I also use a small Ricoh GR4 which I prefer to the newer GR.
As you might have gathered, I’m not too fussed with outright image quality. I’m primarily looking for emotional content or implied narrative, and that can sometimes come from a blurred or out of focus shot. Occasionally, I’ll even use a blurred shot in preference to one that is technically better.”
Q. How do you reflect on old work – does it ever feel finished?
“I haven’t yet taken a photo that I’m unreservedly happy about so I feel like I’m just beginning. There are lots of places I want to visit. Dhaka, Peshwar, Kabul, Laos, and many others. I’m also soon to begin taking photographs of refugees here in Hong Kong for an NGO, and human trafficking in all its forms, or rather the ‘traffic’ itself is a long-term project but one that is maybe too challenging given access issues. ”
Q. I see that there is limited colour work in your Flickr stream. And even less with time. Is something happening here, or is this coincidence?
“I think that reflects a progression from beginner to gaining more experience. The photos on my Flickr stream around 5-6 years ago are embarrassingly naïve to me now.
I know Flickr probably isn’t cool for many semi-serious photographers but it was one of the things that got me into photography…being able to show photographs to an audience rather than just stick them in a drawer at home. I know the Flickr stats are probably wildly inaccurate but mine show over 7 million image views so far. Even if we knock a zero or two off that number, it’s still a lot more visitors than my website. Flickr is also sort of democratic in that anyone can post anything with no pretence, and can even slam your photos if they wish. I now use it as sort of holding point for photos before sorting them into themes, and then eventually editing a few for my website.”
I’d like to thank the time and thought Jonathan has given to this interview. Readers are very welcome to leave comments and ask questions!