Photographers In Focus #003: Jonny Pickup

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Like many of the Faces in Focus photographers, the British photojournalist and documentary filmmaker Jonny Pickup caught the travel bug early on. It is something which he says helped grow his enthusiasm and ardour for photography. He has captured faces from around the world, bringing to light some of the lesser known global issues many are faced with today. Pickup’s photographic story Flush was a revealing investigation into the exploitation of tea pickers in Darjeeling. His use of shadows and dark contrasts exposed a life unknown to many and was especially significant to us, a nation of tea-drinkers. Pickup is back again with some captivating new work leaving Faces in Focus wanting to find out more about the man behind the lens…

When did you have that first spark for photography?

Photography truly came into my life as an unplanned by-product of traveling. I think when you experience anything new it’s natural to want to document it, particularly when you consider that experience to be of a unique nature, so when I left school and decided to travel I documented my trips with photography. I travelled for six years all across the world; I would come home every eight to ten months to earn more money and to see my family, but for the majority of that time I was away. I had Nikon f3 35mm film camera that was my dad’s and I would use it to photograph in a generic, touristy kind of way. That changed when I was 19 in Morocco.

I was in the city of Rabat when I saw this old lady hunched over in a door; a single streak of light pieced the high medina walls and landed on her perfectly. I took the photograph completely submersed in the moment and fell in love with it right there and then. Onwards it became a quintessential part of what I was searching for on each trip. Trying to capture something meaningful, aesthetically or otherwise became very important to me.

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What was it like returning to education for your Masters degree in 2015?

To be honest it was quite overwhelming. I was out of education since I was 17, so trying to write academic essays on complex photographic theories took some commitment!

When I decided to go back to education I applied to Leeds University as a mature student and despite not having the right A-level grades got an interview for a spot on their undergraduate course. I presented the portfolio of work I had amassed from my years abroad and very surprisingly, was offered a place on their MA instead. I accepted and spent that year in Leeds working almost non-stop. It was very intense.

In hindsight I think it was a very positive course from me, it educated me massively on what it means to be a photographer, the messages behind imagery and the importance of how we use photography to communicate. I loved it.

What type of camera do you use?

I shoot a lot on film. 35mm and 120mm mainly, and then combine that with digital when commissioned to do a project.

What kind of a reaction did you get from Flush? Was it the reaction you’d hoped for? 

It was great. I mean, would I have loved it to reach a slightly wider audience so that more heard the message? Of course! But, I was very fortunate to get it out as much as it did. It had a two and half-month solo exhibition in Leeds and then it was brought down to London to be shown at the Old Truman Brewery in Brick Lane. It was shared across countless online platforms and printed into a book. Overall, the photographs and the message behind them were well received.

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Do you think social media platforms have changed the way we think about the photographic medium? Do you think it has changed for the better or worse?

Yes, It has defiantly changed. I don’t think anyone would say it hasn’t?

I think if you are going to consider this question you have to first isolate ‘media platforms’ from the equation and think momentarily about the impact digital technology has had on the ontology of the photographic medium—as online platforms and digital images are inextricably tied. A digital image is different to an analogue one. The way light is recorded, cost, capacity, manipulation possibilities, and—importantly to this question—the ways in which images are distributed. Simply put, If the digital camera were never invented media platforms would not change the way in which we think about the photographic medium to the same extent. However, the combination of digital imagery with the reach and instantaneous nature of online media platforms does create drastic changes to the photographic.

If we consider: 95-million photos are shared per day on Instagram, and 40-billion photos have been posted in the apps lifetime, how valuable is one of those images? Photographs are therefore devalued by the multitude in which they are distributed. Possible because a digital image can be captured, uploaded, and distributed in a matter of minutes. Media platforms change the way we interact with photographs; they are far less indexical than they used to be. Unless we physically visit a gallery we don’t interact with images, we see them on a tiny screen and judge the photographers based on a ‘like’ or ‘follow’ system. How many ‘likes’ an image accumulates is how likely other online uses are to see it. As photographers this changes the way in which we interact with our audience. We want our work to be seen and its messages heard, so we chase ‘likes’ and ‘followers’ but to what end? Does it make an image more valuable if it has 10,000 likes or 3? Further, does that then effect our appreciation of the photograph, I.E do we favour images that our peers deem to be more of a success?

On the otherhand, media platforms do allow all voices to be heard. It is not as elitist. When it was only analogue— cameras, development and distribution were realistic possibilities for only a few. With the advent of media platforms and digital cameras stories can be told for relatively little money (especially now cameras are in phones), and heard by anybody. Geography is no longer a limitation of distribution and nor is time. We can communicate with images instantly from anywhere. For less privileged people in third world countries, or amidst war, this is vital. Their stories are heard.

For better or for worse, media platforms do change the way in which we think about photography as a medium. 

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Who inspires you (photographic or otherwise)?

Sebastiao salgado, Steve Mccurry, Werner Herzog, Don Mccullin, Tarantino, Louis theroux

Are your approaches to film and photography different or do you work with the same mindset for both? How do they change if so?

I do work with the same mind-set, I think. There is definitely the same process anyway of:

Idea Generation—Research—Pre-production—Production—Post-production

But, with film it’s often a far bigger process. Not always, but most of the time it needs more money and more people. Photography is just you and your camera, solo. If I’m shooting a documentary I will have a producer/ researcher, a DOP, sound mixer/ boom operator. So, on location there is defiantly a different vibe, you can feel less integrated as a filmmaker. But, my mind-set of telling stories stays consistent yes.

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What was your childhood dream?

Hmmm I think probably some kind of sports man, maybe a rugby player? 

What’s the next country you hope to travel to?

I think it will be Greece. I am in contact with a few really good charities, so my hope is to head out in the next month and do some work for them. Towards the end of this year I have a couple bigger trips lined up which I am really excited about.  

Name one image / painting / photograph that has changed the way you look at the world.

Workers in Serra Pelada Gold Mine (1986 Para, Brazil), by Sebastiao Salgardo

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Check out Jonny's latest film here

Faces In Focus