Bio. Offer us a short, snappy (not-copied-from-your-website or any publication), fun biography. Who are you?
I’m Jo. I was raised in a rural area in the North of England. Growing up, I didn’t know that ‘Photographer’ was a job. Photography wasn’t taught at my school, and it wasn’t something that the people around me did: they worked hard, arduous jobs. Even now, most of the people I know are farmers, nurses, and retail workers. In my social circles, not everyone had the chance to go to university. I was quite naïve: I really thought I need to get away from my roots and to get to London to study. I was the first in my family to go to university; higher education is still not a given for people where I come from. At first, I really wanted to hide who I was, where I came from—to pretend that I was someone or something different to get on in the world. I quickly learned that class—that socio-economics—would be one of the most limiting factors in the small world of photography.
In my work, I began to look at class issues, and I realized that I was representing a part of myself, my past, where I come from. My work explores social change and community. I work internationally, too, but mainly I work in the North of England.
Also, I love coffee and dogs.
Beginning. Do you remember the first time you picked up a camera? The first picture you took? Tell us a story about your beginning.
The story of getting and having access to cameras is important to me. In so many interviews I’ve read, photographers just say a version of “and there it was and that was it; I had my XXX camera.” Those cameras are usually worth thousands of dollars! And they offer no explanation for their access to this kind of gear—as though it’s natural and normal to have great sums of money. I teach workshops for young people and I can tell you that many cannot access that kind of equipment. But I tell them to work within the barriers—to turn the barriers into opportunities.
My grandad was someone who always believed in me: he was a part-time fisherman and a plasterer. We stayed with him and my nanna every weekend. Sometimes they’d give me a disposable camera, encouraging me to play with it and then to tell stories about the images when I got the blurry film back. This would only happen about twice a year, but the memories stand out for me. After that I didn’t have access to a camera until I began to study. I used anything and everything I could get my hands on. I learned not to covet things that would actually set me back, and that I could tell my story within those limitations. I’ve ended up building a career on things that might seem like barriers. I live with mental health challenges, work in an isolated rural area, and grew up working class. These things are uniquely me, and they inform the stories that I photograph, and how.
Being. What are you working on now? Where? How? Why?
Right now, I am in Barcelona doing commercial work—the work I do to get by. I’m also working on several documentary projects: one about rural schools closing in the UK, another about the fishing industry post-Brexit, and another about female farmers. I have an intimate connection to each story that I undertake. I want to document my own class.
In the UK, there is a photographic tradition that sees middle-class artists passing through places, passing judgement, perhaps commenting on issues but not working to change anything. Is this really seeing? Listening to a photography podcast last week, I heard two middle-class men defend this method of photography. To me, this means not only securing their own privilege and power, but actively taking it away from others.
Blown-away. Show us the last image that completely took your breath away (contemporary or historical—depending on where you’ve been looking). What do you love about it?
I wasn’t really familiar with Vanessa Winship’s work until her show at the Barbican in London this year. The images really had an effect on me: they stopped me in my tracks. There it was empathy, not sympathy—the power of connection. The images were empowering to the people within them. Sounds simple? It had been so long since I was held by an image so intimately. I could have spent hours looking at her work. To me, it’s a form of documentary poetry. The words ‘documentary’ and ‘photojournalism’ can have negative connotations ethically and morally. This kind of work is subjective and emotional and can encourage social change. It makes me ask questions: to think and to feel.
I can’t say what that first pull towards this image was. Maybe I saw something familiar there—myself as a teenager on the moors. The landscape hinted at something I knew, but then became alien to me the longer I looked at it. These young women seem on the edge of something: is that adolescence, the borderlands, or something else? Winship had spent over ten years working in the area. I have so much respect for photographers who intimately get to know what they document, or even document what is close to them.
Between. Discuss the relationship between you and your subjects (whether people, objects, land). What is the nature of your relationship with the things you photograph or film?
I like to build relationships. I have a strong respect for those people that come together and allow me to photograph them. I am a natural introvert, so it takes me time to connect, but I love to listen to people’s stories. The images are almost secondary. Those stories people tell me inform the images I proceed to make. It cannot always work like this, of course, but it’s my preferred way. The time that people give me is a gift, and I understand they are taking a chance on me. I like to be honest and clear about what I’m doing, and why. I think about these things quite a lot. I feel very protective of and responsible for those that I photograph.
Burden. What are some of the difficulties or challenges of being a woman who photographs?
Confidence is a massive barrier. Many women have bravely spoken out this year and more eloquently than I ever could. The CJR report by Kristen Chick has been a keystone. It has let women know we are not alone: we can speak up, we are here, we have your backs, and we will need to pull together. We need men to hear us and to listen, to act. And this: “Women of color are particularly vulnerable targets for harassment, both because they are less likely to be included in the so-called whisper networks used by women in the industry to warn each other about harassers, and because, as an already marginalized population, they have more to lose by speaking.” I really feel that this is a key moment in the history of photography. There are women out there putting themselves in the line of internet trolls, ensuring these messages get heard. There are great women saying brilliant things. A few names stand out to me: Anastasia Taylor Lind, Daniella Zalcman, Sara Hylton, and of course Kristen Chick herself. I am hoping this is the slow start of some very real changes.
Better. How do you work towards continuous improvement, on honing your craft?
I am very self-critical, which has its pros and its cons. Being part of a collective is a great way for me to learn, to work on my strengths and weaknesses. I am currently a member of an arts collective called Form. We show work together and respond to each other’s ideas. This kind of engagement is really vital for me and helps me improve.
Business. Can you talk a bit about the business versus the art of photography?
Big YES! The “business” of photography is a taboo subject. The fact is, a successful photographer will have a business plan, an updated website, multiple spreadsheets of information, a database of professional contacts, etc. I am self-employed. I am a sole trader and a business owner: I am a photographer. I have never had the luxury of not working continuously. I don’t mind talking about money, about the jobs I do. It is a balancing act. You can’t do too much of one (i.e. the work for money) or you lose too much of the other (i.e. the personal passion projects). They are both important.
Balance. When you are not photographing, what are you doing that keeps you grounded? What (else) do you do for fun?
I don’t get to spend very much time with my loved ones, as I’m always working. I love spending time with my partner while he is working on his tractor, training our puppy, seeing my mum, seeing my grandparents. These very simple things sustain me. It’s a privilege to be a photographer, but the job comes with sacrifices. I work about 70 hours every week, so my down time is very family and friend-focused.
Beyond. Tell us about a future project or challenge that you hope to tackle. (Feel free to answer this question literally or figuratively).
More diversity in the arts. This is a massive challenge. I’ve set up an organization called Lens Think: we put on socials, try to provide a safe space for artists to talk, create paid opportunities for creatives, mentor young people, set up pop-up exhibitions, and more. We might only make small changes but my motto is: lead by example.
Bonus. What question do you wish I’d asked but didn’t? Pose it: then answer it.
How do you make a living?
I know, I know: shut up about class already. For me this is a very real question. We often see our peers through social media, where everyone looks as though they doing brilliantly 100% of the time. I think for someone who lives below the poverty line and comes from a working class background, the photo industry (and perhaps the arts in general) is not welcoming. People don’t want to share the opportunities that are already hard for them to get. It’s 2018: we need to open our eyes and see these very real power struggles, to talk openly about the dangers of class oppression. About why it’s important that people are given the chance to tell their own stories. I work many hours, mostly doing photography. The last few months have been hard and I’ve been milking (cows, not cash!) to get by. I do this from 4am to 8am. I am not ashamed to say I need to do this now and again, but in the photo world, it’s taboo. We’re supposed to pretend not to need (another) part-time job to make ends meet. That’s considered success, and it’s a Catch-22. Photo editors know how much they pay for editorial work, and not many photographers can make a living from these assignments alone unless one is independently wealthy. I want to share that I often need to work at other things, that I do socially-engaged work and workshops with young people (which I love), that I do commercial work and I milk cows. I want to share this so that other people can see it and know that they are doing well. That we can struggle together rather than alone.