Flash, Bang, Waller, What a Picture!
So what does JJ stand for?
Just as it is, JJ.
What is your background, and what do you think drove you into becoming a photographer?
As a suburban kid, for years my mother would regularly take me on very long bus rides around London, I think looking back it was this quiet studying of the world from the upstairs of a bus that really focussed my powers of observation. Looking out of a bus window was like looking through a lens. I still love riding buses now.
From secondary school I went to drama college. I never did very well at school except in drama and English. Drama in education means a lot to me. I am a massive advocate of drama and improvisation as a creative educational medium. Improvisation and theatre can unlock so many exciting possibilities especially for young people.
I got my first camera when I was about 23. My wife, Jasmine rented a room in a photographer’s house and my interest in cameras and the dark room began because of that. My first serious body of work wasn’t until a good few years later when I joined the circus.
it was after that came to an end that I started the evening class and then I joined the degree course in Brighton.
What equipment do you use?
It’s all Fuji gear and has been since going digital. My first Fuji was just 6 Megapixels my latest is a larger format 102 Megapixels (the detail it can record is really changing my way of seeing things). Nowadays I only work with two prime lenses, I always travel with as little gear as possible. I don’t miss the ‘steam age’ of film and dark room photography with the resulting chemical stains on all my clothes. The film route is a superb grounding but very expensive. I love the immediacy of digital.
How does your creative process work?
I am inquisitive about people and places. Overall I follow my intuition and explore ideas in a very fluid empirical way. One scenario or one body of work feeds into another. Doors swing open and I just step through and see how things work out. I have a real passion and thrill to make pictures. I’m always excited to see how what I have seen will look like as a photograph. I like to explore how a simple scene can be elevated into a descriptive and resonant moment.
I try to bring as many elements into play at one given moment. I aspire to tell stories and to pose questions. Of course not every picture I make achieves that, but it’s the underscore of my intent. Some pictures and some ideas simply fail but that is part of the process. If I knew every time how things would look that would be pointless, it’s the unknown and the subsequent discoveries that offer the most to me as an artist. I try to make better pictures all the time. To be honest I think my best work is still to be made. I am still finding my voice.
Many of your photographs feature what I would call ‘coincidence’. How long do you wait around for some of these coincidences to happen?
Often probably not as long as I should. The rule is there are no rules. I can probably tell you a different story about every individual picture I have made. Some are coincidences, some are collisions and very many are missed opportunities.
Do you make a conscious effort to get some element of humour into your photographs?
No, not consciously. Humour is such a subjective thing and people can react so differently to the same picture. I might see some humour in a shot, but if that was all there was to the image it would probably be one-dimensional. I try to make images that can be revisited and continue to ask different questions or reveal something that hasn’t been noticed on subsequent viewings. When I am putting spreads together for books I might choose more humorous shots to draw the eye into the page.
You seem to be able to see things that others cannot, why do you think this is?
Maybe! Sometimes! The photographer has the potential to be a guide around the familiarity of the everyday. Being an outsider with the time to look definitely helps. It’s a bit of a luxury really that I have no agenda. Although assignments and commissions can focus time and observation, being free to come home empty handed can also have advantages.
My visits to St Leonards and Hastings are always full of expectations as to what and whom I might see. There is something special about working here
that thrills me. I hope my work has resonance with the present day and will have meaning to people looking back on the work in future years. Many of the pictures record changes in St Leonards in particular. When I first photographed there it was very much ‘peeling paint and super lager soaked’.
You were recently working in Benidorm, does this mean that a Benidorm book is imminent or was this for a different type of project?
Benidorm is pure indulgence for me. I have been photographing there a lot over the last 6 years or so, I really like the place. I can’t see a book of my pictures being very successful. It’s a bit like my Blackpool work, which did become a book but it didn’t / isn’t really selling that well. Tourists might buy it if it was full of pictures of trams and donkeys… but it isn’t.
People go to Benidorm and Blackpool for reasonably priced fun, not to spend twelve pounds on a photography book. I think it is more likely that there may be a future book with pictures of my work from all the resorts I have photographed in. In Blackpool, there are very few places to sell a book like mine, no stylish independent shops that St Leonards and Hastings have in abundance.
Similarly, in Benidorm where would I sell it? The Blackpool work started as an assignment but I liked the place so much I went back there seven times in a year. My Blackpool work is going to be part of a major new museum celebrating British seaside history. They are using my pictures as a contemporary counterbalance to work made by Mass Observation in the 1930s. Interestingly, the Mass Observation Archive is held by the University of Sussex Special Collections at The Keep, in Falmer.
I love your lockdown photographs, did you feel an obligation to document such an abnormal time in all our lives, or were you just desperate for something to do?
Thank you. I had the idea instantly when the lockdown was planned. It’s a simple idea to photograph people looking out through windows. I knew other photographers all over the country would do the same thing, but it is important not to be intimidated by thoughts like that.
“I recently looked at a copy of the book. It still makes me feel quite emotional. It’s not just the pictures but the vox pop: the deeply heartfelt quotes from the people who trusted me to come to their home and document their time in such a significant event”
I had literally dozens and dozens of people contact me to be photographed. It was easy for people to grasp the importance of the portraits, both as a record for society but also for individuals and families to show future generations. It didn’t need any explanation, people just got it and wanted to be a part of it.
Jasmine Uddin’s introduction to the book is phenomenal. It was also amazing to work with Martin Parr who is a photographer that I respect enormously. His agreeing to edit the picture selection for the book meant a great deal.
The Lockdown pictures got a lot of traction in the Guardian and magazines as well as being used in the credits of Brian Hill’s groundbreaking short TV dramas made under the parameters of Lockdown 1.
I recently looked at a copy of the book. It still makes me feel quite emotional. It’s not just the pictures but the vox pop: the deeply heartfelt quotes from the people who trusted me to come to their home and document their time in such a significant event. In time, when people are ready to look back the Lockdown book will get a boost I think it deserves. I should also mention that it was backed by Philip and Olivia Oakley who encouraged me to publish it. Another example of how local people have supported my work.
Do you prefer photographic situations where the subject matter is aware of you or when they have no idea you’re there?
I’m not really bothered. I like both. Possibly my favourite is a combination of the two. In my second lockdown project I photographed right up to the window glass into peoples homes. I wanted to capture a sense of peoples’ day to day lockdown experience. These were great collaborations that involved a lot of direction and interaction from me. In both lockdown projects people overall enjoyed being directed, it gave us all something to do.
Do you have a dream location for a photography project?
That’s a good question, I do like going on assignments and to new places as it sharpens my instincts and really motivates me, but actually I love the places that I have already spent a huge amount of time photographing in. This has become my raison d’etre, spending time in places that I have genuine feelings for.
I would like to make a lot more work in St Leonards and to follow more personal stories. I think my pictures conjure a sense of place but I think it is time to collaborate and offer greater insight into the
lives of some of the people who live there. If I had to answer just one location alone I would happily say I have found it already, here in St Leonards and Hastings.
You must have taken so many photographs over the years, is there one that stands out as a favourite for you?
That’s difficult. Every photo has some kind of story or adventure attached but photographing my mother’s breast after a breast cancer operation stands out.
If you had to describe Hastings and St Leonards in one sentence to someone who’d never been, what would you say?
The Artist Christopher Steele once made a brilliant T Shirt that said ‘Hastings: A Drinking Town with a Fishing Problem.’
Is there anything that you dislike about Hastings?Sometimes there is a blinkered approach to embracing and celebrating the many and huge assets of the towns. The political leaders fail to find creative or imaginative solutions. I’m thinking of the Pier, St Mary In The Castle, The Country Park and Rocklands to name a few.
What is your favourite thing about Hastings and St Leonards?
It has such an incredible and vibrant talent base of artists from all disciplines, but on a very personal level, there have been almost no times when people have said ‘no’ to me and my camera. It’s a ‘very can do’ place with very can do people.” People generally have a real love for the towns, I have never met anyone who regretted living or moving there.
Which are your favourite places to hang out in Hastings or St Leonards?
I keep discovering places all the time. I love that there are still pinball machines in Hastings, the incredible beach at Fairlight Glen, exploring Bulverhythe, the Hastings Museum, Fat Tuesday, The St Leonards Festival, The Kings Road of course, and the fact that everyone loves dressing up.
JJ Waller’s latest book St Leonards on Sea & Hastings is available through Waterstones, The Bookkeeper on Kings Road, or direct from jjwaller.com.
Follow JJ on Instagram for daily, recent and archive work @jj.waller.