Jonathan May’s instinctual ability to take a concept and tell a fascinating visual story is indeed his calling card. The award-winning photographer loves to find interesting characters and unconventional locations, using colour and treatments to heighten the visual experience. His work visually engages by drawing in on the shared experience of the subject. He catches up with Larissa Meikle to discuss his latest body of work.
LBB> You have captured images that have taken you to rural Australia, Moscow, Botswana and through the harden streets of gangland Mexico. What’s the first thing you notice about a new place; that your lens naturally gravitates towards?
JM> I'm drawn to the poignancy of the human factor in every environment. If people are physically in the photograph, or elements of them are left behind, this always draws me in. It inevitably tells a very personal story. I am constantly aware of the power of storytelling within a place, and my aim is to allow the viewer to be moved or somehow touched by it.
I love observing and documenting everyday life, finding the beauty in the mundane and showing the viewer different people, places and scenes they would never have a chance to interact with. I have always enjoyed traveling, and the benefit of my profession is that I travel for both commissioned and personal work. This often allows me to work on my personal projects in places I wouldn't normally get to.
LBB> How important has it been for you as a photographer to travel outside of the familiar (whether geographically or demographically)? Does it test your comfort zone?
JM> Travelling outside of my comfort zone has been an absolute catalyst to my development as a person and as a professional photographer, and has also allowed me to greatly expand on my own body of work. To me, it is imperative to push myself and to go beyond my comfort zone, because that is when I find myself doing some of my best work.
In Africa I travelled around Mauritania, being aware of the risk of being kidnapped by Al Qaeda, and in Nairobi we had to visit a place called Baragoi where only two weeks prior, 41 police officers were murdered by bandits with machine guns. Looking back on it now, I think it was a little crazy, but it was an amazing adventure. I managed to get a great body of work that exhibited last year.
LBB> You spend a lot of time immersing yourself in the world of your subjects, how does this help you best frame them?
JM> It is so important to develop trust with your subject, for them to open up to you and allow you access to their world. When I first met the Mexican gangsters, I made sure I didn't turn up with my annoying camera, start firing away and impose on their personal space. I knew they were now into art and tattooing so I took my fine art portfolio and I sat down with them and showed them all my imagery, talking through my work so they could sense who I was as a person and the direction I wanted to head in.
I spent the weekend with them hanging out and getting up to some mischief so that when I returned in a week's time – with my camera, I had already formed a little bond with them. As a result, they instantly opened up to me and felt comfortable doing what I asked of them.
LBB> When you first worked in advertising agency print production, what kept you motivated to pursue professional photography?
JM> I was constantly seeing portfolios and keeping on top on the latest trends in advertising and photography. I did personal photo shoots in my spare time and studied the technical aspect of my craft and eventually started assisting photographers. The thing that kept me motivated was my passion, you need passion but most importantly you need persistence.
Even now, I am constantly learning as technology is continually progressing and this keeps me on my toes. I have a desire to always try to improve my work, and that combined with winning a few awards, reminds me that all the hard work and sacrifices are worth it. In the last four years I have lived in four continents – Australia, Europe (Moscow and Paris), Africa (Nairobi and The Ivory Coast) and now I am in the process of relocating to America.
Whilst this all sounds exciting, it’s also been quite challenging behind the scenes. Starting fresh in a new marketplace isn't easy. I’ve had the luxury of returning to Australia to pick up exciting work with clients, and will return to Sydney very soon.
LBB> You've won a Bronze Lion at Cannes for your work on the Google Maps “Know Before You Go” campaign. Was this a defining campaign for you?
JM> I have never really thought about it, but yes, I would say it has been. From an advertising point of view, for sure… it’s funny I am not usually trying to push my advertising work on the award scene. Instead, I am usually focused on entering personal work into award shows and then trying to let that recognition open doors for commissioned work. A silver or gold would feel sweeter though.
LBB> How does your personal work navigate the direction of your campaigns?
JM> It’s extremely important to help you win campaigns, because the art directors get a sense of who you are based on what you enjoy shooting. They can see what you can bring to the table that will differ from the next guy. My personal work is trying to create engaging visual story telling of a subject and I try to work on campaigns that reflect this style.
LBB> You have been a part of several solo as well as joint exhibitions (exhibiting in Moscow, Sydney, London, Paris and in the Ivory Coast). Are there any pros or cons to either (solo or joint) that you feel are worth mentioning?
JM> I think there are a lot of pros about having solo exhibitions. You get to include a solid body of work rather than just one or two images allowing you to tell a proper story or really get your point across. You have no competition from other photographers and can make connections to people that want to come and see only your work.
However, it also comes at a cost. Hiring the space, printing images and frames, designing and printing flyers, providing food and alcohol on the night, doing PR for the event and then manning the space while the show is on is not cheap. I am sure there are ways of doing it on a budget but my last exhibition cost me around $6,500, and you really need to ask yourself why you are exhibiting – is it for exposure, to sell prints, or to try and get some work from a viewing client.
LBB> You were a Head On Photo finalist last year for your Jericho Fitness Club shot. (Congrats!) Why do you think this image resonated so well with the judges?
JM> Thank you, I have been a finalist for the last five years and I’m always stoked to be amoungst such talented artists. The image is of a very skinny African man struggling to lift some huge concrete weights in a homemade backyard. I think it resonates so well because it is very different to the typical images shown from Africa of doom and gloom. It has humour (refreshing for that continent) plus the image also has body image tones, which is very relevant for the Western world we live in.
LBB> Luerzer’s Archive Top 200 Photographers 2014 included ‘Bentley’ from the SDCH campaign. It looks like a load of quirky fun. How was it on set that day?
JM> The brief went out to photograph sheltered animals in any way the photographer wanted. We were given the animals and the rest was up to us. It was an amazing brief because I had complete creative control, up until the final submission of the images. They were printed as one-off prints and auctioned at bus shelters to raise awareness of the shelter animals needing new homes. All of the animals found loving ones.
I grew up with both dogs and cats so I understand how they think. I knew they needed to be comfortable. The job had to be shot in two parts. I found an amazing location that would allow me to photograph the animals. I shot the background plate for each animal and then I visited the individual animals to shoot them in their own environment. It was important to match the lighting, angles and height of the camera to make it look as realistic as possible. I worked with an amazing team, including stylist Cherith Crozier, who considering the lack of budget, did a fabulous job bringing each scene to life.
Limehouse Creative worked on the images in post and added their usual touch of brilliance and magic. I was really happy with the images and they are still the last collection that people see in my advertising portfolio. More importantly, it was good to take part in a campaign that made a difference, not only to the animals but also to the people that took them home and received their love. The campaign also won a Bronze Lion at Cannes the same year as the Google job.
LBB> Any upcoming or recent work that we should know about? That you are looking forward to releasing or working on?
JM> I am currently in Los Angeles and am about to go visit my Mexican homies to finish off the "Desert Ink" series. The work has been selected by Head On Photo to be a featured exhibition in Sydney this year, meaning I will have another solo show at Gaffa Gallery at the end of April 2015. Stay in touch with my Facebook
page for more details.