How did you get into photography and, more specifically, the street photography genre?
I caught the photography bug from my father, who was a keen amateur photographer. When I was nine, my father gave me his old Leica IIIg fitted with a 50mm Elmar lens and a Weston Euromaster meter so that I could learn the fundamentals. He also collected photography magazines and annuals going back to the 1950s. From these I became familiar with the big names in photography. Being a great admirer of Cartier-Bresson, my father introduced me to his work.
Later, in my teens, the punk scene in London inspired me to dedicate my life to photography. At that time there was a belief that the most spontaneously creative, and accessible, place was the street, in relation to politics, style, fashion, art, and photography. Unhappy and frustrated at school, I took every opportunity to play truant and, with a group of friends who were all in bands, we hid in the library of Ealing Technical College, in West London. Not only did the college run at that time one of the best photography courses in the UK, but its photography library was also one of the best in London. It was there that I got lost in the work of Don McCullin, Garry Winogrand, Diane Arbus, and the Bauhaus, among others. With the same group at the same time, London provided me with a city vast enough never to be exhausted photographically. It also provided a steady stream of major exhibitions.
During my late teens, two exhibitions were life-changing for me. One was a retrospective exhibition of the work of W. Eugene Smith, at the Victoria and Albert Museum, whose Photography department at that time was directed by the great Mark Haworth-Booth. Smith’s sheer dedication and genius as a composer and printer of images literally made my jaw drop and stay dropped for several hours after seeing the exhibition. In fact, my closest friend at the time, now sadly dead, took a photograph of me looking at Smith’s work. I look shell-shocked. At that time too anyone could phone and make an appointment to view original prints in the archives of both the V&A and the old Photographer’s Gallery. I still remember the joy of handling original prints by Julia Margaret Cameron at the V&A, and by Elliott Erwitt, at the old Photographers’ Gallery.
The other exhibition was of William Klein at the old Photographers’ Gallery, in Great Newport Street. At that time, you could walk off the street, and join photographers of the calibre of Klein hanging their exhibitions, as I did when Klein was hanging his. Over roll-ups and coffee, he graciously took time off to chat with me about his work and photography in general, while at no point offering advice, wisely knowing that advice, especially from one’s elders, is something one should never follow.
Decades, later, I again bumped into an elderly Klein at his two-person exhibition with Daido Moriyama at Tate Modern (2012). I was able to thank him in person for the inspiration he provided in my decision to pursue the life of a photographer. This has sometimes been difficult and involved sacrifice, but I have never regretted it as it has helped me to find meaning, provided moments of joy, and enabled me to forge lifelong friendships.
Leaving school with few qualifications, I assisted the fashion photographer, Fausto Dorelli, at his studio in East London. It was there, I picked up some darkroom skills and learned about studio lighting. But my heart, was still out in the street. During lunch breaks and on errands across the city, I always had my Leica M2 and 28mm lens with me, ready to capture fleeting moments I found significant. That same camera and lens are still a favourite combination in my working practice, alongside my Fuji X100V and XPro-2.
What followed was professional work as a freelance photographer, mainly covering the music scene, alternative sub cultures and political protest on the streets of London and Paris. My first professional assignment was to document the lives of Vietnamese boat people newly arrived in the UK and housed at Sopley Refuge Camp in Hampshire, formerly an RAF set of barracks during WW2.
At this point in my career, I decided to enter higher education for the first time. I was reading a lot of Latin American literature in translation, especially the work of Jorge Luis Borges and Gabriel García Márquez and decided that I wanted to study Spanish and Latin American literature. Being of the last generation in the UK to enjoy the benefits of grant funded university study, this was a very happy period in my life, which included periods of study in Spain. A PhD at Cambridge University followed researching Hispanic Caribbean literature and periods of study in Puerto Rico, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic. After graduating from Cambridge, I worked for over a decade at Cardiff University, Nottingham University, and the University of Manchester. In Manchester, I taught and researched Hispanic and Latino visual cultures, cinema, and photography. This eventually led to curating an exhibition of New Latin American and Spanish Photography, at the Cervantes Institute, Manchester (2002).
Itching to return to practicing photography full time again, I became the Board Chairman of the Look 07 International Photography Festival, Manchester (2006 – 08). Since that time, I have worked on a range of commissions and projects in Europe and North Africa, often dealing with questions of migration, refugee experience, diaspora, and memory, particularly how these are lived on the street, as the primary urban space where encounters between strangers take place.
Something I really like about your work is your projects. How do you get started on a project? Do you think up an idea and then go out and shoot for it or do the projects evolve more naturally?
I’ve always liked Diane Arbus’s approach to projects. She once wrote:
“The Chinese have a theory that you pass through boredom into fascination and I think it’s true. I would never choose a subject for what it means to me or what I think about it. You’ve just got to choose a subject, and what you feel about it, what it means, begins to unfold if you just plain choose a subject and do it enough.”
Some projects arise out of commissions or collaborations. But, mostly I just walk, following my eyes with an open mind. Themes emerge as an organic process from the accumulation of images, the editing process, and discussions such as we are having now. What keeps me going is the wish to discover why I choose to photograph certain people and things. Those choices arise from a deeper place than a conscious decision to photograph or an idea. I’m with Robert Adams when he stated that ‘[U]seful pictures don’t start from ideas. They start from seeing.’
Do you recommend writing about your work? I enjoyed the journal entries that often accompany your projects.
In my case, photography and writing go hand in hand. My essential equipment is not only a camera but also a notebook and diary. Often, my writing leads me towards certain photographs, and photographs lead to writing, especially when I have been unable to make a photograph for whatever reason. I then compensate for the loss by writing about it. For The Other City and other projects, I have kept a diary, sticking Polaroid Hi-Prints into it and accompanying notes. This helps me to make sense of what I am doing with a series of photographs. Space for reflection is opened in the interval between photograph and writing.
Tell us more about your project, “The Other City.”
The Other City is an ongoing series shot in several cities based on the idea I have followed through several suites of photographs of all the cities represented merging and dissolving into each other through the photographer’s memories and dreams to become The City.
I suppose this sense of strandedness in-between is inevitable for those, like me, who are offspring of two diasporas; the first one being the exchange of populations after the end of the Ottoman Empire, and second being the great diaspora of Greeks after World War Two. The latter scattered Greeks to several countries and continents, primarily to the United States and Australia and, in my case, England via Canada, where I was born. How is it possible to present a continuous narrative out of diaspora, when diaspora involves interruption, a shattering of history, biography, and identity? And this is even more true of the refugee experience, considering the violence that is done to their narratives. I have come to think that my tendency to write in fragments and, as a photographer, to deal in fragments, has something to do with such uprootedness. But maybe openness to other people, other histories, other cultures, is also the result of being a child of the Greek diaspora. Borders offer limits but also invite us to exceed those limits.
The Other City is perhaps the product of my drifting in and out of words, languages, images, and cities, suspended between them by photography, whose in-betweenness gives space for the imagination to wander. It is the place of silence. The pause where encounters take place. The important thing for me is the space between.
What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced in street photography and how have you overcome them?
One challenge faced by all street photographers is keeping one’s energy levels up for what is a physically demanding activity. Being physically fit is an advantage. However, there is a downside to physical fitness and that is the temptation to move at high speed which can lead to one to being less observant. I have found it important to slow down as the paradoxical means of reacting effectively to the speed of the city.
Another contemporary challenge is the increasingly corporate takeover of public space, which can restrict a photographer’s freedom of movement through the over-zealous deployment of security personnel and surveillance cameras to police urban space. Such restrictions have been reinforced by anti-terrorist measures taken since 9/11.
Recent privacy laws have also been challenging. For example, in France, especially Paris, it is now virtually illegal to take photographs of anyone in a public space without their permission. Ironical, in one of the capital cities of street photography.
On the other hand, in the UK it is extremely difficult to photograph children in the street due to the current moral panic about paedophilia. I wonder whether, in 100 years, viewers of photographs will conclude that children did not exist in the 21st century.
I have dealt with the above challenges by knowing my rights as a citizen and photographer and trusting my own moral compass when deciding when it is appropriate to photograph.
What is your most memorable moment or photo from street photography?
Memorable? The relationship between photographs and the memories we have of them as photographers is a complicated one, especially when the memory is translated into writing. Locations shift and the details are distorted in the transition. Take a recent example:
While the details of the events related did indeed take place in the late Metal Bar and it was indeed closed down I misremembered its demolition. The shuttered building is still there. Walking past it the other day I realised that it was not demolished, the demolition described ending two streets further towards the newly opened Tottenham Court Road Station. Prompted by my sense of loss I had merged the closing of the bar and the nearby demolition and misremembered. Yet another reminder that every photograph and indeed every memory has an element of the fictional about it.
What has street photography taught you?
That, with open eyes, the best photographs are on your doorstep. Also, that the greatest challenge is to photograph your everyday reality. In my view, it is a mistake to believe that one has to travel far to photograph or indeed encounter the world. I’m with Marcel Proust when he writes: ‘The only true voyage […] would be not to visit strange lands but to possess other eyes’.
Editor’s Note: To learn more about John and see more of his work, be sure to visit his Flickr photostream and his website. You can also find John on Instagram, Tumblr, Facebook and Twitter. This photographer was selected from our Flickr group (Street Photography Magazine), where we regularly choose photographers’ work to be published in our magazine.