Justin Sneddon spends his working life exploring London’s streets as a taxi driver and a good chunk of his spare time as a exploring London’s faces as a photographer. He’s recently shed his inhibitions about approaching strangers in the street to photograph them for his growing collection of portraits and as a result, has been able to forge a greater connection with his subjects leading to more powerful images.
In his interview for London Art Spot, Justin talks about who and what inspired him to approach that first stranger, exactly what he said to him and the most negative reaction he’s received so far. Scroll down and, between Justin’s stories, you’ll see some lovely work and a brave approach to street photography.
LLO: Give us a bit of background info first. Where are you from and what do you do for a living?
JS: I am a London taxi driver. I grew up in Greenwich and now live in Bexleyheath, Kent.
LLO: How has your photography style changed and developed over the years?
JS: I don’t think it has changed, at least not in the style sense. I have always made an attempt to frame my shots properly, and where possible include some background or foreground detail. The reason I wanted to start getting closer and closer to my subjects was that the more I travelled, the more I saw the world becoming homogenised, thus making getting an unique photo from a particular destination very difficult. Basically it’s all just glass and concrete, no matter where you are. My first trip with my first digital SLR was Hong Kong, and I know it sounds utterly ridiculous, but I was expecting it to look like it did in the film Enter The Dragon. What I mean was I was looking forward to the low flying aircraft coming into land (the airport has been moved further away), rickshaws (gone), and the bustling Junks of Aberdeen Bay (now more a tourist attraction). Then what happens when you point your camera at someone abroad is they either pick up an object to hide their face, or hold their hand out for money.
LLO: When did you start taking street portraits?
JS: I have been doing street photography for a few years now, but it has always been in one of two forms. The first was “from the hip”, which was putting a wide angle/standard lens on, setting the camera to servo, and taking photos anywhere but up against my face. I would see someone that caught my eye, then employ various methods to avoid looking like I was taking a photo of them. This way resulted in some nice candid shots, but I also lost a lot because they were out of focus, or cut parts of bodies off.
The second method was to use a telephoto lens 300/400mm, and take a photo while maintaining a comfortable distance. The problem I have always had with these two methods is the anxiety beforehand, the funny looks I was about to get, and people looking annoyed that I was photographing them.
LLO: What influenced you to begin capturing strangers with your camera?
JS: A few months ago I picked up someone who was a friend of my someone in my family, and who was, how can I say, always extravagantly dressed – usually a leather trench coat, lots of piercings, and dark make-up. I told him about my photography methods, and he said disagreed with that approach, that if someone asked to take his picture, he would gladly let them. I then heard about the street photographer Eric Kim on The Candid Frame podcast, and listened to his methods. He actually, for most of his shots, asked people, and they, for the most part, agreed. After getting my hands on a 50mm f1.4 lens last year, and seeing the stunning results using the shallow depth of field, I decided I wanted to take pictures of people with just their eye(s) in focus. I preferred this because it meant the image doesn’t look flat due to a person’s whole head being pin sharp. It also means that photos look like they were taken with an SLR, not a compact. The final item that I needed, which arrived this week, was a battery grip for my DSLR. First of all you don’t have to arch your arm right round when you need to turn the camera to portrait, but most importantly, when people see this monster of a camera I am carrying, they take you very seriously. I remember reading an article about a pro who goes to big events, and he noted that the bigger & more impressive his camera looked (battery grips, flashes and brackets, big lenses), the more celebrities etc would want to to stop and allow themselves to be photographed.
LLO: How do you approach people?
JS: The decider was seeing a tweet that listed Eric Kim’s “102 things I have learned from street photography”, and one was to ask people if you can take their picture – they are usually always very accommodating.
So off I headed for the Brick Lane area; I parked up just east of it (most places free on a Saturday), and headed down one of the many graffiti covered streets looking for my first victim, err, I mean, model. My first was a real gem, a guy, maybe in his mid thirties, dressed pretty normally, but, he was adjusting his monocle!! That was really rare, I had to get him, so I crossed the road and made sure I stopped about 10 feet in front of him; so as not to startle him. I asked “excuse me, would you mind if I took your picture”, (holding my huge camera up for him to see) he replied “sure”, and the deed was done. For the next hour and a half I wondered about, just asking this same question to people, and only 1 in 10 said “no thanks”. I was asked a few times what it was for, and told them I was just a street photographer; this seemed to be enough of an answer for them all. One thing I quickly realised that I needed to print up some business cards, as some people wanted to know where they could see their photo. Roll on the next trip out.
LLO: Have you ever had a negative reaction from a subject? How did you (or would you) smooth over the situation?
JS: Yes, from a punk sitting on the canal bridge in Camden Town. I pointed my lens at him, he immediately clocked me and shouted “if you want to take my photo then I want money”. In that situation I just wondered off sheepishly. Hopefully now that I am asking people’s permission, I shouldn’t get any negative reactions.
LLO: Tell us about the most interesting Londoner you’ve had the pleasure of photographing so far.
JS: To be honest, I don’t really chat to the people that I photograph, other than asking them firstly to take their photo, and secondly to not step back as I want a full head shot. If I had to choose one, I would say the first I photographed with my new technique, which was the man with the monocle. Most of the other people that day looked like many other people I have seen around London – various lengths of facial hair, different styles (rockabilly, punk, hippies etc), different ethnicities – but why was this guy in his mid thirties wearing a monocle? I think maybe as I gain more confidence I will start asking people about their look, then I can add it in the description field on Flickr. Also, I have now printed up 1000 business cards to give people after I have photographed them. Maybe when they go on line to see their photo, they themselves may want to add something.
LLO: What do you hope to accomplish through this work?
JS: Why am I doing this? well I like to take pictures of anything that catches my eye, whether it’s a building or a bird, aircraft or a shark, but to be honest, they all become a bit stale after you have one or two photos of each. You end up looking for that one “stunning” capture, which means you touch your shutter button less and less. Not only is there always a different number of faces on this planet at any one time, but they change every fraction of a second depending on different circumstances – ageing, disease, emotion, make-up, pollution, location, time of day, lighting etc etc… You can see whole stories in faces, and you can stare endlessly at one trying to imagine what’s going on in their minds and their lives. Basically I can now see this being my chosen direction for the foreseeable future – to build a library of “faces”.
LLO: Where do you see your future as a photographer?
JS: I don’t want to become a photographer for a living, as every professional photographer I have ever met or read about, hardly ever lift their camera up for fun. I am happy as a London Taxi driver, but wouldn’t mind my work being displayed in public – museums, galleries, shops – I don’t mind. One thing I did advertise myself as once was as a “personal travel photographer”. The idea being that someone, a couple, or a family, would hire me to travel with them, and record their trip through both pictures and video. This would then free them up to do what they want to do, and rest assured that all of their adventure would be recorded. Of course this would rely on them being relatively well off, as it would mean paying me not only a wage, but any transport, accommodation, and food costs. I created a website, but only got one enquiry in 2 years, so just let the website expire.
LLO: Which other London-based photographers do you most admire and why?
JS: I’ve always seen photographers being asked this question, and always dreading it being asked to me – because I don’t have any. I think is just down to I don’t spend much time scrolling through the internet looking at other people’s work. I have several other hobbies that take up much of my time. When it comes to my photography, I go out, take pictures for a few hours, spend an hour or so tweaking them before uploading to Flickr, then onto my other hobbies. I rely on suggestions from “Light Stalking”, “photojojo” and “petapixel” on Twitter. These bloggers put up links to cool stuff they’ve found, saving me the trouble, then I have quick scan.
See more of Justin’s work, visit his Flickr page.
For more London Art Spot interviews, click here.