London Art Spot: Jon Campenni


In case he ever approaches you in the street, don’t be alarmed. Jon’s been documenting his interactions with strangers for the popular 100 strangers photography project in London and beyond. Though it’s an ongoing project, a few of his favourite images will be on display at the Brick Lane Gallery next month. 

Read on to find out why taking part in this project is important to Jon, his advice for anyone else who’d like to get involved and the tale of a very memorable meeting with a recovering drug addict who was open to sharing his story. Details of Jon’s upcoming exhibition are at the end.

WayneWayne is a native Londoner and a photographer. He was on Brick Lane checking out a gallery with a friend before stopping at a vintage shop where he was spotted by Jon. 

LLO: Tell us a bit about your background first. Where are you from, what do you do for a living and any hobbies apart from photography?
JC: I was born and raised in the suburbs of Philadelphia. I spent a few years in New York City working for an bank before relocating to London to work for the same company. Outside of photography, I am a big music fan; I have a passion for live music of all genres. Additionally, I love traveling. I’ve been to about 20 cities worldwide, and after New York City, my favorite city is Paris.

Tommy3Tommy has a thick Cockney accent, a past as a drug addict and a golden heart. He was sharing a 10:30am six pack with his best friend of 20 years when Jon photographed him on Brick Lane.

LLO: As an avid street photographer, you’ve been participating in the popular 100 strangers project since Autumn 2012. Tell us a bit about this project and how you got involved.
JC: Firstly, the project is something anyone can do. If you have a camera, and a desire to get out of your comfort zone, you can do this. On the surface, all it really involves is approaching strangers, getting to know them, obtaining their permission to take their picture, and posting it on Flickr and other social media sites. However, once someone actually starts the project, I think they see its a lot more than just that, and really it means different things for different people.

Personally, I was looking for something to get involved with in terms of a hobby, and it quickly turned into a passion. It really just kind of took on a life of its own for me once I started posting on my Facebook and Flickr pages, and now I am getting ready to exhibit part of the project here in London.

ShiShi Shi a designer from China, living in London. Her mum worked in a garment factory in China that Shi Shi would visit frequently as a young girl and where she learned many skills.

LLO: You said that your only goal in starting this project was to engage with the world around you. What have you learned about yourself and others by photographing strangers?
JC: That’s a great question and one that I can’t answer in full right now. The project is a journey. The thing I love about photography, and this genre of street photography, is that its so unpredictable. There are times when I’ve been on the street for 5-6 hours and haven’t taken one picture. Street photography is about patience, and being in the right moment at the right time. Whereas I have the utmost respect for landscape and other form of photography, I know I can adjust my settings, wait for the sunrise, take a picture and then adjust it in photoshop to the point where its not even a real picture anymore. Street photography is much different, you never know what’s around the corner, and on some days you spend a lot of time waiting for it. As much as I enjoy interacting with strangers, there is a lot of down time, and it affords me the opportunity to think and reflect on things as I’m walking around. I enjoy being in a state of observation. Things slow down and you truly start to appreciate what’s happening around you.

As far as what I’ve learned about others, is that you just never know about people. Everyone has their own amazing story, and its usually sitting right next to you.

TJJon caught LJ with his retro 90s look on the streets of the East End. He regularly DJ’s on London’s club scene.

LLO: Because of this project, you were recently featured in the New York Times Online and now you have a show at the Brick Lane Gallery coming up in March. What can we expect from the show? Mention a few of the highlights that you’re looking forward to sharing with the public.
JC: The exhibition will feature 8-10 of my most favorite portraits that I’ve taken. Each one will have an abbreviated write up associated with it, to give the viewer context of who the person is, and my interaction with them. The challenge with the exhibition is connecting the viewer not only with the portrait, but with me, and the reason I am doing the project. Personally, I think the viewer misses out on the true impact if they only see the exhibition as a street portrait project. I am using different mediums to try and make that connection. It’s actually a really exciting challenge for me.

FindlandJon stopped Petteri dead in his tracks to photograph him for the project. He is an artist from Finland with a thick accent that was hard to understand. He gave Jon a business card with his website:

LLO: Tell us about one memorable encounter you had with a stranger who you photographed and why it stands out for you.
JC: Overall, I am surprised how many people have agreed to be photographed. I’ve only been told “no” a few times. Specifically, I had a very interesting interaction with a gentlemen named Marq. He is in the throes of drug addiction, and I was most surprised about how honest he was with me about it, about his life, and about what kind of toll the drugs have taken on him. This was after chatting with him for only a few minutes. He ended up following me around for quite a while that night. At one point, my camera was in my bag, shut off, and we were just walking and talking about things that were very personal. It was no longer a photography project at that point. You never know what kind of stories people have, and further, you never know what kind of stories people are willing to share with a complete stranger.

Marq2Marq 46, was born in Hackney, living in Islington, hustling in Shoreditch. He spent 3 hours walking around with Jon telling him his story: decent upbringing, job, house, relationship with multiple women, children with all of them, a trigger point, drug addiction, out of work, sleeping rough.

LLO: How do you approach someone to be photographed? What do you say to them? 
JC: This is really the essence of the project and is different for everyone. Most of my photos have come as part of a larger interaction with someone. I try to not base the interaction around the photo, that’s more so the end result. So every approach is different. There have been plenty of cases where I was chatting with someone about what they were wearing, or doing, and it morphed into a conversation about the project, with the end result being the photo. Other people though, I do approach for no other reason than they caught my eye. In those cases, I let them know that “I am working on photo documentary that documents my interaction with strangers” and I adapt from there. The biggest thing is comfort. The photographer needs to always remember that no matter how awkward they feel, the person on the street you are talking to feels way more awkward. The photographer needs to project a feeling of confidence and comfort, otherwise, people will get nervous and won’t open up for a good photo.

Monk was handing our brochures for spa treatments on the streets of New York City when Jon approached and photographed him. 

LLO: You’ve taken your project through London’s streets and abroad to four countries on three different continents. Do you find yourself encountering cultural differences that play a role in a stranger’s reaction to the project? Give us an example and how you coped. What was the outcome?
JC: The boundaries are universal no matter where you are. There are people that are a part of the project that I’ve met in London that didn’t speak any English and I had to have the entire conversation translated. It’s part of the challenge and the reward. That’s where the personal growth comes in. I really don’t get shaken anymore if I approach someone and they understand little or no English at all. If you are confident in the project and why you are doing it, you will start to seek these challenges. I think that’s part of the appeal for me going abroad. To challenge myself, and get out of my comfort zone. There is an element of respecting the culture you are in, which is basic common sense. Such was the case in Morocco. They were not keen on having their photographs taken, so I had to really be delicate with who I approached. The shot I got in Morocco was one of the most rewarding though, because of this dynamic.

Jon photographed Mustafa in Morocco. He has owned a shop in Marrakech for 13 years which feeds his family. He was educated in Spain, spoke Spanish and was very articulate.

LLO: Since you plan to continue the project beyond 100 strangers, what is your goal for the project in 2013  and beyond and where will the year ahead take you?
JC: Overall, my goal will continue to be to challenge myself, whether it be abroad or right here in London. I am going to get a bit more selective in who I approach and why. I have some underlying themes that I am trying to capture on the faces of my strangers, and that will give the project a bit more focus then trying to simply photography anyone who will say ‘yes.’ Broadly speaking, I plan on establishing a more global footprint; I’ll be taking the project to Athens, Tel Aviv and Copenhagen during the first part of 2013, and beyond that I had some ideas of some other countries. And then most exciting, as mentioned, I’ll be exhibiting a portion of the project in London in March.

Beans“Beans”, 49, is originally from Yorkshire. Jon met and photographed him outside a pub in Nottingham while sharing a love of one of Jon’s favourite punk legends, Rancid, before their gig. 

LLO: What advice would you give to someone who’s thinking about engaging with the 100 strangers project, but is too shy to start, or not sure what to say or where to go, etc?
JC: Firstly, and more importantly, define your motivation for starting the project. You don’t have to necessarily share it with anyone, but it is important for you, as the photographer to understand it. For me, I always talk about my motivation for the project with strangers, and it builds a great dynamic between us. Once you are in touch with your motivation, everything else falls into place.

For me, I was really looking for a way to better engage with the world around me. Further, I wanted to change my perceptions of worth, wealth, happiness, and fulfillment, and felt this project was a perfect way to do that. So the project from my perspective is more than photography, and that’s projected onto the strangers, which is why I think I’ve had such a success rate capturing people on the street. I try to find common ground, because I am actually trying to get to know them before I photograph them. If I photograph  them, but really have no connection, I generally don’t post the photo.

I always use this as a rule of thumb that I think will be beneficial for new starters: If you take the above commentary into consideration, I only consider it a “no” if they don’t want their picture taken AND don’t want to talk to me. If they don’t want their photo taken, respect that, but try and still make a connection with someone. To me, that’s the whole point of this.

ArtDaleySunday_edited-2Art is a hip hop artist part of a crew called the “Crook Street Gang” and was distributing CDs of his music when he was photographed by Jon in Brixton.

LLO: Tell us about another London-based artist you admire and why.
JC: Wayne Thomas, one of the first ‘strangers’ I shot for the project. He’s involved in writing and photography, we’ve kept in touch and often email each other and discuss ideas. I really admire Wayne’s work and I think he’ll do big things.

Thanks Jon!

For more from Jon, visit his Flickr page.

Visit an exhibition of Jon’s work in March 2013:

Venue: Brick Lane Gallery
Opening / Private View: Wednesday 13 March, 6-8:30pm
Opening Times: 14-24 March, 1pm-6pm daily
Jon’s Website:


3 comments on “London Art Spot: Jon Campenni

  1. A very interesting project that highlights being human. There is nothing more interesting than people. We admire this person for coming up with such a project.

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