Jonathan Straight: Wonderful Diversity of Humanity

Jonathan Straight: Wonderful Diversity of Humanity

Tell us a little bit about yourself

I was born in Yorkshire where I spent my childhood, and I'm still there. I was always creative, initially with music, but I never really found a path to make a success of this. I fell into running my own business and found that to be a creative process too. I was very successful, starting a specialist supplier of containers for recycling which most people call bins. 

The business had offices in Leeds and a factory in Hull, employing 150 people at its peak and turning over some £30m.  In 2013, a potential buyer approached me and around the same time I went out and bought a camera. A year later, the business belonged to someone else, but by that time I had discovered street photography.

 

Image of a woman through a window, smiling 

Window - Euston Road 2022

 

How would you describe your work?

I take pictures of people - sometimes candid, sometimes not - but very rarely posed.

I try to capture something of the essence of the subject in my shots and people have told me that I have a talent in this respect. 

My street photography has grown into documentary and portrait work and I have been fortunate to have delivered a number of paid commissions as well as the work I do for my own enjoyment.

 

What first got you interested in photography, and particularly that of people?

When I was seven years old, I found a discarded Kodak Brownie camera that someone had put in my toy box and I persuaded my long-suffering parents to buy me some film for it.  Seeing my interest, my father then bought me a 35mm camera for my 10th birthday. This was not a great camera, but it was fully manual, so I had to learn how to take photographs the hard way. I had an allowance of one roll of black and white film a month.  From then on, I always had a camera and latterly used my 'phone for taking photographs.

My father was also a keen amateur himself and used to set up an impromptu darkroom in the family bathroom. I used to watch him exposing and developing prints and this taught me more about how images could be manipulated, by dodging and burning, once the shot had been taken.

As for the interest in people, this came a bit later. I had just bought the camera I mentioned - it was one that I had often read about. This was the Fujifilm X100S - small, but very good indeed. The 23mm lens - with an APS-C sensor - being broadly equivalent to the 35mm lens I had grown up with. I went on a walking tour of Huddersfield and took the new camera along to photograph the buildings I expected to see, but most of what the tour guide was speaking about had been demolished years ago.  I noticed people and thought they looked interesting. Guiltily, I took some candid shots and they were OK. I then discovered that other people did this too and it was called street photography.

The next step was to embrace black and white and this is where my work got a distinctive style and my reputation (as well as the number of Instagram followers) began to grow.

 

An image in london fashion week where the person has a portrait dyed into their hair

Two Faced - London Fashion Week 2019 

 

Do you have a favourite place where you have photographed people?

For me, I need somewhere busy and where people will not be freaked out by seeing someone with a camera. London is good - I have taken some great shots on Westminster Bridge and on Oxford Street.

Each year, I have tried to take a trip somewhere to get some interesting shots: Ibiza was fun, Tangiers interesting, Reykjavik quirky.

My all time favourite country for photography is Israel as there is such a diversity of people and styles of dress within a relatively small area, and you don't look out of place anywhere with a camera.

 

Image of a man hugging a woman. The woman looks uncomfortable, and the man is pulling a slightly disgusted face 

The Ick - London 2019

 

How do you choose who to photograph, do you go looking for certain things/characteristics, or are you quite spontaneous in that process?

I suppose it is the people who catch my attention - those who stand out in the crowd, for whatever reason. Of course, the most ordinary person can become outstanding with an unusual facial expression captured or doing something they might not ordinarily do. 

My work is very spontaneous and it is often only when I start editing the shots that I fully see what I managed to take.

 

Do you ever reach beyond the lens, and get to know the story of the person you photograph?

With my street photography, I don't set out to do this. Occasionally, I will get noticed and then I'll give the subject my card. Mostly they get in touch to ask for the image.

From these fleeting connections, I have got to know some people quite well. Some have asked for more formal shoots which I have done, others I am in touch with on social media and many of them remain my most dedicated followers.

I had an exhibition of images taken at Leeds Pride and over the course of the six weeks, about half of the subjects made themselves known to me. They were generally nothing like I expected, based on the assumptions I have made from looking at their image.

 

Image of a drag queen in a macdonalds dress

McDonalds - Leeds Pride. Shortlisted for Portrait of Britain 2019 

 

Do you show the subject the photo? If so, how do they tend to respond?

In general, if I'm seen and I send a shot, people are delighted and want a copy to share. There is a small minority of people who hate seeing themselves photographed and ask for the shots to be deleted. If they are nice about it, I will usually do this.

 

I get a sense of fleeting connection with strangers through your work, an immediate sense of who that person could be (all prejudgements of course!) What does your work mean to you? 

My work is intended to show the wonderful diversity of humanity, warts and all.  It does connect me to others in a pretty unique way. Sometimes, they will never know, sometimes we'll be connected later on (yes, followers sometimes spot their friends or relatives on my feed!) and sometimes we'll strike up a conversation in the street and end up being friends for life.

 

A picture of a Jewish man in traditional clothing

Black Hat - Leeds 2022

 

What’s next for you and your work? 

I have been commissioned to produce a book based on the diversity of Israeli society. This will be made up of street shots taken over the past six or seven years, combined with portraits of people the commissioning charity has worked with and continues to work with, across the social, religious and ethic spectrum. 

This year I was privileged to be a winner in the British Portrait Awards and I hope that this might widen the recognition of my work and the opportunities for commissioned work.

 

Marvina at the Carnival - Leeds West Indian Carnival. Winner, Portrait of Britain 2023

 

Thank you so much for sharing your work. How can people find out more about you and your art?

Instagram is the best place: @straightpix

I'm slowly putting a website together too - the link will be on Instagram when it is ready.

 

Images

All © Jonathan Straight

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