CC Conversations : Jason Tilley

Some people are lucky to have a history of visual culture in their family. But when you take some lovely slow cooked history and marinate it with a photographers mind, you get “thebeautifulpeopleblog”, a project which brings together storytelling and visual poetry together in the perfect blend. Today I speak to Jason Tilley, the founder of the project about the work he produces for the same. Jason comes from a photojournalistic background yet his images have a deep flavour of genealogy, history and anthropology which makes it ever so interesting. For those who don’t know much about the project, instead of me introducing it, I think it would be just so much more interesting for you to have a look at it here.

Girl from Haridaw
“She wanted to dance and speak English” – Haridwar, Uttrakhand, 2007

Q. Jason, the Beautiful People project is just brilliant. Its been featured on so many blogs and journals. There you speak about how it came to be and how you were influenced a lot by your grandfather. Do tell us more about your relationship with him and how you discovered this archive of his images. How was it like to see them for the first time, maybe a picture which has driven you to where you are today.

JT : My relationship with my Grandpa was much like anyone else’s relationship with their Grandparents I guess. I remember being a bit frightened by him when I was a child, he did shout a lot, but as he grew older and he mellowed we became more like friends.

I have no memory of discovering his archive of images, they were no secret in our family they were always around, I grew up looking at them on family get-togethers. I do remember finding some of his negatives after he had died and this was extraordinary. I then had the pleasure of printing some with an Arts Council England Grant at Coventry University last year in 2012. Can you imagine printing your Grandfathers vision 70 years after he witnessed these things?

Q. So when it comes to creating images today, what is it that you seek in your subjects or rather what kind of subjects do you seek?

JT : Sorry to disappoint. At this moment in time I have not been taking images, I have however been printing quite a few. I love making photographs; I love the ‘real’ image the artefact. I am not so interested in taking photographs constantly only to stick them on the internet.

I do have a plan to return to India and make a set of portraits of Kinnar,I have been shooting Kinnar for some years now but nothing I could call a set or portfolio. I wish to shoot these on medium format colour negative.

What subjects do I seek?  I made two portraits in 1999 in Juhu Mumbai that summed up my first trip to India; one portrait was of a young healthy man, another portrait was of a man stricken with disease standing at the side of the road begging. These two portraits became the platform for my project. I am not sure I go searching for portraits like a stalker; I just wait for portraits to happen. Time is the key here it is very important to give yourself time. Time is our most precious commodity.

Assi Ghat Benares
Assi Ghat, Benares, Uttar Pradesh

You mentioned that my portraits have a vintage quality. I fell into this style by a happy accident and also because of my interest in photographers like August Sanders, Edward Sheriff Curtis and of cause my Grandpa’s photographs from colonial India.

I decided to shoot black and white in 1999 as to give me darkroom time later in life. I enjoy making m own prints and in 1999 it was obvious that digital was ‘coming’. Shooting medium format film was a way of ensuring darkroom time, I find it therapeutic. Also when got back from my initial trip to India and I hand printed some images I couldn’t believe that they had the feel of images taken anytime between 1940’s-2000, they seemed timeless and I just stubbornly stuck with it, I think this created the style for me.

I have had argument with many people who say India is a wonderful place for colour photography, which my reply always has to be, India is a wonderful place for any kind of photography

Q. When you present your images they are always accompanied with a lot of text. Do you wish for the images to be snapshots of the text or the other way round?

JT : When I make a portrait of someone I honestly feel privileged that people will pose for me. It’s such a gift that someone gives to you. They give you their time. I do not ‘ask’ if I can take their portrait, I always say that I would like to take their portrait, most people are happy with this, I never, or very rarely take a portrait without consent and I do not direct my portraits. Maybe because of light direction I may ask some one to move slightly but that is it.

When talking about Text,  it was very much an after thought and after much soul searching I decided to tell stories around the photographs. Originally I wanted the portraits to stand on their own like little poems; this may happen in exhibition form but I hope it gives depth to the work when words are included on the blog.

Sunday dress Kovalam beach
Sunday Dress, Kovalam Beach

Q. You have written a lot about portraiture. When you make a picture of a subject, what goes through your mind? What makes the portrait perfect for you? You also write about how you need to be brave to let someone make a portrait of you. But do you also think that the photographer must be brave to enter into another person’s personal space to make that photograph, to connect?

I have thought about this long and hard Akshay. What goes through my mind? I’m not sure if anything much is going on inside my mind, I am probably concentrating on making sure the back ground to the photograph is not distracting, I’m probably concentrating making double sure the image is sharp, I always shoot with a quite a wide aperture with very little depth of field. It is very unusual for me to make lots of images of the same subject.

If you are a shy person then perhaps you find it brave to approach a person in the first place. What is the worst thing that can happen if you ask to take a persons portrait? Hey can say no thank you and you respect their privacy. I have usually had some of dialogue before make a portrait though I admit there have been snatched moments.

Carrying a camera is a wonderful way to meet people, it brings down barriers, as a western looking man, although I have Indian heritage people take photographs of me all the time, I like this also but I do like to be asked. Nothing like sitting on 3tier sleeper train and having a camera-phone stuck in your face and not being asked first.

*Perfect portrait* that’s a hard call, what makes a portrait perfect? So many things must come together to create a lasting portrait. Subject- light-background. I do love an interesting back ground, one that compliments rather than distracts.

Maybe a perfect portrait is one you can come back to time and again and still find some thing new to the picture.

Weding Band Man, Paharganj, New Delhi, 2004
Weding Band Man, Paharganj, New Delhi, 2004

Q. So any other projects you’re working on right now?

I’m not shooting at the minute Akshay but I am working towards a major exhibition in the UK, September 2014. We wish to tour this to India. I have been making hand-prints for an exhibition from a photographer’s portfolio from my home city of Coventry that was shot between the years 1978-1981. I have been doing this at Coventry University.

Abdul ,Calcutta, the Maiden 2002
Abdul ,Calcutta, the Maiden 2002

Q. Any advice for young portrait photographers?

Advice-  Don’t be afraid of people, most of us are passive individuals. If you are going to invade a person’s space, be polite and ask first. Put your zoom telephoto away and approach people. Portraits are made by three people, the sitter the photographer and the viewer, it’s a collaboration.

Thank people and smile.

For those who would like to know more, please visit the links below :
The Beautiful People Blog
Jason Tilley On Twitter : @TilleyEsquire

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