Sydney Street Portraits | An Interview with Jon Lewis

Jon Lewis is a canon in Australian photography. He should indeed be a household name amongst those of us interested in documentary photography, but like many artists in Australia, he is still relatively unknown outside the rather small, Sydney-centric photographic community. This may be changing however, with his recent win in the Australian Life Photography Prize and a sizeable acquisition of his recent series Sydney Street Portraits by the State Library of NSW. 

6 November 2016 © Jon Lewis (used with permission)

6 November 2016 © Jon Lewis (used with permission)

Take a look at Jon's website and you will see photographs that are consistently strong and engaged. This is a photographer who loves photography but also, perhaps more importantly, has a love for the people who he photographs. With work spanning almost four decades, Jon has an incredible archive of black and white photographs from around Australia, and also from Melanesia, Micronesia and Timor Leste. A documentary photographer by nature, Jon is also a renowned teacher and environmentalist (he co-founded Greenpeace Australia in 1977).

27 November 2015 © Jon Lewis (used with permission)

27 November 2015 © Jon Lewis (used with permission)

Looking at Jon's many bodies of work, one will see that a thread connecting Jon's photographs is a love of people. Often positioned directly in the centre of frame and looking at his camera, Jon's pictures aim to connect him with the people he sees and meets, forming short collaborations of such that enable the viewer to see what he sees, and hopefully feel what he feels. Jon has a big heart and it is always open to meeting new people and engaging with them via photography. You can see in many of his pictures that people are happy to be in his company, and open to being photographed (he says he doesn't get that many knock backs). What I admire most about Jon's pictures is that he does not try to hide the pleasure he gets from these often spontaneous meetings, or to catch his subjects' in a state of predetermined pensiveness. There are no stylised, melancholic faces, no longing gazes off-camera, hoping to prompt the viewer to consider the inner thoughts (read turmoil) of the subject that so many photographers apply to their compositional and conceptual techniques. 

23 June, 2015 © Jon Lewis (used with permission)

23 June, 2015 © Jon Lewis (used with permission)

For the past few years Jon has been devoting his time to photographing people on the streets of Sydney. He calls this series Sydney Street Portraits and publishes them on a Tumblr page and an Instagram account. From the first time I saw these portraits, I felt there was something special about them, something that comes along every once in awhile that deserves a little more attention. Like many great bodies of work, the idea is simple; in this case, go out into the street and make portraits of people. But as photographers know, a simple idea can be difficult to execute. After a few personal discussions about his latest series, Jon agreed to answer a few formal questions about the work for The Photography Room.


Jon, you have been working on your most recent series of work 'Sydney Street Portraits' for a few years now. I remember when you started posting a few of them on Facebook. In all honesty, my first thought was ‘how long will he be able to keep this up?' What is it about this subject that has sustained you to keep with it?

I’ve always thought that to really make a statement one goes to the wire ... I feel you can’t do so much with photography in under six months. I also think photography needs a lifetime of work, and that each photographer will be “judged” for that time and commitment. 
The people I photograph sustain me. I love the interaction. It’s nearly always positive and I rarely get a refusal, most people are more than willing to have their portraits made and I am humbled by their trust in me.

Your work is nearly always centred around people. You are indeed a people person. You are full of energy, life, enthusiasm for all it entails. What is your driving motivation for being so enamored with life and using photography to engage with those you meet?

I thought the hardest 'thing' to photograph was “somebody” and I still think this! Start at the hardest place and see where it takes you. Photography gives my life meaning and purpose and if you make a good portrait of somebody, then that person lives twice. I wish I knew what my driving “motivation” was exactly…I’d bottle it!!  

This series of photographs feels like something very special to me. There is so much of you in the pictures, by the way people are so relaxed for you, but then simultaneously the pictures don’t have you in them at all, if that makes sense? It’s totally about the subject. Your Instagram profile mentions this quote by Diane Arbus “For me, the subject of the picture is always more important than the picture.” Why is this quote important to you?

People make the world go round. Our friends and families are the most important people in our lives. Maybe my street photographs remind us of one another, our shared humanity. I don’t think great photography is based on a 'good Idea' (as appears to be the trend). One lives twice with one great portrait and I think the Arbus quote reflects this. It’s all about our interconnectedness as human beings. My Instagram account now has the quote, 'If you make a good portrait of somebody, then that person lives twice.'

22 August 2014 © Jon Lewis (used with permission)

22 August 2014 © Jon Lewis (used with permission)

Tell me a bit about your working process, how do you approach people and make them feel at ease with you so quickly? Do many people decline to be photographed?

I ask (mostly) and try to get close, I work fast, and am engaged with the moment. There isn’t really one way. Every portrait is new and deserves some generosity from both sides of the lens. Most people like a little re-assurance, a shared sense of humour helps. People rarely knock me back, and if they do that’s OK.

What do you envisage doing with these portraits? Are you thinking about publishing/exhibiting them, or are you just continuing working on them for now?

I’d like to exhibit this work. I have an exhibition in my head. I can see it so clearly. I don’t talk about what I want to do, I’m a bit superstitious that way, Ha! I haven’t a plan as such but I do want the photographs do the 'talking'. If nothing else I’ll just keep going, keep rolling. Someone said photography is very generous, and so it is.

23 June 2015 © Jon Lewis (used with permission)

23 June 2015 © Jon Lewis (used with permission)

The State Library of NSW recently purchased 50 of these photographs for their collection. That is a pretty significant acquisition. Can you tell me a bit about how this came about?

No idea how this came about really. I’ve never had a grant to do specific works. All I can say is I was steaming along until I was contacted by the Library. I’m very thankful.
 
Diane Arbus was an intensely passionate photographer, and her work now on show at the National Gallery in Canberra is a testament to that. Tell me more about your respect for Arbus and why she has your admiration.

Have a listen to Studs Terkel. There is an interview with Arbus. Just to hear the tone of her voice and listen to her “understanding” is fabulous. Her photographs, I believe, are deeply psychological. (Interview available here).

16 August 2014 © Jon Lewis (used with permission)

16 August 2014 © Jon Lewis (used with permission)

Is photography easy for you, or is it a struggle? Does the passion to go out and make pictures always exist? Is there a constant restlessness to be out and look and engage with the world? It seems that your energy for photography just does not stop, do you ever stop, or at least rest? And if so, what do you do when you are not photographing?

I make every effort NOT to photograph, any excuse will do. My shoes are too tight for walking, I haven’t brushed my teeth, etc, etc.  But there is a restlessness, and once I begin I seem to pull my confidence together and I begin to roll and absorb it all. I try to immerse myself in what is happening and not think; just respond to what I see.

Jon's Sydney Street Portraits can be viewed online here.
Follow Sydney Street Portraits Instagram account here.
Jon's website can be viewed here.

Interview by Sean Davey.