Interview with Brunel Johnson-a member of our Photography Award Panel

Updated: Aug 18, 2020

In this blog I would like to share with you a transcript of my interview with Brunel Johnson @bruneljohnson - street, commercial, sports, lifestyle and documentary photographer and member of our panel of judges for the #AnnaSteinhouseAward Photography Competition, which we are running until the 19th of August (incl.)

In this interview Brunel tells us about his background as a photographer, shares his views about the Award and tells us what he will be looking for in the submitted works.

A: Hello! There are still a couple of days left until the end of the deadline of our photography competition this Wednesday... midnight this Wednesday the 19th of August. I would encourage you to submit your work. I look forward to your submissions, alongside our judges. Today I'm interviewing one of the judges on our photography competition panel, Brunel Johnson. Brunel is a street photographer. I look forward to talking to him in a few minutes. Please welcome Brunel!

Hello! How are you, Brunel?

B: I am good. I am good.

A: Thank you for joining. Thank you for finding the time.

B: No worries. It’s ok. It’s all good.

A: May I ask you a few questions?

B: Yes, you can.

A: Well, you are a street photographer. Tell us your story. How did you come about to become a photographer? You've got a large following on Instagram as well. I can see. More than eleven and a half thousand! How did it come about that you became a photographer?

B: Emm…well… It came about by accident, to be honest. Because I had no interest in photography. Prior to three years ago. I was at some event and the person, a photographer who was supposed to cover the event, cancelled last minute and I asked my friend who was the organiser: ‘how hard could it be to take some photos’? Before this I never held an SLR camera in my hand, I did not know how it worked, I didn't know how it functioned. Did not know anything about photography.

A: When was it? How long ago?

B: That was about three years ago.

A: Okay.

B: Yes, three years ago. I didn't know anything about photography and what happened was that he gave me a Canon. I think it was a Canon 5D. I think he put settings on aperture priority mode and I just went about shooting what I saw. I really liked the maths behind capturing photos, timings, the use of composition, geometry in all this and all those aspects. I was so intrigued by that, that I wanted to see if I could do a little bit more. And, when the photos came back from him developing them, he said:’ Wow! You've got a good eye, you know. You should see if you could do this more often’. I saw the photos and I said:’ Yeah, I see myself actually telling the story without having to use the words’. And… it just went from there, to be honest.

A: Amazing! What do you do now? How do you go about shooting? Do you go to the streets and find inspiration?

B: Hmm… Well… for the first two years of my career I was mainly based on the streets. Honing my skills, tried different things to see what suited me, what I really didn't like and so on. I used to go to different parts of London to see if I could capture the mood, if I could capture people, capture the vibe and the atmosphere of the area. For example, one night I went to Elephant and Castle. That was the first time that I had been to Elephant and Castle at that time of the night and I was able to capture the market closing and people just going about their business to either go to their homes or to the nightclubs nearby and it was really interesting. That was the first two years, but in my third year I kind of started to travel more. I started to work with NGOs, independent NGOs. Some in Gambia, some in Kenya, some in Cosenza in Southern Italy, some in Sierra Leone. I really liked the project-based aspect of photography, documentary and project based photography. With street photography, it is one moment, you tell the story of one moment... and that was it. Right? With the documentary side and the project side it was…you had an opportunity to tell more of a story, to go deeper and actually use your style of photography to create a piece of work that could tell the story better or more in-depth, which I really enjoyed. So, for the past year most of my work has been project based. So, I meet people in the street, I find out their story, I try to get to know them more and from there build a project based around them, as you can see with some of my Living to Ride work. Basically, growing up, a lot of kids, we had like, mini motors, we had electric scooters before they were something fun. We had motorbikes before we were actually allowed to ride them. These things were means for us to stay busy to stay active, but on the downside they were illegal as well, because you were not allowed to ride a mini motor. Electric scooters could get you fined and for motorcycles you had to have a right license. So, to some it was a nuisance, but from my perspective, a lot of time, effort and skill went into maintaining, learning how to ride these bikes, making money by buying in bulk, fixing them and selling them. When I came across the person, James, who is the subject in this project, it just fell into place, because it really allowed me to show the world, or the way I was viewing it, what kids of this background do. Although yes, it is not in line with what is legal, there is still a lot of positivity and benefits behind it, which could be used, if channelled into the right place. It could be used for very good things. So, this is what I am all about.

A: And which NGOs do you work with?

B: There is an NGO called Spot Project in Gambia, there is Stellar Cometa based in Consenza, which also works in Kenya. And a few ones in Sierra Leone and a Smile Project in Uganda. I haven't worked with UNICEF or Save the Children, any of these, simply because we have a different outlook on how I want to portray Africa. So, for me, as part African, I don't think that these charities show what Africa really is. Despite the poverty, despite the issues that go on. Seeing them, and how they portray Africa, when I went to Africa, for the first time, I thought that Africa was dull and very poor. That was my pre conceived notion. But once I actually landed in Gambia, it was colourful. There was poverty, but people were content. A lot of colour that you don't see in the UK. All of it just seem to compliment each other. It's a whole different culture, which, if you embrace it, you enjoy it, because it is something that you are not used to in London. London seems to be very cold, like, you are sitting on the tube and no-one speaks to you. While in Gambia you could be sitting on the roadside and someone could come and offer you cashew nuts, watermelons, drink. All kinds of things… You've got beaches.

A: I come from Georgia and Georgian are very hospitable. So, if you are a guest there, they will smother you with the food and love. They are very very hospitable. I can relate to that too. And in a large city like London there is always the case, there is less interaction. If you go to the countryside, I guess, you would get more interaction with the locals. But, yes I understand what you mean.

It's wonderful what you are doing. So, it's your full-time occupation, photography? I have read about you, that you a mathematician? You did mathematics as a degree?

B: Yes.

A: So, now you are doing photography full-time?

B: Yes, I am doing photography full-time. I am a full-time commercial photographer.

A: Yes, you call yourself candid street, commercial, sports and lifestyle and documentary photographer, so quite a wide range, but, kind of, related to each other. It's very interesting to keep the variety in what you do. I really appreciate that you are on our photography competition panel. I know that it will take a lot of time to thoroughly go through all the submissions and form your opinion, from your point of view and I thank you for that, because I know that this is your precious time that you are giving.

I wanted to ask why would people apply. Why people should apply to this competition? What's your view? Why is good?

B: Well, firstly it's a new competition. So, there is no catalogue of work to say oh, you know, I can't really enter this competition. Entries are coming, It’s totally new. So, anyone getting involved or entering this competition, they know that they are the first ones, they are setting a benchmark for what is going forward. And when you consider having your work exhibited at the Atlas Gallery, the prize money that you are winning, and also the times in which we are living in, why not? A lot of other competitions have got a pedigree history. Some entries…or people that might want to enter, can be put off can be put off. ‘My work is not as good as this person from last year. I can't match this person. How am I going to win this? How am I going to have an opportunity? While in the new competition where everything is fresh, you can do whatever… you never know. It might be that the judges, myself included, might be looking for something completely different to what can be found in other competitions. So, Why not? This is my answer basically, why not get involved?

A: What do you think about the subject, My New World?

B: I think it’s great considering the times, to be honest. The whole photography world has changed within this time period. There are new regulations, new ways of going about things. People are seeing things for the first time, which you might not see again in God knows how long. So, to document it and to be a part of a competition, which is going to register it for the history, it is an amazing opportunity. I wish I could get involved, to be honest.

A: Ha.. ha (laughing)… I remember you saying : ‘I wish I could enter’.

B: But it is what it is, so…

A; Yes, white unique times that we are living through and yes, it has been really difficult for some. People have been having different degrees of need and different degree, I don’t know, desperation, at times. Hopefully we are through the worst and hopefully things are going up now. Let’s hope… and the last question: ‘What would you be personally looking for amongst the submissions? Is there anything? Would you to give a little tip to people who are about to submit?

B: For me personally, I will be looking at composition, emotion and the story behind what the person submitting. I want to see, if it a house, it should be within a household environment. Let’s say, I want to see how the family is coping with the COVID 19, in terms of being locked down. It might be the mum, who might be stressed. Are you going to capture that moment? How are you going to capture it? It might be that the kids are playing while mum or someone is just out of it completely, because the schools have been out for god knows for how long. And… I just want to see a composition, a story with an element of feeling of what the photographer is trying to portray. I want to feel the photographer's mindset behind the photo, while looking at the photo, to see what were they thinking. Hope that makes sense?

A: Yes. That’s wonderful! Thank you so much.

B: My pleasure.

A: This concludes our interview and we look forward to the submissions.

Read more about the Photography Award on Instagram Photography Award

Find out more about Brunel Johnson and his photography here Brunel Johnson

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