I moved to Philly for undergrad at the University of Pennsylvania, and fell in love with Philly right away. It truly is a remarkable city. While I started off as a biochem major, involvement with the student newspaper quickly catalyzed photography from hobby to passion, from elective to major, and eventually into a career.
How did your journey in Philly begin ? And how is it that you have managed to weave yourself into the city in such a way that one would take you to be a native ?
It's hard to isolate any particular set of events. Philly felt like home the minute that I got here. The city has a special scale that balances both the critical mass of a big city for creative connections with the small-town feel of our neighborhoods. The camera has been a vehicle that has opened many doors, providing an opportunity to explore facets of the city that I might not otherwise have connected to. Mostly, it's just involved a willingness to engage, to make eye contact, to have conversations and share space with people. In our world where we're so often boxed away in cars or in front of screens, that can be challenging. The community won't come knock down your door to engage with you... but if you step outside and greet your neighbors, then one thing leads to the next..
What is it about the city and the people that inspires you ?
I have never met a person that I wouldn't want to take a portrait of. Next time you're walking down a city block or riding on a bus, take a good look at every single face you see. Let go of that notion of "other", or "them". Rather than seeing them as bodies taking up space, obstacles in your way, see them as potential dance partners. Can you see them the way that you see your own family or loved ones? Can you see them the way their family or loved ones do? Then you won't need an answer to that question; it'll be obvious.
With all the outrage occurring at the moment against Wall Street in New York City and Oakland, how is Philly reacting ? And how is your photography involved in this historic time ?
I'm actually just heading to join the occupation for the first time this week. There's already an abundance of imagery coming out of there, and I don't want to just add to the noise, so I'm trying to be thoughtful as to how my business can best support this dialog. Maybe I'll photograph the scene there, or do a series of portraits of the participants, or who knows what. I'll probably start with some conversations with the people who've already been out there long term, and then from there see where my image-making can be of most use.
Media isn't neutral. The images that we make have the potential to either reinforce the status quo, or catalyze and inspire change. While much attention is focused on pointing out what's wrong in our world, I think that it's equally important to be celebrating what is *right*. In all of my work, I'll keep on trying to create images of individuals and communities engaged in creating positive social change.
You certainly have had a lot of media attention. How do you take this energy that the community provides and find a way to feed it back into that community ?
There's been plenty of good press ( http://www.jjtiziou.net/jj/about/press ) and I've put a lot of energy into work that has connected me to many different communities in Philly and elsewhere. (I was recently named one of Philly's 76 "Creative Connectors" by Leadership Philadelphia - http://www.newsworks.org/index.php/creative-connectors ) - That energy is just starting to come back in the way of active support for my work: an amazing crew of backers just contributed $25k to help continue my How Philly Moves photo series. That recently resulted in an amazing event that one participant described as "the most liberating four minutes of [her] life thus far". This is really the first time that my work has not just been made for the community, but also directly financially supported by it. This kind of support is exciting because it lets me further break free of the media market.
Tell me about your trip to Sierra Leone. What draws you to West Africa ?
I'm drawn to the whole world, but that was purely a personal trip.
I have seen trees, dancers, activists, doctors... You branch out in many directions. You refer to yourself as a dancer, more fluid and involved than a photographer. Do you find your method of photographing allows you to be more a silent observer dancing through your subjects or a participant in the action ?
That's kind of an artificial binary between "participant" and "observer"... The way that I shoot is more often in close, where I can't help but form personal connections with my subjects rather than just shooting from a distance with a telephoto lens. Photographing in this manner has elements of both. One is both involved as a hyper-attentive observer, and distanced by the mechanics of image capture. While I've got a camera between me and the world, but through that viewfinder, what I'm seeing is my whole world for that intense instant. I'm not just seeing shapes and images, I'm hearing (and participating) in conversations. I'm trying to see my subjects's worlds in the same way that they do, and to see them the way a close friend or loved one might. In a way, it creates a direct attachment, right through my eyes down into my soul, and I end up connected to the communities that I photograph.
And you speak of a need for joy. How do you find the joy ? Do you seek your subjects ? Or do you find that they come to you ?
There is certainly no lack of good subjects. There is joy and beauty all around us. The real challenge is that the media market doesn't value these images... so this kind of work makes more sense in a public art framework than any of the commercial photography models.
I love that you make your work affordable. Has this always been your belief ?
Of course. One of the most powerful things that I can do with my work is sharing it, and digital technologies have facilitated that a great deal. (Both via images on the web, online print sales, etc) - The big challenge here is continuing to make work and keep it affordable in a sustainable manner when it requires so much in the way of resources to create (both tangible overhead costs and intangible creative energies...) That's where new crowdsourcing tools like Kickstarter and the like have a lot of potential in helping me keep making the kind of work that I know to be important and sharing it in ways that are broadly accessible.
Your tagline is "everyone is photogenic." It was really refreshing to see that statement. I think that in the times we live in, there is a lot of pressure for people to fit into some sort of mold cof beauty. It is wonderful that you embrace the opposite. It is obviously something that you find important, with it being your tagline. What made you want to emphasize that point ?
It's more than a tagline... it's the philosophy that underlies all of my work. You can read a bit more about the idea at EveryoneIsPhotogenic.com. In the end, it has nothing to do with photography, and a lot to do with thinking about how we are in the world: how do we value ourselves and our fellow humans on this planet? How can we allow our own selves to shine, and act in ways that celebrate that light that shines from our neighbors? It's the basic premise of many of the world's philosophies and religions; I just happen to express it in terms of photography since that's my craft.
To see more from Jaques-Jean and his projects :