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ePHOTOzine Talks To Documentary Photographer Jon Nicholson

Jon Nicholson currently has a retrospective of his work on display at Augustus Brandt, Petworth. ePHOTOzine talked to him about his work and his career so far.

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Michael Schumacher

Michael Schumacher, Japan, 1994 © Jon Nicholson

 

Jon Nicholson is a Nikon photographer whose retrospective exhibition is currently on display in Petworth, South Downs, at Augustus Brandt. 'Pausing for breath. A retrospective' showcases Jon's rich body of work from a career in photography spanning 35 years. 

Jon has recently had the honour of being chosen by the Duke of Richmond to be the first photographer to document daily life on the Goodwood Estate with never before given behind-the-scenes access. Jon is currently shooting this and other projects with the Nikon Z 7


 

Sports Photography 

Jon has had a varied career in photography, which began from a love of windsurfing. This love of watersports, and documenting sports, enabled him to become the official photographer for the Olympic games twice, in 1992 (Barcelona) and more recently, 2012 in London. 

 

Jon Nicholson

Aryton Senna, Imola, 30 April 1994 © Jon Nicholson

 

During 1994 Jon was documenting friend Damon Hill's year in F1 when he inadvertently captured one of the last images of Ayrton Senna alive. ePHOTOzine asked him about this haunting image, and how it came about.

"This image has remained hidden for 24 years, for one reason only. The weekend of the Imola Grand Prix in San Marino in Italy was such a horrible few days, with two deaths, multiple crashes, lorries busting into flames that it was best forgotten, or at least put to one side.

On the Friday Rubens Barrichello crashed in practice breaking his wrist. Saturday saw the loss of Roland Ratzenberger and of course on Sunday one of the greatest drivers of all time was killed at the start of the race.

This Image was taken on the Saturday morning before first practice. Ayrton seems very much at peace, although he was under immense pressure to deliver for the Williams team. He hadn’t scored any points in the first three races. Williams and Ayrton were used to delivering results, winning!

My involvement came many years before having known Damon for a long time. We would go to Brands Hatch where Damon once pointed out Ayrton saying he would be the best driver in the world… well, a few years later he was. When it was announced that Ayrton was joining the Williams team I suggested to Damon that we do a book on what it was like to drive alongside Ayrton. We spent the winter in France testing at Paul Ricard and I would watch Ayrton as he went about trying to perfect this car, he would work long hours never missing any opportunity to get ahead.

The season started and the car was not quite up to scratch, he found it hard to drive. The one thing I noticed was that Ayrton was finding it hard to get the motivation to raise his game. Alain Prost his arch-rival had retired and as far as he could see there was no competition to stop him winning another world championship. Nobody saw the threat that was Michael Schumacher.

After the horrendous accident that caused the death of Roland I was sitting in the hotel lobby with a group of other photographers and the hotel owners watching over and over again Roland sitting in the car dying. The TV just wouldn’t stop. It was a weird sensation, everybody was totally stunned. I just kept thinking how was I going to get up and go back to the circuit for race day, this just shouldn’t happen.

Sunday morning arrived and it was business as usual but in a very somber way.

12.00 o’clock midday arrived and I was in the debrief room with Ayrton, Damon and the two race engineers, I think Damon was trying to lighten the mood by talking about Nigel, I can't remember the joke but it didn’t really help Ayrton who was sat there saying to me how he didn’t want to race, they were making him race. I mean really what could I do about that? I told him to go and see Bernie!

Two or so hours later he too was dead and the dread, the horror, the absolute disbelief of what had happened really struck home. The race went on, and chaos prevailed over the paddock. I left the circuit with one of the team members arriving at the airport to find TV already there waiting for Damon. They told me that it had been announced that Ayrton was dead.

I ran to the motorway with one of the team members waiting for Damon and Georgie to arrive. They asked what had happened to which we told them that Ayrton had not survived the crash. Damon just sunk his head. It was so sad. Why in sport did this happen. The whole weekend was cursed.

Looking at this picture now 25 years later it all comes flooding back. What a tragic event. I can't help thinking, did he know what was going to happen? It’s a chilling image in some ways but also beautiful, he is calm and at peace. By chance, I was looking for something completely different but when I opened the cabinet it was just staring back at me. I scanned it sent it to Damon to look at. He rang me and was totally shocked.

Damon went on to rally the team, Nigel Mansell returned with David Coulthard making a brief appearance. The season became monumental with Damon and Michael Schumacher clashing all the way to the line with Michael knocking Damon off the track in Adelaide and taking the title.

Our book became a best seller and opened up many doors for me within the sports world to do stories of teams and individuals from motorsport to football athletics to rugby union."

 

UN Photography

The feet that walked to freedom

'The feet that walked to freedom', Darfur, 2007 © Jon Nicholson

 

From 1998 to 2007 Jon travelled to Africa with the UN, photographing a number of difficult issues including war, genocide, food crisis, and HIV/AIDS. His project in Darfur is perhaps one of his most well known, covering the genocide there. Jon made the conscious decision not to shoot the conventional images, showing people in despair. He wanted to show the conflict in a different way, shooting large installation images. The most iconic of these is 'The feet that walked to freedom', where the feet of women that had escaped extreme violence, rape and all manner of other atrocities were photographed to create a montage. These images were run in the Sunday Times magazine. 

"The set up was a chair and a stool so they could put their feet up. I wanted to shoot this story in a way that people would react to, engage with it and then the shock of the image would hit home, plus it's very boring just to do the same old stuff. This is very impactful and addresses the issue of genocide. Look at everybody's feet,they all have a story.", says John.

Mother and child

'Mother and child', Ethiopia, 2001 © Jon Nicholson

 

Around the world in photos

Jon has photographed in Africa, Bhutan, the USA, Japan, China, Laos and Cambodia. "In the middle of what turned out to be a 14-hour drive across Bhutan, we stopped to get some fresh air. The road was being dug up in one massive long line of road works. It was so dry that there was a constant cloud of dust pouring into the car through every available gap or vent. Once I had cleared my eyes and found my cameras, I wandered around this hill top view only to find this monk separated from reality trying to find a signal. I wonder if he was as frustrated as the Western world gets when the signal fails." Says Jon, of the below image.

 

Searching for signal

Searching for signal, Bhutan, 2016, © Jon Nicholson 

 

In Cambodia and Laos, Jon photographed a novice monk that left a great impression on him. 

"On my last day in Laos I went up the Mekong to ‘Lucky Island’ where there is a small monastery with perhaps 15 monks. I was talking with one of the monks when I felt someone sit next to me on the wall. I turned to see a young novice sitting there. I quickly changed lenses, turned around and took three images of him. He did not move and just held the look. I knew it was a beautiful image when I took it but, once printed, the power of the novice really shone through, his face emanating wisdom, serenity and grace.", enthuses Jon.

Novice monk, Lucky Island, Laos, 2018

Novice monk, Lucky Island, Laos, 2018 © Jon Nicholson

 

Now Jon's returning to the UK to become the official photographer for the Goodwood Estate, something which he says is a great honour. It's the first time the Duke of Richmond has commissioned a photographer to document the estate.

But what's the secret to making people feel so at ease when you photograph them? Jon says it's a combination of simple factors. "One camera, no big lenses, no heavy bag, a smile and good shoes. People have to believe I'm genuine, I have to engage with them - pictures come from that when doing a long term project.".

Jon's first experience of Nikon kit was with an FM2 and F3 camera, and with the Z 7 he says things are on a whole new level, combining small and light with amazing image quality. 

 

Pausing for breath: A retrospective

Jon says the idea to share his life's work so far came from a friend, who pointed out that he had so much material and so many stories to tell that he should share it.

"It's hard to show 36 years in a hundred images so I am showing the images that mean a great deal to me for many reasons. Some make me laugh, some are really really harsh in the backstory. It's great to see pics that I haven't seen for a while. It makes me grin to remember the fun I have had with great people who let me into their lives. It's humbling."

Before we said goodbye, we asked Jon for his three top tips for anyone looking to start out in documentary or sports photography. His advice was simple:

  • Do the small jobs well.
  • Don't over complicate things.
  • Don't dwell on the industry, just keep taking pictures.

'Pausing for breath: A retrospective' is on at Augustus Brandt, Petworth, until 10 August 2019. 

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