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Interview with Photo-journalist Jonathan Taylor

Jonathan Taylor talks with David Toyne about his experiences as a photo journalist

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Interview with Photo-journalist Jonathan TaylorI have been aware for many years of the debates on the nature of photo-journalism and documentary photography that rage on ePHOTOzine from time to time. I thought it was about time I spoke to some experts on the subject. Fortunately, just as I had this thought I was lucky enough to discover photo-journalist Jonathan Taylor. Jonathan has featured on the cover of TIME Magazine and his images have appeared in iconic publications such as the Sunday Times Magazine, Marie Claire, the Guardian Magazine, and the New York Times. Heís been a resident of Bangkok, Thailand since the early Ď90s; but I was lucky enough to speak to him while he was in the UK recently. At present†he†is working as freelancer and teaches†regular workshops in both the UK and South East Asia. His íPhotography School Asiaí photography classes are now available online via his website.

In our chat weíve covered various topics from his views on planning a photo feature and how to gain access right though to what itís like to have dinner with a contract killer called Mr. One Hundred Corpses. I canít provide an image of Jonathan due to his requirement to work anonymously on occasion, but he assures me he is almost identical to in appearance Brad Pitt only with less worry lines.

Interview with Photo-journalist Jonathan Taylor
ĎYa Baí Speed Demons © jonathantaylor.net

DT: How did you first become interested in photography?
JY: My Grandfather, mother and father all worked in the newspapers. So I knew from an early age thatís what I wanted to do.

DT: How did you train in photography, where did you study?
JY: I studied at the London College of Printing. During that time I got a good job working as a photographer. I found that to be a better way to learn, compared to doing a fixed course for three years then having all the assignments and pressure at the end of the course. Itís not like some of the newer courses, like in Cardiff, where you get constant assignments.

DT: Who where your major influences in photojournalism? In what way did they make and impact on you?
JY: Has to be Don McCullin (1935-Present). I used to look at his stuff when he was working (I think) for the Sunday Times when I was younger. It used to totally blow me away. I thought his work was amazing very powerful. He got out of journalism about the time when it was beginning to be increasingly controlled by advertising. Ironically itís just as I was getting into the field.

DT: How do you feel the field of photojournalism and documentary photography has evolved in the 20 years you have been working in this area? What direction do you think it will go in the future?
JY: Increasingly itís dominated by advertising. You can give an editor a great feature and be told Ďbut how can I fit this next to this advertisementí which is very frustrating. Also itís become softer. They are reporting the obvious conflicts, Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan. In these cases itís because they canít not report the events. But there are many other things happening that should be getting reported, other wars, important stories that are just not being covered anywhere by anyone. These arenít the only three countries with conflicts. The other change is there are not so many magazines doing the huge eight page spreads. The in-depth cover there used to be is much less than it was. There are some publications still doing it. There is a good French publication, for example with some great articles. But you now have more people competing for work in a smaller space. It seems there are more people to compete with willing to work for £60 a day.

Interview with Photo-journalist Jonathan Taylor
A brief escape from the poverty of a Klong Teoy slum © jonathantaylor.net

DT: The use of High Definition film cameras instead of stills cameras is a hot topic in your profession at present. With certain papers moving over entirely to HD video and extracting stills from them. How do you feel about this change in the rules of photojournalism? Do you feel it will affect you and how do you think things will evolve in the future as a result of this change?
JY: Itís not something Iíve come across directly yet, but it is something I was discussing with two of my colleagues at The Frontline Club recently as an issue. I like to think it wonít affect me too much as I feel there will or should always be a place for great strong stills documentary photography. However if you blitz an area with lots of HD footage youíll have tons of stills inevitably. I canít help feeling that this will further dilute the quality of photojournalism much like the use of digital cameras has to a degree, reduced the overall quality.

DT: How did it come about you ended up working in Asia? What opportunities has this afforded you as a photo journalist?
JY: I was travelling doing stock then offered a great job on a regional magazine, one feature every two months full expenses. In the four years I work for them I grew to love the region. I donít know about opportunities it afforded. Certainly it gave me some great opportunities, but at the same time it can be something of a backwater so you can get forgotten. Whenever I came back to the UK it seemed as if all the picture editors had changed each time and I had to get to know them all over again. I was back in competition with people all over again. So I guess there were pros and cons to being out there.

DT: I want to change tack a little and ask more about how you plan and put together features. Where do the ideas for a new feature come from usually? How do they evolve into the finished article?
JY: Often they are requested by a picture desk. Or sometimes youíll get together with some journalist friends over a beer and discuss what the current hot issues are. You work out what would be a good feature idea that would cover the issue and how to get access.

DT: How do you plan the visual narrative for a feature? Does it evolve with the feature or is it already designed in before you start work? What would your advice be to people wanting to set about creating photographic essays?
JY: Well you know you must have your opening and ending images and you know what you are conveying. The kind of story you are telling. Beyond that you have to be there and observe whatís happening around you. Recognise the opportunities as they occur and be ready to capture them, to try and convey the story while keeping empathy for the subject matter.

DT: Do you worry that the fact you are present with a camera loads what happens? That your presence photographing a story changes whatís going on?
JY: Yes of course it always does. Itís like that theory about the act of looking at an atom changing it!? All you can try and do is be aware of that and minimize the effect of your presence. You try and blend in to the situation and make people as unaware of you as possible. Sometimes when you start you can see people are aware of you and there is stiffness to them, but then you have that really special thing happen where they seem to suddenly just forget about you. That is, they know you are there, but they just carry on as if you didnít exist. Not necessarily with gangs, maybe while photographing fishermen. When that happens itís really very special.

Interview with Photo-journalist Jonathan TaylorDT: What kind of preparation is required for this kind of work? For example, how do you go about working with police or other authorities?
JY: Well if you go to the authorities directly youíll get a flat Ďnoí and then youíll get nothing. Itís best to go to the right person directly. As an example, when I did the ĎYa Baí piece I approached a highest ranking General in the province. I turned up without an appointment at lunchtime and asked his assistance. He told me there was no way I was going out anywhere with his soldiers. He had dinner we chatted a bit, as I was able to speak the language fluently. We flattered him a little and we had a good chat. He was quite a decent guy so it wasnít too difficult to do. After that he gave us a letter which gave us the access we needed. That was our ticket to get what we needed.

DT: The life of any photojournalist always carries certain risks however in your ĎCharmed Forcesí and your ĎYa Ba Speed Demonsí features you are dealing with Hit men, drugs and casual violence. How do you go about considering your safety and well being? What precautions do you take?
JY: Itís always about minimizing or negating all the risks that you can. There is always a risk element, but you have to be sensible and weigh up all those risks and remove or reduce as many of them as is possible. Prepare for all you possibly can before you begin.

DT: What has been the worst personal experience you have had in you time as a journalist? What has made the most lasting impression on you?
JY: Mmmm Iíve had a few Iím not sure Iíd talk about. Iíll give you one example though when shooting the ĎYa Baí feature. We were on the border with 200 police soldiers and got caught in a fire-fight. Theyíre all armed with M16 and grenades and Iíve got a camera. Iím in green, but the journalist Iím with is in a bright yellow tee-shirt! We both throw ourselves into cover under a bush. So I am now laying on the ground in a gun battle next to someone in bright yellowÖ

DT: On a feature like Ya Ba speed demons what kind of timescale are you working to?
JY: Let me think I did the feature for three newspapers (Time Magazine, Post Magazine, and The Independent). I think all in all it was around four months total on the one project from start to finish.

DT: When photographing a documentary/photojournalism feature what kind of hit rate of usable shots would you expect to get on an average day?
JY: Usually around two to three shots per roll of film and Iíd shoot around 15 Rolls per day. So Iím looking at maybe around 30 or so usable photographs per day. When I shoot digital I tended to go crazy shooting a lot and then later when reviewing things wondering what I was thinking. Sometimes itís easy to get carried away especially in Asia where things are so beautiful. You almost assume that you have captured all this great stuff you have seen but in reality youíve become distracted by everything and you need to focus in on what matters to convey the story.

DT: Looking at work like your Agent Orange piece how do you maintain your balance. What are your moral and ethical considerations? Is there a personal cost to work like this?
JY: That piece really got to me to be honest it was around Christmas/New Year time. Youíre thinking about your family and the like. It was difficult material to deal with. The article was used in a conference about Agent Orange along with the images. It resulted in one individual taking legal action against a manufacturer of one of the key ingredients. If theyíd succeeded it would have been a landmark case. It stalled though. So it kind of worked though not ideally. It certainly raised awareness.

Interview with Photo-journalist Jonathan Taylor
Tu Du Hospitals friendship ward for severely disabled children © jonathantaylor.net

DT: Do you worry about being in ethically difficult positions such as a witness to a serious crime? Have you ever been in a difficult position like this?
JY: It is an issue, but Iíve fortunately not been in that position. If I was, the choice Iíd make would be to go to the police though. When I did the piece on the Child Sex Slavery (Time Cover Feature) sex trade in Northern Thailand I had the situation were people said to me Ďwhy didnít you go to the police?í Where as if you know anything about whatís going on youíd quickly realise that thatís something you canít do! You donít know who is connected in what way to whom. You have to remember what your job is and just take the pictures in the belief that the story will raise awareness of the issue. You just do your job. Now if you go back where I took those pictures the massage parlours are gone.

Interview with Photo-journalist Jonathan Taylor
Massage Parlours and Social Order © jonathantaylor.net

DT: In the past the camera or the press pass afforded some protection. However it seems increasingly nowadays that photographers and journalists have become actively targeted for attack or kidnap. Does this trend worry you?
JY: Yes. In Palestine a Journalist was kidnapped and now people are actively going round looking for journalists to kidnap. The whole climates changed. In Iraq the only people taking photographs outside the green zone are either embedded with the troops or a few local guys. There is no one wandering round taking pictures. There are armed people actively looking for journalists to abduct. Itís a disturbing situation.

DT: When shooting a feature what would be your typical weapons of choice? What cameras, lenses and any other vital gear you would not be without? What are the reasons behind these choices?
JY: Iím a manual guy so I tend to use Nikon FM2 film cameras, 24mm lens, 28mm & a 35mm. mostly f/2.8 oneís f/2. I like the FM2ís as they have a small body so your face isnít covered. A lot of the digital cameras are so big that they obscure your face and put up another barrier. With the FM2ís I can set those up then shoot with them away from my face.

DT: Editing and doctoring of pictures has become another bugbear in photojournalism and in documentary work to a lesser degree. What are your views one this? Where do you draw the line?
JY: Itís not been an issue for me really. I do think digital naturally lends itself more to that kind of thing. Itís a different matter really if youíre putting a print on an editorís desk. I tend not to alter anything. I tend to shoot to fill the frame and avoid even cropping bit old fashioned I guess. When doing my website revamp Iíve been making banners. Revisiting work and cropping it into various formats was fun. It made me look at some work differently.

DT: Have you any thoughts on the people skills required for your kind of work. What approach is likely to get the picture and what is likely to cause you a problem or create barriers?
JY: I donít like to Ďgrabí a shot, that doesnít always work. Then again asking will usually ruin the shot. You need to be soft when you work. Your gestures, expression and eye contact can all help. Obviously speaking the language will help but your body language and manner is important in communicating your intentions when working with people.

DT: Putting your picture editorís hat on for a moment. Have you any advice for people approaching an editor with ideas? What will get your attention and what will cause the door to hit you in the backside on the way out?
JY: If you have an idea for a feature always do as much of it as possible before you approach the editor. Have it outlined. Do as much as you can. Take the pictures. You donít just walk in and pitch with nothing to show. Also if you just go in on the off-chance and just ask for work youíll get nowhere as any decent editor has his pool of known people he uses for that kind of work and youíd have to be extremely lucky to get a job that way. You must persist. Keep calling, mailing and going to see them. You might be totally ignored and get no response but if youíre persistent and you have the feature you will succeed in the end.

DT: I have to ask when photographing ĎCharmed Forcesí your piece on hitmen, you ended up the Ďguestí of a contract killer by the name of Mr. One hundred Corpses. How on earth do you keep your cool, do your job and take a great picture while in the company of someone with a name like that?

Interview with Photo-journalist Jonathan Taylor
Mr. 100 corpses - Thailand's most notorious contract killer © jonathantaylor.net

JY: Yeah that was an experience. He pulled up in a blacked out Limo where we stayed and took us on a drive. We went out into the fieldsí miles away from anywhere. The journalist I was with and I are both sitting in the back of the car looking at each other. Weíre wondering if heís going to plant us out here. Instead he took us to a place to eat. We sat with him and the local policemen. He sat chatting and itís all very friendly but at the same time you are aware of the kind of people youíre dealing with. He was trying to get me to have a 9mm pistol and Iím trying to tell him I donít want it. The policeman next to him is telling me itís ok here you can do what you want here. As we left, I just though Ďwhat the hellí and asked to take his picture. He agreed. When I pointed the camera at him he asked if the picture would be published here, I said yes, so he said not to photograph his face. I lowered the camera to leave out his face and took the shot.

DT: On a less nerve racking note you now run a photography school in Asia and the UK. What sort of training experience are you offering? What is a typical course Itinerary? What are your approaches to teaching?
JY: Courses are targeted differently from†student to student addressing each individuals needs. What I find is many†amateur†photographers don't focus on any specific objective when they work which is fine and fun but without a tighter set of goals there is little room for improvement. I can run classes similar to most of the other photographic tours on the market, but I would prefer to have a student who seriously wants to improve his or her photography skills. This needs discipline.

It is all in the course preparation too. Working on a unique specific story or stories that have a tight narrative is a great way to learn the trade. Be it as a keen enthusiast or buddy professional. The most important part of getting a wow factor into your†photographs is coming up with a unique story and working out how to gain an access to do them. I encourage students to work on these issues even before the course begins.


Jonathan gave up several hours of his valuable time to this feature for which Iíd like to extend my thanks. Iíd also like to thank Paul Indigo for his invaluable help and advice in preparing for the daunting task of interviewing a photojournalist.

All images remain the copyright material of Jonathan Taylor and may not be used in any way without his express permission.

Interview by David Toyne, ePHOTOzine's professional portfolios editor and owner of Chapter Thirteen Photography November 2006

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