Interview with Jonathan Jasberg (Second prize 2023 BSPF Series)
How did you get into photography and, more specific, into street photography?
I grew up in Tucson, Arizona and studied computer sciences at the University of Arizona. That’s where I first got introduced to the photography that really influenced me. I lived right next to the Centre For Creative Photography, a large institution co-established by the American photo pioneer Ansell Adams. When I was going to school and didn’t have enough money to buy a camera, I would go there and absorb all the exhibitions for free. I also lived close to the Etherton Gallery founded by Terry Etherton who had a close relationship with photographers like Alex Webb, Steve McCurry and Elliott Erwitt. I remember falling in love with the photography of Elliott Erwitt and those other photographers. When I could finally afford a camera, I got into wedding and event photography. I was really interested in street photography, but it wasn’t something that I pursued at that time. It wasn’t until around 2010 that I really got into street photography. That’s when I left the US for the first time and slowly started transitioning from doing software development remotely into the life I live now, travelling and photographing full time.
How did you get to know the BSPF?
I learned about it through Instagram and the web as I pay attention to different street photography festivals around the world. Although I was no able to attend physically, I got to see the exhibition virtually and it was really nice to see how it was set-up.
A festival like this is a great way to get exposure and meet people. It is also interesting to see the other work that gets selected and get inspired because there are just so many photos that are mind-blowing!
Can you tell us a bit more about ‘Cairo: A beautiful thing is never perfect’, the series you entered for the BSPF.
What happened was that in 2020 I had arrived in Kyoto, Japan a week before they closed the borders. I ended up spending the first 6 months of COVID there. When my visa ended, I needed to go somewhere, but borders where closing and travel restrictions were popping up all over the place. My lifestyle of being remote 100% of the time became very difficult. Egypt was one of the places I could go to as there were almost no restrictions. So I went there and ended up spending a few months in Cairo in 2020 and 2021 over the course of 4 trips. All the pictures in series were taken during those trips.
What is it like to do street photography in Egypt?
The reactions to street photography are very polarized. Either you get a very strong “No” or people will say “Take my picture, take my picture”. But even a very strong “No” can turn into a “Yes” if you know how to handle the situation. For the most part the people in Cairo are very warm but there is a fair amount of resistance. It is not as bad as for instance in Morocco or other places in northern Africa, but it is nowhere near as easy as here in India where I am right now.
How would you describe your kind of street photography?
I look for scenes that I care about either from an emotional or a humorous standpoint. I want to make the picture look good or interesting and show a certain way of seeing. Sometimes the image is funny, sometimes it’s a little more delicate and nuanced. I like to build a scene with a variety of emotions or a mix of things going on instead of taking a photo of one little thing. And although the shots may seem like snapshots, they are usually not the result of just one single click. I usually inject myself into the scene when I feel that it’s got potential. I get in there and they obviously notice me, but if the situation is dynamic enough, they will stop realizing that I’m there after a while. And from then I’m waiting for the moment to happen, often this is a quirky moment or a moment that makes me smile.
Is there a common thread in the series that you sent to the festival?
The title ‘Cairo: A beautiful thing is never perfect’ is borrowed from the ancient Egyptian proverb: “A beautiful thing is never perfect”.
The idea grew during my second visit to Cairo. I was taking photos in a very rundown, but in my eyes beautiful, small street with crumbling old architecture. A local man asked me why I was taking photos and I told him: “Look at how amazing this is!” The man looked confused and walked away.
With interactions like this and the research I did on Cairo I found that in 1925 Cairo was named the most beautiful city in the world, above cities like Paris and London. A very turbulent 100 years later, tourists don’t visit the city anymore, they go to the pyramids or the main museums and then quickly leave.
I wanted to make a series that really shows the city as it is, the commonalities of live. The joy, the sadness, the quirkiness… daily street scenes shown from an interesting perspective.
What type of gear do you use for street photography?
I use the Leica Q2 with the fixed 28mm lens. That’s what the shots in this series or made on.
The thing that changed my street photography, was when I switched from using zoom lenses to a single prime lens. This was important because it takes a lot of thought and decisions out of the equation. You are forced to just use what you have.
What makes the 28mm the ideal lens for you?
Shooting with the 28mm feels like a constant process of getting used to. I always compare it to riding a bull, it’s just a beast that is hard to tame. It is very difficult to layer an image because it’s so wide. But when it works, it really works nice. It is also great for the kind of places that I like to go to: old cities with narrow streets. In these places a 35mm will feel too tight.
Would you advice someone who wants to start with street photography to use the 28mm?
I think a 28 or a 35 mm are both great for starting out. With the new high-resolution camera’s, the 28mm will be more forgiving, for instance if you have to a take a little bit off on the side. The 35mm on the other hand is more versatile as you can also use it for portraits and things like that. I don’t really have experience beyond those two lenses though. I never tried street with a 50mm, maybe that would be interesting too.
Any other advice you would give to a newbie or more established street photographers?
As long as you are shooting for yourself and shooting what you enjoy, then the results are going to happen. Unfortunately, with all the social media nowadays, there is a lot of pressure to produce content. For me at least, great shots don’t happen every day, every week or sometimes even every month. If I was hung up on producing great shots instead of enjoying the process of going out and taking photos, then I would probably not stick around. For me the enjoyment comes from going out every day and working hard at it. I keep track of my steps and for the last few years I’m never under 10.000 steps a day and sometimes I do 30.000.
If I can, I try to be out for at least three hours a day. Of course, if you have a job outside of photography then a lot of time is going to be eaten up by that. But you should try to get out at least once a week and do it as much as you can. Even just looking at the world from a photographer’s standpoint without a camera is helpful.