Jenny Lewis, a winner in BJP's Portrait of Britain 2016, on the power of portraiture to intrigue, engage, and communicate
Born in Essex, a Portrait of Britain winner – Jenny Lewis moved to Hackney, East London, almost 20 years ago. Her project, One Day Young, captures mothers with their babies within the first 24 hours of childbirth; her series Hackney Studios shows creatives in her borough, in their working environments. Both projects have been published by Hoxton Mini Press.
What makes a compelling portrait?
I want a portrait to engage me, I want to feel a physical response to the image, to want to know more. I want honesty and rawness and something to be revealed about the person, some clues that you can build upon to piece together who they are. The connection between photographer and subject is extremely important – after all, a portrait is the outcome of a human interaction, what is left after that conversation, and a reflection of the atmosphere in the room. Often a good portrait stays with you for a long time – you don’t know why, but it makes an impression that you can’t easily shake off.
When did you fall in love with photography?
When I was seventeen I volunteered to work in an orphanage in Romania. The black-and-white rolls I took there were pretty much the first I’d ever shot. Obviously, the experience was completely overwhelming and I was in way over my head, but the camera became a way of dealing with the situation and starting to properly observe. When I processed the film I realised the images represented what I was feeling rather than what I was seeing. It was like learning a new language. This process of visually investigating people is still what excites me about photography.
Could you tell us about an experience you’ve had while shooting portraits?
Recently I photographed an artist who had worked as a Hebrew scribe in what he described as a cave in Israel for fifteen years. The tools of his old life were still scattered around his studio and still so much a part of him. We lived five minutes far from each other but his journey to this community couldn’t have been further than my own. I was fascinated. Photography gave me the excuse to have this conversation. He had been incredibly anxious when I arrived wrapped up in a coat and scarf, coiled tight and fiercely defensive. I loved the challenge of encouraging him to give in to the session; gradually, his trust and confidence grew during the session and it was like watching him unfurl.
He described our exchange as a dance and I love the idea of the process as a choreographed play. His body language changed and a warmth emerged…when I showed him the portrait he was quite emotional and asked “Is that how you see me?” He was shocked by the image, as it was so different from how he saw himself. I hadn’t thought about that before but, of course, as a photographer, you are basically only able to create an image of how you see someone rather than maybe what is really there.
What are your thoughts about the Portrait of Britain project?
My series, One Day Young, came from a sense of frustration that the moment of motherhood was largely ignored by our culture, and the dialogue around this moment was mostly negative, only based on pain and trauma. I wanted to celebrate this moment, to sew a seed of confidence, respect and empowerment for these women who had just triumphed the physical challenge of birth, focusing on their strength rather than their vulnerability. When the series was published One Day Young had a lot of attention, but I was aware the audience was probably quite limited to that of weekend supplements and photography magazines.
Portrait of Britain was a perfect vehicle to take the image to the mainstream. In train stations, airports and shopping centres up and down the country, to share the beauty of this moment with an uncurated audience was fantastic. I love the public art aspect of the project, all these slices of British life and the personalities that make up this country shown on a rolling screen, back on the streets of our country. I was transfixed when I first saw the screens and can’t wait to see what will be selected this year.
BJP’s Portrait of Britain competition is open to all photographers – amateurs, students and professionals. We welcome everything from selfies to conceptual images, and they can be shot on film or digital in any format. All we ask, is that your portrait was shot in the UK after 1st January 2011, and depicts subjects living in the country at the time of the photograph. The competition is open until 26 June 2017.
For more details on how to submit your work please visit portraitofbritain.uk
Enter now: portraitofbritain.uk