A photo-dialogue with Jez Coulson
Meeting with Jez Coulson last week was like parachuting right into the middle of his chaotic Jezblog. Interviewing on the go, we walked and talked, coffee and sandwiches in hand as Jez immersed me in the latest from his hectic lifestyle.
There doesn’t seem to be much front to Jez, in person he is he is disarmingly open about his work and lifestyle; the blog characters, Matt, Minh Tu, Amin and even the Beast Car appeared in our conversation as if I knew them intimately.
In fact, Jezblog readers do know these people. The blog not only shows a daily picture; a sample, perhaps, from the latest location shoot, a portrait of Minh Tu or a madly blurred New York taxi, but works as a communication channel for Coulson’s fantastically successful, photo-journalist lifestyle:
“Im rolling Matt..... well not really Im stuffing things in bags as ever..... then Im rolling to the airport..... LGA? Right? Cheers baby Jez XXXXX”
“I got off the plane rolled back to the office in NYC...... I look in the camera bag....... er....... wheres the computer........ yeah I left it in the seat pocket on the plane....... er...... yeah ....... that'll do it ... “
“I write the blog as if I’m 22 and the funny thing about it is.. it’s still me! You will recognise me; my clients recognise me - it is me. I’m 45 now and I’ve been doing this for a long time but it’s still me there...this year we’ve been in Brazil, Belize, Trinidad, Germany, all across the USA, France, France again..I’m just buzzing about all over the place.”
“I got back from Paris late today and rolled out even later to see JE ....... he is full of mad ideas........ crazy and brilliant things as ever......... “
“.....anyway now its 3AM as it always is after a creative meeting with JE......... :-)) ......... I cannot start fiddling with and processing images as I am a tiny bit tired and emotional..”
As the hit counter approaches 6 million, what started as an experiment in learning digital photography is becoming an integral part of his business.
“For example, the job we have just done in Belize...the clients are really happy for it to be on the blog. My blog gets a lot more hits than their website! But some of the big corporate clients are still not happy with it so sometimes you’re getting a lot of taxis when I’m really doing something else - ‘cause I’ve always got taxis! I like it to be personal but because I’m a news guy, a photojournalist guy, when say, Ted Kennedy dies, I’m gonna get out a picture of Ted Kennedy - it makes it a more interesting blog because its more like its got a newspaper vibe.”
The blog archive page is jam-packed with incredibly high quality images - only a small selection of his back-catalogue - but there is a reticence when we begin to discuss the recognition he has achieved. As he speaks of some of the award winning work (there is, to use a Jez phrase, “tons of it.”) his voice becomes quieter. I get the impression he enjoys the kudos but perhaps too much high profile can get in the way. We drift into his journalistic past and I press him to explore the meaning of another Jez phrase; ‘the ability to ‘hang.’’
“The major league skill that you cannot teach people is the ability to be able to hang with people - so if you’re going to be hanging with fascists you’ve got to be able to find a place within yourself where you can understand where they’re coming from - it’s not like you’re sympathetic to them properly - and I want to be careful how I’m stating this - it’s not like I have any sympathy with them. I’ve got to win their trust, but also, if I don’t have it in me to respect them at some level, I’m never going to win their trust. So even if I’m hanging with Serbian fighters who have clearly doing a whole ton of mean stuff - on one level I am doing a journalistic inquiry that may expose them - but on another level I’m actually with them...the main skill would be that you have to approach people and hang with people and just be accepted in that way...”
This seems like a vital part of his history and I push harder.
“If I really analyse it... I’ve never written or even discussed it much with people. What I’m doing is I find stuff in people that I can relate to, and then I’ve got that element inside me and it becomes more exaggerated - it’s like being a chameleon because you’ve got that colour in you and then you can become more of that colour....”
He tells the story of his school days as a middle class kid in a sink estate comprehensive and the subtle subterfuge that became his survival routine.
“We weren’t so wealthy but we had more than most of the people I was hanging around with. I just didn’t want to appear that way, so I didn’t lie to anyone but I had a slightly different way of presenting myself so it wasn't a big deal... and for me that was a pretty useful exercise to then go on and become a photo-journalist.”
“Because I could then hang with people... at the time it was Thatcher’s Britain, tons and tons of people were unemployed, lots of parents at the school were unemployed. I had a way of finding a place within myself where we were friends and so, if I was one fixed person it would be harder to do that. and in my professional life ...I did a series of photographs of kids who steal cars, joyriders and stuff, it was a big story on the front cover of Night and Day and inside covered 11 pages ...I’d just drifted up there and I could hang with kids who steal cars and that is a skill that a lot of people would not have...”
“The first time I rolled up there they had a huge culture of bonfires and I was thinking, ‘Jesus, man... this is heavy...‘ Quite a lot of heavy duty looking youth... I’m hanging with them but it’s no good pretending I’m one of them...but I’d done enough to be like them so they would accept me. They were still suspicious...they would be saying ‘Why don’t we tax him?” Which is like, nick my stuff...”
There is, it seems, a dimension of deep personal respect that Jez brings to his photography. As we speak, a couple of technicians work around us, he attends to them with the same comfortable, egalitarian care and attention he gives to our conversation:
“On a personal level I’ve always got time - I hate to be dismissive of anyone. I hate it when I see people being rude to the checkout girl.. I can’t stand that - it’s so unnecessary...”
However, his focus on the ‘ability to hang’ belies a sense of photographic technique and a level of industry and dedication that puts his contemporaries in the shade:
“In the early days, I was obsessed by being a photojournalist - I didn’t take a holiday for 6 years - a mixture of telling the stories and making the pictures and living the life...”
“For the first 10 years of my career I never cared how much money we made from a story. I never did a single calculation. I know that sounds mad - I mean, I knew that some stories were more successful than others and I knew some stories probably lost money - and my accountant would be worried about this stuff but I literally didn’t care - it was just just sustaining a weird lifestyle where you could fly around the world and live in Rwanda, Gaza, Bosnia or whatever...”
Perhaps a greater degree of financial acumen is the one concession that Jez has made to growing maturity:
“I remember the very first advertising job I got. I’d been risking my life in Gaza for a couple of hundred bucks a day and then I get back and get thousands and thousands of dollars for a four day job in the Caribbean - I’d never had a job like it in my life!”
But even on the less-than-exotic jobs, a strong ‘professional’ ethos begins to take hold:
“I can be motivated by bigger picture, political things, but I can also be motivated by just making it brilliant. If I’m being paid thousands of dollars, I’m going to make it great. If I’m being paid bugger all, I’m going to make it great. Even when the job isn’t that exciting I’m doing it like my life depended on it - I can’t stand the thought of not doing it properly...”
I take him back to one of the first pictures on the blog; a picture taken in the wake of Katrina:
“The flag was good, the light was good... I’m waiting... I was thinking that if a helicopter would come into this shot it would be good - I probably waited there for 45 minutes and then the bird flew through - I got it - literally one frame..."
Back to Jezblog:
"Hehehe....... my fave ever for that..... Im doin an assignment to photograph a really boring building...... its really boring..... the light is terrible....... Im just hanging trying to make it work.......
In the end I take the pictures to the picture editor she gasps with delight.... saying thats why we get u to do it....... if I went there the picture would be just a boring building....... when u do it there is miraculously this incredible swirl of starlings wow amazing..... "its just amazing the mixture of luck and genius that makes your photography wow!!!"...
..... I didn't mention I was there for 11 hours.........
hehehe....... its better to look like amazing genius and luck..... not obsession and madness combined with sweat and grind........"
So, where will the blog, the advertising work and the mad taxis take Jez in the future?
“I’ve become more comfortable thinking of myself as an artist - in the beginning I was definitely a photo-journalist, politically motivated, interested in the stories, being a witness, providing evidence... then there’s the stuff of making a living....getting your material used where people will see it and so you need to be a professional photographer. Doing the commercial stuff has given me more space to do the work I’m just interested in.... These days I call myself a ‘reportage artist’ which is a funny thing - I would never have used that term 20 years ago - but for me it incorporates a photojournalistic approach to the artwork I'm making.”
Maybe 'reportage-artist' wouldn't have worked for Jez 20 years ago, But in a pre-digital age no-one would have been able to share the intensity of his life in the way that Jez has discovered through social networking:
It was all great.........We did a whole pile of other shoots today on our corporate commission
..............bit of a long day..... I left my hotel room at 7-20AM and returned at midnight......... We are rolling again at 7AM....... better get some kip...........
Im feeling slightly done in now....... but lets face it this is the natural order of things....... :-/ :-) :-))
Cheers baby Jez XXXXXX