Jon Enoch is an award-winning London-based lifestyle and portrait photographer with a bold, uncomplicated approach to his images. Jon won the award for the Non-Commissioned Portraits Series in the highly prestigious AOP Awards 2015 for his Body and Mind series. He was nominated again in both 2016 and 2017. Some of his major clients include Wiggle, Norwegian Airlines, Sport Magazine, Ketchum, Fabulous, Skoda, The Times, Forever Sports, The RNLI, Philips, EA Sports, Addison Lee, ES Magazine and The Royal British Legion.
Hey, Jon! Can you start by telling us a little bit about your background and how you got here?
I had quite a late start and didn’t get into photography until I was at university studying Geography. I entered a competition by filling out an entry form and won a free trip around the world. That’s when I took a year off university and bought a camera. I noticed I was good at photography and decided to drop Geography when I returned from my trip.
I started to work at the student and the local newspaper to gain experience. That’s how I started to work in news. Then my name got passed to a large British music magazine called NME. The first freelance gig I got off them was taking pictures in this tiny little pub of this tiny little band that turned out to be the Arctic Monkey. That’s how I got my lucky break.
I then started working as a photojournalist and worked for the Times newspaper in London. That job was all about covering hard news. After three or four years I started getting frustrated because that life was very anti-social. You have to respond to events right away and you have no control over anything. I was craving control over the situation and over my lighting. So whilst working for the Times I took random portrait assignments and tried to refine my approach, my lighting and take it to the next level. I was shooting the pictures as if I’d shoot it for a big magazine, not just a newspaper.
I developed a more elaborate approach to my pictures, and it gave me the opportunity to build a portfolio and take it to magazines. I took those opportunities to lay the foundations for the next opportunity. That’s how I ended up where I am today.
Wow, that sounds like you really got lucky! What percentage would you attribute your success to luck and hard work?
I think you make your luck. Looking back, there are things I look at and I can say: “Yes, I was lucky, but I was also the only person that bothered.”
I can tell you about a time when I was at university. I had a friend who decided to do a little project on football fans out on the street. We both agreed to go down to the local football club in Sheffield on a Saturday to take pictures of fans. When I got to the football grounds, she texted me saying she was hungover and couldn’t make it. I said “whatever” and went to do the project on my own. It turned out that day we had the worst football rioting that had been seen in over a decade. So, while other photographers were inside preparing of the game, I was outside. I ended up with a whole set of pictures of what became quite a big news story, which I then sold to TV stations and newspapers. I was lucky, but at the same time, I made the decision to still go there. It’s a good example of having to make your own mark.
I haven’t done a single day of assisting or had any formal training.
So, you didn’t really have formal training in getting here?
Yes, that’s right! I haven’t done a single day of assisting or had any formal training. My look has just evolved over time. You look at people’s work and I’m good at deconstructing it. You slowly evolve your own style. It’s not a set plan of how to do it. You tweak it. “How can I get it to look better? How can I get this look? What do I need to do?” If you look at my work from ten years ago, or even five years ago, you would see its remarkably different. I think, I always knew what I wanted to do and it was just developing the skill to actually do it.
You say you have a bold, uncomplicated approach to your work. How do you want people to interpret this?
I’ve always been drawn to pictures that have an element of immediacy and boldness. It comes from when I was working for the news. In a newspaper, people only look at your picture for a couple of seconds before they turn the page. Same goes for advertisement when someone is driving their car by an ad. It needs to grab your attention in exactly the same way a good picture in the papers should. It can’t be too subtle.
You use to work for The Times and a few other magazines, what was it like becoming solely a freelancer? Any moments that made you question this decision?
Actually, I never had a contract. I always worked as a freelancer, which is something you’ll have to expect when you become a photographer. And I’m quite comfortable with that because I’ve never known anything different. Not knowing when the next job comes along and having to hustle to get work. But I understand that it’s not for everyone.
I think the main this is, if you take good images, people will notice. The easiest way to get attention and work is to actually do good work. Everything else will fall into place. Be happy with the images you put out there. Be comfortable with them and be really proud. People will notice it in your work and they will want to work with you. The publicity you might get from that exposure is not necessarily worth the money you pay to take part.
The publicity you might get from that exposure is not necessarily worth the money you pay to take part.
How important are photography awards, prizes, and nomination?
Awards have to be taken with a pinch of salt. They’re not everything but they give me a reason to shoot personal projects. A lot of them might need 8 pictures in the portfolio. So, they’ve been a useful motive. What I’d say to other photographers is be wary. I think there are a lot of competitions that just want your entry fee. The publicity you might get from that exposure is not necessarily worth the money you pay to take part. In reality, globally there’s a very small number of awards that are really going to do you any massive favors in terms of publicity or credibility if you win them. Be selective. But winning things is always good, does something for your ego at least.
Speaking of awards, you won one for your Body and Mind series? What inspired it?
It was interesting. I was “flirting” with a couple of agents and one of them really liked what I was doing but he said my work lacked emotion and should resonate more with advertisers in that regard. So, I thought: “Right, I’m going to show you”. I went out and shot something with emotion. The ‘Body and Mind’ series was purely shot to have that resonance with the viewer. It was so simple. It was shot with models I met somewhere on the street and shot in a studio in about half a day. I wanted to strip things bare and shot them in their rawest form, so there was no styling.
I’ve found the simpler I can keep it, the more likely it is to be a good personal project. Shoots can get too complicated too quickly if there are too many third parties involved, there can be things that are beyond your control. By cutting out things that are not necessary, you can keep it beautifully simple.
So is that your approach to all your personal projects, keep it simple?
Yes, to some extent. That was maybe when I was starting out and didn’t have the resources.
The last personal project I did was these guys on motorbikes in Vietnam with all their gear. That was the other extreme. You can’t get much more complicated than that shoot. You’re in some city in Asia, working with people who don’t speak your language and you have a whole lighting setup. So, I wouldn’t say simplicity is everything. But having the ability to shoot anything you want, is a good starting point.
To continue, how do you go about conceptualizing your personal projects?
Now I try to shoot personal projects in a way so that they sit up there as being some of my best work. I try to do less but create higher quality images. People, clients especially, want to be blown away by your personal work. I like the process of deciding what to shoot next, where does an idea come from and where does it end up? That can take quite a long time. I can’t knock a project out every week. Only once I’m comfortable with an idea I can commit my time and energy to it. That’s the approach I’m taking these days: less is more.
Where do you seek inspiration?
I think my inspiration comes from TV, radio, magazines, and music. My images are all based in reality, to some extent. They are not conceptual in a way where I have to make something up. There’s a limitation! We’re in a world where there are so many images and where everything seems to already have been done. Finding that new thing, that new little thread is hard to do.
The Hanoi bikes isn’t a new concept. Loads of people have shot that. Every tourist in Vietnam has done that. But the approach is different. Shooting by night, shooting it in a very controlled way, lights and all. And that gave me a product that is very, very different from what most people are used to seeing.
How do you decide when to stop shooting a personal project and call an end to a series?
When you’re doing a personal project there’s not necessarily an end to it. With my motorbikes series, I could have shot more. I went there twice already but I could have gone again. At some point you need some closure, otherwise, you get lost down a black hole. It’s a bit like editing. You have to be quite decisive and say, “that’s the one! Let’s move on to the next project.”
I’d be quite depressed if I had to spend all my time in the studio.
Location or studio shoots. What do you like better and why?
I try to position myself with the ability to do both things. They both have elements I enjoy but it seems quite natural to divide them.
In the studio, I like having control over everything. With location, I like that you actually get to go to interesting places and meet people. I’d be quite depressed if I had to spend all my time in the studio. I have a similar approach to both “sets” in terms of control over everything.
You have one short video on your website, is that something you’d like to dabble into?
I think dabbling is the right word. I work more as a director and bring in a DOP. It’s good being able to offer the clients motion as well as stills. Directing is weirdly similar to being a photographer. You have to make decisions and choices. Whether that’s edits for the final video or making decisions on set. It’s a skill photographers have in them, but they can get hung up on doing everything ourselves. The world of motion is quite different. You need a much larger team. I’m developing that at the moment. I’d still say I’m a photographer who shoots motion as opposed to somebody who does both.
How would you divide your work between commissioned and personal projects?
Maybe 50/50. It changes over time. I’m lucky in that the commercial work I get to shoot is often very interesting, which is what people want to see. As long as that’s a given, it doesn’t matter much if it’s commercial or personal work. It’s good if it meets an art buyer’s criteria of being of high enough quality and an interesting subject matter.
You’re almost doing some sort of performance you have to orchestrate
Which environments do you strive in?
I like high-pressure jobs. I get a kick from it. There are incidents where you only have 20 minutes to shoot an entire advertising campaign for a football player. He might turn up with an injured ankle and can’t do certain poses. You can’t preplan too much. You have to go with the flow. And if something doesn’t work out, you still have to get the pictures you need. There are expectations and pressure on you. Because when you look over your shoulder there are 20 people standing behind you. Clients and people from the advertising agency, just staring at you. It’s an odd experience, you’re almost doing some sort of performance you have to orchestrate. It’s all about controlling the space.
What’s your key to having a successful shoot?
I try to use the same crew of people and build a team who all know what they’re doing. It gives you control and power over the space. By working with people that you’re familiar with you don’t have to communicate with them. It’s almost telepathic. They know what you want and you know what they should be doing before you even have just to say it.
Are there any pros and cons of being a photographer in London?
London’s been great. I find it hard to think of somewhere I could be based that gives me so many opportunities because it’s a city that has everything.
I’m in Peckham, which is an interesting area of London. Most people will have visited East London. Shoreditch and around Brick Lane, where the creative community traditionally sits. It’s become horrendously expensive. As one area gets outpriced, another area springs up. I like being based in a very vibrant part of town. You take inspiration from it. My office is separate from where I live and my daily walk to work can be quite inspirational. I can find a beautiful brutalist building or a gorgeous park within 5 minutes walking distance.
There’s so much diversity and as a photographer, you’re really spoiled. If you want it, you can find it. I can walk from a street teeming with influences from Bangladesh to a classical British Victorian era street. You see and hear and smell things that make you feel quite alive and it feeds back into ideas.
This has been great! Any final words, Jon?!
I think that’s it!