Photographer Colin Jones interviewed

Liverpool docks, by Colin Jones

From British daily The Morning Star:

How I got politicised

(Tuesday 28 October 2008)

INTERVIEW: Colin Jones

by Christine Lindey

Interview: Photographer COLIN JONES explains that his politics are borne out of raw experience.

COLIN Jones went to 13 schools, hated them all and never passed a single exam. He was told that he’d be lucky to get a job sweeping the streets.

He proved his doubters wrong. Jones went on to become a famous photographer whose ground-breaking work appeared in the new colour newspaper supplements in the early 1960s.

Behind the lens for almost 50 years, his subject matter ranges far and wide, yet what unites much of it is a strong sense of social justice and a humanist empathy with working people and the oppressed.

But it wasn’t photography that gave him his first taste of the world at large.

When the Festival Ballet visited his school seeking to fill the shortage of male dancers, he was the only boy who volunteered.

“I thought it sounded better than being a road sweeper,” he admits.

It led to the beginning of Jones’s lifelong travels. Aged 17, he joined the Royal Ballet and was soon in its touring company.

He began taking photographs in 1958, first of dancers, then of the mining villages which intrigued him when on tour in northern Britain.

“I saw something in common between us as ballet dancers and them as coal-mining communities. They live in very close-knit circles and, in the ballet, we did the same.

“Both jobs entail hard physical work for little pay,” although dancers, he points out, got paid less than miners.

On its world tours, the Royal Ballet acted as cultural ambassador and the dancers were fêted by the cultural and political establishments of the host nations.

At a time when few working-class people went abroad, Jones glimpsed the sumptuous lives of the rich and saw the desperate lives of the poor.

Experience rather than theory politicised him, initially in the Philippines in 1962. In a heavily guarded part of Manila, Imelda Marcos threw a lavish party for the company at which each guest had his or her own waiter.

Jones noticed a column of smoke in the bay below. When he asked Marcos what it was, she replied nonchalantly: “Oh, we are just burning off some of the slums.”

Jones set off to see for himself and, when his chauffeur refused to drive him, he went in alone with his camera.

“I saw them burning the shacks and everybody was going absolutely ape-shit,” he recalls. “They were literally setting light to the shacks with people still in them.

“This was Marcos‘s way of clearing the slums. That’s when I got political. I thought: I can’t take this.”

Jones left the ballet that year, resolving to earn his living from photography.

As a photojournalist, he obviously could not control the subject matter of all his commissions. However, those projects closest to his heart go well beyond the boundaries of a magazine commission.

The photographs for the Black House (Prestel Books, 2006) project were taken over four years. It took a long time for a white man to gain the trust of disaffected black youths in the racist climate of mid-1970s Britain.

Jones’s forte are people. Working like a novelist, he spends much time studying people in their environments, building up a rapport with them to arrive at moving and honest portrayals which neither idealise nor patronise his subjects. His sensitivity to social context enables him to convey fundamental truths about his subject which go beyond documentation. …

Jones speaks of photography as a craft and mocks the affectations and ludicrous prices which are now attached to it.

“Up until about 10 years ago, I was a photographer. Now, they all call me an artist.” …

He has recently collaborated on creative writing projects led by the poet Tony Wailey at the London College of Communication.

Visual arts students have written poems inspired by the college’s exhibitions of Jones’s photographs. In turn, books have been published of the poems alongside the photographs which inspired them.

The current Who exhibition is the beginning of the third of these projects. Commissioned by the Observer in 1966 for an article about the financial aspect of the rock and roll industry, Jones photographed the band in black and white.

In the early hours of the morning, when Jones and the band were partying, the magazine’s editor asked for a colour photograph of the band for the magazine cover.

Pete Townsend was wearing his Union Jack jacket and Jones said: “We need a Union Jack,” so Keith Moon shinned up the hotel flagpole to get one. Without a tripod, in poor light, Jones took his shot.

It would become one of the iconic images of the decade.

The Who exhibition shows at London College of Communication, London SE1, until November 7. Phone (020) 7514-7986 for more details. Free entry.

Man Ray: here.

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