TPL: Talk to us about your photography project SMOKING CHEFS. Can you tell us the story behind your series? What was the inspiration behind it and when did it begin? Is it an ongoing series? What do you want the viewer to experience when they look at this series?
JE: Here is the artist statement I released with the book:
In the noisy bustle of London’s West End, I have been looking for sanctuaries of quietness and contemplation. I found them in the back alleys and doorways of Chinatown.
At night, when the countless restaurants compete for tourists and theatregoers, throngs of visitors collide with Chinatown’s tight-knit ethnic community. By the time the restaurants open, some of the kitchen staff have already been working since early morning. Many of them are recent immigrants who speak little more than a few words of English. Some will have clocked more than 60 hours when the week is over.
They may not always be aware of my presence, yet I think of "Smoking Chefs" as kindred souls. I am sharing with them the few minutes it takes to smoke a cigarette, condensing this timespan into a single image.
Just like the chefs have established a ritual of seeking out the same locations, following the same routine to escape the relentless demands of their work, I have created my own, always trailing the same path along the streets and back alleys.
Most of my personal photography work consists of long-term projects and I often work on them in parallel. I come across something by accident, which then needs some time before I will figure out for myself what it actually is that fascinates me about it.
SMOKING CHEFS is one of these projects. Chinatown of course is full of restaurants and a few years ago, I noticed a number of chefs sneaking out for a well-deserved cigarette at pretty much any time, day or night. Being close to all the theatres, Chinatown is one of the busiest areas in Central London. At first, I liked the challenge of capturing these smoking chefs in a way that made it appear as if they were completely alone with themselves in a quiet part of town. In reality they were often surrounded by crowds of people.
I did some research and got to know the owner of several of these restaurants. He arranged for me get access to the kitchens, and to be able to speak with and photograph the chefs at work. These images are not part of the project, but it gave me an insight into the staggeringly strenuous work these individuals do. The Chinese restaurant personnel is often targeted by immigration police and although there are some with missing paperwork, the majority are in the UK legally. There have recently been protests and walkouts because they feel unfairly targeted by the government.
So there clearly is a social commentary to these images. But, as with much of my work, I try to let the photos do the talking and let others interpret what they are seeing. Someone has described SMOKING CHEFS as “simultaneously intimate, voyeuristic, weary, sad and timeless.” I’m pretty happy with that description. To be able to formally move on, I have published the series as a book. But I still occasionally go back and make more images – maybe for the next edition of the book. However, the pandemic has also changed Chinatown, and probably the chef’s schedules. It’s definitely become more difficult to make these images over recent months.