July 30, 2021
STORIES TO REMEMBER
Photography by Jimmy Spaceman
Interview by Melanie Meggs
In an increasingly digitalised world, social documentary photographer Jimmy Spaceman stands out for his commitment to conveying important stories through the honest representation of people and everyday life. Jimmy's powerful images of Palestinians crossing Israeli Checkpoints in the Westbank, capturing life in Mumbai's Dharavi Slum India, and other works have been used in the political theatre play 'My Jerusalem', featured on Broad Magazines Instagram page weekly special, and have been the subject of a main feature on The Dummy's Tales blog magazine. His work is an ever-evolving journey of personal growth and a journey to make social change through photography.
In this interview, we speak to Jimmy Spaceman about his life as a social documentary photographer, his unique approach to photography, and his mission to capture and convey powerful stories through powerful imagery. Join us as we delve deeper into the mind and work of this talented photographer.
“I currently live in Sheffield, but I am originally from Merseyside in the United Kingdom. I became interested in photography around ten years ago. I am also a musician. I found myself taking photos of mates' bands at events where we putting on at the time. This led on to a passion for street photography, which became the training ground for my social documentary work. I try to get out with my camera daily or at least as often as I can. I have always had a day job during my creative adventures. I do gardening jobs and a bit of painting and decorating to pay the bills and fund to any photographic adventures. It’s a hard way of doing things I suppose, I am often physically tired after work, but whilst grafting I am usually dreaming of my next adventure. I carry a camera with me at all times.”
IN CONVERSATION WITH JIMMY SPACEMAN
THE PICTORIAL LIST: Jimmy, documentary photography is important to you but you also do some street photography. Talk to us about the similarities and the differences between both genres. What happens when you go out with your camera? Do people respond positively to you, or do you sometimes get negative reactions? If yes, how do you handle it?
JIMMY SPACEMAN: I love the ability to pause a moment in time. Not staged one, a real moment in time. Recording history correctly including life’s emotion, humour, sadness, ups and downs.
Whilst I’m out on daily street photography walks, I like to give myself little challenges such as window reflections shots or each photo must contain purple. I think little games like these help to develop your "photographer's eye". Photographing people can be difficult, you definitely need to be street wise. On occasion, in the UK, people can get paranoid or annoyed. I feel that I have a good rapport with people in general and I treat people with respect. Most of the time I do take the photo and worry about the reactions later. Humour always comes in handy. I won’t just take a photo of a homeless person and walk off I will hang out with them for a while and make sure they are happy (and usually buy them some food). I nearly always try and show the image to the subject. If I get any negative reactions I just quickly move on and apologise. One time I took a photo of a butcher in Sheffield market chopping some meat and the staff all got annoyed with me. They all had their meat cleavers raised. I hung around and explained myself and apologised for the distress I had caused them. I explained that I was working on a project showing hard working people in Yorkshire. They were worried about my motives. There was way less photography paranoia in India. I had people jumping in front of my camera and wanting me to take photos of their friends and family.
I suppose when out doing street photography I am looking for the photo, but with my documentary photography it is more about the project as a whole. When I was spending time in Dharavi Slum, I was generally trying to make friends and contacts with the residents and workers. I spent time getting to know my subjects and gaining their trust. Two years later I am still in contact with people from Dharavi. I do find it wonderful the people and places my camera has taken me!
TPL: Talk to us about your process on what makes a documentary series. What experience would you like your viewers to come away with after viewing your series?
JS: I like the idea of making positive change with photography. Giving people a voice who wouldn’t otherwise have one. Truth. I see so much misinformation in the media, everyone has an agenda. I want my work to be honest and heartfelt. I have no hidden agenda apart from documenting life in front of me. I do lots of research beforehand. Knowledge can show and gain respect, whilst a lack of knowledge can be potentially dangerous.
TPL: How has COVID-19 impacted you personally and your work?
JS: Covid has affected everyone in the world. Early in 2021 I lost one of my best friends. She was a care worker and died at the age of 45. This was before any lockdown. I also lost my uncle aged 56. He had no underlying health issues and was a massive influence on me. He was an amazing colourful character who always nurtured and encouraged my creativity.
The obvious travel restrictions have hindered most people’s plans. Personally I spent this time re-exploring my local surroundings and using it as an opportunity to brush up on camera techniques, and of course plotting future photography projects.
TPL: Where has been the most significant place that you have photographed? What did you take away from this experience?
JS: I photographed checkpoints at the West-bank with an organisation called Machsom Watch. Photography was prohibited in some military areas, so I had to be discreet. Machsom Watch is a volunteer organisation of Israeli women who are peace activists. They oppose the Israeli occupation in the area known as the West Bank and oppose the appropriation of Palestinian land and denial of Palestinian human rights. They support the right of Palestinians to move freely in their land and oppose the checkpoints which severely restrict Palestinian daily life. Since 2001 they have been observing and reporting on the occupation. On a daily basis, they monitor the West Bank Checkpoints. What struck me was how young the Israeli Soldiers were, some looked only about 18 years of age. National service is mandatory for all Israeli citizens over the age of 18. Most of the Soldiers were not comfortable with me taking photographs so I had to be careful, although one soldier shouted “Pink Floyd” at me and signalled a peace symbol. Most of the Palestinians I met on the other hand seemed happy to have their photographs taken.
Some of my Israel Palestine photos were used in a political theatre piece by Avital Raz - "My Jerusalem", which has toured around the UK.
I feel that as a photojournalist or social documentary photographer I don’t take sides. I want peace for everyone. I know both Palestinians and Israelis and treat them both with equal respect. I felt privileged to be able to photograph part of a conflict. I don’t feel I should take “sides”, especially when it isn’t my conflict.
TPL: Do you have any favourite artists or photographers you would like to share with us, and the reason for their significance?
JS: Suzanne Stein…I love Rob Bremner’s work. He has captured Liverpool and Merseyside throughout the 80’s and 90’s (reminds me of my childhood)…Vivian Maier, Josef Koudelka, Martin Parr, Don McCullin, and the list goes on...
I love the ability to pause a moment in time. Not staged one, a real moment in time. Recording history correctly including life’s emotion, humour, sadness, ups and downs.
TPL: Does the equipment you use help you in achieving your vision in your photography? What camera do you use? Do you have a preferred lens/focal length?
JS: I own a Canon 70D, and a couple of lenses, but I am thinking about moving over to Fuji. I invested in a large iMac, I love working with a big screen, although for my street photography and social documentary work I do very minimal editing, a slight bit of cropping, if that. I like to get it right in the camera. I also have a Canon pro-1000 printer, which has blown my mind seeing my work in print and has definitely impacted the way I do my photography.
TPL: What are some of your goals as an artist or photographer? Where do you hope to see yourself in five years?
JS: As a photographer I hope to have many more adventures. I am planning another visit to Dharavi Slum as soon as possible to do a follow up project investigating the effects Corona has had on one of the world's poorest and overpopulated slums.
TPL: Are there any special projects you are currently working on that you would like to let everyone know about?
JS: I have been preparing for an exhibition of my work in Sheffield of my time in Dharavi. I am trying to also include a live video feed directly from the Slum with some local residents. We have been working out technical issues, and are aiming for a Q&A session during the exhibition, with some of the subjects of my photos. I feel that this could be a great collaboration and will also help them out as I will pay them a UK salary for their time.
Covid obviously delayed these plans and a couple of galleries I know have even had to close. I am also working on my first photo book which is nearing completion.
TPL: "When I am not out photographing, I (like to)…
JS: I make Electronic Ambient Music in my spare time."
Jimmy Spaceman is a remarkable social documentary photographer whose commitment to conveying important stories through honest photography makes him stand out. To explore his work further and gain insight into the struggles of people around the world, we encourage you to read his Dharavi story and to see more of his photography by viewing the links below.