IN CONVERSATION WITH JOSEPH LEE
Central to Joseph Lee's photography practice are people and their environments. Random moments of people in nature, people in the city and often people near the sea. Joseph's ambition for his work has always been to document in a candid style, where he leaves the story up to the viewer to create their own narrative. Characterful subjects are always central to his images and a sense of the space that they occupy.
Tell us a bit about yourself. How did you become interested in photography?
I was born in north Wales and have returned recently, having spent most of my life living in London and then Hastings. I have always had an interest in photography, but the passion really took hold about 5 years ago. It has become my primary creative outlet and there’s no turning back now.
Do you have a favourite quote/saying that especially resonates with you?
Dorothea Lange said, “The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera.”
There is so much truth in this and for me, that ‘seeing’ she talks about has huge potential for helping us to understand ourselves and our place in the world and, in turn, improving our wellbeing.
Where do you find your inspiration? Do you have any favourite artists/photographers? Who do you think has mostly influenced your style?
Definitely out and about watching the to and fro of everyday life is the most inspiring place to be.
Also, the Magnum Agency’s work has been a huge source of inspiration. I discovered Elliott Erwitt properly recently and love his work. There’s also Gregory Crewdson, Annie Leibovitz, Don McCullin, Nick Hedges, Gueorgui Pinkhassov, Michael Bennett, Robert Frank, Dorothea Lange. Painters such as Edward Hopper, Paul Nash and Mark Rothko as well. I’m also inspired by movies - the vision of directors like Wim Wenders (and his photography), Tarantino, David Lynch and their cinematographers have had a lasting effect on my work, often subconsciously I think.
I am studying for an MA in Socially Engaged Photography currently and through that have discovered Wendy Ewald, who’s work and approach I’m very interested in.
I love the artists featured on the Pictorial List obviously! The Instagram community has also been incredibly inspiring - there are so many wonderful people doing fantastic work and being part of that community as helped me develop a great deal. There are so many great artists on Instagram, too many to mention but a few are: @luxtasia, @georgiepeelphoto, @leethirkelleson, @darbolger, @streetsnappers, @kim_aldis, @billie_charity, @alanmartine_z, @rpapworthphotos, @robbremner_photographer, @paul_menzies_, and @zigghi49.
What is it that you enjoy about street photography? Explain your technique? What do you want to express through your photography? And what are some of the elements you always try to include in your photographs?
I’m fascinated by people and have always loved watching them go about their business. My street photography is an extension of that. I’m interested in the magic that reveals itself in these everyday comings and goings. It never ceases to amaze how quickly these moments come to light when I step out with my camera. I just walk and observe and the magic is always there for me. I try to keep the composition simple, with a limited colour palette and a sense of space is important, which probably comes from that cinematic influence.
Do you have any favourite spots to go photographing? How has the pandemic affected you personally and your photography?
I used to live in Hastings and this period was a turning point in my work. It’s a place of great contrast - with natural beauty and urban grime and grittiness in equal measure. There is also a big socioeconomic divide which can be seen on the streets and I became interested in trying to capture this in my photography. It’s a vibrant, exuberant place, but also a depressed place. There is a sense of isolation both geographically and socially, which I have an interest in.
I’ve since left Hastings and moved to north Wales, but I still spend a lot of time in seaside towns capturing this same contrast. Blackpool is currently a favourite spot to photograph for all the same reasons.
The pandemic has without doubt had an impact on me and my work. We were becoming more and more disconnected as a society before it and that is now being felt even more profoundly. So my work is now about exploring this disconnection and isolation, whilst trying to contrast it against a beautiful setting or backdrop. I am also looking at ways of using photography to create better connections between people and their environment. I really believe that if we can see the vividness of our world more clearly and not be so blinkered, we will be better placed to love it and ourselves. Again, as Dorothea Lange said, "Photography is a powerful tool for teaching us to see."
Are there any books that you have read that have inspired your creativity and that you would like to recommend to us?
Currently I am reading a lot around the theory of socially engaged practice and I’m also working on my own socially engaged practice which involves working with groups to explore photography and mindfulness practice. So I’m reading a lot in this space. Stephen Batchelor is a great source of insight here, he is a meditation teacher, Buddhist scholar and photographer who has written a lot about the parallels between meditation and photography.
Also Magnum Streetwise is a brilliant book - the work just leaps out at you and there is so much in there about how these great photographers' work.
The Photographer’s Playbook is great too. 307 photo assignments and ideas to get you out with your camera and trying new things.
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?
My Fujifilm X-T20 with the 35mm f/1.4 was the turning point for me. I had a Sony before it, which was fine, but the Fuji was revelation. It’s size and it’s ability with colour seemed to just work for me. I’ve recently upgraded to the X-T3 and this has upped the ante further. I still primarily use the 35mm lens, but also enjoy the new 16-80mm lens, which gives me some interesting new options to achieve the cinematic look I like. Apologies to the street purists out there!
Also, smartphones have transformed photography for me. The fact that I can grab a shot whenever and wherever and edit it Lightroom, on the go is incredible.
I have a Pentax ME, which I love, but I’m just too impatient and love the immediacy of digital photography. Getting home and going through ‘my catch of the day’, seeing what worked and what didn’t is a huge part of the joy. That said, if I had the space I’d love to set up a darkroom and learn that skill at home one day!
When you go out photographing, do you have a concept in mind of what you want to shoot, or do you let the images just "come to you", or is it both?
I just walk and watch people. I try to cultivate an openness to the surroundings, I’m very interested in how mindfulness helps create this spaciousness of mind. In that space we can be more receptive to the inspiration that is all around us and then the ideas seem to come more freely. I do look for interesting backdrops and plays of light. Then I lurk in those spaces waiting for the right characters to play their part! Some planning and foresight, patience and a bit of luck is what it’s all about for me.
Have you ever been involved in the artistic world before photography?
I spent 20 years working as a creative and latterly Creative Director at broadcast companies, including the BBC, working on TV marketing and branding. Also, my grandfather was landscape painter. He really taught me how to ‘see’ and appreciate the environment and the way light works. So creativity has always been in my life in some shape or form.
What are some of your goals as an artist? Where do you see yourself or hope to see yourself in five years?
My goal is to continue to develop my own practice, but also my socially engaged work. I want to develop techniques that combine mindfulness and photography to help communities and groups express themselves and connect better through this combined practice. There is huge creative and well-being potential in this area and it is more important now than ever before.
Are there any special projects you are currently working on that you would like to let everyone know about?
I am working on The Mindful Photo Project, which is a socially engaged photography project formed around the exploration of mindfulness and photography. We have been running weekly Zoom based workshops where we set weekly assignments for a group of participants, through which they can begin to see their world through a different lens (excuse the pun!). This is as much about developing the group’s technical skills as it is about the therapeutic benefit of the 2 practices. The project is very much in its infancy, but it has been hugely rewarding and insightful already. I’m hoping this will continue to develop and expand, so that we can explore these ideas in other community groups and settings.
“When I am not out photographing, I (like to)…
...Study, read, cycle and be a husband and dad."