Interview with Jo Metson Scott
I met London-based photographer Jo Metson Scott (jometsonscott) in Texas earlier this year when she was traveling through the United States, taking photographs and interviewing soldiers for her latest project The Grey Line which is a “reflection on war, from the perspectives of US and UK soldiers who have spoken out against the invasion of Iraq” and the varying consequences. Solemnly beautiful imagery is matched with text to connect viewers and readers with a truly human experience.
I caught up with Scott once she was back in London and settled from her travels to the U.S to find out a little more about her process.
What follows is a conversation that sheds some light on the some of the truths on being a professional photographer. And, about her experience photographing soldiers and veterans, world-class child gymnasts, why she enjoys shooting on film, shooting on a tight schedule, and proof that Jo Metson Scott is not a psychopath.
So what have you been up to?
[delightful British accent] I’ve got a shoot tomorrow. I’m shooting a British comedian whom you probably don’t know. So, I’ve just been sorting out all of the stuff for the shoot. The logistics keep changing and I’m trying to balance, keeping everyone happy, so I’ve been spending most of my time doing that.
Part of it is that you have a very restricted amount of time. There’s contracts signed beforehand, the magazine wants certain things, the PR will be cautious to protect the person you’re taking pictures of so it’s a very sort of false environment. But, it’s also part of the challenge of it because it’s still my job to make that connection with someone even it’s only for a short amount of time. For me, anyway, I like the pressures of it, and to some extent, although it’s more of a contrived environment there’s still this essence of there being this odd thing between us, which is the camera, and to make that connection with someone.
Your images are so carefully composed. Are you shooting on a tripod?
Whenever I have a tripod I end up carrying the tripod as well as the camera around, so they’re disastrous for me. I just lug them around. I’m always hand-held, and try to keep it as simple as possible, almost as if the camera isn’t there and I try not to use flash or any lights. And most of the time I talk [laughter]. Or listen. And, the pictures are squashed between.
The only other thing that drives me is the lighting. So as long as the place has nice light, then everything else can fall into place. So, the only thing I sort of stress about or orchestrate is that I’ll try to guide the person to an area that I like. And the rest of it can kind of just flow. See where it takes us because you never know.
Looks like you’re shooting on film.
For my commercial stuff I have to shoot a lot of digital, but recently I’ll always just sneak in a roll of film and they’re usually the pictures that get chosen. Mostly it’s medium format, sometimes it’s 35 mil, sometimes it’s 5:4, then I also really like using digital as well, it’s just a completely different process.
Do find when you’re shooting film you take your time?
I become more confident when I’m shooting film. Because I can’t see what I’m doing, I have to trust myself and I just concentrate more on the moment whereas when I’m shooting digitally, I’m constantly looking at the back of the screen and then questioning what I’m doing. When I’m shooting film I just keep going with the process and don’t stop. I feel that I’m less distracted when I’m shooting film. I’m not knocking digital at all, becomes sometimes it’s so important on a job. You can be quick and not have to worry about missing stuff.
So even for the Gym Boy project, you were shooting film?
I was shooting film, which is technically completely disastrous and against all the rules in one way. It was really low light and tungsten light mostly and I was shooting 12 year old boys, which are pretty hard to shoot anyway. It was really dark conditions so I was shooting at 2.8 and a 30th most of the time. So, not surprisingly, a lot of [the pictures] were out of focus. But in the end that’s kind of what I wanted. I didn’t want it to be a sports photography story. It was about their personalities and relationships. I had started to do it digitally but I kept getting carried away trying to get them to back-flip through the air. But that’s not what the story was about. The story was about the downtime, their relationships and the pressures that they’re under. Limiting myself as to what I could capture [with film] was, actually, in the end quite a good thing. And, I became obsessed by, I mean, their bodies are extraordinary, just so strong and can do such amazing things but their also so vulnerable and childlike in these tiny little shorts. And I felt that shooting with the Hasselblad would have kept things fresh and picked up their fleshy tones, but also, I could highlight the strength in their bodies. So shooting with a Hasselblad, on film, with a manual focus camera was very much part of the process for that project in particular.
I’d spent a lot of time with them and at first they were just sort of as little boys are, showing off or smiling to the camera and over the two years they lost interest a little bit. And, because I wasn’t snapping loads because I was shooting on medium format, it kind of helped them lose interest in me. So by the end I could sit and listen to their group and they just ignored me a bit which was nice.
Two years ago I met Hamish, who is the main boy in the pictures. He was fascinating to speak to. I think he’s second in the country, in his age group, and he’s part of what is called the “Elite Boys” which is the great British elite gymnastics, so he’s expected to be in the Olympics in 2016.
He does 30 hours a week of training on top of school. And I was kind of fascinated. At first I wondered, “Is this him, or is this his parents pushing him?” You can’t make a child do 30 hours if they don’t want to, and he loves it. He wants to be a gymnast so much and he’s so driven.
So your projects cover a long span of time. How long have you been photographing the soldiers?
5 years. I like to take my time with [projects]. But there’s always months and months when I haven’t done anything because most of it is in America, and I’m based in London. I’ll go interview people for a short period of time and then I’ll come back and research, and then go back. So it’s been a very gradual project. It’s also a project that I’ve had to do so much research. There has been a lot of background reading and research beforehand. The process is just as important as the final product for me. Doing it, rethinking it, questioning it, and working out whether or not I’m doing it at the right angle.
I was helping out director I work with a lot who was working on a documentary for Al Jazeera English, and they were looking at the process of conscientious objection with the U.S. Military. I’d heard of conscientious objection within the British army during the 2nd world war, but I didn’t know it was something that existed in the present time. It surprised me that I’d never really thought about it. In Britain there was a huge movement for stopping the war in Iraq. And there were so many people against it, but I’d never really considered how a solider would be feeling going into a war that was so unpopular and wasn’t sanctioned by the U.N.
And, for some reason, I’d never thought of these soldiers as individuals, but as part of this unquestioning mass. So the more I started to look at it, I found there were more and more soldiers that were unhappy about what they’re supposed to do.
I think in life we’re always taught that if we’re feeling like we are doing the wrong thing that we should speak out, we should say no, and we don’t have to do what we’ve agreed to do. In most aspects of life, that’s true, except in the military. Once you’ve signed up for the military, you can’t pull out. And, it’s a massive deal if you change your mind and don’t want to be part of the military.
So, I was looking at that. And looking at the decision a soldier has to make if they feel morally opposed to something, because potentially they could lose their job, lose the respect of their friends, and they can be put in prison. Everybody talks about what’s right and wrong and that you should go with your heart and do what you think is right. But if what you think is right is against what you’ve contractually signed up to do, it’s very difficult.
I’m not looking particularly at the politics of whether the war was right or wrong. It was more about what individuals do if they’re asked to do something they don’t feel comfortable with and how they deal with that. Some people didn’t feel right about it but said, “Well, I don’t feel right about it,” and shrugged their shoulders and said, well I’m going to do this anyway because I’m getting paid to do this and this is what’s been asked of me. And they had to deal with the guilt afterwards. Other people refused to fight and said this is wrong and they were sent to prison, and they now have a criminal record, but they are happier in their conscience.
Wow. Heavy stuff… Let’s move on to lighter topics.
[laughter] Yes, let’s do.
I see some work for Dossier. Looks like you have some fashion photography going on in there, too.
A recent project I did with a stylist called Ruth Higgabotham and an art director call Sara Bunter and it was really nice to do. It’s only recently been put up in Dossier and I really like the magazine so it was nice to do some work for them.
I often forget about the clothes, which is probably not a good thing. But, the process is pretty much exactly the same [as portrait]. You worry more about the beauty of things and less about the content. I don’t know if that’s a good or bad thing to say
Anything on what inspires you?
I’m lucky to have lots of photographer friends who I admire loads, and I find their work brilliant! So, speaking to them about my project and talking through my work with them is a huge aspect of my process, really. If I don’t know where [the project] is going, I sort of drop in with them.
And they either say, “Yeah that’s a great idea, keep going,” or, “That’s crazy.”
Yeah, and that’s also great becomes sometimes if people say “No, I think that’s a terrible idea,” it helps you solidify it for yourself, and you’re like, “No, you’re completely wrong.” And it makes you more confident in yourself. Or, you agree with them and move into a different direction. There are definitely lots of projects that were started and then dropped, or have changed and evolved.
So what about film? Anything you’ve seen recently that blew your mind?
The Arbor. Because I do documentaries myself, I love interviewing people and hearing their words. It’s something as a photographer, I always feel frustrated about because I can’t capture people’s words to go with my pictures.
And, what’s amazing in that film is that she’s managed to make it visually beautiful because she’s got actors and she’s created these scenes but it’s still so genuine because these words are spoken by real people, and I’ve never seen that juxtaposition. It’s a fascinating story. It’s about one of the youngest British playwrights, Andrea Dunbar. She was from a working class town. She was discovered and her play was put on at the Royal Court in London, and it was a big deal because she was really young. And, she basically became an alcoholic and drunk herself to death. The story is mostly about her three children and how they dealt with the death of their mother. So the documentary is done through the voices of the three children. But it’s also juxtaposed with a play that’s being performed that explains the life of Andrea Dunbar.
It blew my mind. I thought this woman, the director, is amazing!
Are you a reader? Or just a visual person?
The most recent book called I read is called THE PSYCHOPATH TEST. He also wrote the story: The Men Who Stare At Goats. John Ronson. It’s a really worthwhile book and it covers the history of… well, psychopaths.
Is that going to be your next photo project?
Yeah, well, it did suddenly make me suddntly then start questioning because there is this actual test. So, it made me question everybody I met and wonder if they were a pychopath which is not healthy, considering [laughter].
Yeah, you’re sitting at lunch with your best friend and you’re saying to yourself, “My best friend is crazy!”
[laughter] Yes, yes, exactly. Or you just question yourself! He does have a wonderful quote in it because after it’s done its course, it says something like: If you’re now questioning whether or not you’re a psychopath, the fact that you’re questioning it means that you’re not a psychopath.
Any words of advice to young or new photographers?
Take pictures of things you want to. Don’t take pictures of things you think people want to see. Take pictures of things you want to take pictures of because that’s where you’ll get the commisions from.
Do you ever find yourself photographing things that you aren’t particularly interested in?
Yes, sadly. But some things that aren’t interesting are what make you money. But, it’s a completely different skill and you use a completely different part of your brain, and it’s a completely different experience.
For my own photography, I choose to not be technical, and I choose to keep it all natural. But there’s a lot of times where I have to light stuff and it’s all very mathematical and practical. But it’s a completely different type of photography with its own set of challenges. But for the stuff I want to do, stuff I want to get commissioned for I do because I like it.
Pretty much everyone can take a picture these days, with cameras that can do everything for you. But that’s not the point. The point is editing, to show what your style is, your vision.
What would you be doing if you were not a photographer?
Oh god, I don’t know. Politician? [laughter] I’m joking I have no idea. A gardener or working in, I don’t know, working in development. I definitely want a second career I just haven’t figured out what that is. I think I’ll just flow into different things. I’m not that adventurous to just stop and start the next thing. I’ll just stumble into the next thing.
Jo Meston Scott’s Tumblr
Interview by Eric Morales