Interview - Jonathan Stokes

We sat down for a chat with the rather amazing photographer behind our Portugal cover images … the utterly brilliant, travel-besotted Jonathan Stokes. You’ll find his interview below, along with a few images he’s snapped over the years - from all over the globe. Anyone else fancy packing their bags?

What first drew you to photography? 

I don’t have a ‘I picked up a camera at three and it was love at first sight’ background but I always enjoyed playing with film cameras and taking pictures. I started thinking [about it] seriously when I studied photography at A level; I was really inspired by the three teachers on the course at college and they introduced me to the creative industries, and creative thinking, like I’d never been exposed to before. From then there was no question that I wanted to work in the field. Around the same time I went backpacking for the first time (inter-railing around Europe and down to Morocco for three months over the summer) and the two worked perfectly for me - travel and photography.

How would you describe your style? 

I really love working with natural light; the classic dawn and dusk golden hours, following the light and seeing what it does to textures and landscapes and faces. I love looking to make ‘big’ pictures loaded with detail and at the same time finding simple, graphical shapes to compliment. I’m lucky in that a lot of the work I do incorporates lots of genres of photography - from landscape and portraiture, interiors and food - so I have opportunities to play a bit. I have always been really in to cinema which definitely has influenced me. I am always taking screen shots of compositions that maybe wouldn’t naturally occur to me. I watched The Third Man for the first time when I was university and the cinematography kind of blew my mind.

Has your style changed over time? 

Definitely. It’s normal to evolve over time and I think the more you shoot the better you get, learning [from] experience and instinctively getting a feeling for what you love and how you produce it. But like everything, it can easily change when you want to try new things and new challenges and shake up what you’ve been doing. And of course being inspired by new discoveries and artists and seeing what other photographers are doing keeps you learning. 

I used to be very drawn to public spaces which were empty and still - think city streets on early summer mornings - and it was all I was shooting for a while; someone dubbed it as ‘a curiosity in the presence of absence’. These days I’m photographing people more than ever and enjoying getting up close and personal to the action. It’s still in ‘my style’ but it’s fun to have different experiences with photography. 

Has there been a particularly memorable shoot? 

Nearly all shoots have a series of really memorable moments. A big one for me was last year, shooting for a self-drive safari company in Tanzania for 10 days. Even when the weather didn’t cooperate, it was just such a buzz being out there. A key point of the job was the wildebeest Great Migration, but I was lucky enough to witness an elephant’s funeral, which are fairly rarely seen. A herd of 12 elephants came marching to the body of one who had died and ‘mourned’ for about 30 minutes before moving on. It was spectacular to see - how aware and deliberate their movements were - and very moving to sit quietly and document such an amazing moment.

You travel extensively for your work - does one particular destination stand out photographically? 

That’s a very difficult question, a bit like ‘what’s your favourite film’. It is often cited as a photographer’s playground, but India really does deliver - the people and cultures and architecture and landscape and the COLOURS … it really is unique. It’s certainly a fantastic place when getting into photography to visit and practise in, which I did on a trip in Rajasthan. I’ve shot there four more times since and each trip has been totally different. 

Can you tell us a bit about capturing the Portugal cover photo? 

The Portugal cover is a shot of the old Ribeira neighbourhood of Porto, and quite iconic for the colourful houses climbing up the hillside next to the river. This particular photo was taken after I had come out of a Port tasting in one of the lodges and had enjoyed a couple of glasses. It had been quite cloudy all day so it was great to come out of the wine cellar to a great sunset, which shows those old buildings in their best light.   

What do you enjoy most about the freelance lifestyle? 

I love the diversity of the projects and the flexibility that freelancing can afford. Often commissions can come up at short notice and things move quickly. I can start the week with an empty diary and a few days later find myself shooting in a new city or country, meeting new people all the time. It’s exciting and can be stressful! When photography is your work and you are running it as a business, it is amazing how busy you are doing 101 things that are not taking pictures, so it’s not all glamorous destinations and fancy hotels. Theres a lot of pitches and PDF’s and updating websites and making meetings and scanning receipts to keep you busy.

What is your dream project/collaboration? 

I have been very lucky and had great editorial commissions with some fantastic writers and journalists. Travelling for work with likeminded people, not always knowing what you’re going to see and do, is a lot of fun. I look forward to carrying on in this way and there’s so many regions I haven’t been to; the islands in the pacific really appeal. I’ve stayed in a few AMAN hotels over the years and they are always stunning and in beautiful places, so to have them as a client would be a bit of a dream. Similarly, shooting smaller independent hotels and guesthouses run by locals you can find some real gems, which helps give the destination a unique perspective.

To see more of Jonathan’s work click here.

You can order a copy of the Portugal magazine here.