More at ease gazing into Aileen’s cavernous oblivion than directing a crowd of people, Jack Johns is never happier than floating alone in the wilderness –which makes his accomplishments on everything from music videos to fashion editorial and portraiture all the more impressive. He contemplates facing fears, howling onshores and continually striving for success.
True North Photographer | Jack Johns
What are your early memories of being interested in photography?
I was about 15. When I first started travelling my dad gave me his old camera, an Olympus OM-1. I just started using it, learning and making mistakes. It’s an old SLR. I still use it a lot to this day. It’s bomb proof.
I’d asked my dad for the camera because I was travelling a lot with Mickey Smith at the time. We were kind of a little duo. He was taking photos of me surfing and I loved what he was doing. Mickey taught me a lot about the camera and how to use it. He was a huge inspiration to me.
Do you think it helped going from being the subject to taking the pictures yourself? Does that give you more insight, maybe, than just starting as a photographer?
Yes, I think that’s helped a lot. In lots of different ways. Maybe it hindered me as well. I’ve always been quite shy in front of the camera, so I feel like other people are too. That makes me quite nervous about shooting others. I’m trying to teach myself to be more comfortable picking my camera up in front of other people.
A lot of my surfing imagery is more nature than people. I feel more comfortable on my own with a camera in nature, but I’m focussing on trying to shoot people and subjects more.
How would you describe your style?
Wild landscapes and wild scenes. My style fitted well with me travelling to wild and remote parts of the world, and in the UK and Ireland. I spent time in a small group and there weren’t many people around; that went hand in hand I guess.
Did you study photography, or has it evolved organically?
I started a college course, but after two months I quit to go travelling. I learned a lot, quite quickly from Mickey. I would like to go to college. I’ve been thinking about that more recently. I don’t think it’s ever too late. Something I’ve been interested in lately is going and doing some kind of Open University course or spending a bit of time in a dark room, just learning more. You never stop learning.
Do you develop pictures yourself at all?
I used to do a lot, yes. But these days there’s not much time. I don’t have a dark room any more – I used to at my parents’ house. The world of digital kind of takes over, and turnaround times can be too tight. It’s pretty rare that I’m able to do a job on 35mm these days. Although I’d love to.
When you land in a new place, how do you approach an unfamiliar environment or surrounding?
I always got quite scared of the unfamiliar… But if I’m shooting anything in the sea then I feel totally fine. The last few years I’ve been pushing myself on shoots, trying to teach myself not to be scared and, I don’t know, trying to find some confidence in that… But anything with the ocean, I’ve always felt comfortable.
When did you first start surfing?
I was pretty young – maybe five or so. My dad was a surfer, so I just kind of picked it up. I’ve always spent time in the sea. It’s where I’m most familiar – in and around the ocean. Although saying that I’ve been living in the city for the last 10 years. I don’t know how that’s happened!
Pushing yourself to spend more time with people?!
When you’re not in the water, what do you enjoy shooting most, away from the waves?
I’ve been trying to shoot more portraits of people to just get comfortable with what I’m uncomfortable with. Work-wise, I’ve been doing a lot of fashion, and editorial portraits for fashion. I guess you learn from being uncomfortable and challenging yourself. I always feel quite shy and vulnerable on big sets. A lot of photographers are quite upfront, quite loud, and they own the environment and own their sets. Something I’m learning anyway…
I like to have people feel comfortable when I’m shooting them. That’s the main thing. It all falls into place after that.
“I guess you learn from being uncomfortable and challenging yourself. I always feel quite shy and vulnerable on big sets.”
Back to surfing – when you’re shooting someone you know really well, does it help to be able to anticipate how they’re going to move, or what position you have to be in, and the timing etc?
Yes, definitely. I have a group of surfers and friends who I shoot a lot, because we work well together and we know how each other works, I know how they ride, and how they’re going to be. But I think the main thing is understanding nature and understanding the waves – more so than understanding the surfer. I think I’ve got that from surfing a lot when I was younger.tis
“I think the main thing is understanding nature and understanding the waves – more so than understanding the surfer.”
Knowing where the wave is going to put the surfer, and being in the right position for that. I think that has definitely been a huge help for me, and feeling comfortable around any sort of waves. Rather than coming from the technical photography side of things where I know everything about cameras, it’s more like I know everything about waves and I try to learn the photography side of it through that.
Are surf and surf landscape still your favourite thing to shoot?
Yes. Maybe not as much surf, just because it frustrates me that I’m not surfing, but I think just being in the sea. If I’m on my own with a camera, in waves, I love that.
I’ve done five or six Finisterre shoots now. They’re a combination of what I like; being in nature, but also shooting models and pushing myself in that side of things. Shooting these campaigns has been great – everyone is lovely, and I get to go to beautiful places. Plus it’s a pretty wide direction – lots of different ways you can push it.
Are there any particular stand-out memories of things you’ve captured over the years – maybe when everything has aligned, or the camaraderie of the people you were with?
It’s hard to pinpoint a time. There are a hundred memories of just being with a small selection of people in Ireland. Ireland is just where I spent most of my time shooting and surfing, and enjoying myself.
Aileen’s is always up there with the best times I’ve had. Last winter, I started swimming out there with the camera, which has been pretty amazing. It’s always been a hard place to not surf, as it’s one of my favourite places to surf. If the conditions are perfect I’ll always surf. There is never a time where I’ll pick shooting over surfing if it’s good. I might take a few photos before I go in the sea, and take photos around the surfing environment, people getting changed or whatever, but if the waves are good then I’ll always choose surfing. Last winter there were a few days when it’s been getting busier and busier, and it wasn’t that good, so I’ve just got in with the camera. But surfing always comes first.
“If the conditions are perfect I’ll always surf. There is never a time where I’ll pick shooting over surfing if it’s good.”
It’s not something you just shake off, is it?
Well, especially seeing as I live in Paris and I don’t get the chance to do it that much! And I’ve always got a camera in my hand when I’m away from the sea. So, yes, if there’s a chance to go surfing then I’ll definitely do that.
What is it about surfing in these environments and temperatures that stands out for you?
I guess, because up here we don’t get that great waves all the time, you’ve just got to put the time in more – a lot of hours driving, lots of waiting for tides, cold wetsuits... When I was younger, I just used to constantly search and travel, and look for those days and always be on it, and every good session I’d make sure I was there. But living in the city now, I don’t get to go so much. Everything has to be perfect on the charts for me to be able to get good waves. It’s not as easy as just going to Bali and there are waves every day; you go in the sea and it’s warm, and fun, enjoyable. Up here, you can go to Ireland for a week and it will just be howling onshore and crazy storms.
It’s definitely a different environment, the cold water surf scene, but I love it as much as surfing anywhere. I’d happily go on a surf trip and there would be no waves. It doesn’t bother me, as long as I’m in nature and around the sea.
Music and surfing are very different worlds, but are there any parallels that you see from lots of time spent in both?
The striving for success and what success is. It doesn’t matter how good you are at what you’re doing, there’s always something to strive for and trying to work out what success is. Just trying to find your place in life, and what success is and what it means to you as an artist, and I think that goes throughout all creativity; trying to find meaning in what you’re doing. It’s definitely something that I’ve been trying to do with my photography.
You never get to the pinnacle. You’re always trying to strive for something extra; something different each time. It doesn’t matter how well you’re doing. Success always changes each time you reach that next goal.