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Collaborating With The Unknown

Image from the project Western China from John Francis Peters showing a furr covered chair on the street
John Francis Peters (USA) - Documentary and Travel Photographer - www.jfpetersphoto.com

“I’m most interested in a creative interpretation of the subject matter. This process can allow room for discoveries to be made which fuels the creative process.”

John Francis Peters (born in 1978) is a photojournalist and documentary photographer splitting his time between Los Angeles and New York. He attended “The School of Visual Arts” in New York to study graphic design.

John Francis Peters took classes in social documentary photography as he became more interested in the medium. Beyond that, he studied photography on his own gaining insight from friends and colleagues on process, technique etc.

Artist statement

John Francis Peters is a photographer specializing in documentary, portrait, travel and lifestyle projects. His diverse body of work ranges from the portraiture of influential personalities to essays on emerging culture and environments in transition. His personal and assigned projects focus on both domestic and international subjects. John Francis Peters was selected as one of “Photo District News” 30 emerging photographers to watch in 2013.

Interview with John Franics Peters

John Francis, why did you become a photographer? And why documentary photography and photojournalism?

I became interested in photography when I moved to New York to study at “The School of Visual Arts”. Photography worked for me in many ways but mainly in the way that it allowed me to explore the world with a new mysterious language. I gravitated toward documentary photography because that’s where I felt the medium was most untamed and pure. I was engaged by the possibilities.

Your portfolio shows great variety. From documentary works to portrait and travel photography. What does each genre mean to you?

Well, I don’t approach subjects with the genres they generally fall into in mind. I’m most interested in a creative interpretation of the subject matter. This process can allow room for discoveries to be made which fuels the creative process. It’s a balance of making images while collaborating with the unknown.

Besides doing commissioned work you dedicate time to personal projects. Can you please elaborate a bit on that? How do the two things complement one another?

“Without personal projects the commissioned work would succumb to repetition and stagnation.”

Personal work is really at the core of my art. It’s been the place where I’ve been able to explore subjects without other agendas in mind. I take personal work very seriously and I feel it’s what drives me forward. When I engage with a subject I definitely go into it fully to explore and discover all possibilities.

Without personal projects the commissioned work would succumb to repetition and stagnation. Most commissions that I’ve taken on have come from clients noticing my personal work and looking for that vision to be applied to their subject. I’m at the point now where I’ve been able to apply ideas rooted in personal work to a few really interesting and challenging commissions and have come away with images I’m quite excited about.

What was your most memorable moment shooting pictures?

Wow, there have been many, mostly good, a few bad. That’s a hard one because almost every time I go out to make work it adds to the whole experience. I think one of the most vivid moments for me was the first day I went out exploring New York with a camera. I had found this new visual language, a medium that I felt would really allow me to explore the world while integrating creative thought.

In 2013 you were selected as one of „Photo District News 30“ emerging photographers to watch. What do you think is important to stand out with one’s work? And how did you achieve it. Especially keeping in mind the over abundance of photographic imagery in today’s society.

Well, I think if you practice your craft consistently and are engaged with its development, you will make work that stands out. This takes so much time and energy that it must be rooted in the way you live your life. It takes years to build a strong body of work so it must be an innate interest.

“I also surround myself with creative thinkers whom I can bounce ideas off of. It’s important to build a healthy atmosphere for creativity otherwise you can lose perspective.”

I think overtime my work has stood out a bit simply because I’m always shooting and working at developing the direction of my work. I’ve sought out opportunities to work alongside some exceptional editors, creative directors and photographers all of whom have shared their tools and wisdom. I also surround myself with creative thinkers whom I can bounce ideas off of. It’s important to build a healthy atmosphere for creativity otherwise you can lose perspective.

What does photography mean to you? And what do you want to transmit with your pictures? And in other words: What is it at all that a photograph can say?

Photography is like music, writing, and film; it is a dialect of our communication. It has always been a way for me to express and better understand the world while re-thinking how it can be interpreted and shared. I think photography has a great strength in creating new dialogue, as a meeting ground for multiple perspectives.

Which photographer has inspired you most?

There have been many but Carl De Keyzer has been a huge inspiration for me. The first time I came across his work it just totally flipped my recognition of what photography can do. I think it was his attention to exploring form and navigating documentary subjects in such a creative way.

What’s your favorite inspirational quote about photography?

“The more preplanned it is the less room for surprise, for the world to talk back, for the idea to find itself, allowing ambivalence and ambiguity to seep in, and sometimes those are more important than certainty and clarity. The work often says more than the artist knows.”

Paul Graham

One of your most recent personal projects is called “Western China”. What is it about and how did you come up with the idea?

“Western China” is the working title for a series in progress. It’s part a story about the western region of China, a personal travel document and a commentary on my interaction with the people and place. I spent time in early 2007 working on a project in Guizhou, China and had planed to continue exploring the western part of the country as it develops.

My inspiration in engaging China as a subject was drawn from a desire to experience one of the worlds most dynamic cultural landscapes entrenched in massive transition. I wanted to explore the dimensions of China’s social landscape through an intuitive and abstracted process. I simply wanted to get lost in the current of it all and allow the images and story to reveal itself along the way.

At the beginning of each project one often has some kind of idea in mind as to what the result could be like. Sometimes that changes along the way and the result is quite different. Was that the case with “Western China” and if so what did you learn during the project?

I entered into the project with some ideas as to where to go in “Western China” but I did not have a preplanned route. The idea was to explore the landscape in an intuitive way, seeing where the experiences would take me. I felt this was the best way for me to learn about China while allowing space for creative interpretation.

How would you describe your photographic voice and way of working? How do you plan and execute a project?

I think my work is a balance of documentation and creative interpretation. For my personal work I plan a project based on my initial interests and take the logistical aspects one step at a time. Usually, because I’m funding most of my own work, I have plenty of limitations and try to analyze how they can be turned into strengths. As mentioned I’m open to unexpected possibilities along the way and the direction of a project can shift.

A big part of my process is in the editing. This is where I can fully examine what happened in the field and begin crafting a narrative with the work. I make discoveries at this point of the project that again can shift things around a bit, choices like to what degree of abstraction the subject should take.

What do you consider to be the axis of your work – technically and conceptually?

Technically I feel my work is a balance of photographing in the moment, editing for images that are unique and fine tuning those pictures to define my interpretation.

Conceptually it varies with each subject but for my personal work I’ve mainly gravitated toward environments in transition. I like building work around aspects of change, what is emerging and falling away and how the human spirit takes shape within that context.

What qualities and characteristics does a good photographer need?

Just have a real passion for it. In the end that’s all that ever matters.

What does a photo need to be a great photo in your eyes?

I think great photographs are multi-dimensional. They need to be more than what is revealed in the image. The formal elements must be working to convey the creator’s idea but a great photo also raises questions. It’s reflects life in all it’s unexpected ways.

What do you consider to be the greatest changes photojournalism has gone through in recent years and what will be the challenges in years to come?

Well, I think great journalism will survive as long as there are forums and support for it. Obviously those factors are lacking a great deal right now because the financial components of media are forced to re-structure at this moment.

“I think a collaboration with art needs to be taken more seriously in the context of journalism because people don’t just want more information.”

The problem is many media outlets are holding onto old school systems and ideas that simply don’t work anymore. So in the end they will fail. I do believe what will continue to emerge out of this confusing time will be a more sophisticated forums for sharing of information.

Another aspect is that viewers are seeking something else from journalism. I think a collaboration with art needs to be taken more seriously in the context of journalism because people don’t just want more information, they want to experience it in more nuanced ways. I don’t think the answers to this exist just in re-structuring design. Journalism needs to develop a new relationship to personalized story telling, a reinvestment in more intuitive processes for conveying subjects.

Where do you draw inspiration from for your photographic projects?

“It can be a tumultuous process to look over and edit so much but it is necessary in gaining a clearer understanding of the direction it’s all taking.”

Sometimes my inspiration comes from direct experience. Like passing through a place and picking up on some aspects that spark an interest. For other projects I collaborate with colleagues who come with a concept to illustrate. Right now I’m actually reviewing all of my work from the past 3 years to analyze what I’ve been making and consider new directions to go with the work. It can be a tumultuous process to look over and edit so much but it is necessary in gaining a clearer understanding of the direction it’s all taking.

What kind of camera and equipment do you use?

I come from a medium format film background but I mainly just use digital slr now. Basically I just work with a few camera bodies and lenses, which cover me for most subjects. Sometimes I use a flash or strobes depending on the commission, but in personal work it’s mainly ambient light.

What’s your favorite website about photography?

Well I really like many but don’t have a favorite right now. I actually enjoy finding work randomly on Tumblr. I’ve come across some great photographers and images on there. It’s been fun to get more involved in that community.

What book about photography would you recommend?

I recommend all of Robert Adams’ books because his voice is one of the most pure and it’s loaded with great inspiration.

Which advice would you give someone who wants to become a (professional) photographer?

I would say to first ask yourself if you have thoroughly investigated your personal vision. You should not pickup a camera to become a photographer, you should do so because your interested in the world and what lies beyond the surface. If you want to take your work to the professional level you have to be honest with yourself in regards to your abilities, dedication and willingness to sacrifice a great deal to take on such a lifestyle.

The photo world is filled with professionals who want to make money and claim success in all it’s excess. A true professional in my opinion is engaged in critical thinking with the medium and interested in how photography can educate, create dialogue and broaden our global consciousness.

Last but not least, let’s switch roles: Which question would you have liked to be asked in this interview about your work that I didn’t ask? Please feel free to add it – as well as the answer.

Haha, well I really liked your questions. So may just stick with those.

Photograph from the Western China series from John Francis Peters showing a body covered laying on the floor covered in a red cloth

A grey skyline of high apartment buildings in China photographed by John Francis Peters for his series Western China

A group of men riding through the great plains in China on their horses

A woman walking on the shore of a lake in her bathing suit captured by John Francis Peters for his series called Western China

A Chinese man photographed in his house by US documentary photographer John Francis PetersMore about John Francis Peters




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