“I am always looking for reasons to live with a lot of movement in my life. I suppose I like the excitement of being in awkward or somehow threatening situations. Not always physically threatening, sometimes it is more emotionally threatening.”
Jen Osborne (born in Vancouver) is a Canadian contemporary documentary photographer currently based in Berlin. Jen Osborne studied photography at “FABRICA – The United COLORS of Benetton Research Centre”. She also attended several photography workshops, among others the Eddie Adams workshop 2009.
Jen Osborne’s projects have been published and exhibited internationally. In 2010, Jen Osborne was nominated for a “Canadian National Magazine Award”, and was later nominated for PDN 30 and the Joop Swart Masterclass in 2011. She also earned places in both the prestigious ReGeneration2 travelling exhibition and the Magenta Foundation’s 2010 and 2011 Flash Forward book publications.
“El Reinado”: Photo-Essay by Jen Osborne
“At the annual Reina de la Independencia beauty pageant in Colombia, young women from Cartagena’s poorest neighborhoods vie not just for a glittering crown but also for the chance to win money, scholarships, rich men, and even jump-start a career. Beauty, for Colombia, is a natural resource.”
Jen Osborne, what was your first camera and photographic experience?
I had a Nikon, but I forgot what the model was. I had a few as a teenager. I think I broke at least two, by dropping them or putting them in a normal back-pack, forgetting they were there, and putting the bag down in a bad way. Anyway, I always shot film in the beginning. I got a Mamiya 7 at one point too, which was a really fun range finder film camera.
Why did you become a photographer?
I think it was an excuse to travel and experience strange, new and exciting things. I am always looking for reasons to live with a lot of movement in my life. I suppose I like the adrenaline of being in awkward or somehow threatening situations. Not always physically threatening, sometimes it is more emotionally threatening.
What does photography mean to you?
For a long time, I was very devoted to photography, nearly on a masochistic level. I really cared about nothing else. I am a lot more relaxed now and I only photograph specific projects, with particular themes I am interested in. I try to save all my energy up to do a very good job on something focused. Currently, I like photographing work around the concept of escapism and addictions. I like to escape via travelling, so I suppose I can relate to others who “escape” in different ways.
Which photographer has inspired you most and why?
I am currently a big fan of Richard Mosse. I feel I have a lot to learn from his approach and innovation within a contemporary documentary-art setting. He is doing really wild thing with film, and shooting war stories in a very slow and unconventional way. I also really love Alec Soth, Jodi Bieber, Lauren Greenfield, Martin Parr, David LaChapelle, and Tim Walker.
I suppose I really like the color work and rawness coming from most of these artists. I am attracted to vibrant, and sometimes visually assaulting things. Of course, the classics such as Helmut Newton and Diane Arbus are important to me too. I think it is important to look up to those ultra-iconic figures, but I like to find people of my own era who are doing great things, because it keeps the medium accessible or attainable in some way. And it gives me something more realistic and current to work off of, to expand upon.
Your favorite photography quote?
“To photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them that they can never have; it turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed. Just as a camera is a sublimation of the gun, to photograph someone is a subliminal murder – a soft murder, appropriate to a sad, frightened time.”
How would you describe your photographic style and creative process?
I am constantly feeling in a crisis about what my style is. I suppose it is a hybrid between documentary stories and editorial portraiture. I never want to be labelled as a journalist, because that type of approach is too fast for me, and it often lacks depth or understanding. So I guess the appropriate term is “contemporary documentary photographer?”.
I do shoot very raw things, and I was always attracted to very hard people, people who are not easily accessible. In the end, most of my personal projects were initiated by meeting a special person or falling upon a subject. But of course I do research and look into stories based on my themes of interest. But photography is more about just getting into people’s lives, and that is not really easily done from a computer.
What’s important in order to develop an own photographic style and how did you achieve it?
I think style comes from at first mimicking the photographers you love and want to be, and then eventually you find your own way of communicating things. It is not easy to develop a style, I think it has to happen naturally, but with a lot of focus and hard work. Maybe it comes from the subjects you choose, rather than the way you shoot them, but I am often confused about that. I think as long as there is consistency in the subjects you choose, the way of communicating will follow effectively. Some scenarios demand a more spontaneous approach for example. And other subjects require some pre-production and lighting or some other kind of process outside of just “taking a picture” in the available-light sense.
What do you consider to be the axis of your work – technically and conceptually?
It is more about accessing people and me getting comfortable with them, and them becoming comfortable with me. I try to avoid lots of camera tricks and things. I can’t say I know a lot about technics other than lighting and composing. But, I do really like to work with colour. So I look for things that work well together, colour-wise.
What qualities does a good photographer need?
I think a good photographer has to be very strong-willed and easy to talk to. You need to be strong because it is hard work, and often there are very little rewards outside one’s own satisfaction. Also, just working with certain people can be challenging and you need to be self-secure to handle certain situations. And being easy to talk to and open-minded about those who you surround yourself with will only help you in gaining access and getting the most out of your subjects. Please bear in mind, I am speaking primarily of photography focusing on people.
Rio de Janeiro has a murder rate as high as a war zone – millions of impoverished people here resort to crime for survival. A kid from the favelas of Rio has limited career options: kidnapper, cocaine trafficker, gang leader, robber, or hit man. For many, prison is safer than the streets, and comes with more reliable food and shelter.
Carnaval is one of the hardest times of year for imprisoned Brazilians, as their fellow free citizens pour into the streets in a sea of colorful celebration. In February 2009, I traveled to the notorious Bangu Prison Complex in Rio to photograph the women who live there. I wanted to see how prisoners celebrate such an important national holiday behind bars. I discovered it was quite lonely.
What does a photo need to be a great photo in your eyes?
I can’t really rationalize this answer. It is more of an emotional response for me. There are so many different ways to respond. But I think, when I feel like I am a part of a secret club when I look at a photo, that is when someone has done a good job.
Where do you draw inspiration from for your photographic projects?
I guess personalities really captivate me. I need to be surrounded by tumultuous characters (friends) to stay inspired somehow. When things become too pretty in my life, I get lazy.
What kind of photography equipment and photographic supplies do you use?
I shoot mainly with digital camera systems of all kinds. Currently, I am obsessed with taking photos on an amateur camera (Nikon Coolpix) because it is so nice to carry around and people don’t worry when someone who looks like a tourist is taking a picture. As soon as you whip out a pro camera, you have explaining to do when you shoot on the streets.
What’s your favorite website on photography?
I have a favourite news feed and that is Pro Photo Daily! I suppose in terms of websites, I really like browsing through INSTITUTE agency’s page. They usually feature pretty amazing photographers works. GUP Magazine is quite nice, too. They have a website (which is a Guide To Unique Photography) that features a lot of different, good work.
What book on photography would you recommend?
“Fast Forward” by Lauren Greenfield and “On Photography” by Susan Sontag are my two favourites. I think it is important for photographers to look at paintings, too, so I also recommend books from or about people like David Hockney, Tal R, Dana Schutz, and Gerhard Richter.
Which advice would you give someone who wants to become a professional photographer?
Don’t let people tell you that you can’t be a photographer for a living or that you can’t make it into a serious art profession. I had to get really good at NOT listening to outsiders advice about my career. The first step is to really believe in your work and what you are doing. Only think positively about that. You can be negative about other things in life if you want, but just try to think the best for what you practise and good things will follow. Also, just work hard.