Taking good photos

Capturing powerful images may seem only a click away, but there’s more to the process than meets the eye.

“So sorry I’m late,” he says. “This always happens. I never know when a match is on and then I get caught in traffic – oh, I didn’t know they had an LGBT section in here!”

Jonathan Ho was five minutes late, at most. It didn’t matter. He could be an hour late, and it wouldn’t matter. Even on your first meeting, it’s obvious that Ho isn’t the type of person to waste your time. Far from it.

Ho is difficult to describe accurately without sounding like you’re exaggerating. It isn’t enough to describe him as a recently graduated, talented photographer. Ho isn’t nice, he’s lovely. He isn’t just bright, but brilliant. And with all of that, there is an underlying sense of decency. You may scoff at such descriptions, but I challenge you to have a single conversation with him; you’ll not only smile the entire time, but learn something new too.

Tell me a bit about studying photography.

Well, after Transition Year I thought that I might like to do photography. When I actually got it, it was very different from what I expected. I didn’t realise it was…disciplined. I didn’t know what I was expecting. I had my portfolio done, then found out it was shite. But after the first year studying, it just opened my mind entirely. It blew my mind as to how disciplined something as seemingly simple as photography is. That increased my passion for it, because I learned that there’s so much more to learn, and that there’s so much that people take for granted.

When preparing for this, I realised I felt better equipped to interpret words on a page than an image, like one of your photographs. I’d put this down to my education; I’ve been taught to read words in a way I was never taught with images. Do you think this is a common thing, and would that be a challenge for you?

Definitely. That’s why in any sort of art exhibition, whether it be photography, sculptures, installations, or paintings, people will generally go to the text first. I’ve been trying to do it myself where I look at the piece before reading, try to understand what it’s about, then read the text and find out I’m wrong…There’s that famous quote by John Berger: “We’re taught how to look but not how to see.” We just look and want that clarification without thinking about it too much, almost like a laziness. We instantly go to the text before trying to understand it visually.

Do you like your pieces to be accompanied by something like a textual explanation or to be viewed unmediated? How important is it to choose the right words to accompany your work?

That’s another thing that I had a lot of trouble with when I was in college. I put a lot of symbolism in my pictures and I didn’t know how to explain that well. Text is kind of the shortfall when it comes to exhibitions, or even publishing stuff online. There’s a whole debate which is still ongoing about how relevant text is to images. Should images speak by themselves? Is the text relevant? Is the text taking away from the images? Because you look more at the text than the image, and the text illustrates the images, when it should be the other way around.

Do you think, as an artist, you have a responsibility to engage with real-world issues?

That’s my process as an artist. For my graduation show, I was looking at national identity. This was all springing around the refugee crisis, and all of this questioning of identity. I think my work would look at real-world issues. There’s…maybe not a knowingness, but a back-of-the-head obligation for artists, that you can do what you want, but that the work that sticks with people the most are the ones that deal with real world issues. There are some projects that completely ignore that, and act as a pure form of entertainment, or as a distraction –

Art for art’s sake.

Exactly – and it can be effective for people who really don’t care about real-world problems, or are just sick and tired of them. But it’s nice to see these issues explored in different artistic mediums, and how people interpret them. I think that’s the key aspect of art.

Who are your influences?

That kind of changes depending on what I’m working on, but I think my main influences would be the classical photographers, like Stephen Shore, Ansel Adams, Daniel Arnold, Nan Goldin, and to a degree Robert Mapplethorpe. My style is very traditional, so I like to stick with the classical style of photography, a very straightforward, almost academic style.

Do you have a favourite piece, or even a few?

One work that has really stuck with me recently is a project by Bryan Schutmaat, called Grays The Mountain Sends. It’s a really beautifully shot project about…actually I don’t know what it’s about! But I know that the images are lovely. The quality on them is unbelievable. He has these beautiful portraits of American workers, I think they’re coal miners, and landscapes as well. Another one would be Daniel Arnold who is only really famous through Instagram. He’s another New York street photographer, but he does a lot of crude, harsh photographs, like going up to people’s faces and snapping them right away. You’ve probably seen on Facebook a lot of photographers do that in New York, but it’s just the way he does it. It’s also in a really nice composed style, which is related to me; I like that style, so that’s something I keep on going back to and keep checking regularly.

That’s interesting, because you can have very crude literature – Roddy Doyle, for example. But I’d never think about photography as having an equivalent. I didn’t know there was so much to photography.

Neither did I when I joined it! It’s mad because it has such huge sociological impacts, through how it’s disseminated, through its content. I suppose it’s interesting because so many people don’t recognise that, but are subconsciously subjected to it all the time. That’s what I love about photography.

Would you ever have the photographer’s equivalent of writers’ block?

That happened to me most of my final year in college. But I think there’s a difference when it happens with photography. If you have writers’ block, it can be incredibly daunting just to look at the page and do anything. But for photography, if you’re working on a particular body of work and you just happen to get blocked, you can easily just step aside and take pictures of anything, until you suddenly get a flow of creativity again. With writing I’d imagine it’s not as effective. But it’s happened to me a few times where I’ve hit a wall in a project, just to go on a day trip to Sligo, take pictures of landscapes, and then come back with a fresh mind. If you have photographers’ block, what you’re saying is that you don’t know how to look at the world anymore, and the world is challenging you to look at something differently. You’ve probably seen with my Instagram, I like to take pictures of very mundane things. I like it, not because I want to make it beautiful, but because it makes me see it differently. I can use that as a way, if I am blocked, of getting myself out of that.

You’ve described your Instagram as a “journal for spontaneous visual encounters”. Can you tell me more about the role that Instagram serves for you?

Well, my own practice is mainly based on themes or projects: I’ll look at a concept and try to make photographs around it. But if I’m not in that mindset or I don’t have a specific project in mind, and I just have a burst of creativity and want to just snap spontaneous pictures, I allow myself that. I use Instagram for, like I say, a journal; it’s a medium where I can just leave them there without having any kind of correlation to anything I’ve been working on. I like the balance; I can focus on a specific project or concept, and then I can also just do random snapshots that I think are cool.

What motivates you?

That’s a tough question, because anything can motivate me, and that’s what I like. That’s partly the purpose of my Instagram – sometimes I just get random bursts of motivation, or a minute of creativity where I just know I have to take a photograph. It’s the idea of the Greek muse: you have a little spirit on your shoulder that tells you, “you’re creative now!” and “now you’re not anymore!” That happens a lot. So I guess there’s no one thing that motivates me.

And motivated he is. Not all serious, Ho regales with me tales of his first Pokémon camera, avant garde films, bad Tinder profiles and gender roles on TV. When we do eventually finish up, it’s only because he has another appointment. With an exhibition in October lined up, as well as a collaboration with a New Zealand documentary photographer in the works, Ho clearly isn’t limited to his Instagram account, and his “never-stop” attitude explains this. It would be easy to think that taking photographs consists of clicking a button and throwing the result up on the web, but talking to Ho has shown me nothing could be further from the truth. As much as any stroke in a painting, or line of text, he carefully constructs his work to reflect his reality and send a message. Making good art is always a deliberate crafting, no matter how instantaneous the medium. And Ho has shown he is a master of his craft.

Orlaith Holland

Orlaith Holland is a current Deputy Features Editor of Trinity News. She is a Senior Sophister English Literature and Film Studies student, and was also a Deputy Features Editor in 2017/18.