Justin Sainsbury is a street photographer based in Brighton, on the south coast of England. He is also a member of Burn My Eye. What I love about his images is that his photos ask more questions than provide answers. Take a look at his images and interview, and participate by making up your own fictional stories in the everyday lives of the subjects he captures.
Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I live in Worthing on the South Coast of England and have two kids. I’ve spent the last few years as a Dad at Home. Our Son William has a rare medical condition called Hurlers so the last few years have been a tricky journey. He had a bone marrow transplant a year ago so it’s not really been an option for me to go back to full time work. Thankfully, the transplant was a success and he’s been working back up to full-time school. This has allowed me to take some part-time work which allows some time for photography.
Whilst I was working full-time, I used to spend the weekend trying to forge out leisure orientated projects (animal shows, living history events etc.). Now, the weekends are spent either working or with the family, so my main time out is during the week. Most of the time, I have a school pick-up deadline so travelling distance is limited but I get some good hours to wander, which I feel lucky to have.
In your street photography, you mention the importance in which psychology integrates into your images. Can you expand on this idea?
One thing that fascinates me about taking candid pictures of people is that occasionally you freeze a scene that gives an impression of something going on in the subjects mind. The beauty is that these expressions, gestures and body language might, of course, be entirely false.
I guess it becomes a puzzle, is the picture a correct interpretation of, for example, a relationship or is the exchange just a trick of the camera and the moment. It’s good to get a sense of someone’s personality but I don’t go looking for this in a project sense. I think photography is probably a reasonably useless medium for looking at these things in an academic sense. I just find it fun when they pop-up. I seem to be drawn perhaps to individuals that have a melancholic appearance. Street photography is a pretty lonely pursuit so perhaps this mirrors something personal.
In terms of groups and the psychology around them, I’m interested in how people with a similar interest get together and enjoy themselves. A few years ago I did some pictures at enthusiast group events (re-enactors and animal fanciers mainly). It’s interesting and amusing (if I’m honest) to see how they took something most would consider a leisure pursuit so seriously.
One thing I like about your work is that it is fresh and tends to steer clear from the general visual clichés we see. What are your thoughts about the general aesthetics you see in street photography today, and some clichés you think people should clear of?
Thanks for the positivity. I’m afraid I’m as guilty as the next guy. It’s funny, as sometimes you have to mentally check yourself sometimes as all you seem to find are clichés. It happens most of all at the end of a long walk where you think you have probably had little success picture-wise. OK, here’s a cliché in itself! – The thing to truly keep in mind is that an interesting picture can be found almost anywhere at any time. For me, the eternal battle is keeping up motivation so you are ready to snap and have enough positive energy to realise a good situation.
There’s nothing wrong with shooting clichés as you might hit on something in the process- perhaps even ridiculing the clique itself. You just have to be critical when editing. The trick is to make it work on another level. ‘Yeah, I’ve got an amusing juxtaposition’, but I want something else in the frame. Sometimes, this just happens- you had no idea at the time that this particular element was going to make the shot succeed.
It’s all subjective, of course- some people love a shot you might consider a cliché. Is the nun shot a cliché? I don’t know, but it’s fun and doesn’t take itself too seriously. I get a fair number of humorous shots and although I don’t solely look for this type of picture it’s definitely there in my mind.
The bottom line is that clichés are easy to look for as you’ve seen them before – that’s the trick for me, avoiding what everyone can do. That’s why I don’t take / show many unpeopled shots – for me interest comes from the transitory nature and endless possibilities of people wandering around and interacting. Having said that, I know some people who truly make an art out of the static stuff. It’s just not for me. I don’t like line –up/perspective shots- to me they are like the effect you get with a super wide lens- I find it a bit cheap and easy. Shots with signs or text that jump out in the situation are something I’m always being drawn to but I try and resist, mostly!
I don’t really look at trends too much- I see people trying to differentiate themselves with various techniques but I’m of the belief that you’ll only really create a signature style after years of pursuing your nose and instincts- That’s when you’ll see someone’s personality and background come through in their pictures. (I know- all this has been said before!) Perhaps every style in straight photography has perhaps been done already. I say embrace the history, keep it real and in time things will come out of the body of work.
There are currently several street photography collectives out there. What do you think makes Burn My Eye different and unique? What do you think he collective could also improve on?
It’s up to the audience and I suppose they will only keep coming back to the website and future shows if we are unique and different. (How’s that for avoiding a tricky question!). I like the wide-spread geographical nature and we seem to share an aesthetic whilst having different approaches. Backgrounds and ages are varied which helps make it interesting although with no ladies (unintentional of course) it seems a little unbalanced on this score. Everyone seems pretty supportive of each other and there are no prima donna’s.
I like the group edit idea (under the title ‘Collective Thinking’). We’ve been putting together some seasonally themed series of pictures on a roughly monthly basis. There are some members who are really good editors. It works for me as I’m not great at project work – I feel I’m contributing to a worthwhile piece of work without the pain of sequencing or trying to connect what are essentially random images. Collectively, we obviously have a bigger pool to work and you get a different viewpoint from the different editors with input from the rest of the group along the way. It’s also great when someone in the group pulls together a series from another’s pictures (this can happen without any request for critique). I’ve learnt a lot just watching these processes.
I love looking at other collectives websites- you get a good concentration of interesting pictures. It’s nice to see the subtle differences between work and how new members bring something new to the equation. I’m sure being part of BME has had some part in setting my photography in a different direction. I think as long as the group stays relatively stable and doesn’t fragment too much we will realise the full potential.
To my understanding your portfolio currently consists of single images. What about the single image appeals to you, and what are your thoughts on the project based approach/ Any projects you are currently working on?
The pictures I really like are ones in which there is some kind of story. Ideally, these could have a number of outcomes or interpretations.
I suppose if ambiguous story telling is an objective it makes it tricky to compose a series of pictures on a project, especially over a short or mid-term length of time. The truth is the main thing I get from photography is a good walk and the quenching of a desire to collect half-decent pictures. I love the surprise element- not knowing what I’m going to come home with. It’s a little frustrating that in publishing there always seems to be the need to have a theme or a social/economic/cultural point to be made. To me, this limits the opportunities. Photography is a cathartic experience for me. I take it seriously, in so much as I want to get better but it’s something that allows me to escape the usual routine and express myself.
I’ve tried projects albeit with a largely open agenda- just visiting events or places. I’m more inclined now to just go with the flow and that generally means going somewhere I haven’t been in a while or taking the camera to wherever the family wants to go.
It takes time and dedication to get a collection of winning shots together so I don’t expect any wider exposure anytime soon. I love Richard Kalvar’s Earthlings book as it shows what a life-time pursuit can produce. There’s a narrative through the book but it’s done in retrospect. To me, this is freedom and something that doesn’t exist in fulfilling assignments for others. I work part-time and look after my kids so with my photography I’m complete without having to push for other stuff.
What arguments or disagreements about street photography do you think are pointless?
On a personal level, in all honesty, maybe all of them. I struggle to see the point in discussing issues around ethics and aesthetics alike. If you do it for yourself then you know what you want to gain. You know, when you’ve perhaps pushed the boundaries of Joe Public’s sensibilities. You know if the work is worth looking at. I sometimes feel that too much time must be wasted by photographers who spend time discussing these ‘issues’ on-line.
There seems to be this thing where photography that it has to be academically challenging and debated. This is a paradox to me, when the beauty of the picture is its stillness and muteness. I just enjoy it for a visual experience, what emotions it raises and try and leave the whys and wherefores alone. To be fair and with all respect- I would rather be out taking pictures now then writing these interview questions! (but thanks for the opportunity).