Jono Wood is a Joburg based freelance photographer who specialises in documentary photography. He first picked up photography on a daring venture in his gap year, paddling the Orange River with his mother’s old film camera, and decided he wanted to become a war journalist. Since then he has assisted some of South Africa’s best photographers; David Prior, Ross Garret and Pieter Hugo. As 2014 became 2015 Jono captured the New Years Eve celebrations and altercations in Hillbrow. The resulting photo essay caused major stir online throughout January. Drawn to capture the grittier side of things, his adventurous spirit is reflected in his brave photography. We asked Jono to share some insight on his documentary photography, capturing the underground of Joburg, and his upcoming group exhibition, Dirt.
You’ve recently come back from a trip in Ethiopia travelling nearly 300km by horse, what were you doing there?
I was in Ethiopia on a three day commercial job for Heineken, while I was there I decided I would stay on and explore Ethiopia for the duration of my one month visa. Ethiopia has a huge population of horses and I thought it could be a great way to travel the country if I did it by horse.
Using the language skills of two Ethiopians from our Heineken shoot I went to a livestock market and purchased the perfect horse for the journey, with a backpack full of camera equipment and some clothing I set off in a Southerly direction towards the Bale Mountains and didn’t look back. The journey took me two weeks and I slept in huts of local farmers along the way with a small glossary of Amharic (Ethiopian language) and two translated sentences asking “can I spend the night?” and “can we feed my horse?”. The hospitality shown to me by these farmers was unbelievable. I managed to keep going through the hospitality they showed me. I used the adventure as a way to photograph the Southern farmlands of Ethiopia as a portraiture and reportage piece.
What adventure were you on when you first picked up photography?
In 2007 a friend and I decided to paddle the entire Orange River from source to sea in our gap year due to the fact that I couldn’t afford to go overseas. We started in the Maluti Mountains of Lesotho at the top of the Amphitheatre where we found the Orange River’s source. For the next three months we then lived on the river and paddled the length of it in sea kayaks all the way out to the ocean on the border of Namibia and South Africa in Oranjemond. My mother had given me her old film camera to document the adventure with and that was the first time I’d picked up a camera with a sense of purpose.
I had no idea what I was doing but quickly realised that a camera was a great excuse to be on an adventure and an interesting way of being able to bear witness to another person’s life even if it was our own. From the beginning it became another vehicle towards exploration and I took to the seemingly simple task of creating a story out of images quite naturally. This experience gave me the desire to want to learn how to be a professional photographer and try to make a living from documenting around the world. The following year I signed up to study photography at the National School Of Photography.
What attracted you to the medium?
I liked being able to go out and discover as a profession. There were so many people and places that I wanted to explore and these experiences with a camera made all the sense in the world. It was an extension of the adventure and I liked the lifestyle attached to it. Being able to experience something amazing and then share it photographically was very appealing to me. I felt that if I could experience it with a camera then whoever looked at the images could experience it to some extent too.
Your subject matter is often quite risky and gloomy, what draws you to your lens?
I have always had a fascination with the underworld and started flirting with the gloom and risk factor when I was at college. I started off photographing the xenophobic attacks in 2008 and I had my mind blown completely wide open! I didn’t know how to understand what I was seeing or doing there but soon realised that I was bearing witness and by bearing witness photographically I could accurately account for all the lessons I was being exposed to. I was a window into a world that made us all very uncomfortable, that our society needed to confront and physically see was happening so I decided then that I was prepared to witness in order to portray what people ultimately needed to see.
My next big gloom and doom story was on gangsterism in Eldorado Park and before I knew it I was in way over my head! I learnt a valuable lesson that if you look hard enough for something you will ultimately find it. I fully made every single mistake in the book when photographing this story and only just came out with my life in the end. I was rattled but also intrigued by the depth I had managed to go into just from forging relationships with the right people. I had learnt all the hardest lessons and realised I had now developed a set of skills that could help me navigate risky situations.
I have been building onto this skill set since then by working in some of the most dangerous places in Johannesburg’s CBD. I really enjoy the insight into people’s lives that I acquire through these types of stories, a lot of very big questions in my head feel answered to some degree and I understand the plight of a desperate person to a much larger degree now. It has brought an awareness to me of the fact that everyone is only human and different social classes and situations test us all to different degrees with different consequences.
When you go on one of your travels, what is an absolute necessity to take with you?
Journal, camera and an open mind.
How do you know that you’ve taken a good picture? What are those key things you look for in a photograph?
I’m looking for images that accurately depict what I am trying to show the viewer in terms of the story. For a good photograph I need to accurately depict this as well as make it visually appealing. I’m constantly looking for interesting light and then marrying it with good content. This can be very tricky because you can’t direct your subjects like you could in a fashion or commercial shoot so you very often take what you can get which makes for the time involved in creating these stories quite long. The best situations for getting a good image are when a person of interest in a story is entirely comfortable with your presence and they carry on as normal allowing you to become a fly on the wall.
What is the most profound photography project that you’ve worked on? Why?
I think my current story on Zimbabwean immigrants in Johannesburg is a very relevant piece as it brings a lot of understanding to many issues we face in Johannesburg. We face stories of xenophobia, low employment numbers, crime, illegally inhabited slums in our CBD and violence on a daily basis and these issues shape us as a society.
I am trying to portray the lives of people who come to Johannesburg in the hope of a better existence who end up being engulfed by these issues. My story so far has revealed many different people all dealing with these issues. These issues shape them to become good or bad. I want to explain the entire life cycle of an immigrant in Johannesburg from the border crossing to them making lives for themselves in Johannesburg. The two issues I have focused on over the last year have been illegal housing and means of an income. Immigrants often end up staying in Dark Buildings (buildings with no water or electricity illegally inhabited) and are forced to find ways of surviving.
Everyone I’ve met has their own personal dilemmas and reality to face in these spaces leading them to very alternate forms of creating an income spanning from mugging to trash collecting. All of which impact on us communally as a society. We all have a knock on affect on one another and issues that seem far removed are actually impacting us on a daily basis whether we realise it or not.
Whose work has influenced you most?
There are many photographers who have inspired me for a long time, but in terms of good storytelling I am influenced by Ami Vitale, Ed Kashi and the late Tim Hetherington. These photographers are masterminds in infiltrating different social groups around the world and telling their stories through the still image.
What is the one thing you wish you knew when you first started taking photos?
That taking the photo is only one aspect of being a photographer; being relaxed and learning your subject matter before lifting the camera is more valuable than a 1000 pictures of a situation you don’t understand.
Have you ever felt threatened in the environment that you work in? What safety precautions do you take when photographing risky subject matter?
Yes, a lot. It’s part of the job when covering the subject matter that I’m focusing on. My biggest safety precaution is getting to know people in the place I’m working so I’m not an unknown face and simple target – a smile and handshake can take you a long way. I don’t carry any form of protection because it changes your mentality from someone who needs to learn to survive into someone who is brazen and in an immediate state of defence.
You’ve worked in the fashion and beauty industry as well, how does that differ from your grittier work? Which do you prefer?
I worked in the fashion and beauty industry a lot more when I was assisting photographers and experimented with shooting my own fashion projects, but it didn’t leave me feeling like I was making a difference to the world. I live through my trade; it is not the same for all photographers – we all want to achieve different goals. My aim is to show reality as opposed to fantasy.
What is the best way to insure a decent income as a photographer living in South Africa?
Being able to shoot advertising campaigns is definitely the best way to insure a decent income locally as a photographer otherwise all documentary work needs to be sold internationally due to the fact that local publications simply can’t afford to pay enough for long term photo essays.
You’ve got an upcoming exhibition called Dirt at the Rubix Cube Gallery on the 16th of April, what is the concept behind your photographs?
The exhibition is entitled “Dirt” so when I was invited to show in this exhibition I adapted some images from my Zimbabwean immigrants story and used pictures I have taken in a dark building on End street over the course of a year. Illegal housing is a reality for many immigrants and they often end up finding a home in one of these buildings that have no water, electricity, trash removal or building management. They become illegal dumping sites and the daily waste of the people inhabiting these spaces builds up over many years. Elevator shafts get used as rubbish dumps and human waste is thrown from buckets out of windows. These factors give rise to many rats infesting the building – a very unhygienic and undesirable living situation.
The story started for me when an architecture student busy with his thesis asked me if I wanted to be a part of his research in the building. We spent a year documenting a building called “Dark City” on a weekly basis and ended up getting very deeply involved with the different residents of this building and were able to witness how life works inside a dark building on a very intimate level.
Are there any new projects that you’re currently working on?
My Zimbabwean immigrant story is getting quite in depth so I think I will be working and showing images from this story until I finally have all the images I’m looking for to publish a book. I think this will probably take another two years considering I have documented the living spaces, Methodist Church and some of the forms of income so far, but still need to branch out much further with the story.
Watch things unfold at jonowoodphotography.com
In 2013 myself and Nickolaus Bauer embarked on a nine month exploration into an open air crack and heroin den. Originally we wanted to spend 48 hours in the park and document two full days and two full nights for the project, however after visiting the park for the first time we quickly realised we were in for quite a challenge. It was dirty,dangerous and hostile.
We entered the park on the first day and were quickly approached by a young man who looked no older than me and he asked what we were buying?Our response was a predetermined agreement and we openly said we wanted to do a project on the park as a purely observational project not investigative. He told us to fuck off.
We walked past him deeper into the park, a man approached us.He was 6ft tall ,skinny with noticeable gang tattoos, cornrows and piercing eyes. His name was Damian he was friendly…too friendly. We sidestepped him quickly after explaining what we wanted to do and carried on further overstaying our welcome by pressing deeper into this new world. We walked across a basketball court surrounded by groups of junkies sitting on mattresses, tyres and crates. A West African man screamed at us for crossing the open court. This court was for buying and selling not being a tourist, and so it all began.
We learnt our way around the park over our next nine months getting to know users and dealers.We discussed what we wanted to portray in the images and talked about life with these fascinating almost invisible characters.
These are the portraits we came up with from forming actual relationships with each one of these people learning their story and outlooks on life. It was photographed against a white scrim blown out by the sun and lit with a reflector.