All images by JP Stones. Used with permission.
“I started looking for answers to the deeper questions in photography,” explains JP Stones. He adds, “questions I had never really had time to accommodate.” He certainly put the global lockdown to good use. Not content with remaining creatively stationary, Stones has instead developed a deeper relationship with his craft. What’s more impressive is how he communicates his thoughts on photography. For anyone looking to develop their skills in the art form, keep reading. Stones offers one of the most insightful and educational interviews we’ve published.
Phoblographer: It’s been a challenging year for the world. How have you adapted to ensure you remain focused and active with photography?
JP Stones: It certainly has been challenging. I found the first few months the hardest. Suddenly I had to contend with a bunch of cancellations and an empty schedule. Those early days were tough, as I kept regressing into an unproductive panic mode. Eventually, I learned to replace what would have been shooting time with self-education. I stopped pushing back against my introspective mood and instead let it guide me.
I started looking for answers to the deeper questions in photography. Questions I had never really had time to accommodate. That path has taken me into fascinating areas like biology, psychology, and maths and given me a much deeper and broader appreciation of photography that informs the way I plan photoshoots.
Phoblographer: We saw you’ve created images of a fighter. Talk us through how you design a shoot like that – what image/message do you want to convey?
JP Stones: We were about a month into lockdown when I came up with this idea. Typically, Dan (my friend/photo assistant) and I shoot outdoors, in the jungle that surrounds the Mexican town we live in. As this was no longer an option, I’d been getting progressively more frustrated and was searching for ways to create exciting cinematic imagery without leaving my studio. It turns out that a fog machine and various other household props can be really effective camouflage.
We managed to create images that looked like they were from a snowy day, a rock concert, and – my favorite idea by far – a dusty underground fight. Once the lockdown restrictions eased, I decided to photograph this with some real fighters. One of my friends, himself a former national champion, owns a gym in town. So that part came together very easily.
My planning process, particularly when I’m photographing a subject matter I know very little about, starts with research. That includes visual research, of course (creating mood boards) and studying the actual subject matter. I do this because creating aesthetically pleasing photos is only part of my goal. I’m always hoping to create images with emotional depth. And for that, you need to have an emotional connection to the subject matter yourself.
The most honest way, I think, to gain that connection is to really deep dive into what you are photographing. So I started reading autobiographies of boxers, looking for the parts where they describe being in a fight: how it felt, what they noticed, what they focussed on. I also watched every Rocky film again.
It was intense – I would have made a terrible boxer – but it did help me set a mood. I decided to shoot this as if the camera was a part of the fight. I was hoping to create a claustrophobic feel, with visuals that would echo what it might feel like to be inside the mind if the fighter: disorientated, unsteady, breathless, tunnel vision.
Next, I started sketching the key images I wanted to get out from the shoot. As I know next to nothing about boxing, it was important for me to find a balance between being creative, and being realistic. Chatting with both models, who are professional fighters, definitely helped this process. Without their input, the final images would have been closer to a superhero shoot than a fight.
All that was left was to cart our gear to the gym for the shoot. I love using smoke in my work, but often it’s just used for better subject separation. Here it was used as much to obfuscate the treadmills and other gym equipment as it was to create drama. I’d read that being punched felt like a blinding light flashing in your head.
So we set up dozens of bare bulbs around our staging area and pointed them straight at the lens. I hoped that the combination of lights, constant smoke, and me putting my camera right into the action would go some way to making the viewer feel engaged with the images.
Phoblographer: The mind makes the photograph, but what tools do you use to execute your vision?
JP Stones: Ha. In my case, it’s actually not that clear cut as ‘the mind makes the photograph’ because I have Aphantasia. It’s a spectrum disorder that impairs your mind’s eye. Basically, when I close my eyes, I can’t visualize images. That has some implications on my photography and, as a result, I think my planning process differs from other photographers.
To get around this condition, I spend a lot of time analyzing images that capture my attention. Photo stills from movies, paintings. Anything I find visually interesting really. I’ll scribble over them, highlighting the geometry, pose, light setup, and the mood it evoked in me. I have hundreds, probably thousands, of these screenshots on my laptop. The act of intellectually processing the image’s DNA seems to be enough so that I can call on it when I’m creating my own work. I don’t need to visualize what something might look like. I can just remember my notes and recall what I liked and how it was set up and then decide if it works for this.
Phoblographer: The tutorial and workshop market is heavily saturated. Allowing you to blow your own trumpet, what do you offer that makes you stand out from the pack?
JP Stones: The Cultural Photography Workshops I offer are a reaction to this saturated market. I’m not a fan of the photo tour culture, where hundreds of people bus from one location to the next, all taking the same photo they’ve seen a hundred times on Instagram.
I think that approach is detrimental: to the experience of photographing and to the communities it occurs in. It’s too one-sided. Locals get frustrated at the contrast intrusion and lack of respect. Taking a photo should be an emotional reaction to a scene, not an item on a to-do list.
I created my cultural workshops for the photographer who understands that the essence of a country lies within its people and traditions, not just its photogenic landmarks. The photographer who recognizes that a portrait isn’t just a photo, but a depiction of a person’s entire character, their life, their story.
That story is what I try to help my customers find in their photos. Maybe it’s a Charro going through his daily horseback practice, or a Mexica dancer preparing for a ceremony. Either way, it’s about appreciating each other’s culture, and honoring that with beautiful photography.
My regular models are also part owners in my business. This partnership means that they are invested in the process. If I am creating a new Aztec/Mexica workshop, I’ll run my concepts by the models to make sure they like them. In fact, they often end up sending me their own ideas!
Phoblographer: Let’s set the scene: someone has just bought a camera, they’ve never made a photo in their life, they come to you for teaching. What’s the first thing you teach them and why?
JP Stones: That’s a hard question to answer because we’re all individuals. We all come to photography from a very different place, and I think as a teacher, you have to start by identifying your client’s skill level and what type of learner they are. What motivates them and what resonates with them. The technology/art dichotomy of photography makes it a unique art form, but it also makes it easy to emphasize the wrong aspect when teaching. My role in a workshop is to teach, for sure, but it’s also to ignite someone’s passion for photography.
That being said, I strongly believe that mastering the technical side of photography is key to freeing your creativity. You can’t truly be in a flow state if you’re concentrating on your camera dials!
There is, I think, too much emphasis on gear and the part it plays in the creation process. This is a consequence of the camera manufacturer arms race, I imagine. We lose sight of the fact that all these gadgets are simply tools to create. Having the right tools and knowing when to use them is vital: to a painter as to a photographer. But the tool should never get in the way of the creation process. Its role is to facilitate, not hinder.
Unfortunately, in photography, gear can quickly become the only thing on your mind. If you’re staring at your camera LCD screen, trying to get the exposure right, wondering why your focus is off, trying to change your focus mode, you’re not being creative. You’re in your left brain, your analytical brain. Creativity happens when you’re using your right brain. So I believe that photographers need to become familiar with their camera (and lights and other gear if using them) to stop thinking about that stuff.
It becomes internalized. If your right brain requires a shallow depth of field you can make that change on autopilot, without having to think, without having to switch to the left brain and kill that creative thought.
I encourage everyone to get familiar with their camera dials so that they can switch them without looking. Changing aperture, shutter speed, even focus points down with the camera by their side as they visualize their shot. It takes some practice, but it pays off big.
Phoblographer: How do you feel about the over saturation of the workshop market? It seems anyone who has a camera and has been shooting for 12 months believes they can start teaching the craft.
JP Stones: I guess the old paradigm was that, if you owned a good camera, you probably were a photographer. A professional camera was a significant investment in time and money. But now that everyone with a smartphone has a great camera, that paradigm has changed, but the way we link the camera with the ability to take photos remains.
I don’t think that attitude affects every photographer in the same way though. The photo concepts I base my workshops on require more than just access to a camera.
Phoblographer: How much time do you spend editing your images?
JP Stones: My work often gets labeled as ‘cinematic’ because I use atmospheric elements (fire, smoke, fog, rain) a lot. These are typically elements that get added in post, but for me, part of the joy comes from making everything come together in-camera. So, on a good day, my editing is just a few minutes in Lightroom, adding in the color grade and other global adjustments.
That being said, when the photoshoot doesn’t work out so well – say because it’s a windy day – I’ll often have to spend more time adding in the fog, fire and other atmospheric elements in post.
I really enjoy the editing process, but I think that’s because I rarely get more than a half dozen photos from a photoshoot. So editing is different every time and never feels tedious. If I was a wedding photographer, editing hundreds of photos, I’m sure I would start outsourcing the process!
Phoblographer: Let’s move away from the technical aspects of making a photo and focus on the psychological. What do you tap into from a mental aspect in order to make great photos?
JP Stones: The psychology of photography fascinates me, but it took me a long time to discover how useful it could be to the creation process. So much educational material out there today over emphasizes the importance of gear as a tool for improvement. The result, because attention is a zero-sum game, is that composition in photography has become oddly undervalued.
If you scan the first 100 YouTube videos on composition, you might assume that composition is the rule of thirds. These videos ascribe mystical powers to this tic tac toe grid. It can make your photo more beautiful, more dynamic, more balanced.
For years I just went along with this until I decided to ask: how? How can a generic grid ascribe meaning to every photo? And it can’t, of course. These rules are over-simplified abstractions. They have their roots in other fields, from maths to biology to psychology. It was when diving deep into these other areas that I realized that photography doesn’t exist in a vacuum. To really progress, you need to look outside of photography.
These days I’m a much more intentional photographer. I build out my compositions in a more deliberate fashion, often using geometry as a base to attract a viewer’s attention and narrative composition to try and create that emotional connection.
Geometry affects us at a deep unconscious level. Most photography frameworks are geometric in nature. Think of Dynamic Symmetry or the Golden Mean. But I never realized why geometry was important to a successful composition. The reason, as it turns out, is because our brains are hardwired to look for geometric shapes in scenes. It’s a heuristic shortcut.
Geometric shapes help our unconscious mind gauge our interest in a scene. This is a complex process, and I’ve not done it justice in just these few rods. But once you understand that clear geometry in a photo attracts the attention of a viewer, you can use that to create more attention-grabbing images.
I also work a lot with character archetypes when composing. Using the work of Joseph Cambell as a base, I try to create images that will call on our internal understanding of popular archetypes such as the hero, the wise man, or the shadow. The effectiveness of a story is based on how well you can communicate it to someone. And a photograph has very obvious limits here. So if you can use archetypes to attach an entire character’s profile, you can tell a better and more emotionally resonant story.
What I learn from this exploration into the psychology of photography can be summarised like this. Composing in an arbitrary manner is a wasted opportunity. It’s a wasted opportunity to connect with your audience, to communicate with them. Because composition isn’t purely about organizing elements in a frame, it’s a tool to better connect with them emotionally.
Phoblographer: Finally, what are your core photography goals for now and the future?
JP Stones: My next big project is with the Lucha Libre community, where I’m hoping to spend time with them documenting the fascinating second tier of Mexican wrestling. It’s a wonderful and frightening world I know nothing about, but I’m strongly drawn to. As soon as Mexico City comes out of the pandemic I’ll be spending a month there.
In the meantime, I’ve become so fascinated by the philosophy and psychology of photography that I’m now posting regularly on my YouTube channel. I offer videos for people who want to move beyond the rule of thirds into a more influential style of photography.
JP Stones is a British-born, Mexico-based photographer. He runs workshops that showcase traditional and modern culture. JP’s work has been published in several photography publications, including two cover features for Good Light Magazine.