Interview with Photographer and WPO “City Projects” Leader Jez Coulson

As I mentioned in my last article on The Imaging Buffet, I recently had the opportunity to interview award-winning photojournalist and “reportage artist” Jez Coulson. Coulson is one of the instructors for the three day “City Project” workshops happening as part of a series of events sponsored by the WPO (World Photography Organisation). We did the interview via e-mail, which, as you’ll see, allows Jez to share his thoughts and comments in a style that he also uses on his extremely popular blog, jezblog.com.

Andrew Darlow: Your upcoming City Project focuses on New York Diners. What are a few things people can do to prepare themselves (mentally, physically and equipment-wise) for the City Project workshop, a similar workshop, or even a “Photo Walk”?

Jez Coulson: Well I think anyone attending a photography workshop…….  but especially one led by me, should be ready to have fun………  but also be ready to work really hard……… it’s a chance to try to do something really “lifted” and come away exhilarated by having made fantastic pictures. Consequently it’s good to be in a place where you are feeling energized and ready to roll. It’s also good to be feeling ready to interact with others…….  as reportage photography often needs a little rapport with the general public.

You will need a reasonable digital camera. I myself always use two SLR’s when I am shooting……….  one with a long zoom one with a shorter zoom…………. this in my view is the best way to work……. but it’s by no means essential…….. one camera ideally with a couple of lenses or just one reasonable zoom would be fine…… someone was asking if they could do it with their iPhone camera…….. it could be done…… you would still learn and have fun  ……….  but I feel you will probably get more out of it …….  if you have a slightly better rig…….  ideally something you can control a little……  like a classic SLR.

It is also good to have a good number of digital camera cards……. so that you can really shoot and not be constrained by the amount of digital information you can write to your cards.  If I am shooting all day, it is not unusual for me to shoot 3 or 4 thousand pictures…….. or more. I often emphasize the importance of good clothing when out shooting ……. for me reasonable rain protection is part of my essential equipment………  If it rains I want to carry on shooting…….. I know I have often shot fantastic pictures in the rain when I know most people would have  gone home :-))

But equally, you do not want to be bulked down with things to carry………  so it’s essential to remain mobile without stuff to carry in hand bags……….  as your hands must be free…… and you must be able to move about freely. I have, as part of my shooting kit, small umbrellas and rain jackets that I wear in a belt bag/ fanny-pack/bum-bag arrangement………  so if it does not rain you don’t need to hold coats or wear them if it’s too hot………. I have rain covers for my cameras too……. for me they are essential………..  in torrential rain I always want to shoot………  these covers are great things……..  but entirely optional on this workshop (certainly not a requirement).

Screenshot from Jez Coulson's Inspiration Gallery on worldphoto.org. Photo © Jez Coulson, All Rights Reserved

Screenshot from Jez Coulson's Inspiration Gallery on worldphoto.org. Photo © Jez Coulson, All Rights Reserved

AD: I was especially drawn to the photos in which you’ve employed the use of shallow depth of field and motion techniques (located in the inspiration gallery for the workshop, as well as your photos on insight-visual.com). Is there a specific way in which you like to teach either of these concepts?

JC: I do a lot of things that a classic photography text book will tell you not to do. I will make sure everyone understands what are more normally accepted parameters as a starter. But as I shoot totally wide open (aperture at widest setting, often f/2.8), I also often shoot hand held at very slow shutter speeds (Shutter speeds of say 1/8th sec., for example) . I will talk to people in the workshop about the risks of this and the potential pit falls…….. but also the sometimes amazing images that can be achieved by doing this……. I will be showing them how I do it……… there are useful tricks to some of this……….  and I will encourage attendees to be brave…..  to attempt things that may not work…… but equally might be amazing…… I will get people to aim to be successful at things they may not have attempted before in low light with movement, etc. This will be done through demonstration, and people trying the suggested methods.

In diners, there is often not tons of light as in many other urban situations ……. and I will not be emphasizing the use of photographic lights or strobe……… so we will be exploring how to see and use the ambient light to best effect …….. and combine that with raised ISO, wide aperture and low shutter speeds (all hand held). I will also cover how to steady a camera using supports like tables and chairs, and the stances to adopt, etc. …….. these things are not rocket science………  but need a little instruction with practice and confidence in real situations to master them.

AD: Can you talk a bit about the content of the 3-4 hour Masterclass on the first day?

JC: The Master Class will really look at my philosophy and practice as a photojournalist and reportage artist ……..  and the kind of stories that I am drawn to. This will take the form of looking at examples of my work, running through the stories and my approach. The human aspects of making the images. Both in terms of the concepts I am trying to illustrate and the emotions and physical realities involved for both the subjects and myself during the actual shooting process. I will talk at some length about the human aspects of interacting with others in a public space, plus being accepted with your cameras. I will run through the way I talked with and won the confidence of the subjects in certain pictures.

We will be looking at the resulting images in terms of the reaction of viewers at the end stage, and the how pictures can be displayed and used. I will help the photographers who take the course produce a range of images that would properly constitute a story submission for a magazine or other editorial outlet.

Putting to one side the vitally important human skills and approach required by photojournalists, I will also run through the images in terms of how they are achieved in the camera. The camera techniques…….the settings……. the forethought……  I will analyze images in terms of why they work…… normally emphasizing the primacy of the composition ….. even in images that appear to be working by depicting all action or by demanding an emotional response. I will talk about how composition and ambient light are, for me, normally the primary consideration in approaching most photography (if you put aside human interaction considerations). Action and movement can be essential, but even then you cannot put aside considerations of light and composition, so these need to become almost second nature. We will discuss how to read and understand the composition and light that can be seen to work in existing images………  and how you can apply that knowledge of controlling composition and understanding light in photographs you are about to shoot.

We will also be looking at how photography meets the World Wide Web…… How photographers can be involved with social media and blogging to gain exposure and to be in contact with others for support and learning……….. and for those wishing to take it further, how to reach potential clients through digital projection and networking.

There will be a relatively small section on how one might become a freelance photojournalist and reportage artist in terms of the type of work a professional in these fields might undertake. The kind of clients and the type of jobs one might expect, especially given the demise of some of the classic photojournalism outlets.

AD: If one of your students had 10 minutes of time with a news magazine editor (in person or via e-mail/online), is there a specific way in which you would recommend he or she present a specific body of work for each situation?

JC: If someone is approaching a news magazine editor………… The most important thing is to make sure the work you are showing is specific to what the magazine is actually running………….. Picture Editors will be polite (normally) without waking up about images that are not specific to them. They will say nice things and you will never hear from them again……. they will have forgotten your name by the time you are in the elevator………. you must show them stuff specific to them……… ideally you must show them stuff they actually want right now……… if by the end they are ringing the features editor to say they have a fantastic set in that she must see, and is then introducing you, they have registered your presence………

I know that sounds obvious…….. but I have been asked to look at other photographers’ work by the picture editor of certain magazines…….  because after 30 seconds he knows his time is being wasted…… and the picture editor knows I will say nice positive things about where that folio should be shown……..  or how a change could be introduced. If the magazine is unrelentingly positive and ‘up beat,’ they do not want depressing stories…….. If they only run color, they don’t want B&W…….. If they only run women’s issues, why are they looking at a set of men’s wrestling instead of a set of women’s wresting? ……. Again totally obvious but its amazing how this can be overlooked by some. If you do not have a set of pictures that could be bought by the magazine immediately……. you must at least have an idea for one…….. “Well you know you always run those engineering stories on the back 2 pages”……. “I have access to the new dam project on the Hudson if you are interested in commissioning it I could….blah blah” ………..  If you leave it to the Picture Editor to think of the stories……..  he will give them to other photographers…… people who have already established a relationship with him……. they will only give you a chance because you have already shot it ….. or you have an inside track on a story that is your idea.

AD: Can you share a favorite quote that might apply in some way to the workshop, or photography in general?

JC: My favorite quote is from Nelson Mandela. It’s not directly about photography……. but it is indirectly ……. because it’s about a philosophy for living that suits me and my photography :-))

“For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.” -Nelson Mandela

One of my favorite photography related quotes comes from Richard Avedon …….. it applies to this “Diner on the Edge of America” workshop, and to my whole life:

“If a day goes by without my doing something related to photography, it’s as though I’ve neglected something essential to my existence, as though I had forgotten to wake up.” -Richard Avedon

AD: Do you have any additional comments to share about the upcoming City Project workshops in New York ?

JC: I am really excited about leading the WPO “Diners on the Edge of America” workshop. I enjoy so many aspects of New York City………. and the classic Diners are one small, but fascinating aspect……… I like to just be in them to grab breakfast ……… or sometimes lunch…..  or more often, a coffee and a meal in the middle of the night, having been out shooting on an assignment ……. and I never go in one of those places without taking a camera and shooting something …….. either of the Diner and its staff and customers, or the scenes of the streets from inside………. it’s a bit of an obsession……… so I am looking forward to introducing others to the joy of this passion :-))

AD: Do you have any comments to share about the upcoming City Projects in Chicago?

JC: I am totally delighted with the news that the buzz around this “Diner on the Edge of America” 3-day “City Project” workshop in New York City has been so great that the WPO have asked me to do another one in Chicago ……… of course I am thrilled……… and it’s good news for a few friends of mine from that neck of the woods that follow my blog at www.jezblog.com too ……. they will be able to attend now……. Having said they could not afford the travel costs to NYC from Chicago …….. they had been asking if I was going to be doing one in Chicago……… well now I am :-)) …… Yes, for me it’s fantastic news!! …….. I have shot pictures in the diners of Chicago in the past ……. they are also just perfect for this ……. but I don’t go there everyday myself……….  so it’s great to get more time to hang out and shoot in Chicago……….  and have all the fun and excitement of another WPO Festival, and of leading another workshop.

For me, looking through a viewfinder is like entering another world, my world, and I would love others to come to these workshops and join me in my enthusiasm for a life in photography.



AD: I’d like to sincerely thank Jez Coulson for sharing so much great information with our audience! For a direct link to Jez Coulson’s New York “City Project,” visit this page, and for his Chicago “City Project,” visit this page. And to see more of Jez Coulson’s work, visit jezblog.com and insight-visual.com.



Brilliant interview…great insight…love the Mandela quote and can relate with the Avedon one wanting to create every day…I feel the enthusiasm for photography just from reading this interview..well done. Cheers.

PhotographyTalk - October 17, 2011

You’ve really inspired me just in this post to try some new techniques, specifically the low light, long aperature hand held method. I’m always worried about the time and the hassle of setting up the tripod so this will be more fun, and more “free”.



jezblog - October 25, 2011

Thanks to Andrew for giving me the opportunity to reach people here …… your comment Drew made me laugh thats exactly it … leave the tripod in the trunk…….. free yourself :-)) The New York \’Diner on the Edge\’ workshop has been a fantastic success. I enjoyed enormously. The participants seemed totally enervated by the intensity of the weekend….. I was delighted by what they achieved and even found I was learning myself……. it really was amazing :-)) So next we are doing it all in Chicago if you are within striking distance of there I would love to see you 9th December 🙂

Cheers Jez XXXXX

Jez Coulson http://www.jezblog.com

Thanks again Andrew for helping to get the word out 🙂

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