The blog of JT White will have you going back through post after post. His writing style is addictive and compelling to read, and the stories that he tells of his photography has you itching to pick up your camera and hit the streets. But his photos harness all of the qualities of his blog post in a single shot alone. The quality of his compositions, and the way he captures people and their emotions in powerful ways, has you staring at each shot for quite some time reflecting on the story and his words. There were many questions to ask him to find out more about his work.
I usually start off every interview with the same question, “First of all, let’s talk equipment, what do you use to shoot with?” In this case however, after going through your blog posts, it seems you use a lot of different cameras, so which ones have been amongst your favourite and what are you currently using now?
Well, I’ve been using the same Leica M3 for a couple of years. It’s gotten painted once after being dropped off of a moving motorcycle. I use a 50mm Summilux V2 on it most of the time. It’s true, I change digital cameras quite often. I never really fall in love with one. I think I do for a week or two and then that is sort of it. To be honest, I get the look I want out of whatever camera so they matter very little aside from being a nice toy to play with. My favorite digital camera is maybe the original X100. I haven’t really bonded with a digital camera as much as I did with that one. The newer ones I don’t like as much. I think they’ve lost some of the magic of the original. But, these days, the M3 is the one that I carry with me constantly and has been that way for quite a while. I shoot Tmax generally and push it to 1600-3200 depending on my mood. I do my own processing at home.
I should say I also really enjoy shooting with my phone. I’ve done so since the iPhone 3GS. They are great tools.
In one of your blogs you talk about finding yourself in a bit of a rut whilst using digital but then finding a new lease of life once you picked up a film camera. I wondered if you could talk about this and if perhaps you know why using digital had taken the fun out of it for you?
I suppose I answered this a little bit in the previous answer. That being said, one thing I’d like to say is I never really “stopped” using film. I shot 20 or 30 rolls of film at least every year since I started photography. I just got annoyed with the process of it when I was having a hard time getting chemicals that I liked for a while. I’m not sure “film” is what got me out of the rut as much as the M3. I just fell in love with that camera. There is no accounting for that kind of love. I’ve owned 20 or so film Leicas and probably almost as many digital ones but I never felt the same kind of love for one as I do for my current M3. I guess it is timing, situational, and all that. Either way, I felt excited about photography again when I loaded Tmax into this camera for the first time.
Ted Grant is famously quoted as saying “When you photograph people in color, you photograph their clothes. But when you photograph people in black and white, you photograph their souls.” Your photography is predominately in black and white, what does the style of black and white bring to your work and how much does that quote resonate with you?
You’ll probably find this a boring answer to be honest. That quote is an interesting one, but I don’t particularly agree with it. In fact, I’m not sure I do at all. I shoot black and white because I don’t see colour very well. I especially don’t see greens or reds very well. Shooting in monochrome just means I don’t have to worry about that. For a long time I didn’t talk about that as the reason why I shot mostly in black and white because I was kind of embarrassed by the fact. Some of my favorite photographers photograph in colour. One of my closest friends, Sean Lotman, is probably one of my favorite photographers and his photos are known for their psychedelic colours. I would see he does a rather fine job of photographing the “soul..” as it were.
How did you get through the first initial stage of street photography when many feel awkward or too timid to take shots of strangers?
I am typically very shy in person. I have a hard time talking to people generally. Somehow though, when I have a camera I find it quite easy to talk to people. I just wave and smile at everyone, give them a compliment. The camera is a nice social shield I guess. Also, somehow I feel quite confident when I have my camera so I assume that also helps. People often say to me things like: “Well, its easy for you because you’re a foreigner in Korea..” The fact of the matter is I’ve shot the same way no matter where I am in the world. I’ve shot like this in Toronto or Detroit or Winnipeg or Tokyo or wherever. It is just a cop-out to say it is easy in Korea. People are people. Plain and simple. The one thing I absolutely HATE is watching people shoot from the hip. I don’t get it. I take photos to establish connections and to be intrinsic. Whenever I take photos with someone who is shooting from the hip I feel cringy and awkward. They look like creeps to me. I’m always talking. I dig that. Photography for me is about that connection.
Talk us through taking photos on packed subways. How do those shots usually go down with people, do you ever find yourself in trouble?
I mean, from time to time people will often ask me what I am doing. I just show them and share a chuckle. I tell them that it’s funny how people are all crammed in like that. I dunno, I just say whatever. I’ve never been yelled at or anything. If someone wants me to delete a photo I just delete it. If someone wants me to get rid of a film photo, I just give them a link to my social media and tell them if I post it they can shoot me a message and I’ll delete it right away. Either way, I have never had a serious problem.
Favourite place to shoot in Seoul?
Probably Myeongdong or Namdaemun.
Favourite place to shoot in Korea?
I like shooting in the city I live in the best. Iksan. It’s a small city South of Seoul.
Favourite conditions to shoot in?
I only ever really shoot when I’m on the go or going somewhere. I never go out with the purpose of taking photographs. It’s more like I take photographs while I’m on my way to something else. Some people listen to music, I take photos. Conditions matter very little aside from that.
Favourite blog post?
Of my own? Probably the one titled “F%$K GAS”.. haha.
Can you talk us through 3 of your most favourite shots, particularly the story and processing behind them.
I mean, picking three is hard but I’ll give it a go.
One of my favorite photos is often referred to as “The Smoking Girl.” I was (and still am) working on a project here in Korea related to women and double standards. In the middle of one of the shoots the subject stopped for a cigarette. The light out of the window behind me was amazing on her face. It was one of those photos that when I saw it the first time I even felt a bit of “wow” myself.
Another of my favorite photos is this one (kid with taped face). This kid and his friends were playing hide and seek. I saw them arguing as I walked up to them. The other kids kept saying he was cheating so another kid taped his eyes shut. I took the photo as I walked by. Ironically, I ended up teaching that kid years later. Turned into a good young man.
This is another of my favorite photos. I think picking three is kind of hard but I quite like this one. The kid was in a bus that had stopped in front of me. I took 8 or so photos of him as he just stared back. Ironically, I ran out of film just after this one and he decided to give me the finger while I was trying to reload. Funny kid. I’d like to meet him now, haha.