Joanna Gilbertmeets up with Brighton photographer JJ Waller to find out what inspires him to capture the spirit of a place.
After starting a night course in his early forties, photographer JJ Waller was a self-confessed latecomer to the world of photography.
This was after a successful career as a Covent Garden street performer and stand-up comedian, touring festivals worldwide and winning numerous plaudits.
And following 20 years in the business – and an editorial photography degree – JJ has released his first book, a collection of images showcasing the many weird and wonderful faces of Brighton.
“It was a conscious decision to move away from performing and into photography,” says JJ, who has lived in Brighton on and off for many years. “Although, the two do overlap.
“Back in my street performance days I had a saying ‘if they don’t stay, they don’t pay’. It’s all about forming relationships with people in a short space of time and gaining their confidence.”
Although a lot of his work is based on commissions – the most recent being a series of portraits of Brighton Pavilion MP Caroline Lucas – much of JJ’s time is spent engaging with groups of people who are not familiar with his work.
And it is years of practice interacting with strangers in Brighton that has lead to an impressive archive of photos built up over many years. That, and a lot of patience.
“My approach is not just to go along to an event, take rapid fire pictures and then leave,” says JJ, who says he has found the perfect spot for capturing images.
“There’s a heated doorway along the stormy wind-tunnel that is East Street; I can stand there for hours just watching and waiting and looking for something to jump out at me.”
This personal collection culminated in the release of JJ’s first solo book project,
JJ Waller’s Brighton Volume 1, released last year.
JJ believes the book, which features statements from an MP, cleaner, bus conductor, builder, historian, as well as numerous authors and poets, is set apart by its combination of images and words.
“I realised early on when I was putting the book together that people want more than just photographs – they want some context. So although the statements I’ve included aren’t captions, I think they embellish the atmosphere created by the images.
“Plus, I think there is an affection in my pictures that comes from living here for so many years.
“The BBC covered the release of the book for South East Today and in it they asked the public what they thought of the book. One woman flicked through it, laughed and said ‘this is the real Brighton’.”
JJ’s comedic past can certainly be seen in the book’s images. On the front cover, a man stands away from the bustle of the main streets, texting on his phone, dressed only in a pair of sandals, shorts and a lion head dress.
Behind him, a man walks past, unfazed. It’s the kind of image that stays with you, not just because it’s acutely funny, but for the subtle way it highlights Brighton’s nonchalance towards its own eccentricity.
“The comedy aspect is not something I bring into it deliberately,” JJ says. “But I suppose it will always be a part of what I do. Overall, I would say I try to inform and entertain.”
However, JJ believes certain pictures are easier to take in Brighton, which is known for its party-loving atmosphere.
He is perhaps most proud of his work with the community in St Leonards on Sea, a project he has been working on for seven years.
“Anyone can take pictures of the naked bike ride, but something about St Leonard’s resonated with me. It reminded me of growing up in London and struck me as a contrast to Brighton, which is more gentrified now.
It’s smaller too, so it’s much easier to meet people and build up a rapport. I didn’t want them to perform, I wanted them to be allowed to express their intrinsic qualities in front of the camera.”
JJ has just discovered that the first phase of the project – which focuses on the regeneration of the area – has just been commissioned to be made into a book, due for release later this year.
And that’s not all for 2014.
“I’m 90 per cent sure there will be a Vol. 2 of the Brighton book and I will continue to collaborate with Whitehawk FC. It’s an exciting time – the players are celebrating their first season with Conference South and are currently playing at their highest ever level. To celebrate we are releasing a book of all my photographs of the team.”
So, does JJ have a burning desire to photograph any other famous personalities?
“I’d like to do Eddie Izzard’s first portrait as mayor of London, assuming he runs for it that is,” JJ reveals. “I think he would make for a colourful candidate, at least more colourful than Johnson.”
A glimpse inside JJ Waller’s Brighton Volume 1 is available to buy online from JJ Waller’s official website which has a list of stockists, www.jjwaller.com