With a career spanning 35 years and many continents, Jon Nicholson’s relentless passion for capturing the real story is the driving force behind his photography. From behind the F1 barriers to documenting global issues, Jon’s view from behind the lens manages to capture a depth of human emotion or level of detail that many of us would fail to see. He has an incredible ability to find beauty in even the harshest of circumstances, creating pictures that communicate respect, empathy and a deep connection to his subjects. There is no pretence, no judgement and no desire to shock, only to provoke thought, share knowledge and evoke passion.
1. You have a career spanning 35 years. When did your interest in photography start and who are your biggest photographic influences?
My interest in photography goes back to my teenage years. I was never an obsessive amateur photographer, it was more some fun. I think my biggest influence has to be Don McCullin, but my influences are many and change whenever I get into a project - I love to see other people’s work. Lee Friedlander, Richard Avedon and Peter Lindbergh, Annie Leibovitz - it’s a broad spectrum and I tend to pick things from others I see how they fit into my thinking.
2. What type of camera do you use - digital or 35 mm?
Film cameras and digital - 8x10 gandolfi film camera, Nikon Z series and of course Leica.
3. You made a name for yourself in the 90's as the man behind the scenes of Grand Prix racing, documenting life on and off the track for Damon Hill, Eddie Jordan, and Jackie and Paul Stewart; and teams including Ferrari, Mclaren, Stewart and Williams-Renault, including the weekend of Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna’s fatal crashes at Imola. The image of Senna is particularly haunting - can you tell us about that shot?
This image was taken on the Saturday morning before first practice, I turned and saw Ayrton – took a picture and didn’t think anything of it. Later that day Roland was killed and then Ayrton on the Sunday. It was absolutely awful – two dead in one weekend. The image stayed in my drawer for 25 years and I found it only because I had been asked for an image of something completely different, but as I opened the drawer the box of Imola 1994 was on top so I had looked through and saw this image - I couldn’t believe it! Ayrton looks so peaceful - its odd because he looks at ease, calm and almost of another world.
4. Between 1998 and 2007, you joined the UN in Africa, travelling for days at a time to reach areas ravaged by war, genocide, food crisis and HIV/AIDS. What was that like to both be part of it and document it?
During those years I was shooting a great deal of different topics and I got asked by the UN to do a few stories, which I jumped at! It’s a different world from the Monaco Grand Prix - its real there’s nothing to hide behind. I found some of the stories very disturbing, sad, and sometimes I would feel totally useless, but the stories had to be told and it’s really the work I enjoyed the most – but it does take its toll and dealing with some of the stuff was hard - not like Iraq or Afghanistan but it was hard.
5. When you are undertaking a portrait commission, what do you find most challenging, what is your process?
I think all the challenges are within and I seem to set myself the impossible sometimes - but really a portrait can be a really simple image, nothing too fancy. I try to keep it as basic as possible and not take too long. A portrait can be in the kitchen whilst the sitter is making a cup of tea – the images are easier to take once a relationship is formed. It could be as quick as commenting on a picture on the wall or a view out the window - I suppose its any slight hook that puts the subject a ease. I often ask how they would want to be photographed or build an idea with a person.
6. You have also been the official photographer for the Olympic Games twice - in Barcelona and London. Which did you prefer?
Well, Barcelona was amazing, but to have been involved with the London games was really very special – I also caught up with photographers I hadn't seen in years -- it was a blast.
7. You have worked with an amazingingly diverse selection of clients. What commissions have you most enjoyed?
I tend to work on projects that may take years, so I would say my cowboy project is my favourite although I generated it - it was started by work I had been doing with wrangler jeans.
8. Finally, If you could invite 7 people from history to dinner, who would they be and why?
Richard Avedon - I’d like to talk to him about his project in the American West. My Grandfather - he was a pilot in the war and would fly on and take pictures behind enemy lines, it would be good to know his inspiration for doing that. Edwin Land, developer of the Land camera or polaroid cameras SX70 - that is an amazing thing to have done that has influenced so much in photography and the digital app world - for example hypstamatic. Next, [the Duke of ] Wellington - I’d like to know what he was thinking at Waterloo. Sir Edmund Hillary - I love the mountains and I’d like to hear his account of Everest and his views on the overcrowding of the mountain. N. Armstrong, again over dinner - what a story he would tell about the whole space programme! Finally Jimi Hendrix – be great to learn a few new tunes on the guitar!
Discover our selection of photographs from across Jon Nicholson’s career.