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Jocelyn Bain Hogg: The Truth about Gangsters, Stars and London

Our today’s guest doesn’t need to be introduced. His works have been seen in numerous glossy and not so publications, such as Vogue, Vanity Fair, The Independent, GQ, Esquire, just to name a few. His photo reportage of London gangs’ life has been widely discussed in the Internet and featured nearly on every photography related blog. Today we welcome Jocelyn Bain Hogg.

Besides the scandal chronicles from the everyday life of the English criminal group Firm, Jocelyn Bain Hogg is the author of some other edgy and deep photo projects. Among the most eminent of them are «Idols+Believers» (an insight into the essense of fame), «Pleasure Island» (a reportage from the hot spot of the global music community,Ibiza), «White Room» (many people, many emotions in one white room), and «Tired of London, Tired of Life» (feel the rhythm of the inimitable, fantastic city). The photographer touches various topics, but it’s always human life with all its facets, joys and difficulties that is in the focus.

In this interview Jocelyn Bain Hogg will tell us how he found a creative passion in the place he hated, why the East-End thugs let him in their world and what it takes to be a professional photographer. Enjoy the read and don’t forget to leave a comment! Hogg’s photography is more than just a good subject for a discussion.

How did you get started in the photography?

I started at my English Boarding School when I was 14 where we had an opportunity on a Wednesday afternoon to do an ‘activity’ and my choice was photography. I hated the school and the darkroom was a great place to be left alone in! Also I found that by taking pictures of what I witnessed at this traditional Public School I could document the peculiar life of the school boy thus giving my time there meaning. I inherited my father’s Rolleiflex and learned using the school darkroom, and pestered the man from my local camera shop for advice and tips and also devoured photography books mostly Henri Cartier-Bresson’s ‘The Decisive Moment’, Don McCullin’s ‘Homecoming’, Mary Ellen Mark’s ‘Falkland Road’ and Ian Berry’s ‘The English’. At 16 I was given an Olympus OM 1 and then I really got started! I pestered picture editors in my school holidays and a year later had sold my first story on the girls who’d just arrived at my previously all male boarding school to Harper’s and Queen Magazine.

Could you now look from top of your experience and trace back the evolution of your photographic career? Were there any revolutions on your way?

In terms of evolution, I guess I began by looking critically at Boarding School life and that legacy has stuck, documenting the world I witness in all its facets and complications.

Hannover Square. From the series "Tired of London, Tired of Life"

The first revolution came when I went to Newport Art College straight after boarding school and had to face the real world! Second revolution was moving to London aged 21 and working on film sets and drifting into fashion photography…then the real revolution happened in 1997 when I split up with my model girlfriend, gave up fashion pictures and went back to my initial intention of documentary photography by beginning the four year journey that was The Firm…I’m now looking forward for the next revolution…..

You’ve created three books, each of them is a spectacular insight in human nature. Each of the books is worth a separate interview, but I will try to limit to just several questions:

You once said that in Idols+Believers you don’t show celebrities, but the very nature of fame. I wonder what you think about the role of photography in setting relationship between “stars” and “watchers”.

I’m not sure what you mean by this question? I assume it involves the complicity between the photographer and the PR/Press machine that fuels the apparently insatiable desire for ‘stars’.

Right, that’s exactly what I meant.

The new photojournalist would appear to be the paparrazzi — the definition of photojournalist is one that gets pictures published in the press so these guys have supplanted the old model of the ‘concerned photographer’ in our cynical times.

The reason I started shooting ‘Idols’ was because I saw this frightening change in our Press. Celebrity supplanted the real issues of our time — somehow celebrity was the Panacea, a palliative after Princess Diana’s death and all magazines and papers subsequently carried famous people on their covers not issues of world importance.

Hence a project on the nature of fame, not celebrity.

Angelina Jolie, Cannes. From the series "Idols+Believers"

Fans sleep outside Westminster Abbey on the eve ofthe funeral of the Queen Mother ("Idols+Believers")

I fought hard over many years to document this now over-familiar phenomenon. Arguing with Hollywood PR people who would not allow me to take natural pictures of their clients, but would try and have me set up an image became a regular fight. As I said in the book, the stars are ciphers, it is the panoply around them that is interesting and indeed the reaction from ordinary people that makes a picture for me.

Today no photographer (paparazzo of course excluded..) can photograph a ‘star’ without write-offs, sign-offs, agreements and the rest, so I am very happy that I completed that project in 2006. Since then, I have had no involvement with celebrities I am glad to say!

George Lucas. From the series "Single Images"

Michael Schumacher / Ewan MacGregor ("Single Images")

I know that the Firm was exhibited in Moscow in 2007. What feedback did you get from Russian viewers? I read on your website that you are working on an update ten years later of the book. Will the subject be that same bandit group?

The Firm was my first major project, started back in ’97 and now feels like something very much from the past. The reason I’m looking at that world again is because of a commission from 2008 that allowed me to look into the issues surrounding British Youth. In my country we have a serious problem with teenage knife and gun crime and generally deeply disaffected youth. Under 16 year olds are dying every week due to gang violence. A lot of this is down to drugs, and the commerce of drug dealing in the inner city estates. This project, on British Youth is close to my heart, and ongoing, and I am exploring the relationship with the successors of the old Firm to this phenomenon. Organised crime involves drug trafficking and thus is connected to the Youth issues in the UK.

Mickey Goldtooth on 'venom' after a bareknuckle fight / Dai Boxer ("The Firm")

Harrogate, Yorkshire

‘Underworld’ the new look at the Firm of old, is ongoing and will take more time to conclude but yes, essentially the guys I’m documenting now are the sons and successors of the old families that constituted the Firm project.

As for the reaction in Moscow, it was generally very positive — I wish I could read Russian since I seem to be on just about every photography blog there….

Have you ever thought about depicting some foreign mafia clan, the Russian style, for instance?

Ha ha…I am not a gangster, nor a gangster photographer so I’ll pass on your country’s (and any other country’s) equivalent of The Firm thank you!

This is probably the question you are asked most often, but I just can’t help asking (smile) How did you make contact with the East End mafia group and what’s more interesting, what were their motifs of revealing their world to masses?

Good! I’d like to set the record straight since I read on the internet that I met the gangsters at a fashion show when I was doing a fashion shoot? How on earth did that fiction become fact??? Never trust the web!!!!

Bruce Reynolds at Reg's graveside, Chingford cemetary

The reality is that I was given an assignment back in 1997 from British Elle magazine (editorial not fashion!) photographing a journalist who was talking to a couple of nasty villains. After I’d taken the pictures I got talking to one of the two about fathers and sons..My father is an actor and Fred, the villain’s son is also an actor. We bonded over several whiskeys in a Soho club and he asked me to show him the pictures and I realised I could become privy to a very secret, private and scary world. I then asked him if I could take some more pictures. Then I approached a Japanese journalist with whom I’d been working and pitched the idea of a story for Japanese GQ on the British crime world. We shot the story in a month but I carried on shooting for three more years, thence The Firm.

Bernie's boys, South Wales

Flanagan, glamour model since the 70's and old friend of The Firm

Private party, Mayfair

Mickey's gang, Tenerife

The reason the pictures resonate is because I never ever lied to them. I cannot pretend to be from their world, I do not have a cockney accent and actually have no interest at all in British crime histories and from the start made it clear I didn’t want to photograph their own presentation — no posed pictures and no complicity. From day one I showed them the pictures and continue to do so in all their ugliness. This way there can be no arguments and no compromise. I soon realised that they actually enjoy being presented in this hard, real and ugly way…perhaps all men are vain?!

Pleasure Island is a photo journey through the craze of Ibiza. Tell us if the whirl of Summer Rock Festival madness swallowed you up?

Again, this was a look at why we try so hard to have fun…and I’ve always loved rock’n’roll so this was my chance to shoot that and the rest…and no, it didn’t swallow me up. You can’t take pictures when you’re out of it!

Indeed, Ibiza is a paradise for many and what’s the ideal Pleasure Island for you?

I am still looking for my Pleasure Island — but it is definitely not Ibiza!

Fatboy Slim deejays at Manumission ("Pleasure Island")

At Bar ("Pleasure Island")

How would you describe the state of the modern documentary photography? What challenges does it face? What’s the influence of the digital era on this genre and photography art in general, in your opinion?

Modern documentary photography is thriving! There are more students than ever studying it and more people with cameras (and mobile phones!) Photography has always been the worlds’ most democratic medium — everyone has been able to take photographs since Kodak invented the Box Brownie and although much has changed with the onset of digital, that democracy remains, and in many ways has become more enhanced.

For the ‘professional’ however, the demise of news magazines has heralded a Sea Change and it means we have to work harder and look at different ways to show our pictures. It will separate the good from the bad eventually and that has to be good.

The Art World is one way to have pictures shown but there is a danger that the curators and academics will only select ‘collectable’ photography by art-worthy photographers. Documentary by nature, challenges our state of being and there is an argument that a gallery space is too rarified for often hard hitting imagery, thus there is an over-riding blandness in the art-documentary approach at present that I sincerely hope will change.

The current academic thinking suggests that true documentary must be ‘objective’ hence no involvement by the photographer. This works on the printed page but inevitably leads to sterile imagery and Photography is a visual medium after all. The picture used to tell a thousand words, the current worry with the gallery bound vision is that the words now tell the picture. ..Although ‘Conceptual photography’ and ‘documentary photography’ are branches from the same tree, they bear very different fruit after all.

Notting Hill. From the series "Tired of London, Tired of Life"

Stansted Airport ("Tired of London, Tired of Life")

Time for a boring gear question :) What camera/lens combination is perfect for documentary shooting? If you could have just one kit forever, what would it be?

A Leica ttl M6 with a 35mm f2 lens, a 28 f2 and a 50 f2, a tiny flashgun and the weird unavailable doobie that allows you to attach a lens to the baseplate thus carrying two lenses on one camera (I hope I never lose mine) — or a yashica T5 which is definitely more pocketable..

London Bridge ("Tired of London, Tired of Life")

What is you inspiration in art, music, cinema?

It was always movies for me. Watching the Sunday afternoon matinees on TV as a child inspired me. Particularly the films of Powell and Pressburger and the Ealing movies. Lost treasures now I fear — ‘A Matter of Life and Death’ and ‘It Always Rains On Sunday» were both seminal and indeed still are. Then discovering Italian neo realism — Bertolucci, Visconti and indeed Tarkovsky’s visionary work from Soviet times and of course French cinema from Marcel Carne to today…

Music too of course… From The Arctic Monkeys through Richard Thompson, Van der Graaf Generator to Bach and Tom Russell… Couldn’t live without it — guess that’s why I shot Pleasure Island?

As for Art. It starts with Bruegel and Hogarth and is thankfully never-ending.

And I always, always carry a novel and have done since I was a teenager which keeps me sane on those journeys…

The Reverend Bob / Melvin ("White Room")

If you could travel in time with your camera, where would you go first?

Now. No point in living in the past — that’s why I watch movies and read books!

What was the most precious professional advice you’ve ever got? What would you recommend to those making first steps in the photographic art?

Get a good accountant and put your books in order! And… Get a good accountant and put your books in order…

But seriously don’t even do it unless you have a passion for it. Today especially because it is a very different and changing profession so only the very dedicated will survive and sustain a living or as someone said to me in the eighties when I started — ‘don’t do it’…

We’d like to thank Jocelyn for taking time and doing this great interview for our journal. We wish you best of luck in all your projects and hope to see more of your interesting and thought-provoking imagery in the future.

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