An interview with Stephen Leslie

June 17, 2019  •  Leave a Comment

An interview with Stephen Leslie

Copy right Stephen Leslie 


RH: Who is Stephen Leslie? 

SL: Stephen Leslie is a writer, film maker and photographer based in London. His films have been shown on the BBC and Channel 4 and his photographs have been used as album and book covers and even on bottles of beer. His ongoing project about the festival of Purim was included in the Unseen London anthology published in 2017 by Hoxton Mini-Press and his first, solo book, 'SPARKS – Adventures In Street Photography' which combines images taken over the past twenty years with original short stories was published by Unbound / Penguin in 2018. Stephen still shoots all of his work on film and occasionally dresses up as giant panda, although it is not thought that these two activities are in any way linked.


Copy right Stephen Leslie 



RH: What attracted and inspired you to your current documentary project?

SL: My current / ongoing project is on the Jewish festival of Purim and particularly how it is celebrated by the ultra Orthodox Hasidic community in North London's Stamford Hill. I was attracted to it mainly because It takes place near to where I used to live, and it only happens once a year and, being Jewish myself but totally un-religious, I thought I'd pop along and have look. That was 7 years ago. It's now the most important photographic day in my year and I'm totally obsessed with documenting it as it's truly unlike anything I've ever photographed before. 


RH: Can you talk us through the planning stage for your project?

SL: Initially there was no planning at all, I just turned up and started taking photos. Over the subsequent years I have made a few contacts who I now try and meet up with a bit on the day but the truth is that because it is so concentrated around a single day there isn't that much planning you can do other than to make sure to have you enough film and batteries, wear comfy shoes and pack some sandwiches. 

RH: Is there anything you wish you had done differently?

SL: Not really, it's a very closed community which I have minimal access to – even though I am Jewish I'm nowhere near as Jewish as the people I'm photographing and so, weirdly, it's me who's treated as being unusual by them, which I quite enjoy. So I don't think I could get much closer. I relish the public element of it all and this helps fit with the style of street photography and street portraits I like to take.  

Copy right Stephen Leslie 

Implementation and Completion


RH: How have you dealt with any challenges and difficulties within your project?

SL: The main problems with this project are really all practical, to do with time and physical space. It only really happens one day a year (there is some stuff going on at night too but I'm not overly keen on flash) so it's a frantic burst of activity for one day a year and then nothing else for another year. Then there's the fact that Stamford Hill is quite big and spread out with thousands of people going back and forth for the entire day and so I'm running about with up to  three cameras trying to cover as much as possible. So it's a physical problem as much as anything else.  


RH:How long do your projects tend to take from start to finish?   

SL: No idea. Most of my other work is 'conventional' street photography that is ongoing and can take as long or as short a time as I wish. This project is different because (as I might have mentioned already) I can only do it one day a year. So, even though I've been doing it for 7 years now, it's effectively only really one week's work. Although because of the amount I shoot it has also splintered in to mini-projects taken from within the greater whole.

Copy right Stephen Leslie 

Editing and Sequencing


RH: Do you have several images to edit of one fleeting moment or do you have one well-constructed precise image that you have captured?

SL: I don't shoot like this and can't shoot like this because I'm still on film. I always try to look for content and a story that can be conveyed by a single image, shooting a sequence of images just isn't my style. Also it's virtually impossible (for me at least) to do on a 50 year old medium format camera!  


RH: Within the editing stages, have you felt the project has taken on a different narrative than first envisaged?

SL: Yes, as explained above, I have started on several mini-projects that have arisen from recurrent themes I've noticed over the years. I've got a series of people in windows and another of people in cars bioth of which are motifs that I've noticed over the years and then returned to again and again. So it's an organic, living thing. Plus I anticipate doing this for many, many more years so I'm hopeful it will change and grow over time.  

Copy right Stephen Leslie 

Tips and hints 


RH: What would you recommend for people starting their own photographic project?

SL: Find something you have a link to. While anyone can (and does) shoot Purim, I feel it has helped me understand my own heritage and this community a lot better. In a not too different world, I could be one of the Ultra Orthodox people I'm photographing and having that connection, no matter how slight, has definitely informed my approach. 


RH: Does the camera really matter? 

SL: Yes and no. Obviously different cameras and lenses can help you achieve different things. For this project I've been shooting both medium format and 35mm. I tend to do formal-ish street portraits with the medium format and more candid street stuff on 35mm. This is important to me because I think the two different styles of photographs I'm getting reflect the huge variety within both the day and the community.   


RH: Any books you would recommend reading to get the creativity started?

SL: My book, SPARKS, obviously. 


RH: Would you recommend attending photography workshops?

SL: Again, yes, but only ones run by me. Honestly, I think that workshops can be brilliant but no workshop can transform your photography in two or three days. At best they can start you thinking in different ways and help you to push yourself but there are many other (and cheaper) ways of doing that besides workshops. 



Copy right Stephen Leslie 

Copy right Stephen Leslie 

Copy right Stephen Leslie 


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