An Interview with John Bolloten
Copyright John Bolloten
RH: Who is John Bolloten
JB: John Bolloten is a documentary photographer based in Bradford, UK. He is particularly interested in documenting people and subcultures that exist on the margins of society. His book “Nothing To See Here” (2017) opened a window into Bradford’s gritty underbelly of drug and alcohol addiction, homelessness and vice. He has continued to photograph within this community and published a second book in this series “Love Story” (2019) which gave a very intimate view into the lives of drug-using couple. Other books include “Bradford Street” (2014), “Belgrade” (2015), “Shabash” (2016), and “Field of Broken Dreams” (2018).
John is currently putting together his third and final book about people who use drugs which is planned for publication by Bluecoat Press in 2020. He is also working on long-term projects on the grime and battle rap scenes across the north of England.
RH: What attracted and inspired you to your current documentary project?
JB: My current documentary photography work has been a natural evolution throughout the years. I started with exploring the life of people who use drugs in Bradford which was published as the book Nothing To See Here. That led onto much more personal and intimate work where I spent eight months visiting and photographing a couple in their flat. This has just been published as the book Love Story. Right now I am almost at the very end of the last part in the series for a third book which will feature people telling their life stories as well as following them as their circumstances and conditions have changed. This is expected to be published in late 2020.
I was attracted to doing this work because I used drugs when I was younger and I understood issues around addiction. The bulk of my photography focuses on people and (sub)cultures on the margins of society. This has included areas like battle rap, grime, old school punk and religious rituals.
RH: Can you talk us through the planning stage for your project?
JB: I don’t really plan anything when I am about to start long-term work. Obviously I have the idea and I turn it over in my mind quite a bit about how I am going to approach it. But I like to work with a very open mind as often opportunities arise while I am doing it and this can affect the direction of the work.
RH: Is there anything you wish you had done differently?
JB: In the work with people who use drugs then the photos I take are directly linked to what is happening on the ground. The situation is always quite fluid so flexibility and patience have been essential. With hindsight, if was starting from the beginning then I may have done things in a different order like working on stories but I was a lot less experienced then and didn't have any contacts. In most cases it has taken a lot of time to get peoples’ trust.
Copyright John Bolloten
Implementation and Completion
RH:How have you dealt with any challenges and difficulties within your project?
JB: There have been many challenges and most have been around the lifestyle of the people I have photographed. It would be common for people not to be in (if they had a place to live) or they didn’t turn up when planned. I learnt to accept this early on and just have the patience to try again or visit somebody else. There were also concerns around people overdosing but I was prepared for that and I am trained in life support and also carried naloxone with me.
RH: How long do your projects tend to take from start to finish?
JB: The work with people who use drugs has lasted five years. This is almost complete and I will need a good six months to edit it and pull it all together.
Editing and Sequencing
RH: Do have several images to edit of one fleeting moment or do you have one well-constructed precise image that you have captured?
JB: All of the stories I work on are long term so my main issue is having enough depth so I will shoot thousands of images.
RH: Within the editing stages, have you felt the project has taken on a different narrative than first envisaged?
JB: Once I am some way in, then I usually have a narrative established. I never seek to put my own agenda on the work. I photograph what is happening in front of me. I will have ideas about sequencing but when I am putting a book together then I will actually start the physical sequencing then.
Tips and hints
RH: What would you recommend for people starting their own photographic project?
JB: I found that doing long term projects taught me more than anything else about being a photographer.
RH: Does the camera really matter?
JB: Only in the sense that one must find one that works for them. The camera is only a tool.
RH: Any books you would recommend reading to get the creativity started?
JB: Some photobooks that have had a big impact on me would include those by Eugene Richards, Boogie, Miron Zownir, Scot Sothern, Josef Koudelka, Tom Stoddart, Jim Mortram and the British classic photobook Survival Programmes.
RH: Would you recommend attending photography workshops?
JB: It’s not for me at all but if someone feels like they need it then why not.
Copyright John Bolloten