We’ve been rather lucky in snatching some time with the one and only Jo Farrell, whom you may know from her long running project, Living History: Bound Feet.
Jo has spent the past nine years getting to know and capturing images of some of the last remaining women in China to undergo the (now banned), 1000-year tradition of foot-binding. You’ll find her work and words scattered across the web at the BBC, The Guardian, The Slate and People, to name a few.
More on that later. For now, it’s time to get to know a little more about the woman behind the lens and what drives her to continue shooting film.
Hi Jo, what’s this picture, then?
I was in a 4WD going overland in Tibet when we drove round a corner and I saw this flock of sheep coming towards us – I shouted to the driver to stop and I jumped out to photograph, managing to get three frames off before the car was encircled by the flock.
This image was one of the first images I printed at 16” x 20” in the darkroom (back in 1999), and is the only silver gelatin print that I have on the walls of my home. I love how there is one sheep staring directly at me.
It is also a huge reminder about being out in the unknown, having my camera ready for anything, that you never know what is around the next corner.
Ok, so who are you? (the short version, please)
I was born in London, transplanted to San Francisco in my 20s and I’m now based in Hong Kong.
I don’t feel like I belong to one particular place. I am inspired and stimulated by travel, by adventure, by the process of life. I am independent and strong willed, with a sensitive heart.
I am intensely fascinated by the very details that make up our everyday living; why we keep one thing yet throw away another…the value we place on individual objects.
Photography is my life.
Nothing else has come close to the passion and motivation I feel when I am alone with the camera. Photography – as in most art forms – can be very solitary. It is a balance, as the gratification I get with sharing my work and stories of its occupants, is a great reward.
When did you start shooting film?
Since I was a child, somewhere in the 70s.
What about now? Why do you shoot film and what drives you to keep shooting?
The moment I picked up a Hasselblad I fell in love with it. The images I can produce with it have so much depth. I think analogue photography is an art form, with only 12 frames on a roll you have to be precise in every aspect. This extends to the printing of silver gelatin prints in the darkroom, where the process of creating a fine art print is such a rewarding experience.
You are bringing life into your work. All my photographs are printed full-frame showing the black negative borders, I don’t believe in cropping after the fact – it should be done in camera.
I also think that using a Hasselblad 500C is very apt for photographing traditions and cultures that are dying out, as the majority of professional photographers are turning to digital now.
I have an understanding of Ilford film and photography paper. Through experience I know what works and what does not, I don’t need to mess around with trial and error and am extremely happy with the results.
Using film does bring it’s complications though, on my recent trip to China I carried over a 100 rolls of film with me and had to negotiate security guards and scanning machines.
I am very protective of my bag of film and feel much more relaxed when I have returned to my studio ready to process.
Any favorite subject matter?
My main focus is on traditions and cultures that are dying out. I like to capture the world disappearing in front of our very eyes before it is eradicated and homogenized civilization takes over.
Where once we celebrated individuality of people and places – the food and clothes, etc. – today we are global-brand orientated.
I could be sitting in my IKEA furnished flat, drinking Starbucks and Whatsapp’ing on my iPhone from London, Hong Kong, San Francisco…anywhere. The World Wide Web has enhanced and transformed our lives in so many ways but with it has come a cloning of everything.
I like to get up close and take details of peoples’ personal items – what makes them tick, how they live.
You can never use film again. What’s your last roll?
Difficult…I think I would shoot my own personal possessions.
I so often capture other people’s daily belongings and have a myriad of my own objects that mean a lot to me, so I guess I would like to preserve them in time.
…or maybe I would take one of my Hasselblad 500’s and use it to shoot the other!
Although, the other night I had a dream about photographing octopus and would love to carry that through, somehow.
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Possessions or eight-tentacled beasts aside, I’d choose Ilford HP5+ to capture those last few frames. It’s my go-to film for everything – I understand how it works…all its little intricacies. Using it is second nature to me.
You have 2 minutes to prepare for an assignment. One camera, one lens, two films and no idea of the subject matter. What do you take with you and why?
Hasselblad 500C, 50mm lens, Ilford HP5+ film.
I think that carrying too much equipment actually slows you down. I typically only go out with my Hasselblad. On my last two location shoots in China I took (as backup), a digital camera and 35mm SLR and neither of them left my Pelican case.
I prefer being able to concentrate on the image I want to capture and what is going on around me, rather than an extraneous kit.
Talking equipment bores me stupid.
I like to stay focused on the story unfolding in front of me. It comes from a background of street photography – shooting the unexpected.
The photograph above is from the bell tower of San Francisco de Assis in Havana, I looked out over the roof and saw this workman walking, two frames later and he was gone!
You have an unlimited supply of film to shoot in one location. Where do you go?
That’s easy! For the past nine years I have been documenting the last remaining women in China with bound feet. If I had unlimited supply of film I would stay in Shandong Province in China photographing their lives.
What do you think is people’s greatest misconception about film photography and how would you set it straight?
Photography comes from a creative and skillful eye and the ability to realize it, which is independent of the equipment used.
From my own perspective of making still images, I am not a big fan of using digital per say. There are a lot of skilled digital photographers out there and I leave it to them to create and produce what they do. I think that the greatest misconception is with the advent of digital photograph you can just easily whip out a photographic print and charge as little as possible for it.
As I said earlier; with only 12 frames on a roll of (120) film, you have to be creatively and technically precise before you click the shutter.
The art is to be subjective in what you take, rather than shooting aimlessly.
In your opinion, what’s the future of film photography?
I think that film/analog photography will be recognized as more of an art form. There will be a rebound from digital photography creating a resurgence in analog photography.
As darkrooms and access to negative film gets harder and harder, there will no doubt be niche sellers that specialize in film photography – we can already see this happening with Lomography and Holga.
I was glad to see that Ilford has been recently bought by Pemberton as a stable investment, saying that the are “uniquely placed to drive the resurgent film market into the future…”
~ Jo Farrell
And there we have it. Thanks for sharing, Jo.
As we run about capturing landscapes, sunsets, or street scenes with our cameras it can be easy to forget that photography is as much about documenting our world, as it is for creating art. Photography offers a window onto a world in the process of going by and being lost piece by piece. I consider it crucial that photographers of all forms and formats capture the world around them knowing that reality, through projects such as Jo’s, as well as subconsciously through the capture of their friends, families and the world around them.
Just as we marvel over pictures of times gone by, I believe that it’s important that we all leave our own personal spaces for those that come after us. Can you imagine anything more terrible than an historical record comprised entirely of selfies and duck-faced boys and girls?
In the cold light of today, it’s easy to look at practices, rituals and traditions from even a few decades ago and frame them as barbaric, wrong, or inhumane – and that’s without considering those still active today. There’s no doubt that some – such as those documented by Jo – are cruel and incomprehensible to our relatively modern eyes but that’s not to say that we would have felt the same way were we amongst those living in their heyday.
Projects like Jo’s are a reminder that people, cultures and societies change and that we should not judge them against the rules we live by today, but focus on the changes that have gotten us to where we are now. These things happened and cannot be changed but just as the binding of feet is abhorrent to us today, we need to realise that some of the practices we engage in (in the present), may be considered backward and barbaric by those only a few hundred years in our future.
Thanks again, Jo.
We’ll be back again very soon. In the meantime, keep shooting, folks.
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