Lee Jeffries Portrait Series Interview

Feeling With His Eyes: Photographer Lee Jeffries

For me, image making is a way of being. It means wandering with an open heart and a genuine sense of wonderment—through dark and light places alike. It is a search for perfect answers in a world of imperfect questions. It’s a way of seeing with you heart.

The photographers whose images affect me the most are the ones that bring something back from a place I would never have seen on my own. The photographers who wander alone at night, or in places that are deemed not safe. They travel far and walk long, and live a life of adventure, steeped in curious mischief.

I had the opportunity to sit down and discuss photography as a way of life with the fucking raddest dude bro around, and also fellow image maker, British accountant-turned-photographer Lee Jeffries. (You can purchase any of Mr. Jeffries’ fine work at Yellow Corner.)

Mass Appeal: What is it that you do?

Lee Jeffries: On a basic level I shoot portraits. Street mainly. There is a hell of a lot more to the final piece, however.

Mass Appeal: How do you approach these folks to shoot them?

Lee Jeffries: My approach is entirely based on being respectful and courteous. I introduce myself, start a conversation and then see where that goes.

Why black and white?

Maybe it was the black and white images of World War I soldiers I absorbed as a kid at school . . . maybe the subsequent powerhouses of Nachtwey’s documents . .  . who knows? Black and white has always resonated with me and really allows my imagination to flow in the post process.

Your “vision” clearly transcends photography, talk about a life of “seeing.”

Jason, I can honestly say I don’t see it as “seeing.” My vision–for want of a better word–is pure “feeling.” I photograph homeless people. I photograph people from other social demographics. There is a common thread though. I have to have felt something way before I ever photograph them. I can walk the streets for hours in search of that instant recognition of emotion in a strangers eyes. You can’t teach it . . . it’s instinctive. Spontaneity borne from my own pain and loneliness? We should leave all that physcological babble to the experts perhaps . . . as a “photographer”. . . I’m content enough in that ability to simply trust it.

Theres a spiritual resonance in your work, is that intentional, please expound on this.

It’s true. I try to use light and shadow in an almost spiritual way. Whilst it’s intentional to cram into my images a religious and metaphysical interpretation, I have to say it’s probably more instinctive than deliberate. From the beginning of the process I enter an ethereal journey with my subject. I feel their loneliness, despair and pain. More often than not, and whilst it may sound pretentious and wanky, I will find myself in tears for them. Whilst I could try to articulate my inner most thoughts I could do no better than a quote I found about my images recently . . .

“If you will forgive my indulgence,
This work is most definitely NOT photojournalism.
Nor is it intended as portraiture.
It’s religious or spiritual iconography.
It’s powerful stuff.
Jeffries gave these people something more than personal dignity.
He gave them a light in their eyes that depicts transcendence, a glimmer of light at the gates of Eden, so to speak.
The clarity in their eyes is awesome to behold, as if God is somewhere in there.
He has made these people into more than poor old broken homeless people lazily waiting for a handout from some urbane and thoughtful corporate agent.
He infused them with light, not darkness.
Even the blind guy has light pouring from his sightless eyes.
I think Jeffries intended his art to honor these people, not pity them.
He honors those people by giving their likenesses a greater meaning.
He gives them a religious spiritual significance.
He imbues them with the iconic soul of humanity.
I think that’s what he was trying to do, at least to some degree thereof.”

I love photographs of stuff that I would never be able to get, what kind of photography interests you?

I love a photograph that conveys an emotion. An emotion that shakes me to my core and forces me to feel. For example, I would recommend people take a look at Stephan Vanfleteran‘s work, particularly his Flanders portfolio. Never in my life I have seen a photographer so skillfully capture the spirituality of cycling. As a cyclist I recognise the beauty in suffering. He captures the vibe of an entire continent in his photographs. Truly emotional masterpieces IMO.

Have you ever thought of shooting audio with these people? Their stories must be nuts.

I have shot other medium more recently in a project that Terence Malick invited me to participate in. I can’t talk any more about that though other than to say what a mind blowing rush it was to take that call!

Why is pain important?

“For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us”

What is a perfect image?

It’s not about exposure. Nor is it about composition. I find all that boring and mediocre actually to the point that it pisses me off how much emphasis some photographers place on the “fundamentals”. Sure they need to be there but an image aint an image without emotion. That’s the fundamental IMHO.

Why are photographs from the edge important?

Authenticity. Pure and simple.

Who are your heroes?

The millions who suffer hardships most of us couldn’t even imagine. The ordinary people.

Talk about the “luck” and “chance circumstance” of finding these amazing souls.

Is it luck or a chance circumstance when I “feel?” I’ve been an accountant for 20 years and only relatively recently have I picked up the camera. Isn’t there an air of inevitability to it all?


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