John Ferguson Q&A
John Ferguson talks photography with TheBlkGaze.
The term Black gaze signifies to me that I’m unapologetically Black… When one learns the Black gaze for themselves, they’re purposely allowing their presence to be seen, heard and challenged, with or without prejudice.
What does the Black gaze mean to you?
We, as Black people are continually being analysed and watched, And for many, this can bring resentment and anger, but for others, it can also bring anxieties and insecurities from continuously being monitored, observed; questioning our self-identity.
As Black people, we tend to ‘code-switch’ from our natural, cultural persona, when surrounded or aiming to simulate into an all-white environment. Our voice can change, our dress changes, we tend to have to present ourselves in a way that’s acceptable for the ‘white audience’ one that’s pleasing for, and fits into this ‘white space’.
The world is a large ‘white space’, so for many black people having to code-switch from our natural, cultural stance is now a subconscious natural occurrence. For those who cannot or choose not to ‘code-switch’ they tend to stay in their own communities, they find comfort being around their own ‘kind’ rather than traverse the sometimes confusing ‘invisible’ code of conduct.
The ‘white gaze’ is omnipresent, we conform to unquestionable white bias without even realising. The white gaze adds specific pressures, predetermined and subconscious ways for black people to act in public. When one learns the Black gaze for themselves, they’re purposely allowing their presence to be seen, heard and challenged, with or without prejudice.
How does this relate to your photography practice?
My first major personal photographic work originally stemmed from a place of pure altruism. This quiet voice wanted in my own way to redress a seemingly unjust system and attitude that was being levelled against my community. But not having the words to articulate my anger and upset or the confidence to voice my concerns, I chose the tools that I have at my disposal, I wanted my images to speak for themselves and for me.
Today, however, with the added advantage of age and experience, my work as now taken on a more purposeful and directional path. Still community, cultural and sub culturally based, I’m looking at smaller groups, individuals and concerns. These projects are not wholly representative of the Black communities, but projects that serve everyone, and which allows me to pursue my interest for social impact agendas and their causes; stories that suffer from a lack of voice, understanding or language. Whether it be working with the blind community, the elderly, or illustrating rural poverty.
What do you want to say or address with your photography?
There are so many things that I’d like to address with my photography.
But I think for me, the paramount consideration with which I’d like people to take from my work, is that there is so much more in and around us, so much more for us to reflect on, and right under our noses. I am a ‘people’ photographer; I can see and recognise the beauty of a landscape or urban photograph, but I see more much beauty in a constructed photograph of a human being.
I believe that particular photographers have a mission in life; to visualise certain aspects of our society, indeed the world around us. Using their talent, nuanced and unique perspective, these are the storytellers that I relate to. Photographers that sometimes even risk there lives to bring us these untold stories, the unseen situations and the unheard or quiet voices, visualising stories, whether from half-way around the world or from across the street. We need these photographers. But above all, we need Black photographers. Those who would tell our own stories, not only for and from today but also for our future history.
To bring our own perspective into the ‘white space’ without apology, and without the baggage of history, we need new dialogue, we need a modern interpretation, but above all, we need our unique voices to be heard today and beyond. Indeed, we are robbed of our own particular viewpoints when we don’t have black photographers to illustrate our perspective narrative, articulating the Black aesthetic visually is critical in allowing our voice to resonate with the broader world.
What influences and inspires you? How is this reflected in your work?
My photographic preference is and always will be, my love for working within the theme of environmental portraiture. This applies to whether it’s a sports portrait, fine art or documentary, for me, it all comes from a platform of visual storytelling. I love ‘people’ images and especially those which involve a narrative, something that draws me into a story, an environment or situation, I’m looking to give the viewer small cues into the subjects persona, their lives, their occupation and maybe even their thoughts. I love descriptive images, subjective images, one’s which allows the viewer to form their own conclusions about the subject or the person in that particular moment.
To take this to its extremes, I love the work of Don McCullin and his work in Vietnam. Although documentary in its style, he manages to evoke real tension, intrigue, a full story in one frame, either portrait or ‘action’ shot. While you might say that’s to easy as he’s working in a war zone, but I don’t subscribe to that, it’s a skill, and ability to read and convey that situation perfectly on film and in a split second.
The first image that caught my imagination and precipitated my journey into photography was the famous image taken by the great American sports photographer Neil Leifer. It was of Muhammed Ali beckoning the fallen Sonny Liston off the canvas. This image, along with the backstory of the two fighters had everything a Hollywood film could want; the mafia, murder, intrigue, conspiracy theories, the two fights and Ali himself. A fantastic story, all rolled into one single image.
Bringing this appreciation of storytelling, working within communities and sub-cultures or groups, is reflected in my work. I’m always on the lookout for exciting contexts, either simple or complex, ones which have ‘community’ at the centre of the story.
Who are your favourite Black photographers from the past? Why?
It’s sad to say that there aren’t too many Black photographers that have truly inspired me. I remember seeing a large photographic book by a Black American photographer who had chronicled an entire Black town, it must have been in the early 20th century. He photographed everything from church gatherings to the college football and baseball team groups and so much more. He also photographed many individuals and the general day to day world of this seemingly Black only town, in such clarity and detail. I was first struck by so many of these beautifully crafted images and secondly by its content. I’d never seen an all-Black college football team group picture before then, or life in a Black town so vividly chronicled. This particular book has unfortunately vanished from my collection, along with his name from my memory.
But if there is one photographer that has truly inspired me to push on with my work, it’s Gordon Parks. I remember seeing a photograph by Parks of Muhammed Ali, being such an Ali fan, I was always interested in images related to the great man. I saw this image and thought how cool was this shot, it could have been a cover image for GQ or Vanity Fair today. It was then that I learnt about Parks and his history, his work and his legacy. A wonderfully brilliant photographer, he had storytelling running right through his soul, he absolutely knew how to convey a story visually.
Please describe the highs and lows of your experience as a Black photographer?
Without a doubt, the most dishearting experience for me was my first few weeks working in London’s famous Fleet Street for a large major newspaper. I had to endure open hostilities from journalists, desk workers, and others working in this, at the time, white male bastion of journalism. This did come as a shock to me. I mistakenly thought that once I had arrived in Fleet Street, the attitudes might have been a bit more enlightened from my previous baptism of fire working in a small dark room for a press photo and news agency. My darkroom manager, a totally off the scale racist, sexist, misogynist, homophobic, middle-aged man, in fact, he held all the negative isms you could think of.
So this I suppose at the time, this was an early introduction to attitudes for me once I arrived in Fleet Street. But for all the lows, there was also some tremendous highs. Meeting and working with some wonderfully talented people, and being offered my dream job as a staff photographer on a major UK national newspaper, to travelling to nearly 60 countries working on various assignments.
What work are you producing and what more would you like to do?
I’m in the process of organising my next project based around a small section of the Black community in regards to mental health & well being. We are hoping to get sponsorship from corporates after securing a partnership agreement with the charity MIND. It’s an idea that I’ve had for over 5 years now, these things take time to come to fruition, it’s as much about having patience and playing the long game as anything else when it comes to funding and sponsorship for larger projects such as these.
There’s so much more that I hope to do in regards to my personal work. I have several other ideas that I also hope to start in 2021. I’ve picked up some new exciting commercial clients this year, so I’m looking forward to working with them on their latest campaigns and professional brand ideas. So let’s hope 2021 turns out to be a successful year for all, fingers crossed.
About John Ferguson
North London-based John Ferguson is a contemporary commercial portrait photographer whose signature, a clean and elegant aesthetic, has elevated politicians, musicians, sports stars, celebrities and business leaders to new heights.
His award-winning pictures and personal photographic projects have been published widely, both nationally and internationally. This includes ‘Black Britannia’ a photographic portrait series attempting to raising awareness for the achievements and great work that many Black Britons had contributed to the UK over the last five decades.
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