Known for his distinct black and white aesthetic and unique play with shadows and colors, Aaron regularly transforms the people he photographs into art. With a just-released photography zine, a robust portfolio, a long list of clients and a recent exhibition Without Context (Sin Contexto) in Madrid Spain, Aaron’s talent like his is bound to shake up the photography scene. And that’s precisely what he’s doing. In this interview, he talks about how he finds beauty in imperfections, his dislike for “nice” photos and how he found the courage to stick with his true aesthetic. We also talk about what he hopes his photos say or don’t say. Interview + highlight of some of Aaron’s work below.
Interview by Jiji Majiri Ugboma
All pictures by Aaron Jean Photography
Your photography style employs the use of conceptualization with light, space, and solid lines. “What do you want your photos to say of you as an artist and photographer?”
First, I really appreciate the way you phrased the last part of the question: “as an artist and photographer”, because it has been a challenge to arrive at a point where I can feel at home in my art.
This part of my process has only recently come to the surface as I think and talk more about my work and process. When I first started portraiture, I was very frustrated with how my images looked, it felt generic, and it wasn’t what I wanted to say. They were nice photos, and everyone would say it’s such a nice photo, but it wasn’t an expression of my vision, just a photograph.
I finally just couldn’t take another “photo” and started trying new things that felt more like me. This was not a conscious decision or something I set out to do, it was just the only way I could go at the end of the road, I was so frustrated.
I have always enjoyed street photography but also gravitated to portraits, and at the time, I didn’t feel as if I was doing either one well, and I was getting criticism on both… My street photography was too dark, and my portraits were just sort of ordinary.
During one photo session, one that I almost didn’t do because she was only available on my birthday, something sort of clicked in my head, and she was willing to just run with me on some ideas, and she was super talented and made the ideas shine. The only way I can explain it at this point is I gave myself permission to put my street photography self in a portrait environment, and I felt like I could express what was trying to come out. I merged my interests, and for the first time, felt like it was me.
I loved it, I was so excited to share it and get feedback. But now my portraits had turned low key, and details remained obscured in dark shadow. Texture has always been important to me, yet it was something that many people critiqued, I gravitated to graphic images, and BW purists were critical of my tones…so I felt like, maybe this wasn’t working as well as I thought.
"Too much context doesn’t allow forquestions and imagination"
What do you hope to achieve when you get into the studio for a session or photoshoot?
I think authenticity and surprise are the two things I look for if I really boil it all down. My interest in photography is based on my love for people. I find people very interesting, and I enjoy the beauty in imperfection. I have noticed over time that the things I love about people are the little bits of what people aspire to be but are either scared to be, don’t see in themselves, or for whatever reason, they can’t see. I can sort of hold a space in my imagination to let people be who they are at their best and give me the freedom to embrace the best of being human in this crazy freaking world.
So my goal is to make people see something the way I see it, to normalize it. Because we can all get wrapped up in traditional beauty and discount how beautiful being ourselves can be and how shallow, and frankly dull, the “beauty” we are sold on a daily basis really is.
Another way this comes across in my work is that I actively seek difference and as a result, I have photographed people from 20 different countries in the last 14 months. That’s only considering nationality, so within each country, you have ethnicity and many other differences, so I think I’m driven to seek differences and love them without objectifying them.
Which is a good segway to the second part, I like to surprise. I want to surprise myself and really explore whatever interests me, but I also like to surprise the client or collaborator with something they recognize but don’t always see. If someone can say, I never saw myself that way, but it’s so me…my heart overflows…I want people to feel beautiful without feeling they need to act or try to be beautiful.
As I think about this now, that could be one of the reasons I gravitate to BW and graphic or shadowy images. I don’t want to represent a perfect reality or simply reflect in perfect exposure what is there, I want to show something that our eyes and minds conceal out of survival and efficiency. I don’t push boundaries so far as to feel bizarre or surreal, but I think my images aren’t meant to be real, authentic.
But every time I picked up the camera, I went in the same direction, and I stopped hearing the criticism as my photos weren’t good or I wasn’t creating good work and started creating more work to answer the questions with more and more precision. I recently shared something about this on my Instagram feed, that from the very first photo I took using studio lights, I shot what I saw, it was a little dark and lacked some finesse because I didn’t have control of the lighting like I do now. However, I am still proud of it, and I think that it stands strong with the evolution of my work.
Your description is very flattering, and it encompasses what I would describe as my “style” if I can say that with quotation marks because it’s still early for me to claim a style, but light/lack of light and space are significant to me. My favorite images employ a lot of negative space, a highlight, and a rapid loss of detail in the shadows. I’m going to rob my ideas from my recent exhibition and say that for me, it’s about context and, more importantly, “Without Context,” which was the title of my exhibition.
I accept the criticism for the darkness, crushed blacks and shadows and I may one day look at this work and agree with the criticism, but for me now, I have to say the detail in the shadows aren’t what interest me, if it did, I would have lit it to explore the details. They are not important to me. Too much context doesn’t allow for questions and imagination. If I show you something too real you don’t see what I want to show, your mind will quickly fill in the pieces with your expectations, and you will see only see a pretty photo. I think I want to show something that you have no other choice but to see, you have to see this person or part of this person dislocated from where they are so that the result is – you encounter them in their own context. I want people to see something in a way they would pass by in their day to day visual life but recognize…sort of like Deja Vous.
Not to belabor the point, but at my exhibition, two people standing next to me were discussing if the person in the photo was male or female. That was the highest compliment of the night; that’s precisely the conversations I love, and I love inspiring.
So, regarding my first comment, I think that my photography has evolved more towards art than pure photography…and that is what I am thinking about these days. How does this work for me from here?
How do you choose your subjects of themes when doing a photoshoot?
As a professional photographer, many of my subjects choose (and hopefully hire) me, and I collaborate with them to bring my favorite elements (authenticity, surprise, light, negative space, etc…) into their images. Because of this, I think the images for each person are unique. I try to provide enough guidance to make them feel taken care of, but also let them express themselves with their clothing, ideas, feelings, etc.… so that the image is genuinely them and not me putting them in my own style, posing, light, and banging out a portrait.
For collaborations, I am getting much more selective because a good subject can make a good image extraordinary or make a great idea just OK. I am also learning more and more towards styled and themed shoots, whereas for a long time, I thrived off of the lack of structure, so we will see how this evolves.
There are also some people who I just get a feeling about, I see them a certain way, and I am just compelled to photograph them. I used to be too nervous about insisting or even asking. Still, when I follow through, the images are always so interesting to me, and the feeling of creating something special has begun to overpower my fear or nervousness.
How long have you been a full-time photographer
This is a tricky question, and I think one that deserves more honesty than a lot of creatives are willing to admit. The short answer is 2.5 years.
The long answer is that photography is my primary focus, but my photography doesn’t yet fully support my family, so I still work on other projects. I work with my wife on our small business www.cheekydaysbox.com, I work for an online magazine, Medium Format Magazine, and any other freelance opportunities that I can do without compromising my time to photograph and grow my business.
When we moved from Texas to Madrid, we sold our house, cars, and all of our belongings save my son’s toys and our extensive library of books (my wife and I are both Literature Majors). We made a lot of sacrifices to lower our expenses in order to have the freedom to focus on photography. And even with that freedom, it takes a lot of effort to be a “full time” photographer. It’s much harder than I imagined it would be if I am honest.
What would you say is your greatest source of inspiration?
People and shadows. I am hypersensitive to both, and they can completely change my mood, or stop me in my tracks. Both change but also follow patterns. I think being in Madrid is also a big inspiration, as any place necessarily informs your viewpoint. Here, I am surrounded by very strong light, plus being outside of my home culture I am a little more aware of people and their gestures that comes with communicating in a language other than your mother tongue.
Are there any photographers that inspire you?
Oh, gosh, so many. I’m going to provide some “greats,” as a nod to the people that paved the way, but I also want to share people creating today that I think are inspiring and make me want to create more:
Greats: Irving Penn, Richard Avedon, Platon, Sebastian Salgado, Fan Ho
One of my absolute favorites, I can proudly call a friend, is Olaf Stzaba @olaf_photo; his images are very unique, and he seems to turn the city and street into geometric landscapes for me.
- Josh S Rose @joshsrose
- Emmanuel Oduro Frimpong @frizzlemadeit
- Nick Fancher
- Carlos Cordero @kurler
- Ryan Parker – @ryanparkerpictures
- Paper Monday – @papermonday
- Luis Garvan – @luisgarvan
- Matt Black – @mattblack_blackmatt
- Maciek Jasik – @maciekjasik
- I’m really excited about a photographer you introduced me to James O – @j.omorodion – fascinating work, in case anyone isn’t looking at his work already, I really recommend him.
There are so many people creating inspiring images I’m humbled daily!