Life through a lens: Jenny Lewis, photographer

“My first rolls of film were shot when I was 17 – so before university – volunteering in a Romanian orphanage. Their raw honesty still make it hard for me to look at them.” Photographer Jenny Lewis on her journey so far…

Jenny Lewis, 41, lives in Hackney, east London, with her partner and two children: Ruby, nine; Herb, six.

(This interview was originally published in November 2015 – so ages/projects will have changed)

“After uni, I got a job for Metro in Clerkenwell, as a black and white printer. Hackney was the obvious choice for living, as it was really cheap, so we piled into a big Victorian house in London Fields with a bunch of mates from college and popped a pool table in the garden.

I’ve been here for over 20 years now, and still live only a couple of roads away from that first house. We have a big house with a small garden but worked through the student accommodation, small flat etc. to get here.

I have two kids who are teaching me constantly how to be a better human. The wise words they come out with astound me sometimes; children’s honesty gives them such a level of kindness – it’s a brilliant reminder of how you should behave.

By Jenny Lewis. Clemmie with Imo - One Day Young
Clemmie with Imo for One Day Young – Jenny Lewis.

My children’s life is totally different to my upbringing in Essex. Living in London, they are immersed in art, dance and music. I don’t think I went to a gallery till I was in my late teens, my mum did pottery but we certainly weren’t surrounded by theatre and art.

I studied fine art/painting at university but worked a lot with photography too. I used to sneak over to the darkrooms and nab the photography lecturer Gavin Parry to give me tutorials though he was nothing to do with my painting course.

My first rolls of film were shot when I was 17 – so before university – volunteering in a Romanian orphanage. Their raw honesty still make it hard for me to look at them. But my first photography-related job was for Metro.

I always enjoy shooting people in an environment that means something to them, giving clues to their personality or what they are interested in

I was introduced to all the best in photography at the time. I would process hundreds of rolls of film a day – from fashion to war photography, portraiture to art… I learnt a lot in that basement darkroom. Later I went on to assist photographers such as Polly Borland and Andrew Douglas, until I started working for myself.

I’ve worked for all the weekend supplements over the years – studio shoots with celebrities, portrait shoots for book covers. I always enjoy shooting people in an environment that means something to them, giving clues to their personality or what they are interested in: James McAvoy in his rehearsals, Ian McEwan at home; it’s always interesting what the details in the background reveal about the main portrait.

This enjoyment led on to my Hackney Studio series, which I’ve been working on for the last two years – photographing creatives in their work environment – and I try and do at least one of these a week for my own enjoyment if nothing else.

Jenny Lewis - Fiona-Banner-HackneyStudio-
Fiona Banner for Hackney Studio – Jenny Lewis

One Day Young was a reaction to the lack of celebration around women and childbirth. I felt this was largely ignored in the art/photography world and wanted to create a series to empower and support women. I didn’t realise I had embarked on a five-year project shooting over 150 subjects when I started it.

It was such an incredible honour to be welcomed into a stranger’s family at this time. I didn’t meet any of the women beforehand, they had just responded to leaflets I left around Hackney, a few brief emails were exchanged to get a due date and address and the next I would hear was a text saying they were at home so I’d drop everything and jump on my bike to get there within 24 hours of the birth.

This openness and trust has taught me a lot and I feel a lot more connected to the community – even the human race, if that doesn’t sound too mad. We are all the same after all.

One Day Young Malawi came about because I’d been thinking I would love to investigate women in different circumstances around the world at some point – with their child one day young back in their own homes – when WaterAid got in touch and asked me to do exactly that.

I think the experience of meeting someone is as important as the final photograph for me

It’s the perfect extension of the project – using this format to highlight the difficulties for maternal and infant health in a place that has no clean water and no sanitation. The project celebrates women and their strength at overcoming such difficulties, and brings awareness to the fact that there are places in the world where people have so few choices.

By taking the women home and them opening up about their lives, they are not just a nameless face on a charity poster but another mum who is triumphant at the birth of her child and the challenges she faced.

I’m so proud that the project has become a tool for women to help women – originally, for women to gain confidence in themselves with the UK series and now to support WaterAid to get clean water to the health centre where I was based in Malawi.

Alinafe Phiri - WaterAid/ Jenny Lewis
Alinafe Phiri and Boyson – WaterAid/ Jenny Lewis

I’ve always loved photography and the variety of personalities it has allowed me to meet. I think the experience of meeting someone is as important as the final photograph for me. I’m interested in meeting people, talking to them, figuring out what their lives are like – so photography is the vehicle to do this and record it.

The long-term projects – One Day Young and Hackney Studio – mean a lot. If you work on a project for a long time, a matter of years, you might think you’re saying one thing but in the end the series evolves and often it can be something entirely different that is revealed to you.

Hackney Studio started as a celebration of my community and the people that live there but is almost becoming an obituary of an area that is being lost. The dying days before the creatives are bulldozed out for good.

I think over a third of the people I’ve shot have since had to move, so I’m really pleased I caught them in their spaces – but the project does seem to have a sadness to it that the party is perhaps over.

I am wondering where One Day Young will take me next; it doesn’t feel like that journey is over yet.”
Jenny Lewis on Instagram
Jenny Lewis on Twitter

WaterAid’s Deliver Life appeal aims to reach 130,000 mothers and their families around the world with safe water. Every £1 donated to the appeal until 10 February will be doubled by the UK Government – meaning it can help twice as many mothers and babies stay safe and well. For more info, visit www.deliverlife.wateraid.org

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