Flash street photography is as devisive as it is engaging. Many street photographers think that “flashing” people on the street is invasive and confrontational but Johan Jehlbo and the Full Frontal (Flash) Collective aim to change that perception. They sidestep Gilden’s in-your-face style of shooting for a quieter approach that uses artificial light to reinforce their vision of the world. I sat down with Johan to talk about shooting flash and dealing with the consequences. Hit the jump for the interview!
Johan Jehlbo Interview: Shooting Flash On The Street
Johan Jehlbo is a founding member of Full Frontal (Flash) and his strong visual style is both captivating and instantly recognizable. His punchy, super saturated images capture the wonder and odd beauty of the cast of characters that pass by his lens. I sat down with Johan to talk about street photography and how shooting flash has defined his vision. Check it out:
StreetShootr: Hi Johan, thanks for taking the time to talk to us today!
Johan Jehlbo: Thanks for having me!
StreetShootr: You’re one of the founding members of Full Frontal (Flash). How did the collective come together?
Johan Jehlbo: Clifton Barker started a Flickr critique group called More Like Magnum a couple years ago and he made me an admin there. We worked that grouup for a while and then we decided to move on to do something else. We talked about starting a collective and we were both shooting flash at the time so a flash collective made sense.
It was Clifton who contacted the other guys and we all decided to come together. At the start we didn’t know what the group was going to be but once we started working on the website it was obvious we were a collective.
SS: What’s the collective’s mission? Does it have one?
JJ: We wanted to gather some of the guys that were shooting in a similar fashion with flash on the street. And we tried to do some projects together to show that shooting flash doesn’t have to be this aggressive Gilden style of shooting. But it could be… [Laughs]
SS: Full Frontal (Flash) has done a great job promoting flash street photography over the past year. I always enjoy the videos you guys put out as well!
JJ: Thanks! I think, at least for me, to be a collective and to show what we can do is important. We are just a couple of guys shooting with flash and we’re not here to provoke or be aggressive in people’s faces. Shooting flash is our artistic choice.
SS: Flash is one of those devisive topics in street photography and it’s funny how many photographers have a problem with it. Whenever I bring the flash out, one of my friends will always say, “Oh, you’re FLASHING people!” And it’s generally seen as very aggressive and menacing. Which I don’t get – it’s just light!
JJ: It’s strange how other photographers feel about it. They see it as an aggressive thing where you want to provoke the people that you photograph. But some people also see it as cheating in some way.
SS: I think shooting flash is even more difficult! There’s a sense for some people that what we’re doing is invasive and we’re getting away with it because nobody can see us. But if shoot with flash then your actions can’t be disguised.
JJ: Exactly. I totally agree with you. A lot of street photographers have this notion that it should be Henri Cartier Bresson where you’re almost sneaking around and we can’t be discovered. We have to be almost hidden even after the shot.
Somebody asked me how I can call my work candid when I shoot with flash. And I don’t understand that at all. It’s still candid! I’m just using a small flash to light the scene. I use this small Fuji Flash. It’s not the fastest but it’s okay. But you don’t discover this little flash in my hand more than you discover a camera in my hand. There’s no way that shooting with a flash isn’t candid.
SS: How do you deal with confrontation when shooting flash on the street?
JJ: Right! I had a confrontation last spring and it totally threw me off! I shot a woman walking down the street and I knew when I took the shot that it wasn’t going to be great but I took the shot anyway.
The woman didn’t react at first but there was this guy walking behind her and he said, “How dare you!” And started to question why I was taking pictures. Not the usual it’s forbidden but just how dare you shoot a woman on the street with flash! So I started talking to him. And then the woman noticed that he took her fight so she got involved too and stood there arguing with me about ethics. I tried to explain what I was doing. That I was a street photographer. But nobody knows what that is. Then it goes to “You have to ask!”`
SS: When they start with the “You have to ask permission” argument it’s already lost. There’s nothing you can say that will convince them at that point.
JJ: When I’m shooting I tend to walk up to the scene or the person and take the shot and then keep walking. If they look at me and there’s eye contact I’ll give them a smile and sometimes I’ll say thank you and I just walk on.
And I know if the person is so upset that they walk after me and start talking that I”ve already lost. At that point they are so upset that they are totally convinced that they are right. And no matter what you say it won’t change their mind.
But I can’t help it, I try to argue my case even when I know there’s no point.
SS: How much much flash vs ambient do you shoot?
JJ: I shot with flash for almost all of 2014. And then I had some bad confrontations last spring. It started with the scene that I described. And then there was several days in a row where I had people threaten me. It was like everyone had saved up their anger for those days and decided to let me have it!
Then I started thinking too much about what I was doing decided I should try to shoot without flash for a while. For me there was much less confrontation when I shot without flash. But I felt much more honest shooting with flash. I felt sneaky without it.
Since then I’ve shot 50/50 maybe. Or a bit more with the flash than without. It’s kind of like how I feel on a day. Almost like a confidence level. Oh, today I feel confident enough to shoot with flash!
SS: Some people think shooting wih flash is limiting because it constrains you to one plane in the image. How do you use flash and ambient light to create a sense of depth in your images?
JJ: It’s interesting, when I started shooting flash I used as fast a shutter speed as I could to black out the background almost completely. But then I realized that I could only take portraits that way and that got dull pretty quick. So I started to experiment a bit with letting more ambient light in. And tried to shoot in the sun in mid day and tried to use the light that was there.
I’ll look for a shadowy place with natural light in the background and then use the flash to light up subjects in the foreground. If I can’t find a spot like that then I measure of the scene for f/16 and use the flash to expose my foreground. I have my flash set up so I know the settings for f/16 and then I kind of count up and down for how far the distance is to the subject.
I found it really hard when I tried to move over to film. Not that the results were bad because I knew my settings but you’re not sure what you got. And I realized I was chimping much more than I thought I was.
SS: I have no problem with chimping. I see it as just another part of the toolkit that’s available to us. If I’m in a weird lighting condition, I’m going to check to make sure my exposure is good.
JJ: I sometimes chimp to check the exposure of the flash. But it’s kind of hard when I switch between X-Pro1 and X100T because the LCD is different on each. When I shoot X100T and I see the files on the computer they’re kind of over exposed because I read it wrong.
SS: I just reviewed the Fuji X100T for the site and it’s so much fun to shoot with that little camera.
JJ: I like it in many ways. But there are a few strange things about it that would be so simple for them to change. And the thing about the Fuji X cameras that I’ve tried, the X-Pro1 is my main camera. And then I have the X100T now, I had the S before that. The X100 cameras don’t have second curtain flash sync. But the X-Pro1 has it but you can only use it with on camera TTL flash. Why? This just has to be a firmware thing and it would be so nice to be able to control this!
SS: You’ve got to be a little excited about the X-Pro2 that was just announced.
JJ: [Sighs] Ya… Too much!
I totally have GAS for that camera. I need it! When it comes right down to it I can’t resist things like that. I tried to stay away from all the reviews of the Fuji X-Pro2 but I couldn’t. I had to read about it.
SS: How did you first discover street photography? Everyone starts out taking pictures of signs, and details, and sunsets. But not many people feel the need to take pictures of strangers. What attracted you to it?
JJ: I always had a camera since I was a kid. And always thought it would be cool to be a photographer when I was a teenager. I got a DSLR, a Nikon something when I was 18. But I didn’t know how to use it so I kept shooting in auto mode and eventually forgot about it.
After my son was born, I started using my wife’s camera. So I started shooting people in the city but I didn’t know about street photography. I thought about it more as some kind of reportage style. Of course I had heard of Cartier-Bresson and old Magnum photographers but I didn’t know about the thing called street photography.
When I started to show some of my stuff online, I discovered lots of street photography through Flickr and Instagram and I decided to focus on shooting street. I bought an X100 and never looked back.
SS: Sounds like it was a very natural progression.
JJ: Ya. I just ended up in genre where I felt comfortable. Maybe comfortable isn’t the right word but street photography and documentary photography are the things that interest me in photography.
SS: How long after you started shooting street did you discover flash?
JJ: I shot for a couple of years without flash and I thought it was hard with the light in Sweden because it gets dark so early in the Winter. So I had to bring up my ISO and I had to open up my aperture to f/2 sometimes. And I zone focus so that’s next to impossible wide open.
I remember talking to Clifton about this and he said you have the X100S, which is great for flash and I should try it. I had seen the clips of Gilden in NY and I had seen this documentary about Charlie Kirk when he was in Japan. And I thought it was really cool and I loved the way that the subject stands out when you use flash.
So one day I just set the flash on the camera and tried it out at home to get my settings right. And then I went into town and I had to psyche myself up to take a single shot. Now I can’t believe I had the guts to do it!
I shot everything. I just walked up to people and didn’t even notice if they got upset or not. I was just concentrated on what I was doing. The early work isn’t that good but it got me over the threshold and I learned how to work my courage up to do it.
SS: Once you get the flash bug it’s all over.
JJ: Ya, once I started I couldn’t stop. It took a while to adjust and to get the settings right and work out some technique and how to use it on the street. So when I finally had got everything right then I just kept shooting flash and I did it for a whole year almost every day without shooting anything else. I remmeber thinking this is my thing now.
SS: What kind of street photographer are you? Are you a wait and see, stake out a location kind of street photographer? Or are you a walk and watch kind of photographer? Do you wander like Daido’s stray dog?
JJ: I’m a little bit of both I think.
I’m a bit too impatient to hang around too long in any one spot. When you have that perfect light and you find a perfect place you have to stay there for a while. But then I get impatient and I start worrying about missing out if I stand there and nobody comes by.
I used to drive my kids to school in this small university town called Lunde in Sweden. There’s a lot of people coming by train in the morning and I found a spot where they had to pass me real close when they come out to the sidewalk. After dropped my son off at school I’d go to the station and stand there and wait to see if I could get something out of it. At a certain time the sun comes up and shines right inside the stairs and it’s really nice. So I tried to get something out of that but I think I did it too much so now. Maybe when the sun is back in the spring I’ll go back and give it another try.
SS: What’s your personal favorite image that you’ve shot? One that really sticks out as your personal favorite?
JJ: I’d say bat boy and bat horse is my favorite.
SS: I really like that shot – what’s special about that image for you?
JJ: First of all it is my son.
SS: That’s cheating!!
JJ: Ya. There’s been a lot of discussions about that very thing. [Laughs]
I like that shot because I think I’m really bad at seeing juxtapositions in the world. I always see those things too late. But this time my son had this Batman mask on and we were visiting some friends and it’s their horse. So it’s cheating number 2 because I also knew the horse!
I had the camera and the flash with me. And I said, “Look the horse and you have the same mask!” And he stood there wearing this plastic mask in the heat and he was grouchy and just stood there looking at the horse. And then it clicked that I should take a photo! So when he turned around and you could see he’s really not in a good mood. He turns around and I took the shot.
So I call it candid. Because I didn’t have his permission to shoot the picture and I didn’t set it up. I like it both because it’s my son and because i actually saw this similarity in the shot with the masks and had the sense to take the shot. And it turned out really great. I think it has the perfect combination of flash and ambient exposure. It has the depth and the sky is really great and all the components fit together in that one shot.
SS: People get tied up with definitions of street photography. The shot definitely has a street sensibility whether it’s your son or not. It’s a beautiful shot.
JJ: I don’t really care that much about definitions anymore. I get more upset when you’re at these crappy Facebook groups where there’s nothing but tourist shots and really bad street photography. They’re inside the genre beecause they’re pictures of strangers shot in public but they’re not good photographs.
I’m a street photographer. I shoot in the same style everything I do. I’m not going to pull some shots aside and say this is not street and that is street. It is what it is. Some people don’t want to call it street that’s really not my problem.
SS: What’s your favorite photobook?
JJ: That’s easy. Trent Parke’s Minutes to Midnight.
I can look through that every day and not get tired of it. And I love when you have to figure out the shots. Like the famous bus shot. It took me forever to figure out what it was. Then how is it possible to make an image like that? I love that kind of photography when it’s almost surreal. When you have to really put your mind into it.
SS: I love how well Trent Parke expresses emotion in his work. So much photography just describes what a thing looked like. Trent Parke’s work feels like a confession. Every image feels like the thing he had to tell you on his death bed.
JJ: And when you see interviews with him or any of the documentaries about him. And you know how much work he puts into every shot. It’s incredible. I heard him describe that famous bus shot. And he went every night for 3 months until he got it. To me that says a lot about the kind of photographer he is.
SS: Thanks for taking the time to talk to us today, Johan. It was a pleasure!
JJ: Thank you, I really enjoyed it!
You can see more of Johan’s work online at:
If you’d like to learn more about shooting flash on the street be sure to check out:
Mention shooting flash on the street and there’s going to be a legion of street photographers who don’t approve. I’m not sure where this comes from but I think it has something to do with Gilden’s ambush style of surprising people with flash portraits at close distance. His shooting style is designed to elicit a surprised reaction from his subjects.
But there’s a new breed of flash shooters who use flash to amplify reality and create new worlds for their subjects. Johan is definitley among the top shooters in this new style and I’m a fan of his work! It was great to talk to him about his process and why shooting with flash matters.
What’s your take on StreetShootr’s Johan Jehlbo Interview? Do you have new respect for flash street photography? Or does flashing people on the street make you want to shout? Post your ideas in the comments below and keep the conversation going!