The "Starving Artist" and Other Photography Myths - An Interview With Jes Jenkins

All photos included are those of Jes Jenkins.

For Jes Jenkins, photography is not a hobby. It’s not a pastime. It encompasses her entire being, her soul and her vibrancy.

What started out as playing around with her mom’s untouched DSLR camera quickly fueled a life-long passion and now, future career path. As a third year visual arts student at Western University, Jenkins has found that the most challenging issue regarding the arts is not the work itself, but the constant criticism one must endure in order to pursue this field. From the idea of the “starving artist” to the belief that arts-related degrees lead to an unfulfilling life, it’s evident that the field of photography is not one for the faint-hearted.

“Go back to the 40s. Telling someone that they're going to be a starving artist is basically invalidating everything that means something to them,” Jenkins begins. “People don't go into art because it's easy or because it's fun. They go into it because they love it or they have a passion for it ... You definitely have to push your artistic limits, boundaries and comfort zones.”

She parallels this situation to someone ripping apart your favourite book without having read it. It’s a common scenario that people judge what they’ve never experienced. “It’s a huge slap in the face,” she adds. She explains how business or medical science students could very well graduate university with no solid plans for their future just as much as an arts student could.

Pursuing a degree or a career in the arts also raises the issue of comparison and competition.  “You don’t see your work the way others see your work,” Jenkins remarked. “I have a very distinctive style. I lean more towards the conceptual, artistic style rather than just taking a shot and putting a standard filter on it. Photographers like Sam Kolder and Brandon Woelfel use a very similar color palette and I think because it’s so popular, people tend to gravitate towards that.”

Jenkins explains that photographers who are just starting to get their foot in the door are the most vulnerable to “fall into that kind of style ... [They] don't push out of it because they know that's what people look for and so that's what's going to get the most likes on Instagram or the most views on a photography page. It's a reliable fallback and ... it can be really destructive to a new artist.”

While she emphasizes that she doesn’t disapprove or undervalue Brandon Woelfel and Sam Kolder’s work, she recognizes that the best way to deal with comparison is to focus on yourself. Of course, that’s easier said than done. Her best advice? Photography is less about the quality of your photo, but rather the story it tells.

“Figure out what you like about taking photos ... what subject matter you're choosing, why you're choosing it and what makes it interesting. Anyone can pick up a full frame camera with an 85mm art lens ... and take a phenomenal photo. But that's all it is. There's nothing keeping the viewer looking at it”.

Looking through Jenkin’s pieces, there’s no doubt that she embraces her own advice. One photo in particular stands out on her Instagram account. This striking image (see below), Jenkins reflects, was taken while strolling through Springbank Park in London.

“This guy was just playing his guitar with his buddy and I thought he was so cool. He was like jumping around, dancing and singing so I was like ‘dude can I take your photo?’ and he was like ‘yeah! That'd be so fucking sick!’ ... So he starts playing to my camera, I took a couple photos, I shook his hand and then I just went on my way. I have no idea who he is! ... People have told me that they feel like he's staring right into his soul”.

It’s more than photos like these that have helped Jenkins gain traction in the world of photography. “Be annoying!” she proudly answered when asked the most effective way to get your name out there. “Put your stuff everywhere. Give your prints to your friends, make Instagram accounts, make Facebook accounts, market yourself as not just a photographer, but as a public figure.” She believes the work that goes into building a career in photography should never be neglected.

“Nobody ever got anywhere without working hard. Our generation is very ‘if it doesn't work right away, I want another solution.’ Things like that don't work, especially being a photographer. I've been doing it for two years and I'm just starting to get constant exposure.”

As for her university experience, Jenkins reflects on Western as being a great school, but lacking in the ways they support and fund the arts. “They've taken away a lot of interesting and exciting programs, such as pretty much every photography program beyond second year.” She adds that she doesn’t regret coming to Western but that it has the “potential to be an amazing art school if they were to put the time and effort into it.”

So what does the future have in store for Jenkins? For one, she’s currently working on a web portfolio that will be up and running within the next six months. At the time of the interview, her plan was to finish her last year at Western and travel to Australia, where she’d take on solo photo projects and potentially dive into the world of underwater and surfing photography. She revealed that her “end goal [would be] working for National Geographic at some point.” It was only a couple weeks after our interview that Jenkins received a photography position at Banff National Park in Alberta for the summer of 2018, bringing her one step closer to that end goal.

This serves, yet again, as another example of how incredibly fulfilling careers in the arts can be… without having to starve yourself.

If you’d like to get in contact with Jes Jenkins, email her at [email protected] or send a message through Instagram @itsjesok.

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