It's been too long since I've done an interview, but definitely worth the wait. Joshua Morris is one of my favourite kind of people. He is a professional photographer and born-again musician, creative to the bone, and totally understated. He photographs Prime Ministers, Rock Legends, ASX100 CEO's and the Under 9's soccer team. He's genuinely one of the nicest people you could know (plus he's great with kids and dogs). We caught up recently, and here's what he had to say about his work and his life!
Tell us about what you do?
I'm a freelance photographer, primarily in portraits for editorial, advertising and corporate work. I also really enjoy regular architectural and still life work.
Why do you love your job?
I love the human interaction and the ability to preserve a moment. Within what I do, there’s lots of scope for different things to happen, both in terms of what I photograph and who I photograph; and that intersects with how I photograph. I also enjoy the unpredictable elements of chance and happenstance. At the base level, I’m providing a service - and I like the gratification of performing a task that a client, and a wider public can appreciate.
What did you do before?
I worked in the community and childcare sectors. I co-ordinated after school care centres for years before managing a program for the integration of children with special needs into mainstream after school-care facilities.
How did you come to be a professional photographer?
I pursued music till my late 20’s (you can listen to Atticus here) as well as working in childcare, but was beginning to want a change. Whenever I travelled I loved capturing slices of life and on the back of an overseas trip to South America – I talked with my then partner (now wife), about me doing teaching or photography, and she encouraged me to pursue photography.
Can you remember what you wanted to be ‘when you grew up’?
Two things – first there was music, second was photography.
What was your first ever job?
I was a bag packer at Woolworths – I enjoyed it. It was appealing that everything had a place (Tetris of the mind), and it’s a skill I’ve been able to continue to use (packing the car, rehearsal bins, dishwasher).
What did you study?
From school, I went straight into various jobs. I did Diploma in After School Care in my 20’s. Then in 2001 I undertook a Bachelor of Visual Arts at Sydney College of Arts, which I did for three years. I really enjoyed that time. It opened my mind to lots of things – the acquisition of knowledge and the careful presentation of that knowledge, based on who was doing the marking. Another valuable skill!
The weight of the degree was on the practice of art rather than the end result – it was more about the journey. But for a mature age student who was keen to learn specific skills - I think if I had my time again, I might do a different form of study, or bypass study and start assisting earlier.
How do you stay on top of your professional development?
The ubiquitous nature of what I do is that there's photography everywhere, and you learn to develop an understanding of trends. I spend a lot of time deconstructing imagery – and that’s a primary source of keeping up to date. Then there are things like research into publications, online publications, the photographers I take an interest in and the work of peers. When I’m looking at my work, I’m also conscious of what other people are doing (how is that different to how I approached it). It’s a fairly comprehensive experience staying on top of trends and technology. It’s an ever evolving thing, but then my style's a constantly evolving thing.
What do you want to do next?
What I want to do is consolidate what I do, and continue to build my reputation at what I’m particularly good at, and enjoy doing, which is portrait photography.
What's a typical work-week look like?
This week I’m doing some corporate work: group and individual shots of a board for a company’s annual report. Tomorrow, it’s still-life of food. Next week I’m doing some magazine work as well as another two corporate jobs. Then for every hour of photography, there's about two-hours of post-production. If I can average three jobs a week, I’m happy.
What is your standout proudest career moment?
There have been a few! The most recent is being a finalist in the National Portrait Prize for the second year running. Actually, I just want to loop back into what I love about my work. There are times when I get to be somewhere with someone, in place I never thought I would be, and I get an insight, and it’s a really unique experience. That was the case for both of these photos. The first year, it was in Mexico with my son. The second year was in a rehearsal space with the Sydney band, Royal Headache. The portrait is of their singer, Shogun.
Some of the longer form stories I’ve done when the story is evolving and you can feel like you’ve gone through something significant with the person you’re photographing. You’re in a shared, forged experience.
As a photographer, people are letting me into their lives, where they don’t let many people, it’s often very personal for them, and it’s quite a privileged position for me.
If you had the possibility to go back and change anything in your career, would you?
Probably not - looking back is not necessarily a good thing – mistakes are part of the cumulative experience – and so there’s not much to be gained by raking over coals. There's been missed opportunities, but ultimately I don’t think they've been detrimental to my career.
Is there anyone whose career you admire? Why?
There’s a few photographers whose work I respect. It’s about the images rather than trajectory. One of the pivotal photographers that got my mind working was Robert Frank, who travelled to the US by boat in the 50’s and hung out with the beats and published The Americans and he’s had a huge impact on how people see photography. There was a lineage of photographers that he fell in with, and paid homage to, but he put his stamp on the world and how the world is presented. Richard Avedon, Dianne Arbus – they’re all from decades ago. There’s plenty of contemporary photographers whose work I admire, but I'm not sure I have the same emotional resonance as I do with the older ones – who had a bigger impact. Like the Beatles were a gateway to my music, the older photographers were a gateway to my photography.
Do you have a mentor?
The fellow I assisted for 7-years was a big influence - Stephen Ward. He shot fashion, and I learned a lot from him in terms of photographic as well as human practice. He didn’t play that game that lots of other people have to do. He did the job but stuck to himself. There are other photographers I’ve worked with, admired and learned from - Harold David is another photographer I’ve admired up close.
How do you unwind?
Slowly – with my kids. It’s a very conscious changing of gears to get out of one zone into another. There’s always something to be done, so for me, a full unwind doesn’t really happen, except on holidays. I’m playing music again, that’s been therapeutic and gets me out of my head - also movies and travel. Family first and foremost, and then everything falls in after that.
What would you be doing if you weren’t doing what you do now?
A good question! Look I think if time and money weren't an object, I’d probably head towards teaching. I think I would have enjoyed being a primary school teacher. I’ve got lots of personal interests that wouldn’t translate into a professional practice: cinematography, directing. But ultimately, I love being a photographer, and being able to play music and having time to be with my family.
What would you like more of in your career?
A bit more structure, a bit more stability, a few more clients. Agency representation would be great, both in terms of making connections, and gee the kudos would be nice.
And less of?
Oh, to be honest, less uncertainty – but I’m acutely aware it’s what makes it so exciting – every week is different, every shoot is different. Even when you work with the same people, it’s not the same as it was last time.
What’s the biggest fail a person can have when they set out on their own?
Not running it as a business! You’ve got to be pragmatic and set goals. Freelance can be a struggle, with a sometimes real, sometimes perceived lack of structure. But if you give yourself a framework and a few realistic goals, then I think those shifts you make, however incremental, would probably mean a bit more. You need to have a really determined sense of self – to draw on yourself for strength. You need a steely resolve to believe in what you’re doing and believe it’s right for you and believe that you need to convince other people you are right for them.
Can you finish this sentence: ‘If you knew me really well, you’d know …’
That I take a little bit time to get going, but once I start, it’s really hard to stop me from getting to where I’m going.
What kind of impact do you think you have on the people you work with?
I hope I have a positive impact. I spend most of my professional practice trying to live up to my mantra that the work will be quick and easy and painless for the people around me. I’m dealing with a lot of people who liken the experience of being photographed to the experience of going to the dentist. They hate having their photo taken, and I’ve got to convince them it’s not going to be a hideous experience. The nicer and the more relaxed I am, the better the job will be.
A lot of my job is psychology – putting people at ease, and that’s done by talking to them, and relating to them, and trying to make a very quick connection that’s brief but genuine.
A third of people will tell me they hate having their photo taken, and a big part of my job will be putting them at ease. They need to be at ease because they are going to be living with that photograph for years. It might be something relatively small like their Linkedin photo – but really that’s not small at all, it’s important because they’re presenting themselves to the world, and so if their reaction to being photographed is pain and discomfort, that’s what the photo will project.
I shoot a lot of people who are not used to having their photo taken professionally. If they’re relaxed and comfortable, you get images representative of that – if their guard is down, or lowered, then you’re able to get a glimpse of them with that guard down which is infinitely more genuine than if they’re tense and stressed or not enjoying the process.
What’s important to you?
My happiness, and the health and happiness of those around me. Part of what I enjoy about being a musician, and being a photographer is that it is a way of shaping and making sense of the world. I get this from commercial as well as personal work - because it’s my stamp, it’s me pushing the shutter. At a base level I’m preserving a fragment of time, a slice of time, sometimes even slowing it down and there’s something really nice about that. As a kid, I was pushed to not always take the easy path. Growing up with a dad who's a writer, and a mum who is artistic, you grow up knowing there are very different ways to see the world and you have to have the radar up to tap into them.
Outside of work, what do you love about your life right now?
I love where my family is! I love that I’m as lucky as I am – I feel like I was born lucky and conscious of the fact that it could flip and that my quota could be up, so I maintain a sense of appreciation for what’s going on around me. Being able to tell people how much I appreciate them makes me happy. There isn’t an end to what I love about life right now. Taking my dog for a walk, seeing a great film.
And finally, a quick pop quiz!
Favourite song or piece of music? In my Life by the Beatles – it’s a cliché, but it’s also a succinct summation of what we’ve been talking about in this interview
Favourite book? Russell Hobin's Ridley Walker a book written phonetically in a post-apocalyptic work by a child trying to come to terms with what’s happened, and it’s told in a dystopian way (Ed: huh, huh and huh!)
Favourite piece of art? A piece by Rosalie Gascoyne called Monaro – it’s in the national gallery, three or four metres wide made up of cut up road signs.
Favourite place? Home, where I live with my family is my favourite place.