Jonathan van Smit


I keep staring at Jonathan’s pictures on my screen.

I cannot take my eyes off them.


JS: A friend of mine in Phnom Penh runs a charity helping the disabled, and is a musician too. I was touched by the words in one of his songs, and started a project loosely based on the lyrics.

she no like but she do
no money, no eat
love you like monkey
I no lie, I speak true

I spent a few days simply walking the back streets of central Phnom Penh, taking lots of photos as I usually do, and one day plucked up enough courage to speak to Phouk, a girl who worked a corner where a slum alley led onto Street 51 which is a notorious red light area full of girlie bars and clubs.

She spoke good English, and was quite happy for me to take photos provided that I gave her money so she could get her teeth fixed. I explained that I wanted photos related to drug use and also her work, and we arranged to meet the next day. The next day, Phouk introduced me to her friend, and took me to their room which was a small plywood shack reached by a ladder on top of the slum shanty buildings.

I eventually did two photo sessions with them. I wanted a blurry, ambiguous nude photo and some that were more explicit about drug taking. Both the girls must have been beautiful once but drugs, poverty and their work have taken their toll. They smoke the local cheap methamphetamine ‘yama’ to cope and sometimes mix it with heroin.

GL: How do you pick your subjects?

JS: Like most photographers, I had this dilemma of what to photograph. A turning point for me was a trip to New York a few years back. I took ten rolls of Tri-X, and pretty much randomly shot anything that my eye lingered on for more than a few seconds. I tried not to have too much intent and part of the plan was not to use the viewfinder and to just guess focus. Many of the photos were rubbish but I also ended up with some that were blurred or out of focus but still had plenty of meaning to me. I was then able to edit these down to a small set that seemed coherent. I was surprised by the outcome, and even now, many of my favorite photos are the result of serendipity or instinct. I still estimate focus most of the time, and rarely use the viewfinder.

I mostly take photos in a fairly aimless sort of way. I just walk the streets endlessly at weekends or on holiday. I like walking, and watching people too. If I’m lucky, I might have a handful of okay photos out of two or three hundred frames. I try to work within some loosely defined themes. For example, how people overcome adversity, or anything that has a ‘noir’ feel to it. I find the more deprived parts of towns more interesting. They’re the opposite of my professional experience working in wealth management, and visually more interesting too.

GL: I don’t think I have seen many nudes that have shaken me to the extent that this photo of Phouk has. I am still trying to understand why.

JS: I was quite disappointed with this photo as it was very hard to process. The room was very dark, and I had under-exposed many of the shots so the set was mostly unusable. I was using a high ISO, partly because of the low light but also because I like to degrade my images. I’m okay with grain, blur and digital noise. I just shot on continuous mode until the camera buffer filled up. I was using a slow shutter speed, and was hoping to have a shot with enough blur to provide meaning & context but without being abstract. If I’m taking photos like that then I might have one or two usable frames if I’m lucky.

GL: Looking at your pictures it’s clear that there’s some deep correlation between your personality, your shooting method and the emotional impact of your images.

JS: I use a rangefinder as it’s faster than fully automatic cameras. I always try to be pre-focused, usually at 1.5 metres or even at one metre depending on the location as I use very wide-angle lenses. I don’t like to have the camera in front of my face as it limits my peripheral vision so I usually shoot at shoulder height. This way I can anticipate people’s movement, and time the shot more precisely. I set myself targets like shooting 200 or 300 frames over a weekend. The more we shoot, the more likely we are to have a ‘lucky’ shot. Mentally, I usually have to psych myself up especially if I’m taking photos in difficult or challenging situations. It’s easy to let fear take hold and run away!

Taking photos can be a lot of hard work. I walk for hours at the weekend, and often late at night or on uncomfortably hot, humid days here in Hong Kong. I don’t often have the luxury of being ‘in the mood’ and frequently have to consciously motivate myself to go out and take photos. It’s a discipline thing for me, and not always easy.

The technicalities don’t interest me very much. I’m not trying to take photos that are technically ‘good’, and I’m not trying to take ‘pretty’ photos of the type so often seen in photo magazines. It’s harder, I think, to take photos that are technically ‘bad’ but still have meaning.

GL: What camera did you use? Film or digital?

JS: I’m not really into this film versus digital thing. Digital is easier and more flexible so I use it. I mostly use Leica digital rangefinders and small Ricoh point-and-shoots. I like small cameras as they’re lighter to carry all day and less conspicuous. If there was a cheaper rangefinder alternative then I’d use it as I’m not hung up on Leicas and the poor quality is frustrating. I black out manufacturer’s logos and lettering with a permanent marker.

Currently I’m using the M9 and Monochrom, and sometimes the Ricoh GR. More importantly to me, I use wide-angle lenses: 15mm, 18mm, and 21mm. I do have longer lenses, 28mm and 35mm but don’t often use them. I’m used to the Leica form-factor so I can change focus or shutter speed without having to look down at the camera. I don’t have standard settings though I usually shoot at high ISO between 800 and 1600 as I want to use smaller apertures to avoid bokeh (which I hate!) and have good depth-of-field.

GL: How do you measure light?

JS: I’d love to be able to use auto-exposure all the time but the metering on Leicas using wide-angle lenses is problematic so, unless the lighting is uniformly flat, I often have to set exposure manually especially at night. I can quickly change the aperture or shutter setting as I walk from shadows to streetlights.

How do you focus?

JS: I usually pre-set focus and then adjust either side from that if there’s enough time. I don’t like auto-focus as it’s too slow in poor light and sometimes I want the subject out of focus, for example, I might focus on a dirty, tagged wall while a person walks in front.

GL: What about lighting? Based on your images it’s clear that you take pictures all the time. What’s your relationship to daylight and artificial light?

JS: I only use ambient light, not flash, and prefer shooting at night or towards the end of the day as the light is more interesting then. I’ve nothing against flash though, it’s just that I’ve never got around to using it.

GL: How much do you usually work with in ‘post’ with your stills?

JS: Photographers have a tendency to focus on camera choice but I think post-processing tools are equally if not more important. Not that I spend a lot of time on it. I mostly use contrast controls as that can have the biggest impact on the photo’s emotional content or implied narrative.

I use Nik Silver Efex after RAW conversion in Lightroom. Basically, I just play with sliders until some meaning or implicit story emerges from the photos. I might dodge and burn too as well as using the red and yellow filters. Every camera responds differently to post-processing so I don’t have a generalized workflow but treat every frame differently.

GL: Most of your images are black-and-white. Why? Do you shoot on film or on digital?

JS: I haven’t used film for years. I like black-and-white. This is partly an aesthetic choice but also because restricting subject content can have a greater emotional or narrative impact. For example, increasing contrast also darkens a photo which in turn withholds detail, and something that is implied can have more meaning than something that is explicit. Sometimes, I’ll use colour but this is usually because I want to break out of my usual routine. Importing the photo into Nik Silver Efex automatically turns the photo into black & white.

GL: You have lots of extremely wide-angle shots and I haven’t really seen pictures that you’d take with longer lenses. Why is that? What does focal length mean to you?

JS: My favorite lens is my 15mm Zeiss though I mostly use 21mm as the 15mm is very extreme. It’s hugely expensive too and quite heavy but can focus down to 300mm, and I can shoot someone head-to-foot at 1.5 metres away. I like being close to the subject but I don’t usually want interaction. I just want to be an observer or passer-by rather than a participant. Being close to the subject results in a very different emotional context compared to using a longer lens but it’s much harder to use in practice.

GL: You don’t want interaction but you want the energy and directness that comes with being close to your subjects. How does that work?

JS: Occasionally I’d like to to be invisible or merely a shadow! D’Agata, for example, wants to be a participant, and that’s central to his work but I’m often taking photos of a world that I don’t generally belong to. Appearing to be a participant would be a contrivance on my part. This notion is ambiguous though, Sometimes though I do want interaction or at least a direct gaze into the camera lens. I guess a lot of this is instinctive on my part, and not something I think about much There’s also an adrenaline thing going on sometimes. Photo-taking can be potentially dangerous, and that can be exciting.

GL: How do you feel about having paid Phouk? Is this something that you generally do or are willing to do? Or is it simply a last resort?

JS: It’s something I’m uncomfortable with unless they’re a model in which case I’m paying for their time. It’s just an emotional thing on my part. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with paying someone but it does change the dynamic in a way, and perhaps risks diluting the authenticity of the photo.

GL: When you get as close to your subjects with your camera as you have to with your wide-angle lens, you become part of their world for a little while. What impact did your ‘Heart of Darkness’ series have on you?

JS: The experience has shaken me a lot, and I’m not sure if I’ll continue. As well as the normal human concerns about the two young women’s well-being, I’m left with nagging questions. Was it ethical to agree to pay them money for the photos? Should I be taking photos like this? Was I exploiting them? I don’t know the answers but the questions remain awkwardly in my mind.

I’ve been back a couple of times since. One of the young women is clearly very sick, and the other has disappeared.

(To see more of Jonathan van Smit’s pictures follow his stream on flickr. All images © Jonathan van Smit and are reproduced with the permission of the author. This interview was first published on on August 4, 2013.)

György is a cinematographer teaching photography courses in London. To book a class or for more information visit