Shooting on the street at night presents its own set of unique challenges. Often the lack of available light forces photographers to work with long exposure times, high ISO settings or even shoot with a flash. That is to say, in order to capture street scenes in such conditions, true to the way your eye sees them, you need a real feel for the equipment you are using.
Photographer Jonathan Hodder undoubtedly has that. Shooting in the sleepless cities of South-East Asia and working exclusively with the manual settings of his Leica M10, Jonathan has captured the following series of outstanding street shots. We caught up with him to learn about his process and his insights into capturing the bustling, neon-lit street scenes, so synonymous with this part of the world. He also explains why shooting with the Leica M10 “feels as though you are not just taking a photograph; you are creating one”.
When did you first discover your passion for photography?
My family moved from city to city while growing up in the UK, and there was always a camera around. I would also buy disposable cameras whenever I came across a little money to take snapshots of people and new places.
It was only when I moved to Asia at the age of 21 that I started shooting street regularly. The colours are so bright and so varied, even at night, and the people are so expressive. Photography became a way to celebrate this.
You work for the United Nations. Is there any crossover between this work and your photography? Two seemingly very different fields.
When I was 24 I joined the UN, where I trained with the communications unit to write press releases, feature articles, and take photographs to accompany them. I loved it, but I was soon sucked into the world of program management. Now I am with the governance unit, where we run programs on human rights, anti-corruption, and basic service delivery.
A key part of our work is policy advocacy. We have begun training disadvantaged communities to use photography as a medium – and social media as a platform – to amplify their voice on development issues. I also contribute to editorials and galleries to support these efforts when needed.
Which photographers or artists have inspired you and influenced your style?
There are so many. In regards to documentary photographers, I was very much struck by the works of Mary Ellen Mark and Dorothea Lange. Both of these women documented socio-economic issues with deeply personal and powerful portraits. While these photographers lived in different times and shot with different styles, their art shared the same hallmarks of courage and sensitivity. I think the fact that they were both strong women is not a coincidence.
I am also amazed by contemporary documentary photographers, especially the Philippine photojournalists who are covering the ongoing War on Drugs in the Philippines. They put themselves through an incredible amount of trauma to keep us informed. It is extremely important work, and I consider many of them to be heroes.
For street, Fan Ho is one of my absolute favourites. He was clearly very patient, waiting for natural light to illuminate moments of candid intimacy in the most romantic of backdrops: 1950s Hong Kong. Imprinted in each one of his photographs is an entire encyclopedia of knowledge. His vision was beautiful.
You shoot predominantly on the bustling streets of Southeast Asia. What is it about street photography, in particular, which keeps you coming back?
The streets of South-East Asia are very different from the streets of the UK, where I was born and mostly raised. My photographic interest was always in the human condition, and although it is possible to capture intimate moments on British streets, they can sometimes be few and far between. Some would say that Western society tends to be a little reserved but climate also plays a big factor. The UK is typically wet and cold, so it is only natural that people use the street to get from A to B as quickly as they can.
South-East Asia is very different. Society is so colourful, the climate is warmer, and most people feel comfortable enough to literally open their lives out on the street. You look left and there’s someone taking a bath in a barrel of water; look right and a couple are arguing over a live chicken; you look in front of you and there’s a monkey riding a cow. Wherever you turn in South-East Asia, life is on full display. There’s a story to be told on every street corner.
The neon lights and advertising are quintessential elements in the street scenes of South-East Asia. How did you go about working at night with such a number of different light sources?
Neon is wonderful to shoot in. A single neon bulb is powerful enough to sear light 100 metres across streets and up walls. I love how neon bathes people in vibrant blues, greens and purple hues. I often explore tight alleyways in the early hours of the morning to look for the right shot.
From an artistic point of view, shooting in neon is a dream. Technically, however, it can be challenging. Neon is bright – sometimes too bright – and during your walk you will still pass through dark patches of the street. In such high contrast environments your camera’s metering system will get confused. White balance is another thing to look out for, as neon signs, street lamps, and car lights emit different colours that blend together.
The variables, therefore, are endless. In these conditions, relying on a camera’s automated settings can lead to inconsistent results. Sometimes you’re better off having full control.
Which camera and lens did you use to shoot this series? And what do you see as the advantages of your set-up? Especially shooting in lowlight scenarios with available light?
The series was predominantly shot with the Leica M10 using a Summicron 35mm or Summilux 50mm. The M was always designed for full control, and once you understand it, using it becomes instinctive.
And it is at night that the M10 shines. The sensor is virtually capable of seeing in the dark. The pictures taken at ISO 6400 render a sharp yet painterly look that is more similar to ISO 800 film than a digital image. Combine the M10 with a Summilux lens and you will be able to draw light from places you thought was not possible.
When did you first pick up a Leica camera? And what does Leica mean to you?
The Leica M2 was the first real camera I picked up as a boy, and I haven’t really been able to put an M down since. The rangefinder experience is completely different from automated cameras, where the operation can become so easy – so repetitive – that one can start to feel that the camera is doing all the work.
Shooting with the M is different in this regard, because it requires a high level of engagement. It’s you that’s pulling the subject into focus; it’s you that’s controlling the light that hits the sensor, and it’s you that’s framing the scene through an optical viewfinder that is so crystal clear, it’s as if there’s nothing in between you and the street. With the M, it feels as though you are not just taking a photograph; you are creating one.
This style of shooting can influence the way that you feel, the way that you see, and ultimately, the photos that you take. I’m not saying the M is the best camera for everyone, but it is for me, and nothing else has felt quite so natural. The lenses are also exquisite, but let’s not get started on that otherwise we would be here all day.
You have recently begun shooting a long-term documentary series focusing on street children in the Philippines. Could you tell us more about this?
In the Philippines, you often see children on the streets during the day and late into the night. Some sell flowers, others play games, and a few even study on the roadside, borrowing light from street vendors and passing cars to read. In many ways, their creative use of light inspired my own photography.
But these children should not have to be there. According to UNICEF, there are approximately 3.8 million out-of-school youths in the Philippines. Many of these children are denied their right to education, and are at great risk of abuse, exploitation, and violence.
There is currently a bill pending in Congress called the Magna Carta of the Out-Of-School Youth. This proposed policy would secure children’s rights to education, social protection, and training for decent employment. I hope it will be passed soon. There is no reason for it not to be.
What would you offer as advice to anyone looking to shoot at night on the streets of South-East Asia?
One of the most photogenic night scenes to my eyes is still Hong Kong. It is a special place for me having spent a few years there growing up from 1993 until the British handover in 1997. My oldest friends are there.
Many young travelers tend to use Hong Kong’s neon to paint that cyber-punk sheen first popularised by Blade Runner, and they do so to good effect. But for those who live in Hong Kong, that futuristic aesthetic is ironically being lost to history. Recently the government took the decision to remove neon signs on environmental and safety grounds. Regardless of whether you agree with that rationale, the fact is that Hong Kong nights are getting darker. It is perhaps symbolic of the broader structural changes taking place behind the scenes.
It won’t be too long until we are looking at pictures of Hong Kong streets to remind us of how beautiful they used to be. With this in mind, I would strongly advise those travelling in Asia to take a trip to Hong Kong. Explore the streets of Mong Kok, Yau Ma Tei, and Jordan, before the last of the neon light fades away.
See more of Jonathan’s photography and connect with him via Instagram.