Creativity Found

Jonathan Self – from photographing firefighters at 9/11 to founding the first photography and mindfulness course for children

July 04, 2021 Jonathan Self Season 2 Episode 10
Creativity Found
Jonathan Self – from photographing firefighters at 9/11 to founding the first photography and mindfulness course for children
Show Notes Transcript

For this episode I’m speaking with Jonathan Self, who has travelled widely and seen what he describes as the best and worst of humanity. We’ll find out how being in New York on 9/11 helped him find purpose and encouraged his interest in photography, and how a walk in Devon sparked the idea for the first online photography and wellbeing course for children, Cultivating Wonder.

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Music: Day Trips by Ketsa https://ketsa.uk/under Creative Commons License
https://freemusicarchive.org/music/Ketsa/Raising_Frequecy/Day_Trips

Artworks: Emily Portnoi emilyportnoi.co.uk

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Claire Waite Brown:

For this episode, I'm speaking with Jonathan self, who has travelled widely and seen what he describes as the best and worst of humanity. We'll find out how being in New York on 911 helped him find purpose and encouraged his interest in photography. Hello, Jonathan. Hello, you are a photographer. And in 2020, you started cultivating wonder, can you briefly explain what cultivating wonder is?

Unknown:

Yes, cultivating wonder is the world's first online photography course for children based around mindfulness, age five to nine and 10 to 16 year olds.

Claire Waite Brown:

Amazing. What was your childhood like? And did it involve the arts?

Unknown:

It did it deed massively. I grew up in a Christian home on the edge of Sheffield, and my childhood was big, Famous Five esque in that we used to go for long walks in the Peak District places like Chatsworth house, Bakewell how the city in casselton, we had dogs, and I went horse riding. And it was very simple. I grew up in quite wealthy home, but it wasn't spoiled materially. It was a spoiled lots of time, and love and kindness and lots of books and sitting around the fire and lots of adventures. And was it arty? Very, very arty, kind of, I felt like I got a love for poetry for reading for art music, through my parents, especially my mother. And we have a massive reader. And probably soon as I could start reading actually reading a book a week, which is a habit that's kept me up to now.

Claire Waite Brown:

Brilliant. You did study for a BA in fine art in London. What did you do after that?

Unknown:

Well, that's quite a long story. So my, my grandma left me some money. And what I should have done in the mid 90s, I should have put it onto her house because it in a place like full of all West London when it wasn't actually that expensive. But he said I went to New York, and had a crazy time for 18 months lived in a place called Greenwich Village and partied like a madman. It was probably the last time in New York when it felt quite innocent. And it was a really wonderful time. We went out every night went to many gigs and just I felt actually growing up in Sheffield as well. Oh my gosh, my childhood was quite boring. I actually look back on my childhood now a lot of fondness but in my early 20s I look back on it with disdain and contempt and the gig. Okay, I'm now finally living my parents are really quite boring. And I I'm living the life I should have been living. And that was that went on for 18 months. I don't think we ever went out before about 10 o'clock at night. I don't think I ever saw the morning. It was crazy.

Claire Waite Brown:

You had this inheritance. You had no need to work at this point. Did you have any thoughts or plans for going forward at this time?

Unknown:

So I was really obviously interested in art. And I was a good photographer, but I wasn't doing anything with it at that point. But I really love books. And there's a thing in the back of my head always I'd want to work in publishing. There was always up for tabaxi I'd love to become an editor. And then just the end of my time in New York, a couple of tragedies happened lost two good friends wanted drugs to suicide. It became quite a dark time. It was just it was two years a few years after Kurt Cobain had died. And it was during that whole kind of West Coast Seattle movement was moving at move to these cases in New York. And we all we all Quite a dark place, I ended up going to India to go on a Buddhist retreat thinking that was the answer. I mean, it led to a long story, I ended up moving back to London in 1998. But before that I did a master's degree at Oxford Brookes in book publishing, because like a lot of people probably know in publishing, it's very hard to get a job without experience in editorial publishing. And it's very hard to get experience about a job. So that the MA Oxford Brookes is actually quite good at ELeague folks that so I've managed to get a job at Random House in London, a network penguin and other companies, but it was really, that was a three year process from New York to India, to Oxford, London. I got my first job, I'm embarrassed to say at 26. Wow. So you

Claire Waite Brown:

establishing yourself now in publishing, which is brilliant. How did photography come back into your life in the way that it did?

Unknown:

I've always been interested in photography, ever since I was a child, which taking photographs with my dad, and my little sister, who was 17 years younger than me. He's only 16 years younger than me. And she did ballet when she was young child, and I managed to get I took photographs of her and these beautiful black lives. And I realised then I've got a talent for this. And that led to a few things doing some freelance work. Still working publishing at this point. And then eventually, I got more and more work, did a couple of weddings. I came to the conclusion that I need to do this full time.

Claire Waite Brown:

Brilliant. Why did you choose photography over the editing.

Unknown:

I went back to New York every year to see friends between 96 and 2008. I went every single year back to the city to visit friends and stay and go to galleries and so on. And I was in New York, and I booked a flight to New York in August 2001. And my flight back was due on the 14th of september of 2001. And as we all know, died 11 happened. Now I was uptown on East 86th streets a long, long way away from the Twin Towers. But a friend of mine was the Director of Communications at a Christian charity called the mission to seafarers. And she called me just said you should get down here through a friend. I managed to get in to the outer perimeter of the site and took photographs of the firemen start interviewing them, all the churches in the area closed all their doors to the public. I didn't put candidates in and all the firemen were staying in these churches because it was really interesting because most five minutes I lived in core areas in New York, like Flushing Meadows in Queens and so on. But diffusely Manhattan is different everyone from their station dead or alive. So I photographed them and interview them for this charity, and I really got the buzz for kind of photojournalism. And that experience really stayed with me it was actually the worst of humanity in I've ever but also the best to see how New York rose and really try and diversity really the way that they're all the local bakeries, the local cafes, a free food how people rallied around I think crime fell to nearly 0% in New York during that time. And it kind of restored my faith in humanity.

Claire Waite Brown:

You went back to India again,

Unknown:

didn't you know about coming here again, very soon after actually, and spent some time in a Muslim area of Delhi and interviewed Muslims about what their experiences was of 911 and how they felt about it. I'd say four knows most Muslims are very law abiding, loving people. And I felt it was a disingenuous actually, that whole of Islam have been tarnished with this brush really extreme Islam when it wasn't true. And then I went back to India photographed an orphanage in Delhi. I just had travelled a little bit around India, Sub Saharan Africa in Peru, photographing HIV, orphanages. And at the age of 80 hospices for different charities.

Claire Waite Brown:

That must have been quite emotional and touching and enlightening. Perhaps

Unknown:

it really was. And I think my experience of New York really stayed with me and just going back to that there's a little church right behind the twin towers that had been modelled on some artists in the field of valgus Square in London. A really small little chapel. Suppose chapel right behind these huge towers. And weirdly, or you know, depending on what you believe in God or whether you believe in Have the spirituality. It didn't suffer any damage at all of the Fallout and yet it was the closest building and the Citibank and HSBC near it had to get pulled down, that this church took the whole brunt of the explosion. And he didn't stop it, break windows. And it was an extraordinary experience. And that really stayed with me about safety and about our need to be safe to be made safe, our emotional safety on need to be safe to be loved. And I think the emotional love that I've experienced the safety I found in that city, ironically, during the time of 911, really, I think began my restoration journey. And when I was in India, seeing these young orphans and widows in, especially in South Africa, and Swaziland, meeting four or five, six year olds whose parents had died, and they weren't allowed to stay in the villages, because of the stigma of HIV. And these charities would go visit them and give them soap and bread. It felt really almost as if my life would come full circle. And actually, I was back to visit revisiting my own childhood. And I think those experiences led to a decade later, not even a decade later, actually 18 years later, to subconsciously research about cultivating wonder which you can talk about later.

Claire Waite Brown:

Yeah, yeah, absolutely. And so when you come back from these travels, and you're still working as an editor, and you've got the drawer of photography surrounding you, how did you balance that? And at what point did you say, right, I need to do one or the other. And I need to concentrate on photography.

Unknown:

Well, that journey was actually quite convoluted. I took another decade. I work for charity in London, and then I work for charity in Oxford, called the church Mission Society. And I did a lot of photography for them, and a lot of editing. So I moved from book publishing, to editing newsletters, and journals and magazines, and that kind of thing. I was doing freelance photography at the same time. So there's these two train tracks working parallel by freelance photography, which was really probably my biggest love of my life. I absolutely adore photography. It's a big passion of mine. And my editorial work, which was paying bills, and I think my fear of going full time was that I was afraid that I would lose my love affair for it. I've seen friends who are full time artists, full time photographers, and other creatives go into it full time, and quickly realise, actually, they had to stop chasing money. And I had the luxury of having a salary to be able to do pick and choose my photography work as and when I wanted it. And so my big fear for a long time it took like 12 years to really kind of take that leap of faith was, I will lose my love affair. For really doing a lot of family photography, a lot of child photography, a lot of weddings and lots of brand new photography. I absolutely loved it. I came into it fresh, because I hadn't been doing it all week. And there's something in me, subconsciously, almost a voice that I was choosing to ignore for quite a long time. We've said, you are born to the game. And I chose to ignore that voice over a decade.

Claire Waite Brown:

A lot of people do that. I mean, there's a lot of themes that come up when I speak to my guests, and that's one of them. And the other one also is that balance between doing something that you love and the business side of doing it as a business and whether that can take away the passion of it, presumably, when you have gone full time and you have made it what makes you your money, you have managed to keep that balance.

Unknown:

Yeah, and I think for me, it's that joy. I it's about nurturing those private projects. So I'm doing a couple of projects in the next year one with 40 dog owners and their dogs with his lady. Another one is based on brokenness and beauty on the premise that everyone in the world is broken. And everyone is beautiful. I that cemetery he was in New York doing a similar exhibition, interviewing 20 men and 20 women, about their life and how they've come to full circle and what how they found peace and so on. And so these private projects are quite important. I obviously do commercial work. I've got work with Marks and Spencer, and lots of other small companies in Oxford and elsewhere. And I do other work as well. And yeah, it's been a really interesting journey for me. That kind of tension, I guess, between making money, the commercial and the artistic.

Claire Waite Brown:

Yeah, definitely that the private projects. I think that's a really good way to go about it. I love sharing my guests stories with you. But podcasting isn't cheap. There are hosting fees and software costs, tech to buy and time to invest in planning and editing to make sure the guests sound great. And listeners hear the best content. If you would like to financially support creativity found, please visit kayo hyphen f fi.com slash creativity found podcast. Let's move on then to cultivating wonder, which came about in 2020. Can you tell me a little more about how it happened and how the course runs and just generally all about the ethos behind cultivating wonder. Yeah, so

Unknown:

like most creatives, photographers, videographers and other people at the beginning of lockdown, are suddenly sensing this kind of tension with my work, and quite a few people dropping off, and clients dropping off and so on. And I went down to Devon to visit a good friend of mine, who was a single mom with two girls. And we went for a walk in the woods. And the older daughter Esther, who's 12 years old was asking me some really interesting questions about joy, about wonder about magic of nature. And that conversation stayed with me as I drove back from Devon, to Oxford. I those questions really reverberated in my head he was he was staying in my head. And over the next few weeks, that conversation got now louder in my head to the point I think, actually, I'm going to do a course on this. And I googled courses on wonder at photography, and they seem to be at this point there wasn't, there wasn't a huge mindfulness aspect to it. There was a sense of mindfulness to eat. But it wasn't deliberately based on mindfulness, we pivoted the course between the first and the second course, having learned about mental health pandemic, it was really affecting children. But the first course was just me asking a few friends, inviting some people I knew doing some advertising. And obviously you on it, Claire, as well with your son, I think was quite quite a basic course it was on zoo, it was a PowerPoint. It's evolved massively now. And between the first and the second course, we did a questionnaire for the children. And I learned a lot about mental health about how children are affected by that. And we we pivoted the goals to be much more well exclusively about mindfulness, to the point where a third of the exercises now are based not on photography, and on mindfulness activities by looking at yourself in the mirror for a minute, and writing down three things that you like about your face and exercise that teenagers especially teenaged two teenage girls find particularly hard to answer. So first, the activities are on wonder, based on photography, a third are activities that you don't take a photograph, but they can lead to better photography and ufford are nothing to do with photography. And, and it's now hosted with real live films. Pop Up Facebook group has been pivoted massively. It's got a life of its own way. And it's got an organic, and it's amazing. I had nearly 1000 children on it's been a big success. Really?

Claire Waite Brown:

Brilliant. Yeah, it came about just at the right time. I think Jonathan band, as you mentioned, I did it. Well, Charlie did it. And obviously, I was aware of what he was doing. So we were at home, he was obviously not going to school by this point. So we had activities to go and do we went out a lot to follow the prompts that you had given us. And that was really lovely thing to do. Have you found that the parents of the children on the courses benefit from it in the same ways as the children do?

Unknown:

Yeah, that's been for me one of the unintended highlights we found that quite a few parents are reliving your own childhood. Often their loss childhoods through the eyes of their children. And we found that it's really an activity parents with their kids. Kids love going on nature hunts. We do scavenger hunts when you have to make a to cram picking up things they find, like twigs and branches and flowers. And it's a great thing parents can do we have found actually that all the skills that we are teaching children can be transferred to adults really well and it helps with their parents a mindfulness. You know what more did Roald Dahl say Roald Dahl says one of the greatest forms of wisdom is for us to get regain our childlike sense of wonder. It's not becoming childish, but childlike. But children can only be fully present in thinking about tomorrow. They're not thinking about yesterday in the moment and then suddenly anxiety kicks in a primary school or elsewhere. And we found that we get getting children back especially teenagers or parents back to get fully present. That sense of wonder is obviously amazing. And I think that's one of the benefits of the course for parents is to get back to that childlike sense of wonder.

Claire Waite Brown:

Yeah, brilliant, I can see that would be most enjoyable in a mindful situation for parents. And what about your own photography? You did mention actually your private projects. Do you have any other plans for that going forward?

Unknown:

Yeah, so I'm still doing a lot of photoshoots. With small companies in Oxford, in London and elsewhere, I'm still working with families to do a lot of family photography. Still. That's one of my speciality. Suddenly photography. And I still got a couple of projects, photography will always be my my main income, and also my first enough. Oh, that's fabulous. Thank

Claire Waite Brown:

you, Jonathan. How can people contact you?

Unknown:

So I've got two websites, Jonathan self.co.uk. If you want to book a family issues, or do a branding shoot, also, you can contact me on cultivating wonder dot code as cultivating wonder.co. And Jonathan self.co.uk. And if you're listening to this, and you've got children between five and 16, also got a Facebook group called coach at wonder 2020 which your daily challenges and really good comms.

Claire Waite Brown:

Brilliant. Thank you very much, Jonathan. It's been lovely talking to you.