Exposure: An Interview With Photographer Jay Keywood

It takes some serious talent to capture images that stand alone, with their own stories, sense of time and place. Photographer Jay Keywood achieves it regularly with his personal brand of travel and street photography.

Horseback rider at the Jiarong Tibetan Flower Festival - Sichuan, China
Horseback rider at the Jiarong Tibetan Flower Festival – Sichuan, China

Jay joined the PhotoBlog platform in November 2016. Since then, he’s consistently captured the imagination of the PhotoBlog community with his images from China, Peru, and his homeland the USA. Let’s see what he had to say when I caught up with him for an interview recently.

What – or who – sparked your initial interest in photography?

My dad was always shooting photos with his Canon AE-1, creating a huge collection of invaluable family moments. Pictures of me as a newborn or the family dog or the family car. He’d point things out like converging lines in pictures he took of me riding my bike down the street. He’d show me and say:

“See how the lines look like they are coming together as you look? That draws your eyes into the photograph.”

Bicycles of Beijing, China
Bicycles of Beijing, China

As a teenager, my favorite thing to do was ride my BMX bike—jumping down stairs and curbs and grinding rails and ledges. I also lived in a really small town with few places to ride. BMX opened my eyes to the possibilities held in doing something creative–a trick–in ordinary places. It was my physical interpretation of and interaction with a place. If I couldn’t think of a trick I wanted to try, I’d go back another day and see if something came to mind. This mindset sparked my explorations in photography.

I can still recite every bump, curb, and incline on the sidewalks of my hometown. In the same way, photography is a way for me to interact with a person or place—looking at people or places I normally overlooked.

So when I didn’t have my bike, I would pick up my dad’s camera and shoot pictures of my friends or my house.

Women dancing at the Jiarong Tibetan Flower Festival - Sichuan, China
Women dancing at the Jiarong Tibetan Flower Festival – Sichuan, China

How did you get into the genres of travel and street photography?

Shooting travel pictures simply came from wanting to show my friends and family pictures of where I’d been, such as when I studied abroad in China and Indonesia during college. However, I now realize photography is a way of interacting with people and place.

I feel like travel photography is my way of making the complexity of a place more emotionally and mentally digestible; whereas street photography is a way for me to cultivate astonishment in the mundane, often-overlooked people, and places—on my way to work, in the park, wherever.

Incense at a temple in Shanghai, China
Incense at a temple in Shanghai, China

How do you describe your work now? Do you work professionally, are you trying to break into it, or are you purely a hobbyist?

I work full time as director of marketing and social media for Sunergos Coffee, which I suppose makes me a professional photographer. I also have a side portrait business with my wife Sarah called Eggplant—we shoot some weddings, families, and events. It’s a fun project to work on together and helps bring in extra income. We’ve gotten to work with so many great people that we’d never have gotten to meet otherwise.

Jay's grandmother-in-law on her 90th birthday
Jay’s grandmother-in-law on her 90th birthday

As a self-conscious street photographer, I consider myself a newcomer, especially with so many photographers having worked in this genre for decades. I would love to be commissioned to work on certain documentary/street projects though. That’d be a dream.

Tell me about life in Louisville, KY. What makes it interesting for street photography?

We live in the Original Highlands near downtown Louisville in a renovated shotgun house. There’s an interesting mixture of newcomers in the neighborhood with residents who’ve been here for decades. There are a lot of interesting people with cool stories and a pretty vibrant food and drink scene. It’s big enough that there are a lot of places to go and explore, but small enough to get around easily.

‘Broken down’ - Downtown Louisville, KY. The man’s name is Cecil and his cat Itty Bitty lives in his jacket hood.
‘Broken down’ – Downtown Louisville, KY. The man’s name is Cecil and his cat Itty Bitty lives in his jacket hood.

A lot of PhotoBlog members are interested in pursuing street or travel photography. What tips do you have for them?.

Challenge yourself to take a picture of something or someone that interests you once a day. This will help you fight boredom with your surroundings.

Your unique perspective of the world is valuable.

Start taking pictures of the places you go everyday and see how your perspective changes. Follow inspiration, even if it’s very dim. Doing this has helped me appreciate the places I travel to in a deeper way.

"I got some behind the scenes access to a construction site of a subway line in the Pudong district of Shanghai. I like how the metal beam and cable make the outline of a building."
“I got some behind the scenes access to a construction site of a subway line in the Pudong district of Shanghai. I like how the metal beam and cable make the outline of a building.”

Which photographers – past or present – have inspired you?

Present: Clarence Williams, my photojournalism professor at university, is an unbelievable photographer. He recently released a series of images in the New York Times documenting his father’s death. He involved us in the thought process of selecting the images for that.  It was an honor.

Chris Sinclair mentored me during a photo project in Shanghai. He works with NGOs in Southeast Asia. He walked me through the thought process of telling a visual story.  Mike Brody, also known as the Polaroid Kid, has some really interesting work.

Past:  Henri Cartier-Bresson’s Mexican Notebooks, Vivian Maier’s shots of downtown Chicago, and any old family photos.

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‘Tis the Season’ – Jay’s winning entry into Weekly Theme #20 here on PhotoBlog

Judging by your posts on PhotoBlog, you seem to have found great inspiration in China’s Sichuan province. Would you tell us more about your experiences there?

Sichuan is a place I’ve had the opportunity to visit several times and every time has been different. Maybe it’s because my life is different or because my perspectives have changed. The feelings I have with different sets of images taken there are really different.

I stayed with this man, Jiata Lurong, in rural Sichuan. He was intoxicated the whole time we were there — I couldn’t understand much of what he said (and the translators couldn’t either), and didn’t really understand the family structure. I think the picture shows the shroud of mystery that I couldn’t get past with him.
“I stayed with this man, Jiata Lurong, in rural Sichuan. He was intoxicated the whole time we were there — I couldn’t understand much of what he said (and the translators couldn’t either), and didn’t really understand the family structure. I think the picture shows the shroud of mystery that I couldn’t get past with him.”

During the time I shot the two sets on my PhotoBlog titled Guest 1 and Guest 2, I was homesick and really missed my soon-to-be fiancé-now-wife Sarah. I didn’t get much sleep because of the amount of flies (they lived in really close quarters with their animals), and the food was rough — like hot beer with eggs in it.

Member of Jiata Lurong's family staring into a mirror
Member of Jiata Lurong’s family stares into a mirror

However, those pictures are probably the most intimate pictures I’ve had the opportunity to take. Sichuan is such a busy, vibrant, and culturally diverse place. The interaction between Han Chinese and Tibetan cultures is especially interesting. I’d recommend visiting!

What photography kit do you use when you’re out and about?

I use a Canon 5D Mark II for assignments when people are comfortable with the presence of a camera. I mainly use a 50mm 1.2 and sometimes a 70-200mm and a 24mm prime lens. I’m in love with my Ricoh GR point and shoot. I keep it in my shirt pocket and take it everywhere.

Taken with the Ricoh GR in Cajamarca, Peru
Taken with the Ricoh GR in Cajamarca, Peru

Out of the thousands of photographs you’ve taken, what’s your all-time favorite?

One time I was driving with my family in downtown Louisville, and there was a man walking his Galapagos Tortoise down the sidewalk.  If I remember correctly, the tortoise is 40 years old, and the man is 60. The man lived alone in an urban apartment with his tortoise. It makes me happy every time I look at it.

Photo by Jay Keywood

What’s the wildest or most inspiring encounter you’ve had when out taking photos?

This happened in Indonesia: I was taking a picture of this guy at a sidewalk market who had an assortment of items organized on a cloth in front of him: a monkey’s skull, some wild animal skin, and a picture of a child playing with a Burmese python.

While I had the camera up to my face, I didn’t notice him opening his suitcase, revealing this huge snake.

The snake slithered out onto the street next to my feet and these children who were watching me take pictures. I almost had a heart attack. I appreciate snakes, which is why they terrify me.

This man was carrying a sack of live geese to his daughter’s family - Guizhou province, China
This man was carrying a sack of live geese to his daughter’s family – Guizhou province, China

Finally, what project are you working on right now?

I’m currently working on a street photography project I stumbled into accidentally. It consists of pairs of images that have subtle connections or conceptual similarities.  These are pictures that are coincidentally similar because I naturally find certain situations interesting. I want people to explore the core humanity and life experience that we all share. Thanks for this opportunity to share about myself!

'Drags' - Downtown Louisville, Kentucky
‘Drags’ – Downtown Louisville, Kentucky

Thanks to Jay for taking the time out to answer our questions! You can see even more from incredible photography from Jay by checking out his PhotoBlog–be sure to hit the follow button while you’re over there!

About the author

Ben McKechnie

Ben McKechnie is a location-independent photographer specializing in travel, documentary, and portraits, as well as a freelance journalist. His work is driven by a fascination in people, and the relationship they have with their culture. Ben is a graduate of both MatadorU's Advanced and Fundamentals Travel Photography courses.