John Nguyen is a press and commercial photographer from London. Having spent the last decade working for national papers and magazines, he’s often commissioned for front page shoots with The Daily Telegraph, The Observer, The Daily Mail, The Independent, The Mirror, and The Sun amongst others. This has led him on a fair few adventures, including expeditions to the arctic and the chance to work with a colourful cast of characters, from Thierry Henry to the Royals.
Tell us a little about your background and what you were doing before you became a photographer?
Finishing a biochemistry degree at Sheffield left me unsure what I wanted to do but I knew I didn’t see my future in science. I bar tended for a year and then started supply teaching at secondary schools before going to teach English in Japan for a couple of years.
The plan had been to return to teaching in the UK on a more permanent basis, but whilst I was out there, I thought on returning it would be the best opportunity to try a completely different career and if it didn’t pan out, I could always return to teaching. I’d always enjoyed travel photography but it was during my time in Japan that I started looking at photojournalism as perhaps an interesting path to take. I love the adrenalin rush of uncertainty and having to think on your feet.
How did you turn your hobby into your career?
When I got back to the UK I assumed that the best way into the industry would be to get a qualification so I applied to a photojournalism course but they rejected my application as I didn’t have any previous experience – which seemed ridiculous and a bit of a Catch-22 situation.
I contacted my local paper, The Sheffield Star, and asked if I could do some work experience in my free time between doing supply teaching, which I’d had to start again to have an income. After a couple of months doing this I was ready to re-apply for the course, but the picture editor of the paper told me I’d be wasting my time and that you can learn everything and more just by doing the job, in a much shorter time frame. He recommended me to a regional press agency who took a gamble and hired me.
Actually given the salary they paid me it wasn’t the biggest gamble and they most certainly got their pound of flesh but I got the experience working for national newspapers that I desperately needed to up my game.
After three long years there I felt I had the experience I needed to go freelance. I moved to London and started to get work for newspapers first: The Daily Mirror, The Sun, The Express, The Star and then the Daily Mail. The first seven years or so was mainly news photography and some features and portraits. In the last four to five years I’ve moved more to the broadsheets mainly working for the Telegraph and The Times doing more creative portraits and features.
At this stage I feel happy to leave the news stuff to the younger folk and this allows me to flex my creative muscle more. In addition to newspapers I also work for corporate clients doing their PR and advertising and have worked on commission for Amazon, Visa, Gatwick, Virgin, and many others over the years.
What are the pros and cons of this?
The big pro for me is that no two days are really the same. You can really get a feeling of accomplishment when you plan a shot out in your head, you execute it, edit it and finally see it in print with your name on it.
I love the challenge of going to do a portrait and not knowing what the connection will be with the subject, what the location will look like, and most importantly how much time I’ll get – with the shortest shoot being about 30 seconds. I love meeting people and hearing their various stories, as well as seeing the real diversity of people from varying cultures and classes, from royals to the people that society have forgotten about.
The cons are never knowing when your next job will be, and the pressure of being consistently good despite things going wrong – the people who hire you don’t want to hear excuses. Also I set a very high bar for myself so I keep pushing myself to be better and I really kick myself when I feel a shoot hasn’t quite worked out, or if I see someone else’s picture and think ‘why didn’t I think of doing something like that’.
It’s trying to control those stresses which can be difficult. On a more mundane level it’s being not just a photographer but a one-man businessman trying to keep up with bookwork, invoicing and emails which always seem to take up so much time and never ends, but it’s a necessary evil.
Do you know of anyone for whom it didn’t work out?
I have loads of stories of people who didn’t make it in the industry, in fact it would be the vast majority that don’t and it’s not usually because they are bad photographers. It can be a lack of tenacity in trying to get new clients, pushing yourself to try new things, or just being overwhelmed with the business side of things. Also at the beginning it’s definitely much harder with the low income and not getting the best jobs but unfortunately you really have to just tough it out past that point, unless your dad’s name is David Beckham.
How do you promote and PR your business?
To be honest I have a website but I don’t really promote and most of my new work is through word of mouth or from people who I’ve previously worked with that have moved onto new companies. If anything, that’s one thing I could really improve on, networking and setting up more relevant meetings to draw in new clients.
What’s been the most memorable thing you’ve ever worked on?
This is a hard one, it’s a career filled with bonkers stories like being sent to the arctic circle at the drop of a hat in the middle summer, because a polar bear had eaten a public school boy… Or being sent to cover the Arab spring and seeing the chaos whilst almost being shot.
Being a kid from a council house with refugee parents, talking to royals and taking their photos from inside their palaces, as well as inside downing street with various Prime Ministers has been eye opening. I’ve travelled to loads of strange places and met lots of interesting people and have always come away with a cart full of memories, so narrowing it down to one or even fifty would be impossible.
And the worst thing you’ve ever worked on? (If you’re allowed to say)
Sometimes in the moment it can feel like you’re in the worst situations but in the future they end up being the best and sometimes funniest stories. I feel like these are the stories that have to be spoken and usually work best over a drink or two!
What does a typical work day look like for you?
I guess there really isn’t a ‘typical day’, as most days I don’t know what I’m doing till the phone rings. It could be to head to parliament to do a portrait of an MP, jump on a plane somewhere for some crazy feature – the uncertainty is what keeps the job exciting for me.
What advice would you give to someone looking to start out in the industry?
Learn as much as you can in your own time. There’s now a treasure trove of information on technique and skills on forums and places like Youtube that weren’t available when I started and it’s resources like this that I use to this day.
Also contact as many professional photographers as possible for work experience as you’ll learn so much, plus if they like you they may end up a contact for future work. Be ready for rejection, like any desirable job there’ll be a lot of competition and this is where some dog headedness will come in handy, if you have the skills and keep pushing for that break it will come in the end. I also don’t think doing expensive courses are really necessary as they can push people into one style instead of letting you find your own.
What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned?
I think I’m still learning lessons everyday and still learning never to give up. When rejection comes after a quote, it’s important to get up and keep going and to firmly believe in the skills you have and not to undervalue yourself. It’s been a long road to get here and hopefully there’s an even longer road going into the future.
Who are your role models?
I’ve never been into favourite photographers, if I like a photo I like it and then move on. When I was first getting into it I wanted to be a combat photographer and looked up to people like Don Mc Cullin and Robert Kapa. I love the simplicity of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s street photography.
Did you have a mentor or people you asked for advice?
Not really but I’ve always been the type to ask anyone how they’ve done something I haven’t done before, even if they’ve just joined the industry. I think proudness stops a lot of photographers from evolving and staying relevant because they feel like they know everything and there’s nothing left to learn.
How has what you do, changed you as a person?
It’s made me stress less about the small things and even when things look like they’re all going wrong, odds are it’ll all be fine in the end! Approaching a problem with a calm and rational method will work out most issues. It’s also given me the ability to talk to anyone, anywhere, as you do it day in and day out.
What are the top 5 books and blogs on your reading list?
Hmm books-wise it’s too tricky as I do flop around what interests me in that moment, whether it’s an autobiography, a historical novel, or a fictional novel. I’ll pretty much read anything. I’m not really a blog person, or maybe I shouldn’t say that.
If you could do any other job, aside from what you do now, what would it be?
I don’t know as I love what I do and I love interacting with people. I do enjoy cooking so maybe something with that.
What’s yet to come?
Who knows and that’s the fun of it. Why take the mystery out of the future by trying to second guess it?
Do you have any unconventional words of advice?
I’m not sure what’s conventional and unconventional. I guess it’s to try and do things without regret and to be happy with what you’ve produced!
What is your motto?
Do what makes you happy. I used to stress about things a lot when I was younger and a friend at uni printed that out on a piece of A4 – for the longest time I had it on my wall until I no longer needed the reminder to chill out.
If money and time were no object, what would be on your to-do and to-see list?
More travelling I guess. I’ve travelled a lot but there are so many more places and cultures that I would love to have a chance to photograph if money and time weren’t an issue. I love seeing any cultures that are quite drastically different to ours and photographing what those cultures consider their normal and mundane.