From mathematics to photography: How personal projects helped Brunel Johnson launch a creative career
After studying for a degree in mathematics, Brunel Johnson didn’t expect to end up working as a full-time photographer. Originally taking up photography as a hobby, Brunel fell in love with the “mathematics behind taking a photo”, and the ability to capture simple, but authentic moments. Today, Brunel uses his practice to showcase the culture and experiences of Black and minority ethnic groups, often through personal projects – which he credits with landing him representation at award-winning agency, Studio PI. Currently debuting his first solo exhibition at The London Lighthouse Gallery during Black History Month, Brunel talks to us about social media, his first paid gig as a wedding photographer and the temptation of shooting on film.
Documentary Photographer and Filmmaker
The Times, Sunday Times Magazine, Adidas, ITV
Place of Study
BSc Pure Mathematics, Queen Mary University (2013–2016)
What I do
How would you describe what you do?
I’d say I capture moments. My aim as a photographer is to capture mundane moments in an authentic yet beautiful way, triggering either an emotion, memory or a reason to reflect. I strive to change the narrative surrounding Black and minority ethnic groups by showing them in a true and unbiased way.
Being a Black photographer means that it’s my duty and responsibility to show my culture, life experiences and people in a manner that is different to the norm; and to hopefully open up important conversations and educate those who may be unaware.
My photos are simple, there’s nothing complex about them. Yet, as the saying goes, “the simple things in life are the most difficult to achieve.”
“It’s my duty and responsibility to show my culture, life experiences and people in a manner that is different to the norm.”
What are the main influences and inspirations behind your work?
My inspiration comes from the people I meet and the stories they have to tell. I never really set out to be a photographer, but stumbled upon it by accident. I fell in love with the mathematics behind taking a photo and how I could incorporate the skills I’ve learnt on the streets into it.
In terms of photographers who’ve influenced my work, they are Gordon Parks, Roy DeCarava and Vivian Maier. I love how they capture images of normal people, yet every image is so immersive; it makes you feel like you were behind the lens.
What’s been your favourite project to work on, from the past year, and why?
I’ve worked on quite a few personal projects over the last year but my favourite so far is “Can You See Me Now?”, (currently on show at The London Lighthouse Gallery) a series that focuses on providing Black and minority ethnic groups a platform to tell their experiences of growing up in Britain.
How it came about and the stage it has now reached, is phenomenal. I had an amazing team working with me on it and, when a door would close as we tried to get it promoted, another, even bigger door would open up. For me it’s all about passion projects; that’s where you can really fine tune your voice, focus and build a legacy.
Would you say you need any specific training for what you do?
Nope. It’s all about being confident, having good people skills, being empathetic and a good listener. Let the stories lead the journey. I don’t like to dictate what people should do. I prefer to work along the lines of what they find acceptable and comfortable.
If you could sum up your job in a meme, what would it be and why?
(Below) It’s like I know what I need to do to go forward, but if you place a film camera in front of me with some rolls of film, I’ll practically throw my money at you. Sometimes, shooting on digital gets boring and doesn't have the experience of working with analog.
How I got here
What was your journey like when you were first starting out?
My switch from maths to photography was more a case of taking on a hobby that then quickly excelled to a career. I took about a month to find my feet and created these three images in my first month as a photographer (below).
I wasn’t really thinking about making a living from photography when I started out, I was just enjoying the practice and the ability to capture a moment like it was part of a movie still!
My first paid job was a wedding. I’m never doing that again, but it was fun to be able to dive into another person’s culture and capture what could possibly be once in a lifetime moments. Since then, it’s really been my personal projects that have led to jobs and becoming represented by my agency, Studio PI.
If you could pick three things that you’ve found useful or inspiring to your work or career, what would they be and why?
Meeting new people, travelling and being humble. New people mean new experiences and stories, while traveling takes you completely out of your comfort zone. Being humble is probably the most important because no matter how good you are at something, there’s no need to always put it on people.
What would you say has been your biggest challenge along the way?
The lack of diversity in the creative industry. It’s never easy when you’re the only person of colour on set, or in a high position, and everyone asks who you are, or why you are there. Or picture editors who don’t understand the different layers of British society; that a British person of Afro-Caribbean heritage has different norms and traditions to someone who is Asian or White.
How important would you say social media and self-promotion are to your work?
For a person of colour, social media is very important. Due to the lack of diversity and transparency in the creative industry, social media helps get you in front of the right people.
For me, social media was important starting out. I hid the fact that I was a Black photographer till much later! Believe me, once I made it known that I was Black, a lot of engagements, growth and support dropped. Many photographers were shocked that it was a young Black man creating the images they were liking.
This was actually a positive for me, as I learnt quickly that I couldn’t rely totally on social media but I could use my online presence to influence the things I do offline. Like my dad says, “It’s all games…”
“Many photographers were shocked that it was a young Black man creating the images they were liking.”
What have been your greatest learnings with making money and supporting yourself as a creative?
Live within your means. It’s quite simple to be honest; I’ll take on whatever side hustle I can to fund a project I believe in. I don’t need to live a flashy lifestyle or be at every event to show my success as a photographer. I’m not really even interested in fame, I just want my work recognised for my legacy, but not myself as a person.
How did you go about landing your first clients?
Just simply talking to people, and them loving my work so much that they were happy to take the risk of hiring me for their project.
What’s the best career-related advice you’ve ever received?
Being a self-taught photographer, I’ve never really understood the complexities around usages. But having an agent has enabled me to gain a much better insight into it. I’m now able to price jobs in the best way possible and when you’re a photographer from a working-class background, it’s a vital survival tool.
What advice would you give someone looking to get into a similar role?
Start with what is close to you before venturing out. You’ll find that the more you focus and practice on the things close to you, the closer the things that seemed far, become.
Brunel is currently debuting his first solo exhibition at The London Lighthouse Gallery for Black History Month. Carefully curated by the gallery's founder Sokari Higgwe, the event will run from October 7th to October 31st and is free to enter.
We have partnered with award-winning agency, Studio PI to highlight some of their talented roster. A photography and illustration agency set up to promote equality and celebrate diversity, see more from Studio PI here.
Mention Brunel Johnson
Mention Studio PI
Interview by Lyla Johnston