Based in Portsmouth, UK, Joe Watson is a photographer, filmmaker, graphic designer, and musician who has great taste in music. For the last two decades, Joe has been capturing live shots of some of his favorite bands. He got on my radar after I saw one of his photos caught my eye on Instagram.
Also a member of post-punkers Horseflies, Joe is a busy guy, but luckily for me, he sat down long enough to answer some questions for the site's Photographer Spotlight series.
Where were you born and raised, and were your parents into the arts?
I'm from the Isle of Wight, which is off the South Coast of the UK. It's a beautiful place but very insular and stifling, for those reasons I jumped over the water and settled in Portsmouth. I've been here for nearly 20 years now, so technically this is more my home. My family still live on the Island so I get back when I can. My parents were artistic in their own way if you look at it from a certain angle (my mum was a hairdresser and my dad a bricklayer) but we were raised in a way that celebrated the arts and music for sure.
I distinctly remember going through their record collection at an early age and being obsessed with the sleeve for Led Zeppelin III with its rotating cover! I guess my grandad was the biggest influence on me creatively, a dental technician with a shed full of tools, paintbrushes and watercolours. He always encouraged me and passed on his love of nature and his unique way of looking at the world.
He's an avid photographer and I'll never forgot the first time he let me hold his SLR and bring that split screen into focus. I was fascinated with photos with a shallow depth of field, because it distorted reality. Later on my eyesight got really bad and I became short sighted, without glasses everything is a blurry mess, so maybe that's another reason I love a shallow depth of field. It mimics what the world now looks like to me now.
What came first, your love for music, or your love for photography?
I'd have to say music, apparently when my mum was pregnant with me she’d play Earth, Wind and Fire and I'd start moving around in her belly!
How did you discover hardcore/punk?
As I started high school in 1993, the grunge explosion was in full force. My new best friend was taping me all these great bands. One of the more obscure bands was Bad Religion, and this led to discovering the Epitaph/Fat Wreck catalogue. In 1996 we traveled to London to see NOFX, Good Riddance, and The Vandals. The tour was really kicking off in the UK, and this was my first punk show and I was hooked.
It was about this time I got my first SLR (a Minolta XG-2) with a 50mm and 24mm lens. It was brought for me by my parents with guidance from my grandad. From here I'd study photography at school and spend countless hours in the dark room, but I never made the connection between punk and photography until I went to University.
When I left home to study photography at University I started going to a lot of DIY punk shows at a venue called the Horseshoe, I ended up cleaning toilets there, then eventually working behind the bar and finally DJing punk and hardcore in the evening with two buddies. That's when I met new people who I’d end up starting my first band with.
Who were some of the photographers you looked up to during your formative years? Were there any music-related photographers you followed?
Yeah, they were all mostly music related. My bedroom wall was covered in live shots from NME and Kerrang! The stand out for me was always Steve Gullick, he captured the gig the way I saw it, sweaty, visceral and swirling instruments and lights! I guess I modelled my style on Steve’s. I'd only shoot with a 10-20mm, f.22, flash and a second or two exposure. I had to be right in the action and practically on stage, if I couldn't be, I wasn't interested in shooting the band.
I'm lucky enough to have met Steve and ended up becoming good friends with him. Our bands recently did a little stint together, they say never meet your heroes, but in this case I'm glad I did. Nathan Baker was also a massive influence on my work and on a lot of the older photos I took, that was really evident.
Music photographers aside, I also worshipped Jim Goldberg and his book Raised by Wolves, it's absolutely incredible. I've always wanted a copy but they sell for crazy money. I almost considered stealing it from the University library but couldn't deprive other people of that inspiration. I was also really inspired by Nan Goldin and Richard Billingham, they weren’t music photographers but all of those photographers had a DIY punk feel to their work in my eyes.
What is your camera and post set up?
I'm not really a gear guy and get tired seeing photographers wasting hours online arguing about equipment when they could be out shooting. It's nothing fancy, I use an EOS 5Dmk2 and 60D and have also been borrowing a Sony a7sii to do film work. I tend to use the cheap knock off Godox flash guns, they're amazing…but equally if they take a knock it isn't the end of the world.
Lens wise, my trusty Sigma 10-20mm, and usually a 24-70mm. For portraits I have a 50mm Canon 1.4 that I love and sometimes use a Lensbaby.
For post I always use ACR, I know Lightroom is probably better and quicker but it's what I'm used to. I also love Exposure by Alien Skin for adding grain and giving some shots a more filmic quality.
Who are some of your favorite bands to shoot?
Converge never disappoint! To be honest, live music photography to a bit of a backseat and I seemed to be doing more portraits, but recently I photographed a band called Idles and it was the shot of adrenaline I needed! It reminded me why I love doing it, but perhaps I've become more selective as I've got older.
Since you’ve also played in bands, has that helped inform what you do?
Maybe? It's taught me to be more mindful of people's personal space (as much as possible) be it the band or audience. Nowadays there are too many photographers at shows and it can kill the vibe, perhaps this is another reason I don't do it as much? I became too self aware of ruining people’s view, especially now we have content with a hundred mobile phones held in the air!
If you could go back in time, who are some bands that you would have loved to shoot?
Hmm, excellent question. The past decade I've really been discovering and falling in love with a lot of music I missed out on, bands like The Modern Lovers, Neu!, and The Chameleons. I've just watched Stop Making Sense, so I'd have to go with Talking Heads.
I also really regret not taking my camera to a lot of gigs, like the first time I saw American Nightmare… but I guess if I was worrying about trying to get photos and looking after my gear my experience of it would have been very different. Equally, I feel like I wasted a lot of opportunities in the past, touring and playing with great bands over the years like Thursday, Young Livers, Converge, Stretch Armstrong, and Coliseum… I didn't utilise those opportunities enough, I could've got some great work. I also feel like I'm a much better photographer now and back then I got some bang average shots. I remember photographing Converge for Rock Sound, I was happy with the live shots but the pre-gig portraits weren't great… mainly dude to self confidence. Looking back, I was flustered and rushed through it and maybe even over-complicated it. The few times I’ve met Converge they’ve been lovely people, but looking at those shots… they knew I was out of my depth [laughs]. Good photography isn't always about the gear you use, it's often about managing people.
What are the toughest aspects to shooting hardcore/punk shows?
Well, it used to be flying instruments and members of the crowd, but nowadays it's tour managers, security, and band members who don't want their photo taken. In the space of a week, I was dragged out the side door by two security guards during a Samiam gig one song in for using flash, despite clearing it with the band and tour manager. The tour manager hadn't informed security. Luckily, Jason from Samiam rushed out the emergency exit and saved me! Hero!
A few days later I get screamed at and threatened by Mike Hunchback (who was playing in Nightbirds at the time) because he didn't want his photo taken during the gig!? After that I was put off photographing gigs for a while. I'm not keen on photographing big gigs no matter how much I love the band. Give me a dingy background with no stage and I'm in heaven.
Tell me about some newer bands that we should all be on the lookout for.
As mentioned earlier, Idles from the UK are amazing. Fotocrime, which is Ryan Patterson from Coliseums new band, the guy has never done a bad band! Sweet Dave And The Shallow Graves, which is Dave from TV Freaks playing great spooky Cramps /Kid Congo type gloomy rock and roll. Some other great UK bands worth checking out: Group of Man, Kamikaze Girls, Never, Whipping Post, Natterers, Tough Tits, Austerity, Bad Breeding, and Rope.
Who are some modern-day photographers that you admire?
Well, Mr Gullick still inspires me as he continues to create amazing work. Nick Sayers is a guy I met recently, he took some great live photos of my band and we talked after the show and really hit it off. We definitely come from a similar background and mindset. Andy Ford is an incredible photographer, he's absolutely nailing it travelling all over the world shooting for Kerrang! mainly. He's a good friend, too, so incredibly proud of his achievements and I love seeing his work. Finally, Nick Fancher, another photographer with a punk rock background and absolute king of quick but effective DIY set ups. He's so inventive and clever. He's really inspired my portraiture, and his book Studio Anywhere is a real breath of fresh air.
If you had to pick one of your photos that best encapsulates why you love shooting hardcore bands, which one would it by and why?
Wow, this is tough. I'm gonna have to go with the shot of Mike from Glass & Ashes biting down on his microphone. That pure angst/rage is exactly how that band makes me feel, in a split second I caught that perfect moment… eyes bulging, Teeth clenched! I get it! I'm not even sure I picked up on this image for the magazine feature I shot it for and came across it a year or two later. Always re-visit old work, who knows what gems are in there!
Head to Joe's official website to see more of his work.
Tagged: photographer spotlight