Chris J Roe is a photographer based in Hampshire (UK). His recent project (and photobook) Shadows documents his “struggle with depression in an attempt to visually present the inner workings” of his mind.
What’s your background in photography? How would you describe your work and how did you get started?
I would say that I started photographing very young. I was brought up by my grandmother who tirelessly documented my early life in an attempt to provide a positive spin on the negative circumstances that brought me into her care to begin with. Over the last ten years I have dipped in and out of photography as my love for it was never consistent until quite recently. I dropped out of a college diploma in photography six months into a 2 year course due to the anxiety of being in a classroom environment (something I struggled with in school and lead to me leaving prematurely there too.) I think I was also still a child mentally. I didn’t really appreciate the opportunities I had at college.
I came across your work on Instagram and was instantly struck by your dedication to shooting black and white. What is it that attracts you to shooting in that format?
I sometimes shoot colour images although I rarely share these. There is something simple about black and white that perhaps appeals to my lazy tendencies. I find it much easier to capture a mood, or convey emotion through monochrome. Without sounding too pretentious I think it represents me best. I am a fairly straightforward ‘black and white’ person and I find it hard to see the beauty that others do in colour….it is almost as though its a distraction to me.
Your recent photobook Shadows documents your experiences with depression, combining image and text. How did the book come about?
The book, like many other final product ideas had been swilling around in my head for about six months. I had originally intended to offer it as print only as I had been so inspired by many other’s zines and books that I got into a bit of a habit of buying but felt that digital first would make sense. Not everyone has the money to spend on books and I feel generally weird about the idea of asking for money for something I was likely to be doing anyway. Regardless I wanted to bring some of my favourites images together to see them contribute to an ‘end game’ a final process. I always feel there has to be a conclusion.
Shadows is full of often quite bleak images of solitary figures taken amongst the urban city landscape. What is your process for shooting like?
My process for capturing the images in the book is almost subconscious. I don’t ever go out with a specific idea of what I want to photograph, rather I let the scenes develop in front of me. I prefer harsh light and shadow so rarely go out on a day when it is raining and despite spending a lot of my weekends in London I am drawn to the alleyways over the brightly lit tourist areas…I am too easily frustrated by the packed streets as I walk fast and tourists just generally get on my nerves (like I probably do when I travel to their countries haha). To be honest almost all of the images in the digital book are taken on my phone…I was fairly far into this project before I started shooting film again so when it comes to editing all images go through a preset on Snapseed to crush the shadows and isolate the subjects the best I can.
What is it that you like about phone photography?
The phone appeals for many reasons. My impatience is satisfied by the ability to not only see the final product instantly but to have such a large live viewfinder that no other camera can offer. I used to enjoy using an X100T for its EVF (electronic view finder) but I got rid of the camera because it wasn’t portable enough.
The phone is always with me and is not intimidating, while I’m not shooting aggressively on the street like Bruce Gilden, my entire ethos in life is to carry the least amount of weight as possible and be swift with my decisions. The phone does all I need it to. This is coming from someone who owned a full frame DSLR just three years ago so I have a benchmark to compare it to but image quality isn’t that important to me. Flexibility is paramount.
I’m curious about the emotional process of making your work. What does it feel like to be shooting these images and are you waiting to construct an image with a specific feeling to it, or recording fleeting moments of strangers?
When I shoot I am usually numb. While I have no real plan when I go out I fall into this sort of robotic subconscious march until I’ve run out of good light or I’ve done at least 10 miles and my legs hurt! I think I get immersed in the process to an extent where it becomes almost meditative. It is only when I look back on the images at the end of the day (I try to avoid even looking at them until I have finished as I feel my wins and losses can break the flow discussed above) do I feel something. It is usually a mix of adrenaline from getting something that really resonates with me on a certain level and intrigue about who the person was in the frame. I try to capture a sole figure in the frame, a metaphor for how isolated I feel a lot of the time from others. While I am not a ‘loner’ I definitely find it hard to connect with other people and spend the smallest amount of time possible in social environments…it’s not for me. I think I try to show that with these images.
What function does writing serve for you and what made you choose to combine both image and text together in the book?
Writing was my first love. I used to fill pads of paper with stories when I was younger about my toys going on adventures and exploring the fantasies of a young mind sometimes as a distraction from my childhood. My upbringing prior to living with my grandmother was without love or any sense of recognition so I turned to writing as an act of control. I could create whatever I wanted in my stories and so I used them to escape. While some prefer to storytell solely with photographs, I feel that the written word and an image can compliment each other. Certain emotions lend themselves to different mediums as the best form to communicate them, so I thought why not combine the two.
What made you decide on a book format for Shadows?
I wanted to communicate the project in an easily digestible way. To be honest the book format just happened to work when I began playing the Apple Pages on my iPad. It took about three hours but I got into a period of deep concentration and before I knew it I had a few less than 20 pages staring back at me. I still feel that the project is not complete until I have a printed copy in my hand though. Only then will it feel real.
What do you hope people take away from the work?
There was no real intention behind the creation of the book other than personal therapy I guess. While I enjoy the social aspects of instagram and value some of the friendships I have made there over the past year or so, when it comes to my hopes for how the project is received by others, I have no particular expectations. If someone were to come across the book and the words and images were to resonate with them on a deep level, I would be flattered but it is hard to gauge how an outsider will view a personal body of work. I think this is the best way to approach a creative work. Do not let yourself be led by expectation or influence and put something out that you would have created regardless of whether you had an audience or not to begin with., then it is honest and genuine….I think people are attracted to that.