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Interview: Photographer Jack Fillery

Jack Fillery travels the world photographing people, places and food. In his Midnight America series, shortlisted for the Next Photographer Award 2015, he focused on insalubrious motels. Take a look at Jack's award-winning photography below.

Interview: D&AD Next Photographer Jack FIllery Midnight America

Where did the idea for the shoot come from?

When I was studying English Literature at Leeds I read a lot of American Literature, and was always fascinated by the theme of the struggle between the ideals of the American Dream and the tough reality of existence in America. 
 
Americana refers to artefacts related to the history, geography, folklore and cultural heritage of the United States, so when I began planning my trip across the states I had a number of ideas floating around about things I wanted to shoot out there along these ideas. Having read John Steinbeck's 'Grapes of Wrath' before I left, and as the route we had planned covered a large section of Route 66 – the migration route of thousands during the Great Depression – I felt that images of the road would embody the sense of history and culture I hoped to capture.
 
Honing on this idea I chose to shoot the roadside motel as something instantly and recognisably American; a paradoxical symbol of mobility and immobility, of the journeying nature of the country's history. I feel the motel represents hope of upward mobility and the seeking of a better life, which is why I chose to shoot at night. I wanted to capture a sense of the people who existed in this world without explicitly photographing people, to capture a sense of the sleeping reality of Americana and the darker side of the 'Nation of Dreams'.

Describe the process of capturing the images

The process involved a lot of driving, and of course a lot of late nights. Usually it involved driving for over 200 miles a day across the country, on the highways and occasionally dipping off onto more minor roads in search of the right location. I was travelling with my younger brother and he wasn't always best pleased with my choices of accommodation. He wanted to choose the place with the free breakfast and giant waffles, and I was choosing the place with the flickering neon lights and peeling paintwork. 
 
When I found the right spot it was a case of waiting until the motel was quiet, with not many people wandering around so I could get the right shot without being disturbed too much, and to avoid too much 'interest' in the gear I was using (we often ended up staying on the 'wrong' side of town). It was clear to me when I had found the right spot to shoot in, so it was really a question of waiting until the right time to capture the images I wanted.

What kit do you use?

I was travelling pretty light on the trip, so I didn't take any lighting with me except my Nikon flashgun. I had my trusty Nikon D800, which has taken a real battering this year in the deserts of Jordan and the swamps of the Everglades, but stood up to the test of travel extremely well. 
 
I also took a selection of lenses which covered most of the range I needed on the trip: my Nikon 50mm f/1.8, a brilliant lens for portraits and in low light especially; Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8, for those vast landscapes; Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8, and my Grandad's old Nikkor 28mm f/2 which is a beautiful piece of glass and one I use all the time. 
 
Of course I needed my Manfrotto tripod as I was shooting at night with long exposures, so that and a ball head came with me as well, and a remote timed trigger so I didn't have to touch the camera and get any unwanted movement in the image.
 
Interview: D&AD Next Photographer Jack FIllery Midnight America

What was the biggest challenge?

There were certainly quite a few challenges along the way. We were robbed one night at gunpoint whilst driving back from a bar in New Orleans only a week into the trip which was quite a terrifying moment. I've been in a few sticky situations in my travels, but I've never had a gun stuck into my back before. Luckily I managed to keep hold of my camera gear after stuffing my bag under my feet in the footwell so he didn't see it, but the experience made me a bit more nervous about going out at night to shoot. 
 
One of the biggest challenges was finding locations, and the hours of driving. We covered nearly 7,000 miles in just over three weeks, spending about 6-7 hours on the road each day. There were a few times I was so tired I would think about stopping at the next motel, whatever it was like, but usually I would say to my brother "just one more" so we could find something right for a shot. 
 
This is how we found the Mount Ida motel in the middle of nowhere having driven pretty much right through the night. I'm glad we went just that one more becuase it is probably my favourite image of the series.

What has been the key to your success?

 I would say that probably commitment and perseverance are what have helped me most. I never studied photography other than reading books and working as an assistant, and I've been lucky enough to work with some fantastic and very supportive photographers who have taught me a lot about the industry and what it takes to get ahead. When starting out I found it helpful to 'shoot what you know', but you have to keep trying different things and pushing yourself in different directions to find out what it is that you really enjoy.
 
But one of the biggest lessons I have learnt is to try and delete the phrase "that'll do" from my process. If i'm not happy with a shot then I will keep trying something different until I am happy with it. Often it helps me to walk away from one which is frustrating me and come back to it. 
Interview: D&AD Next Photographer Jack FIllery Midnight America

How valuable are self-initiated projects?

Invaluable. Self-initiated projects give you the space and scope to really find out what it is you enjoy shooting, and the freedom to be as creative as you like with your photography. 
 
And practice. Not just in improving your techniques, but also your ability to visualise, plan and produce the shoot to get you the final piece you want.
 
 If you're going to shoot a project, it helps to give yourself a brief with what you are trying to achieve with the shots and how the process will allow you to achieve your aims. If you can work to your own brief, then you can work to someone else's when a job comes your way. 
 

How important are competitions and award shows for creatives?

I would say they are certainly a great way to gain recognition in the industry and are worth entering because they can help boost your credibility. There are a lot of creative people out there doing great work and competing for the jobs you want, so it always helps to be able to put "award-winning" on your website. They can also be quite a good way of gauging where the industry is in terms of the kind of work which is in demand.
 
More important than competitions and awards though is definitely the strength of your portfolio. Winning one award for one piece of good work is one thing, but it is the consistency of your work which is most important. Can you reproduce work of that calibre each job you do? Because if not then the award is perhaps fairly inconsequential. I would say work hard to make your portfolio as good as it can be, and if you enter a competition and win an award then it is a recognition of that consistency and perseverance.
 

The D&AD Next Photographer Award unearths the best new photographic talent and promote it back to the industry. The competition is open to new photographers with less than three years professional experience. 

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