Jenny Lewis: I wanted to capture a young woman’s strength born out of tragedy

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Working as a portrait photographer for over 15 years, Jenny Lewis has photographed an array of subjects: from Thandie Newton for the cover of The Times to the Beastie Boys in New York. She has recently started dedicating more time to personal projects, including One Day Young, a series capturing mothers and their newborn babies in the first twenty-four hours after giving birth, and Hackney Studios which documents the network of creatives that live alongside her in the borough. Brilliantly adept at reaching beyond the self-consciousness of her sitters, Lewis’ portraits present a captivating document of the unique characters of her subjects.
Her selected image for Portrait of Britain 2017 captures Corrine just six days after she and her family narrowly escaped the Grenfell Tower fire. The portrait is a testament to the strength of this young women and exists as a powerful reminder of the ongoing Grenfell tragedy and the countless people still suffering as a result of it.
Lewis’ portrait will be on view across the UK as part of the BJP’s Portrait of Britain 2017, in partnership with JCDecaux and Nikon.

How did you create your selected portrait (above) and what is the story behind it?

I was commissioned to take Corrine’s portrait by Grazia just six days after the Grenfell tragedy. On the night of the fire, Corrine was woken up by her nine-year-old son after he heard screams and smelt smoke. She ran down 17 flights of stairs with her two boys, aged seven and nine, moments before the stairwell became completely impassable.

When I met Corrine she was housed in a temporary hotel room. It was raining but I had to photograph her at the back of the hotel as her husband and children were in their room and didn’t want to be included. We had a very short time together because she had many other appointments to attend that day, including police interviews.
It was a surreal situation. Surrounded by a mixture of holiday makers and other survivors in the hotel lobby, we ducked outside into the rain, aware that the presence of my camera might make people uncomfortable: another journalist arriving to grab a piece of the action.
Despite all the chaos and tragedy surrounding her, Corrine was remarkably calm and poised. She admitted that she hadn’t yet cried; blocking out what had happened in order to remain strong for her family. The protective shield she had up against the stress and horror ensuing was tangible. I felt incredibly proud to be in the presence of this woman. I was in awe of her bravery and the way she carried herself, knowing that I would be completely broken in the same situation. With this portrait I wanted to capture just that: a young woman’s strength born out of tragedy.

Kat and Vincent, One Day Young © Jenny Lewis
Do you have any advice for future entrants about selecting a portrait to submit and, more generally, about getting into portrait photography to begin with?
Select a portrait that really means something to you, in which you feel that you have managed to capture something that is hard to put into words.
When getting into portrait photography, be honest with yourself  and search for people that you find interesting. I have found this close to home: my projects One Day Young and Hackney Studios centre around individuals from my own community. Working in this way puts me at ease and I’m better able to relate to the people in front of my camera, which, for me, improves the quality of my work.  
Nicola and Jemima, One Day Young © Jenny Lewis
What do you think makes for a compelling portrait?

Authenticity and truth. I found Dana Lixenburg’s series of portraits, Imperial Courts, 1993-2015 extremely compelling and visited the recent exhibition of them many times. The pride you see in those images really resonated with me and is something that came to mind when I was making the portrait of Corrine.
I would also advise people to see as much photography as they can and be honest about their response to it. Once you understand more about how you react to different images, this can help with the development of your own visual language.
Efrida, One Day Young Malawi © Jenny Lewis
Liviness Banda, One Day Young Malawi © Jenny Lewis
Can you tell us about any particularly memorable experiences you’ve had whilst shooting portraits?

Shooting my series One Day Young was a turning point for me in my approach to portraiture. All of the women I photographed, around 150 in total, had given birth within the past twenty-four hours. As a result, the usual self-consciousness displayed by my sitters was gone and I felt this instant connection with them.
After the experience of shooting that project I radically altered my approach to taking portraits. Where I used to use more equipment and assistants, I now prefer to shoot one on one so the subject doesn’t feel intimidated and the work becomes more of a collaborative endeavour.
Working in this way has made me feel much more connected to my subjects and enabled me to produce more considered portraits, which better reflect the nature of the sitter and the relationship I have developed with them.
Rosy Nicholas, Hackney Studios © Jenny Lewis
What do you think about the Portrait of Britain project?
I’m a huge advocate of public art. Having the Portrait of Britain images displayed on digital screens amongst the multitude of advertisements that dominate our daily lives is very powerful. I’ve watched people glazed over at bus stops and train stations, gazing at the portraits on show. The project provides an opportunity to tell stories that are often ignored and certainly not found on a traditional billboard or in a gallery setting.
I photographed Corinne just a few days before the submissions needed to be in and it was so clear that she deserved to be in this exhibition: to be seen and not forgotten. Portrait of Britain is a celebration of our Britishness, our quirks and personalities, but it also offers a moment to shine a light on our failings. The people we have let down, the families that are forgotten and invisible, our government’s continual blunders and with this image, a young woman who refuses to be broken, stands firm, commanding respect and justice for her family.
I hope that by being included in this exhibition my portrait of Corrine has sparked some conversations and kept the Grenfell tragedy alive in our minds. I spoke to Corrine yesterday and, three months on, the family are still residing in a hotel, unable to begin rebuilding their lives. The Grenfell Tower fire is still news and must remain in our conversations until a just solution has been found.
Mark Pawson, Hackney Studios © Jenny Lewis
Portrait of Britain will be on view around the UK across a network of digital JCDecaux screens this September. Limited-edition prints of the featured portraits are available here and to own a selection in print, purchase the special Portrait of Britain edition of the magazine here.
If you missed the chance to enter this year’s Portrait of Britain, make sure to submit to the International Photography Awards 2018 here.
Kyle and Winona, One Day Young © Jenny Lewis
Portrait of Britain is made possible through partnership with JCDecaux and Nikon. Please click here for more information on sponsored content funding at British Journal of Photography. Logo © Nikon