Dexter Jones is a Brooklyn-based photographer who shoots his subjects with style and a love of color. What started as a interest and a required course in college grew into a love to capturing beauty and life and wanting to share it with others.
First things first: State your name, age and favorite food.
Dexter Jones. I just turned 26 this year. My favorite food—I’m usually terribly with this kind of questions—but I guess if I was on death row and I was having my last meal; something called current rolls would definitely be part of that meal. It’s like a West Indian—or maybe it’s not West Indian…It’s a pastry.
When and how did you become interested in photography?
Um, I think I’ve always kind of been interested in photography since I was like very young. Just the whole idea seemed impossible to me or otherworldly, or magical in a sense. But it wasn’t until I was introduced to it in college that I really got serious about it and I was doing an advertising design major.
I just knew photography was something I was going to pursue. I knew I had an excuse to go into photography as much as I wanted to. My photography grades in school weren’t that great though, but I was definitely adamant about not letting that get me down, because I knew that was something I had a knack for and could appreciate.
Is this your main job or a side gig?
I’ve always been an artist. Before photography I was doing spoken word.
For the first three years of me doing photographing it was all I did. I’ve gotten to a point where being a freelance photographer and being a struggling artist can’t sustain me into manhood.
I have a regular job now, which is really weird to say because it’s my first job. I’m used to just being a free spirit and holding myself accountable for myself.
Is there anything you’d be doing if you weren’t a photographer?
If I wasn’t a photographer…I think I’d be like a boring average Joe. I mean, there are things that I like to do, as hobbies, but photography is the one thing I have under my belt that I feel like is something that I both enjoy and can be a career.
When was the defining moment when you said “I want to be a photographer?”
I mean I was kind of, um, apprehensive about really calling myself a photographer until I was absolutely certain it was something that I could do. Um, I don’t know. There comes a point where you try doing things for a while and in the beginning that’s all it is you’re doing, just trying it out and you’re seeing how it goes.
Then all of sudden you do something and you find yourself actually being proud of the work that you do. I guess it’s when I started feeling pride in my work that I said that I felt brave enough to actually put myself out there as a photographer.
I certainly didn’t want to be a pretender, or one of these delusional people out there who think their stuff is really great, and lo and behold it’s really not. I kind of wanted to be taken seriously, and when I felt that I was in a place where I would be taken seriously I decided to just go for it, and just continue learning along the way.
What camera(s) and lenses do you use?
People are usually shocked by this but my camera isn’t really sophisticated and my editing software is kind of outdated too. I just use a Canon 850D and a regular kit 18-55 mm lens. And after every shoot I edit in Adobe CS3.
With those limited resources I kind of make it work for me.
I plan to get a camera sometime soon. I kind of feel like I can’t progress much further as a photographer and go where I really want to go until I upgrade my camera situation.
Do you have a photography role model?
Um, a role model, I can’t say that have a role model.
I do definitely have inspiration. There are some photographers that I see and it definitely inspires me to push my own envelope in my own way.
Most of the people that inspire me are photography peers. People are around me who keep me on my toes.
I’ve kind of been having tunnel vision and trying to my inspiration from within.
What’s within you that inspires you?
Um, my quirky geekiness. My appreciation for old things. I’m very nostalgic. And just my own taste, as far as my appreciation for color. For instance I have a love for comic books, and often times something in a comic book will in spire me photography wise.
Or sometimes I could just be having one of my introspective moments, or I’m having a conversation with myself, and that conversation will create some type of image in my head. Or just listening to music can create imagery, or a feeling. And when I experience a feeling, sometimes I can try to bring that feeling to life. Translate that feeling into something you can see.
Have you gone to school for photography or any other formal training?
Aside from my two classes in college I haven’t had any formal training. Everything was self-taught or self-experimentation.
School was really just a learning process for me. It was exposure. I didn’t know what I was doing, I was just exposing myself to it. And I was kind of, like anyone else who jumps into something they have no clue about, it was a way to answer any questions I had about photography. And when I left those questions and I had all of those questions answered, I decided to expand on the learning process and take it even further.
What crosses your mind before you hit the shutter button?
I…I really can’t say. There’s a level of thoughtlessness that occurs when you are doing what you love to do. You don’t really think about it, it’s like second nature. It’s like eating, it’s like breathing. You just do it, especially if you’ve been doing it for a while, it’s kind of like your mind just knows what to do. And it’s confident in what it’s doing.
I’m confident that when this process is all over, I’m going to create something beautiful or have something beautiful.
You ask a lot of people that I shoot, they’ll say you’ll hear the word gorgeous a lot. This is gorgeous, I have to get this.
What happens after you take the shot?
I take another one. And another one and another one. Sometimes you can’t have enough, and there are other times when you know you have exactly what you want, and you don’t need anything more.
As far as when the shoot is done, I honestly can’t tell you which I enjoy more, coming from someone who made his career as a photographer but also went to school for ad design, the actual shooting process or the post editing process. I get a thrill from actually making a photograph as beautiful as it can be. There’s just a grand level of excitement, and to me working on a photo in photoshop is almost the equivalent of working in the dark room.
I haven’t been in a dark room since I’ve been college, but I remember the feeling I got from there, and once you do that and once you have the finished product, I can’t even describe how good it feels and knowing you’re responsible for it.
What inspires you visually?
Um, I think things in nature inspire me more than anything. Especially considering the fact that 90 percent of the shooting that I do is outdoors. I love the colors of nature and I don’t necessarily mean…the colors of nature aren’t necessarily the colors you could find in a Crayola box. For instance, nature’s red is different from any other red. When you look at a red leaf, or a red panda…there’s just something different about the reds I see in nature. They communicate something totally different to me. And the textures of nature too. I feel like there’s more that I want to say but I’m struggling to find it…
Honestly…I hate giving answers like this, but, damn near everything. I’ve generally always felt like everything is beautiful, or anything, everything can be made to look beautiful if you look at it the right thing. It’s a matter of perspective.
There are…I have some pictures where things are like in the background or things are in the shot and when people see them they’re like, “Why did you get that in the shot?” or “This would have been good if this wasn’t in the shot,” or “Why is this model laying next to this?” To me, I just feel like, if it’s there, and these things actually do exist, why should I try to hide it or push it to the side as if they don’t exist. I’m inspired by reality, and I like to show what’s real. And I like to evoke real feeling and emotions.
How has the internet influenced your ability to share your work?
Um, it’s kind of made things a bit strange for me quite honestly, in both positive ways and not so positive ways. Um, like I said, whenever I have a finished product, I just feel so good about it I just want to share it with the world. I want everyone to see it, and sometimes there’s nothing wrong with that.
But sometimes, after you’ve been doing this for a while, you start to realize that just doing that might devalue your work and yourself.
But at the same time, I’m certain that I couldn’t have made any measure of success as a photographer without the internet and I adore the fact that my work is out there for the world to see. I adore the fact that I have fans in Paris or South Africa or in Kenya or in Canada or wherever. I adore the fact that I can create possibilities for myself just based off of that. The internet has had a great influence. It’s probably the only influence. If it wasn’t for the internet, Sir Real Photography wouldn’t even exist probably.
You often feature Black people in a positive, stylish and sometimes provocative light. Is there a specific reason for this?
I don’t know when it all started, but for a while, I’ve been very color-conscious. I’ve been very race-conscious, and I’m very aware that I’m not just an artist, but a black artist. And I have no problem with that. I’m very careful about how we are portrayed. I know that if you google the word “beauty” right now, 99.9 percent of the face that come up will be white women’s faces, and that’s a bit astonishing. And, I don’t know, I just feel like images speak volumes, and when I speak to people through my images, I just want to make sure I’m saying something positive when it comes to the issue of black women or black men.
I tell negative stories, I can show an ugly side or tell and ugly truth, but at the end of it all I want the message to be something beautiful and positive that not just black people can relate to but everyone can relate, and I want everyone to understand it. But that’s not always going to happen. Not everyone is going to look at my work and see beautiful, stylized, somewhat provocative photos. I guess some people will see ugly naked bodies or pornographic image. Ugly uncombed afros or long dreadlocks. But that’s kind of why the image is out there, to expose people to those images more, and desensitize them to it.
Why do you think people resonate with your work so much?
Some people just have a taste for what’s, for the most part good. I feel like I might be one of those people. Um, I don’t know. I think that there’s a kind of an emergence of black images that’s coming from primarily places like Brooklyn. I kind just feel like people are getting what they’ve always been waiting for in this emergence. And now that it’s here, it’s just getting eaten up. It’s kind of a movement.
I don’t really know why people like my photography specifically. I’ve been trying to figure it out for a while now. People tell me and I still don’t get it. I do think it looks good, I do get a positive feeling from it, but I can’t totally separate myself from it because it’s my work. So I feel like I like it because I made it.
There are other photographers like myself that come from the same mold, and we put on a similar show, and I think that right now, it’s the kind of show that everyone has been waiting for.
What is that you’re giving people that hasn’t been provided before?
I don’t want to say it hasn’t been provided before. It’s hard to find anything new under the sun. But as far as Black culture is concerned, there’s always been a “golden era” whether you want to talk about the Harlem Renaissance or the birth of hip hop or the native tongue movement. And I feel like that era took a break for a while, and you didn’t see that much positivity coming from black artist. Not because it wasn’t there, but just because it wasn’t shown.
And now, in this era, especially with vehicles like the internet, black artists like myself, we have the platform to put on a positive show, and that’s what we’re doing.
Is there a certain aspect of New York/Brooklyn that you are trying to capture?
Um, I don’t think so. The only thing I’m trying to capture about Brooklyn or New York itself is the people. That’s really about it. As long as I’m getting people involved.
What was it like to have your work featured in places such as the Fela Kuti exhibit and the Dandy Lion exhibit?
Fela Kuti was my very first exhibit. It was the very first time people left their house and came to see my work. That particular exhibit meant a lot to me because Fela Kuti was a very strong influence in my life as far as being a black man, and being a persona. Um, that exhibit, the Fela Kuti, was the proudest moment of my photography career if you want to call it (that.) It was really like one of the proudest moments I’ve felt, and it was the first time that all of my time and effort and struggle actually manifested itself into something real. That was the first of a lot of things for me.
On your tumblr page bio it states that you have a background in spoken word and performing arts. Have you taken aspects from these art forms and implemented them into your photography?
I wanted to tell you earlier when you asked me about the meaning of black portrayals in my work, when I was doing spoken word, I was put into this box of a revolutionary poet. Which is kind of what I was, I was that black guy. Even though I started doing photography, that wasn’t something that I wanted to sacrifice or set aside.
It kind of all started in spoken word. Just like, communicating positive black messages started in spoken word for me.
How did you get into spoken word?
That was kind of like another accident. I got into spoken word in high school and it was really just like, me being very close friends with someone who was president of the poetry club. One day she invited me into the club and the next day she said I was performing in the show, I had no say in the matter. And I enjoyed it. So much so, that at the time I felt like it was something I could do with the rest of my life. But, unlike photography, I didn’t feel like spoken word was necessarily meant for me to do. I felt like I was good at it, and people enjoyed it, but I never felt 100 percent in spoken word as I feel in my photography.
Besides obvious differences, what is different about you as a photographer and you as a spoken word artist?
With most things in life I feel like it is a trial and error thing, and you go about in life trying these things and seeing how they make you feel. With photography, I just…I’m trying to find the right word…aside from feeling like I would be better at photography, there are some things I appreciated about the fact that people could see my work as opposed to just feeling it. The type of visual stimulation I got from it, I don’t know, it just kind of appealed to me in a way that just fits my personality I guess. I just like the idea of communicating things with a still image and saying…you know let me put it this way…when I was doing spoken word, of course I did a lot of talking. I was young and I was very, some could argue self-righteous. I thought I knew everything. Like I said, I did a lot of talking, or preaching if you want to put it that way. I got older, and I took a look at myself, and I didn’t necessarily like how people could interpret, or misinterpret me. I kind of just didn’t want to be on a soapbox anymore. But there were things that I wanted to say. I didn’t want to speak anymore but there were still things that I wanted to say. And being able to communicate without saying a word appealed to me, at that time in my life I guess.
I don’t ever want people to feel like I’ve changed a lot in those years, in those years when I was doing spoken word and now that I’m doing photographer. Mentally and physically, my whole image has changed. And because of those changes, people might feel like I’m a completely different person. But I don’t want people to feel like the messages I was communicating my spoken word days are any different from the messages I’m communicating in my photography days. They’re still very powerful messages.
What goes into a shoot? Do you find yourself being more spontaneous or planning things as much as possible?
It varies. It varies a lot. Um, I think most of the time I try to be spontaneous, but because I don’t do photography by myself, there are other people involved, more specifically a model, sometimes a makeup artist, I can’t be as spontaneous as I’d like to be.
Very few of my shoots, or my concepts are extensively planned. Um, I remember in my earlier years none of it was planned. Often times I would just tell people I wanted to shoot them, or ask if I could shoot them. I’d give them a location, maybe I’d give them an idea of what to wear, and we would just shoot. But now, I don’t think things can work that way, simply because as an artist you want to keep growing, and growing doesn’t just mean executing a photo shoot. Growing means growing conceptually. With that you have to think more about what you want to do, what story to tell.
With that said, less of my work is spontaneous. But even with that, once the shoot begins, there’s a high level of spontaneity. A lot of times, I plan to shoot one thing and end up shooting something completely different. Sometimes I shoot what I plan, and then I shoot something different. Sometimes I shoot what was planned and something different just because an idea struck at that moment. I can give you a couple of examples. With the Mambo, that was really a client I was shooting and she wanted some images for a book, and we just along the course of the day, we were talking and she told me that she practices voodoo, and we just continued talking about it and I guess the conversation kind of inspired the shoot to go in another direction. I take that back, what happened was the conversation inspired me to edit the photos totally different than what I was expecting to and even title the photo even different than I expected to. I was thinking about my conversation with her and I felt I should call the photo Mambo, which is a female, voodoo priestess, because to me, that’s kind of what she was
Sometimes, models just bring an aspect to themselves that I wasn’t expecting, for instance, with the Darth geisha, the model brought a Darth Vader helmet to the shoot and I had no idea she was going to do that. But really I think that a lot of spontaneity comes from editing; it comes in the editing process.
What makes a photo of yours “good” to you? Do you tend to be critical of your work?
I take a lot of photos in a shoot. I always tell people, as far as I’m concerned, composition is everything, composition is what makes a good photo. Photography is not necessarily how you see the world in a day to day basis. It’s capturing something in a small, tiny little frame and what you get in that frame and how you get it is most important.
At the end of a shoot, when I’m going through all my images and I’m trying figure out which is best out of the bunch, if I see that I’m shooting a chair and the arm of the chair is just a centimeter off from where it’s supposed to be in my mind, then I’m not going to use that photo. It has to be exactly in the right place. That’s how critical I am in the photo selection process.
Explain composition for those not familiar with the concept.
Composition is how you organize your subject in your frame, simply put.
Any mistakes you’ve made while on a shoot?
Yeah, all the time. It happens all the time, nothing ever goes according to plan. Absolutely nothing.
Is there anyone you dream of working with?
There are a million models I want to work with, and they’re not even big names, not even models. They’re just people that I want to photograph. So I can’t just through names out there
Working with photographers, I don’t necessarily feel the desire so much to work with a photographer on anything. Like when it comes to collaborating with people, I like to work with people who aren’t photographers, like graphic designers, musicians
I love to talk with photographers, but I don’t necessarily want to work with them. I work with myself. I don’t mean that in a negative way at all. I don’t want it to come off that way. I love to associate with photographers. I also love to learn from them.
What do you look for in models? In an environment?
I look for natural beauty. Um, and I feel that, I think that’s all I can say about what I look for in models. And that goes for black, white, Asian or Latina. I just love natural beauty. One that doesn’t necessarily need to have a load of makeup on to be photogenic. One that can create a beautiful image without all that.
Confident is also something that I look for. Even if they’re not the most “beautiful person,” they still feel confident enough in themselves to show themselves. To show themselves and know that they’re going to create something beautiful.
What do I look for in an environment…I kind of just like wild places. I like the wilderness. I like grass, I like flowers, I like trees. I like bushes. I like the sky. That’s kind of where my headspace is at, at the moment. That is likely to change at any given moment. Sometimes I have, just a desire to shoot people in mansions, or on cobblestones or, I don’t know…the world is a far too big to specific, but I really do like nature.
I know I’m kind of beating this whole natural thing over the head, but that’s what I like.
What’s been your favorite event or concept to shoot so far?
Honestly, if I was to go off the top of my head…it’s hard to see them all and pick one…but if I had to pick one off the top of my head, it would probably have to be the Fela shoot. The Fela shoot was probably the grandest shoot I’ve ever done. It took two days, I shot eight models in groups of two, I got a makeup artist, a designer, a jewelry designer, and just the preparation that it took for my personally, I listened to Fela music for a month before the shoot. And I just love the finished product, and culturally what it means.
A close second time would be the Dandettes series. That was an example of a shoot going far beyond what I expected it to be. The Fela shoot was planned, I planned for it to go as well as it did. But the Dandettes, that was something that just kind of blew up in my face, in the best way possible. It has a lot to do with the model who was also the stylist of the shoot, Kia Chenelle.
Do you always carry your camera with you?
I used to carry it more than I do now. Now it’s, literally a weight on my shoulder. I kind of don’t like the expectation of people wanting me to take their picture when I’m out, which is weird for a photographer to say.
Whether I take my camera out really depends on my mood when I’m heading out the door. If I feel like I’m going to want to shoot everything, I take my camera. If I feel like there’s something I want to shoot and I don’t have my camera, I don’t stress. I’ll get something next time.
Any projects you’re currently working on, or about to start?
At the moment, I’m kind of on pause. I’m not working on another specific, but I do plan to be quite prolific in a couple months to come. Like I said, I’m trying to upgrade my camera.
Once I get my new camera, along with a few other things, I’m going to be everywhere, and I’m going to be executing a lot of ideas, some of which are fully thought out, and some which are less thought out.
What advice would you give to someone interested in photography?
This isn’t the first time I’ve been asked this question, and I feel like my answer is the same, and I don’t ever see it changing: Just keep shooting.
People get new cameras all the time, and they have no idea how to use it and they come up and ask me for tips, or people want to be a photographer and they want their stuff to look professional, or they want their stuff to look like mine, and I just tell them “Just keep shooting”
You have to be extremely passionate about whatever it is you’re doing. Passion just translates to so many things. Passion is the source of so many things that are going to help you succeed in whatever you’re going to do. It’s your drive; it’s your determination to get better. If you’re passionate enough, it’s your life. It’s everything.
I can’t teach that. You kind of just have to have it. And if you don’t have it for this, you have to figure out what you have it for. That’s it, period.
All photos taken by Dexter R. Jones.