Johan Persson interview

At the heart of London theatre photography
Johan Persson interviewed by Dana Rufolo

I have done my darnedest to give you a portrait of Johan Persson the photographer as an artist. His sentences are formed from thoughts – they are long and sinuous; the words jerk and flow. It would have been an aberration were I to “clean up” this interview, inserting the tidied sentence structure we associate with the publication of exemplary dialogue and thereby, as a consequence, eliminating the ruminative quality of the conversation that the interview became. The interview had less to do with information conveyed as sacrosanct and was, rather, a form of meta-communication, the style of Johan Persson’s speech resembling the palpable physicality and humanity of his photographs. DR


Since l became editor and renamed this magazine Plays International & Europe, three of our covers have featured your photographs. That’s because of the warmth in those photos. That’s your style – to get the human element. But l understand you started your performance photography career by publishing a photography book (161 Images: The Royal Ballet Covent Garden, Oberon Books, 2003). How did that happen?



I was a principal dancer with the Royal Ballet. I had come from Canada… the National Ballet school of Canada in Toronto; they had a photography programme there in my last two years of school when I was 16 (I started photography in 1988). I was still studying ballet. At that time I loved photography so much I was thinking of giving up ballet too, to become a photographer … but then I thought I should see – because I’d already spent many years training – I’d been training since I was five years old to be a dancer… I kept up my photography all through my career, backstage, up-front photographing. I joined the Royal Ballet in 2001 and had a great time for about a year and a half there and then suddenly came down with an injury – quite a bad one – and found myself needing major surgery on my knee. When I had this injury I knew what I wanted to do.

I went to the head of the opera house and suggested I do a photography book on the Royal Ballet, I noticed in their bookshop at the time there was nothing current. I wanted to show the everyday, not the glamorous world of ballet. The gritty reality of ballet, because I didn’t like that everyone thought it was this fluffy art form, because it really is a grueling profession.

At that time I had my own darkroom and I was shooting black and white. Tony Hall who is now director of the BBC was quite interested in making the Opera House more accessible and inclusive, so he liked the idea of doing a dancer’s view of the inside; I knew everyone so weIl. That was the beginning of my professional career: Part-way through this I realized I was not going to be going back to dancing. A couple of years out and you can’t come back after that to that level.

When I decided not to continue dancing, l approached the Opera’s press department and they offered me a few commissions to begin with. I started photographing the Royal Ballet as a professional in 2003. (Also) there is an organization that helps dancers transition because our careers tend to be finished quite young. Because I was injured I got a year leeway. They helped me with equipment, it was a computer and a camera, enough to get started on.


Alfred Molina and Eddie Redmayne in Red at the Donmar Warehouse.
Photo credit: Johan Persson.


After I had been working at the Opera House for a little while, I met Neil Austin, the lighting designer who has just done Harry Potter, he is a brilliant lighting designer, he worked a lot with Michael Grandage at the Donmar at the time. Michael Grandage was looking for someone. Neil suggested me to go work at the Donmar, and I didn’t know theatre that well at that point, I just lucked out. For me the Donmar was the most important in my progression into theatre. The first show I did was The Wild Duck. It was wonderfully designed … it makes it easier to get beautiful pictures when it is beautiful, the design and the lighting. After that Michael started using me all the time at the Donmar. Early 2000s. So that was my entrance into theatre. Michael cared so much about pictures, as did I. Finding someone who cared as much as I did was really exciting for me.

What was nice with the Donmar is they put up front-of-house pictures, so before every show your pictures were up front of house, it was nice advertising. Then it was just word-of-mouth. I didn’t really have to try from there. I make a living. l have enough work. Later, l worked on his book (A Decade at the Donmar. 2002-2012 by Michael Grandage, Constable Press, 2012).

Are you doing any photography on the side that is not theatre or dance?

I used to do a lot of street photography, I used to do that. I had an exhibition at the National Theatre a long time ago. I was going to try and do an exhibition about the energy of performance sort of thing, Elegy, King Lear, filmic photography…Photos like Red at the Donmar about [Mark] Rothko, the artist …

They are dematerialized?

It is slow exposure, some come out of camera looking like that. I keep meaning to do a lot of personal projects … I’m having to make a living. I have a family, it takes a lot of energy and time, so having time left over …

l wonder how you work. How long is your relationship with the play, say The Wild Duck?

For that one I only came in for the production, I am sure. Now I always go into rehearsal before the performance. That has become the norm. It wasn’t always like that, they didn’t always use rehearsal photographs in the programme books. The National Theatre did always as far as I know, but a lot of other theatres didn’t necessarily use rehearsal pictures. Now everyone needs content on Facebook.

lt seems to me you become so intuitively in touch with the play that you photograph what you consider to be the key emotional moments. So that’s what’s happening, you’re going into rehearsals and you’re getting more and more familiar with it?

I don’t think about it.

No, that’s clear, but it’s your personality coming out.

I have thought about that a lot. Actually, when I think about it, it all goes wrong. So l just have to follow some kind of instinct when l’m in photographic reproduction, and I think because it’s such an intimate experience … I find it such an intimate experience because it’s just usually me. The production staff are a little further behind so it’s almost like a personal performance, and you’re also looking through a lens so you’re even closer. It’s almost like alive film for me. So you can really feel the actors. I don’t know how to explain it. . . but you’re completely together with them through the experience. That’s how I feel anyway. Especially on those shows where you just feel there’s something so … special.


Measure for Measure. Cheek by Jowl. Photo credit: Johan Persson.


ln a recent editorial I used a photo of yours from Road (of actor Mark Hadfield) to illustrate a point. You had somehow chosen a really important moment in the play that revealed the total alienation that the characters were feeling. l didn’t see the play. l can only reconstruct the narrative from your picture. But it’s a very rich picture because they’re completely alone in space … there’s a lot of emotional narrative in that, and that’s characteristic of your work.

I don’t know if there is something to having been a performer and then photographing performance in that you have an empathy towards the performers or you feel a connection – I don’t know … I don’t know if there’s anything to that. I don’t like to over-think it to be honest, and obviously I can only go … I can’t jump into anyone else’s skin and experience what they experience, so. But there might be something to that as well, that you always, because you’ve been on the other side, you feel it from their point of view.

It also has to do with the fact that you have Swedish parents, right?

Yes, l have Swedish parents.

So you were speaking Swedish with them. And because you were a dancer, you got a sensitivity to mime maybe, because you weren’t using language as the all-powerful tool that a native speaker would use. And your emotional language must have remained Swedish.

It’s somewhat changed. Definitely, it was Swedish when I was little. But I’ve spent so much time outside of Sweden now that l’d say that my mother language now is English, or my first language.

But you were dancing from the age of five; you were learning the art of physical positions in space and what that meant.

And in ballet it is so specific… this finger instead of that finger – so you have to. . .you have to learn body movements…

And what they mean emotionally?

And aesthetically …

What’s the usual procedure when you are called in to do a show? l take it you usually photograph at the final dress rehearsal? Do you find that people respond to knowing that you’re photographing, Do they put a little extra zumpf into their performance?

I so admire actors because it’s their final dress  I don’t want to be a distraction but obviously I am a distraction. I find they try very much to stay in their zone. I find they don’t ham it up or anything. l try my best to be discrete but in a small space like the Donmar it’s very difficult.


Ben Daniels, Sean Jackson, Paul Hilton, Michelle Fairley and Sinead Mathews in
The Wild Duck. Photo credit: Johan Persson.


So you came to the dress rehearsal and you photographed during the dress rehearsal and then you never saw the production again?

Well I would have come back and watched it.

Without a camera in your hand?

Yeah. And I think, why didn’t I get that shot … sometimes I’m annoyed at myself for missing things that you then see later but you can’t get everything

So actually, you’re confronted with – every time, even now – with having to photograph a show where you might not know the script? The first time … and you don’t get a chance to do it again?


So you have to kind-of react …

In the moment.

So that’s why you’re in a kind of dream-like state because you have to be using your instincts in terms of crisis and development – the peaks in every musical unit or rhythmic unit of the play. That comes from your ballet, because you were dancing to music, weren’t you?


So, a good director will have rhythms. . . Then what are the difficulties, when you’ve thought: “Oh! l’m really not enjoying photographing this … or perhaps that’s never happened to you because only the best theatres and directors ask you to come?

The level in London is supreme. I mean there have been cases where the production just hasn’t been ready. They’re always fighting against such a tight scheduIe, and I have to photograph at the dress rehearsal and it’s not always ready, It’s not always finished but there’s always things you can still capture…. l think you make choices. If there’s not much to capture in the whole production then you go closer in to the actors … I think I make very instinctual choices there like, what will make this come across in the best possible way or visually. And sometimes if it’s an amazing spectacle you want to pull out, you want to show.

I always try and focus on the production because I think there’s so many talented people working on these productions that, yes there is a really good actor there but there is also the set, lights… But the problem is, sometimes they’ll change a major wig or something like that between dress and the press night and they’ll ask me to go back and do a quick photo call.


Gillian Anderson in A Streetcar Named Desire at the Young Vic.
Photo credit: Johan Persson


Do you have some theatres exclusively?

No, it used to be the Donmar when Michael was there towards the end of his tenure. Theatres now tend, as they should, to allow the directors to choose the photographer. When the play is coming up they approach the directors to ask to see who they want to be the photographer. It tends to be two, three months in advance; sometimes it’s very close too.

What happens once you’ve shot your photos?

What I’ll do is I’ll narrow down my shoot to what I think are the best ones, but there’s still quite a lot, and then it’s up to the press and the director to then pick the pictures that they think are best for the play, and sometimes they reject some pictures because they won’t want to give away a certain moment or something like that so it’s not really my choice. I kind-of narrow it down, but it’s always collaborative, the kind-of process.

What about your equipment?

When I first started at the Opera House I was still using colour film. It was just when digital was starting to come in. l used Fuji 1600. You get this (camera) and that (camera) and it builds. I’ve been at it for a while now…but it’s an expensive profession. Especially production photography. If you want better results you need the latest technology – cameras that can shoot in darker situations. I find in contemporary dance, they tend to light very dimly…at times you’re, like, “l can barely see”. You need cameras that focus better, faster. It’s slightly annoying, that side of things. At the beginning when you start out you’re quite excited about getting a new camera, now it’s just more of a pain because you have to learn new buttons. Before with film cameras it would last you your whole career, and the technology didn’t change that much, whereas now, it’s just every three-four years definitely I’m changing all the cameras.

That’s because you wouldn’t be competitive if you didn’t?

It’s wanting to achieve the most from your shoots. Partly it’s a personal thing as well. It could be that you could do it every six years too. But if I compare to what I was getting on film, there’s just no comparison.

Basically, the technological advances in cameras are matching what you would like a camera to do?

Yes, l think you can’t complain too much about technology.

And you find you can use the same equipment for theatre and dance?

Between all the performing arts there are a lot of similarities. l think dance and theatre have a lot in common.

One difference being the dialogue in theatre, and that’s why l like your photographs so much because l can always tell a story from them, I can always make them part of a narrative and l can understand what the play is about. You do photograph to tell a story?

My favourite photographs are when you feel like it’s real, like not theatre. When I go see theatre and get lost … even though you’re watching this artificial thing, but you get lost in it, you believe it, so my favourite pictures are when I achieve that – you can just believe it. I always feel empty when I’ve done a photo call, when they’ve set things up for you, and it’s partly because l just know I’ve photographed it for a photo call, but in a dress rehearsal it feels like the actors get into that space and they believe it, they believe in everything they’re doing, and you believe it. l think that comes across in the picture. So those are my favourite moments. When you’re photographing theatre, you’re not photographing the dialogue, so it is just the minute movements, and I think that’s where it is similar to dance. Although in dance you’re often trying to show the extreme movements, the lines, but what I tried in dance and in ballet is to also find the emotional drive, and those are the pictures that excited me the most.

You aren’t interested in showing off the ability of the human being, more the humanity of the human being?

Yes, that’s what interests me. In the Royal Ballet book I wasn’t going for any of the extreme athleticism – it was more like the cover photo: that‘s an emotional moment, that could be actors. I think that is always what has interested me, the quiet moments. I’ve always found it hard articulating. Probably why I’m attracted to visual and dance is because I’m not very language orientated … but I think it’s hard describing what you react to.