THE AFTERNOON LIGHT SHINES BRIGHT
an Interview with Juan Jerez | Paris, France
by Mick ter Reehorst
The Parisian buildings shine picture-perfect in the early afternoon light. The city is showing itself in its most beautiful state. The streets brim with people going to or coming back from their lunch appointments. They buzz around the many restaurants along Rue de Roquette, near Bastille in the eastern part of the French capital. I enter the Cafe de l’Industrie, which is full of people speaking over the noise in French and other languages.
Juan Jerez (36) is sitting with his camera on his lap, crammed in between two other lunch groups, as he waves to me and smiles. The friendly Spanish photographer is sporting a casual jacket and horn-rimmed glasses, and points at the chair opposite him. Within a minute, a stressed out and slightly sweating serveuse appears at our table. The waitress takes the order - two 12 euro lunch menus - takes the unused menus and heads off again. Juan leans over the table and says: “I like this place. It has the right mix of people to not feel too excluded or too much into it.” Ok, Juan. Let's go.
But before I can ask the first question, he holds his camera in front of his face, points it towards another table where a couple is holding hands, zooms in and snaps.
Juan’s Instagram profile has over 200.000 followers and is full of photos: beautifully lit Parisian rooftops, the Eiffel tower, and the city’s classical buildings with cast iron balconies. There’s the occasional portrait, some travel photos and a series on a trip he took with an electrical Renault car. “Almost every day I take the same street, Rue de Roquette, back and forth from home to my office. I think I have taken thousands of photos on that street, not kidding. I shoot from the hip, so that people don’t notice it. I have a 35 millimeter lens, so I know the distance and, with the help of autofocus, I can capture the real life, not the posing you get with portraits.”
Born in the Spanish city of Granada (“the Alhambra is the perfect place to start photography!”), Juan is an architect, art historian and photographer. He’s been living in Paris for the last five years. At age twenty-two, he moved from Granada to Rome, a city that had a “magical attraction”. He fell in love with the “architectural composition of the city” and stayed in Italy for seven years. He moved back to Madrid for a year to start a career in architecture. After that, he was beckoned to Paris by an Italian friend. He met his Italian girlfriend here, and hasn’t been tempted to go back ever since.
“I spent most of my life abroad. I love those conditions: they are good for photography. You see more, you pay more attention to things you wouldn’t normally see. And you learn to step back a little.” Juan is happy in Paris as the city provides him with an endless supply of inspiration. Parisians appreciate art and culture more, he says. “In Spain, if you tell someone you’re a photographer, they laugh a bit and say ‘good luck’! In Paris, people are interested. They have an eye for design, you can see that everywhere.”
He has been in the Instagram game for over four years. He is slowly building up a wide array of pictures of Paris, and testing the waters with old photos he took in Rome and Spain. When Instagram noticed him and gave him a nod in one of their highly influential and far-reaching blog posts, his number of followers shot through the roof. “Now, I get about one or two requests per week, asking me to promote this watch or that car. I say no to 90% of these requests.”
What he did accept though, was taking the new electrical Renault car Zoe for a spin in Normandy under the hashtag #ZoeCityBreak. “That is different, it was an electric car. Why not? I pay attention to the climate change problem, and this is something I would like to support ”. He says he considers every request, and judges it according to his personal values. “I don’t really want to criticize, but there are many people out there who sell out. They just show watches, cars and other stuff. It feels a bit like prostitution sometimes.”
After the entree - poached eggs with a goat cheese salad - he takes his camera and talks slowly and intensely about the lens he is using at the moment. He mentions how it influences the way he sees people on the street and the interplay of light and buildings. Then, as his eye catches something through the window, he presses the viewfinder to his eye and carefully starts adjusting and snapping for a full five minutes. “Sorry, I am working on a series of people hanging out of their balconies, and I couldn’t let this opportunity pass.”
His face turns slightly sour when I mention the word hobby and photography in one go, but smiles when he says, “I hate it when people call it a hobby. It’s my passion, my way of life, my way of looking at the world.”
His early years as a photographer were marked by an obsession with some of his photographer idols; he began reproducing their imagery, their compositions and their styles. It wasn’t until Rome that he really got the hang of what it means to be an urban photographer. “That city is perfect for photography. I learned my techniques there, learned about the composition of architecture and streets, the lighting. It was just the perfect city.”
I ask him why he still works as an architect in his Parisian office every day. “A good question…”, and is silent for a minute as the cafe noise swells. “Photography is my artistic side. I mostly make money with my photos. But I continue to do architecture, because it’s also interesting. It makes you look at a city in an interesting way.” He repeats his opinion of people who just do things for money, and it is no different on Instagram. “I don’t like taking photos that will get likes. I do my work: if people like it, OK, if people don’t like it, OK.”
He really tries to engage with all his followers, despite his expansive collection and high pace of his posts. Most photos get thousands of likes, and hundreds of comments. Especially in the early days, he thanked every commenter for a compliment and responded to every question. As the account grew a little too big, he is seeing Instagram more and more as a professional outlet. “Instagram is a new economy. It is so big and influential these days. Everyone can do it, and everyone is on it. But to stand out you have to be lucky.” He certainly is lucky, as he mentions the sums of money that could be be made with certain deals. Then, when the main course - fish in a tomato sauce - is almost finished, he snatches his camera again and points it out of the window. “The same old woman is standing on her balcony.”
What is interesting is that Juan rarely uses his phone for Instagram photography, even though that is what the app mostly caters to. Juan usually carries around his camera everywhere. Yet, after the Paris attacks in 2015 he felt that people were less willing to be photographed. He switched to a smaller camera, the one he carefully keeps on his lap during the lunch, to shoot from the hip while walking down the streets. He said this before, but it doesn’t really matter. Because throughout it all there is this passion for urban ambiences. He almost wants to create a painting.
When I scroll through his Instagram account, Paris and Rome do actually come to life. The buildings almost jump out of the screen and the light is incredible.
“Citylife is just so diverse, so versatile. There is so much to see.”
While he does not take many of the lucrative deals offered to him because of his steadily growing following, he does enjoy the benefits of being a popular Instagrammer through traveling. “I went to Australia, Indonesia, Norway, Finland. They pay the travel costs for me, and I take photos. I don’t always earn money with it, but I get to see the world. I can show other cultures to my followers. That is pretty great.”
After a quick one-gulp Italian-style espresso, the waitress arrives with the bill. She is still lightly sweating, but looking markedly more relaxed as most of the booths have emptied out after the lunch hours.
Juan might not take most deals, but in the end he can make some good money with the ones he does take. His Instagram posts about the Renault project show some amazing sunset views along the coast of Normandy and read: ‘I spent last weekend in Normandie, driving Renault ZOE, a new electric car. It was wonderful to visit all those beautiful landscapes with 0 emissions.’
“It’s about balance, it’s about reputation. And it’s not bad to make some money with it in the end, right?”
Sure, Instagram is a game changer for photographers. And the travel photos are cool. But it’s his urban photography appeals to me the most. And apparently I’m not alone in that, as his nearly 200.000 followers show. It sounds like a dream job, being able to walk through the city, snap away and earn money with it. But it’s not a job, it’s not a hobby, it’s apparently a way of life.