In a way, art has always been subjective in the eyes of the beholder. Meaning that art forms can range from a mural on the side of the I-10 freeway as you pass by, to the arrangement of flowers someone has delicately potted throughout their garden. Art can also be a song you blast regularly that allows you to feel an emotion that you can’t quite put into words. Art also has the incredible power to not only be something that you physically see, but rather what you feel. And that’s what Jonathon emits in his art form—photography.
Jonathan Del Real is a twenty-two year old Latino photographer from Los Angeles, California. He’s a photographer that relies all on instincts, gut feelings, and the power of winging it—but in the best way possible. While other photographers preach on the best equipment and programs to use, Jon has always kept focused on one thing: staying true to who you are and the form of finding your passion by simply doing it. You don’t necessarily need the nicest tools to get started, all you need is yourself.
I was able to talk to Jonathan through FaceTime while both of us were quarantined at home, enjoying a few snacks over our call. Jonathan opened up about his start and the long road he’s endured with photography, how his project At Home With Jon was birthed from a unique shoot at a small apartment complex, the ideals of finding your passion, and knowing how to follow it.
When did the beginning phases of photography start for you? How did you know that was your passion?
JON: I’ve always really dug any form of art since I was young. I liked drawing and anything visual, but I sucked at drawing. I’m a very impatient person and drawing takes too long, so I kind of gave up on that. Then I thought I might as well try graphic design but I still sucked at that too. It just dawned on me at one point and I was like, “hey, lets try taking some photos.” So I did exactly that. I originally wanted to do movies and film at first, that was the goal in the beginning. I remember in middle school I wanted to get a camera, it was around 2011 and I wanted the Canon T3i and it was the new thing then. It was the brand new beginner camera and I remember it being around $800 which I obviously couldn’t afford. When I got to high school, I wanted to take video classes, but at the time I was one of those teens where I would just let whatever happened around me just happen (meaning I wouldn’t storm over to the counselors office and ask why I didn’t get in or how I could). I wasn’t one to stand up for myself. Towards the end of high school is when I finally got into the video classes and they were terrible because no one wanted to be there and actually learn. It was just unmotivating because no one wanted to take it seriously other than me. That’s around the time I was looking at Tumblr and seeing all the cool photos online and I knew I wanted to do that, and that I can do that, I just needed the equipment. It’s interesting because you do and you don’t. Meaning you definitely need the tools, but not the newest and most expensive tools.
Wow, so you were essentially starting off with no knowledge or even the best equipment. So how did you get your hands on your first camera?
So after high school which was in 2016, the two years after I seriously didn’t do a damn thing. I just worked in retail, spent my money on dumb shit and just went home. I did that for two years and then the third year I got a new phone and I bought a fisheye lens. And I just thought, “I really want to start taking pictures already. Let’s just do it,” and honestly that’s what I did. I just started taking pictures on my phone of someone I met at a party a while back—I ended up hitting her up to photograph. I got my first camera in mid-2018 and it’s ironic because it was the camera I mentioned earlier that I wanted in middle school and I ended up getting it for really cheap. For me, the camera was still good even though it came out six years ago, I really made what I could out of it. So I started taking street photography until I blossomed into what I do now.
What equipment do you use for your projects?
So I still use the Canon Rebel T3i that came out in 2011. It’s very much a beginner’s camera that you can still buy. As soon as I got the camera I knew I couldn’t use VSCO anymore, I just can’t use presets. I knew I needed to invest in my skills so I actually would just sit down and edit things myself instead of slapping a filter on it.
It’s so interesting because I know you have had that camera for awhile. I know certain photographers who would prefer to have high-end equipment, but for you it seems it’s always just been about simplicity and using the resources you have. So what’s your advice for anyone just starting with maybe an older camera? Do you feel that as long as you build your skillset you’ll be fine?
Depending on the resources you have, it’s certainly what you are willing to compromise and what you are willing to do. So for instance, I have my old camera and I know its limitations. For instance, when I did a shoot with [Holly], [Holly’s] bedroom during the day is too dark and shadowy. So because of that, I couldn’t necessarily take photos with natural light because it’s too dark. I have to compensate by using my flash feature. Because I know that I can’t photograph indoors, I’ll just turn on my flash and create some cool concepts with that, which adds a nice style to it actually. Sometimes with compromise, that’s when you really figure out your style. It’s just what you do and how you get by with what you got. When you have limitations that’s when you have the most freedom to experiment and really find what you are into because you are not relying on the newest tricks or everything available to you. You are really pushing to kinda figure it out on your own.
Do you think your skillset got better because of those limitations?
I’ll be honest, I never consider myself the best and I always think that there’s room for improvement. Any of my old photos I will end up hating. Some of them are actually great though, some of them I do like a bunch but most of the time I just don’t like it as much. To be honest, I wing it a lot of the time. You know I never really went to school for photography so I didn’t learn the correct techniques or technical stuff to it. No disrespect to anyone who has gone to school for this, but most of the time those photographers want a technical aspect so everything has to be perfect. It becomes the same stuff that you see everywhere else and there’s no personal branding to it. But like I said, I feel like I don’t know jack. I really wing it and feel it as I go. Everything changes so rapidly at shows so I just wing it if I’m doing photos for bands. All in all, it’s just winging it all the time until you find that sweet spot. It’s like I’m having to learn how to use a camera again basically every time I shoot because each time is different. I don’t work in a studio setting so I don’t have that consistency. It’s all about instinct. What we make is who we are in terms of creatively just putting it down. You don’t have to obtain the perfect technique to make good shit. If you like it, you like it. Sometimes you’ll never be in love with your art, and that’s okay because it’s just a stepping stone for whatever you end up creating that you finally fall in love with. And I think i’m almost there. Only because I still feel like I’m in that evolving aspect because I’m still growing and I’m only twenty two years old. I still have so much more to go.
Your style has such a unique way of capturing color and the exact setting each subject is in. How did you find that aesthetic and style for your photos?
It’s hard to say because I honestly mess around with things when I edit and I just think it looks nice or not in that moment. But as far as flash goes, I use a bunch of it. That’s also because, like I mentioned, I’m compensating. You know all the media we consume is always inspiration for something else. So for me being on Tumblr, I would always come across the American Apparel shots or the Terry Richardson photos. I remember just looking at Terry’s photos with the harsh flash and really digging that style. I don’t try to emulate his style, but he gave me inspiration for what I’m using. Again, I just tweak photos until I truly like something. I love warmer photos so I try to create that with the color scheme.
Do you feel that POC photographers in Los Angeles have been properly represented and respected?
Almost all the photographers that I know personally are all people of color. There might be two or three that aren’t but in general it’s a melting pot. But most of these photographers do street photography, so they won’t get as much representation. Not because they’re POC but because of the genre that they are in. Sometimes it can boil down to just that. I have personally never ran into experiences where my ethnicity of being Latino has given me issues with professional settings but my scene or circle of people also happen to be POC. I haven’t experienced a lack of representation but I will say that we’re lucky to be in Los Angeles because it’s such a melting pot of different ethnicities. I think if we were somewhere else, it could be a different story.
Can you discuss some of the photography work you do for Trash Mag?
It was around last year in 2019 in January, I started following more people on Instagram just to connect more with others, so I started to follow Junior High’s account. I just started following everyone that they did. I saw the recap photos they also had on their page of when Trash Mag and Sleezehog had their first night of queer expression. It was the first night that they ever did that so I followed Trash Mag and anyone else who is tagged like now my friend Natalie who runs Sleezehog. I also followed Sara who co-runs Trash Mag. So a few weeks pass by and I remember Sara posting on her story asking if anyone knew how to use a camera and if someone could teach her. I thought well this is the perfect way to connect, so I messaged her saying I could teach her and we ended up meeting up and became friends. I started going to their shows and I think around last April is when I decided to bring my camera to one of their house shows they put on. I wasn’t actually going to take photos at the show because they already had a photography intern for the summer. But I was just taking photos of friends and people there at the show and eventually the internships started ending. So I told Sara if they ever needed anyone to photograph their shows from here on out I could and they were down. The first show I shot for Trash Mag was one of their zine releases at The Smell. I was only taking photos for the events and shows, and the first issue I helped shoot was the one that recently just dropped for the Transitions issue.
Can you talk a little about your personal project and series called At Home With Jon? How was that born?
I just want to say first of all, that it’s so ironic that everyone’s at home now and I can’t necessarily do this project. Everyone’s quarantined and I can’t go to everyone’s home to take photos. Funny, right? But I don’t mind being on hiatus, it’s good for now. This project actually started as an accident and just me winging it at a shoot. Most of my projects are birthed out of boredom or just winging it at something. I didn’t really have a game plan for it all. So I have a friend named Taylor and she’s in the band called The Tenth and I asked her if we could shoot. We ended up picking a day but she only had a small window of time to take pictures that day. I remember just asking her, “Should we just take pictures at your apartment?” and she was all in for that. That happened around sometime last year in 2019, that’s when I began the At Home With Jon project. Also, I realized not everyone can go to certain locations for shoots and not only that, but I started thinking about how unique everyone’s home is. Because at the end of the day your space is you, and represents your space to create. It’s also so personal because you’re able to see how comfortable each person is in their space and most importantly how unique each shoot can turn out.
What’s one piece of advice you would give to anyone that’s trying to get into photography in Los Angeles?
It’s so stereotypical to say, but it’s simply just going out and doing it. Meaning, see what you can do with what you have. If you know it’s possible to do something then just do it. Or if there’s no possible compromise to do what you would want to do, then you just have to wait it out. Meaning just hustle, save money and do it. Like me, because I realized while shooting with people that it was really about being friendly and willing to work with people. Just be kind and be yourself, especially in Los Angeles. There’s too much flexing going on with no substance to it. Just being genuine with yourself, instead of doing something for clout or for others. Humans naturally just gravitate to other humans who are true to themselves. Everyone has their own experience, but I feel that it holds true with anything. As long as it’s for yourself, trust me you’re still on your path to obtaining what you really want.
You can follow Jon on Instagram here.