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Jules Tomi, on la quotidienne, Robert Doisneau, and photography as ‘art’

by Aimée Tian

It’s 8pm on a dreary Monday night and Jules and I have agreed to meet at Café Aunja. The place is packed with people chattering away, their voices blending into the soft melodic tunes of the Indie playlist that scores the background. I sit down with my latté, close to the window so he can find me easily. As any good millennials would do, we’ve creeped each other on Facebook - so I know I’m looking for a tall bearded blonde. He arrives ten early and I kick myself a bit for almost being late, as usual.

Jules Tomi is a U3 Sociology student at McGill, minoring in East Asian Studies.

Aimée Tian: Let’s get these questions out of the way. Where are you from originally? 

Jules Tomi: I’m from here (Montréal) but my parents are French…I would say that I identify pretty strongly with French culture. 

AT: And what do you study here at McGill? 

JT: I’m majoring in Sociology and minoring in East Asian Studies…I’ve been learning Korean for two years. I went to Korea this summer for two months and worked on a photography project over there. The theme was ‘post-industrial melancholy’ - it’s a bit vague, but you could see it as a work of ethnography, I suppose. I would walk in the city for hours and take shots of random people; random snippets of everyday scenes, and I would try to portray the overall mood that I was feeling while I was there. Also regarding that project, I am working on my first exhibition which is to be held in January. That exhibition will be dedicated to the pictures from my trip.

AT: Is this your first time showing with FDG

JT: This will actually be my third. I was featured in Inspired by… as well as Perspectives/Perceptions…but I would consider my previous work to be less mature than what I am doing now. I’ve been doing photography for about seven years but only two years ago did I start taking it seriously and really reflecting on the patterns within my work; theorizing my work. Last year I was still figuring out what I was trying to do. 

AT: Do you process your own prints as well? 

JT: I try to, as much as possible. I develop and print my black and white photos by myself, but I don’t with colour because it’s more complicated and I’ve yet to learn how to, but eventually I want to. 

AT: Do you work out of a studio at home then? 

JT: No actually, at McGill in the SSMU building there’s the darkroom, and MUPSS. And I’m the darkroom manager of the club - it’s sort of my own little studio so I’m always there. And because I’m the manager of the darkroom, I have to also refill the chemicals when they’re exhausted and that’s a further connection that I have with the medium. I’m not just using the products, I know a bit more about them. I can definitely see myself working in a lab in the future.   

AT: So how did this all start? What’s your story? 

JT: When I was fourteen, my mom bought me a photography book on French photographer Robert Doisneau, and I instantly fell in love with his work. I would just keep looking at his pictures, all the time. Then for my birthday that year, a close friend of my mom’s bought me a camera - a film camera, because that’s what I wanted. And so I shot in film for a couple of years, moved to digital, came back to film, and decided to abandon digital because I felt like film photography was pushing me more due to the fact that I would only have a limited amount of shots [to work with]. 

AT: Would you say that Doisneau has had a lot of influence in your work? 

JT: I would say that he used to - he definitely impacted what I consider to be my favourite subjects in photography: mostly street scenes, portraiture and shots of daily life. He’s considered a humanist, and that’s what I liked about his work, so I started taking pictures of the same types of subjects, and even now it’s still what I like to do. But Doisneau shot mostly in black and white…or at least he is remembered for his black and white photography. So I only shot in black and white for four years until I eventually grabbed [a roll of] colour film. And it’s funny because now, I tend to mostly shoot in colour. Once in a while I’ll shoot in black and white, because that’s how I learned to shoot. 

AT: Do you notice any main differences when you shoot black and white? 

JT: Well for me, and I think for any photographer, it is a really different way of thinking about the picture. With black and white, you need to think more in terms of masses - for example, I like pictures to have a strong contrast, because I feel like this makes them stronger than a big range of greys. Whereas if I want a lot of nuances, I’ll shoot in colour. I wouldn’t shoot the same way, I’m not looking for the same things as in colour. 

AT: What are you looking for then? 

JT: I’ve always found it harder to shoot black and white, even though that’s what I started with. I guess you just really need to know what you’re doing. I think I’m more selective with my shots when I’m shooting black and white…the subject matter remains mostly the same, but I know that if I’m shooting in black and white, there’s certain lighting conditions that I wouldn’t engage with. If the light is just flat, I wouldn’t find it very interesting. If I’m shooting colour, I’m looking more to represent a subject in itself, whereas for black and white, it would be more de-composed masses - I’m looking for something more. I think you can see it quite clearly in these shots *points to Nnaemeka 1, 2, 3 *. For me, black and white photography is closer to art. 

AT: Do you care to explain that? 

JT: Well, it goes with what I just said: if I’m shooting in colour, there’s less mediation. Shooting black and white sets up an intermediary - I personally feel that when I’m shooting black and white it’s more for an artistic purpose, while colour represents photojournalism, more documentary-style photography. Colour is just simply closer to how we see the world, so I guess it’s more natural for our eyes. Black and white is a medium, whereas colour is the immediate reality. 

AT: Do you prefer indoors or outdoors? 

JT: Generally speaking, I would say mainly outdoors because indoors is pretty limiting. With black and white photography sometimes you’ll have really good lighting indoors and the shapes will work really well. But since I shoot in film, I’m pretty limited to the range of exposures that I can achieve, so shooting indoors can be more difficult.

AT: Let’s turn to the prints that you submitted in the Nnaemeka series. How did these come to be? 

JT: So I was with my friend in his room while he was getting ready for his birthday dinner and I was just playing around with my camera. I always carry a camera with me. My friends are used to it - I’m always taking pictures of them and they probably don’t even notice anymore. Taking these kinds of pictures of my friends is the same thing as taking pictures of random people in the street. It’s basically just documenting things how I see them - without you know, having people pose for things. 

I feel like maybe this series looks more like fashion photography, but for me it is actually coherent to what I usually do. 

AT: Is Nnaemeka is a candid work then?

JT: Yeah. What made me want to take those pictures in that particular moment was that he was coming out of the shower, and you aren’t really able to tell here, but there were little drops of water on his back, and I was just really fascinated with the way the light was reflecting off of the curve of his back. 

And also, when I was taking those pictures, I was using a camera I usually never use also a type of film that I was unfamiliar with, so it kind of came as a pleasant surprise.

AT: And what’s the inspiration behind the name? 

JT: So, the title…well this friend of mine, he’s actually from Nigeria. This is just his first name, but he doesn’t use it here because people aren’t really able to say it.

AT: When you are in the process of shooting, do you have a vision in mind, something that you hope audiences will retract from your work? Do you want it to parallel your own feelings? 

JT: That’s a good question. I tend to think that what I see in the world is more than merely my own feelings, that it is part of a more theoretical analysis that I have of the world. When I am shooting, I’m not necessary feeling - instead, when I’m walking in the street, sometimes I’ll just see a picture - it will occur to me that there is a picture to be taken. And sometimes I’ll have my camera on me, or sometimes I’m not ready. I sort of see in pictures. Sometimes I take them, other times I don’t. Also, something that is funny is that when I go out deliberately with the intention to shoot, I always need a warm-up period. I’m a bit shy at the beginning. As you know, I shoot a lot of random people, so sometimes you’re afraid that they’re going to react aggressively. 

AT: Have you ever run into any problems with that? 

JT: *laughs* Not really…I think the worst has been one guy who was visibly upset, and was like, “Hey! What are you going to do with that picture?”, and I’m like, “I don’t know, probably nothing”. 

AT: And what does your warm-up process usually involve? 

JT: Honestly, usually taking bad pictures. Cause during that period, even if I see a picture, I don’t have the guts to take it. Or I’ll take non-human pictures. But once I’m over that I can get pretty reckless. 

AT: Do you find yourself having to dedicate a certain block of time towards your photography and processing pictures? 

JT: I would say that it’s a part of my daily life, it’s unusual for me to not carry a camera with me. And going into the darkroom and processing film or making prints is for me equivalent to watching a movie, etc. And since it’s so fun for me, I find that sometimes I maybe dedicate too much time. Like, maybe I should be studying right now instead of doing these things. Sometimes I won’t shoot for two weeks at a time, because I’m busy, or I just don’t feel like it, but I never feel like I have to push myself to take pictures or to do whatever. It really just comes naturally. 

AT: Are you planning on pursuing a career in this field? 

JT: I’m still trying to figure out where I fit - where my photography fits, within the wide spectrum of photographies. I would like to work in photojournalism or documentary-photography. Art photography just for the sake of art doesn’t really interest me. Because I’m in Sociology, I sort of see underlying meanings everywhere, and that’s why I’m also interested in daily life shots, or symbols of banality. 

AT: So do you not believe in the concept of ‘art for art’s sake’ within your own work? 

JT: I think that my photography has to have a purpose that isn’t itself. I need to be saying something more. 

AT: What is it that you hope audiences are able to take away from your work? 

JT: The least that I can hope for is a sentiment.

Jules Tomi’s work will be on display at Glass Door Gallery, this Friday November 18th from 6 - 9 PM for our fall vernissage, Process(ed).

You can find more of Jules’ work on his website and his Instagram page.

To find out more about his upcoming exhibition, Séoul, c’est loin, you can visit this page.

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