Christina Jansen: A Portrait of a Photographer

The art of the portrait photographer has like so many other professions been challenged by a consumer savvy society geared up with the latest hi-tech gadgetry and professional online tutorial knowledge that would challenge any seasoned pro. No matter how you choose to go about getting pictures for your social or professional networking sites, having a professional set of photographs is an absolute must, providing you with the images that represent you and your business in the best possible light. The Presenter Magazine went along to interview portrait photographer and all-round artistic guru Christina Jansen to find out about the life of a photographer.

There was a warm welcoming feeling walking into Greenberry’s, a boutique-style café in the auspicious grounds of Primrose Hill and it wasn’t just the familiar aroma of fresh coffee and freshly cooked food or the easy-going chuntering of its clients in the background. Above the brasserie styled mirrored walls there are a collection of immaculate portrait photographs of some well-known celebrities, some of whom reside in the local area, who are looking down knowingly from above. I had been invited along to interview the perpetrator of these tastefully done photographs Christina Jansen, a professional portrait photographer, herself immaculately turned out and a resident in the area since her early 20s. She speaks with a posh, slightly received pronunciation – perhaps telling signs of her neighbourhood and her circle of art world friends but it hasn’t always been like that. 

A Dutch-Scouser she was born in Holland, next to the Ajax football stadium and she spent her early childhood in the comfortable surroundings of the Dutch polder lands. Her Dutch father was a photojournalist and her English mother was a writer/translator for a Disney magazine and among their family acquaintances was none other than Johan Cruyff. Sadly, her mother and father separated, which resulted in her mother taking her and her brother to the UK when she was 10 years old. She arrived in South Devon, on a council estate, where her mother’s family then resided and it was here she began her schooling in English.

Christina’s journey into photography wasn’t as straight forward as you’d expect with a photojournalist as a father and it was indeed because of her father that she did not immediately want to be a photographer, but art was in her blood and at first, she began a foundation course, before discovering a rare bachelor’s degree in the arts where she could study multiple disciplines at what she described as a very arty place. Students could come to study music, drama, English, art and dance and the environment was the ideal setting for young students to develop their talent.

“Artists, musicians, actors, writers we were all on the same campus so all of us could put decent shows together. We had Cornelia Parker who is now a famous sculptress and is now an artist in residence, and because it was experimental we had all the top people visiting us on our campus in Crewe.”

From these inspiring surroundings, Christina began to envisage her place in the world of art and the work she wanted to evolve. A seminal moment for her was seeing the work of Don McCullin and in particular a photograph of a starving child, but it wasn’t just the power of the image that made an impression on Christina, it was the impact of the caption underneath which had a lasting effect on her and her work – “Her Name Is Patience.” This would not only form the basis of her thesis but a life-long relationship with pictures and words.

Her first folly into photography after graduating was to photograph the pre-1920s buildings of Stoke-On-Trent for the town’s museum archives. The joy of working as a photographer was equally matched by her desire to be in London and it wasn’t long before she was mixing with the very in-crowd of Soho ably escorted by her then-unknown boyfriend from back home in Dartmoor, a certain Peter Richardson, who funnily enough, would go on to establish the UK’s largest alternative comedy collective in the form of ‘The Comic Strip’.

Working as a photographic consultant for a firm on Oxford Street, she did a little modelling too, which she hated and whilst working as a photographer she had her own experience of #metoo, “…being chased every time I went into my boss’ office. Nowadays he’d be reported”. She ended up working with a jingle company and a guy called Jonathan Hodge who famously wrote: “A Mars a day, helps you work, rest and play!” Here she enjoyed the everyday interaction working with advertising companies, taking the clients to lunch and setting up deals and was eventually headhunted to run a TV and radio jingle company ‘Jingle Zone’ in Soho owned by ‘Zomba Music’. 

For three years I ran the company by myself, but I never dropped photography entirely. I’d do album covers and publicity shots.

Christina had made her mark in photography very early on in her career quite unwittingly when she was invited down to the Fulham Film Studios to photograph an advertising campaign where, unbeknownst to her, the star of the commercial was none other than boxing legend and former heavyweight champion of the world Muhammad Ali. This was in 1986, unaware to begin with and unaffected by the situation, even as a young female photographer, to be working so intimately with Muhammad Ali.

“I had no idea really at the time how mega that was and also because he was so sweet and down to earth and normal you didn’t feel like you were with some major icon at all. I got on really well with him: he treated everyone with respect and was curious about them. It enabled me to get some warm intimate photographs.

She soon realized over the 2 -3 weeks this was no ordinary guy and no ordinary commercial shoot – something that would change her life forever. She took plenty of pictures and even though straight out of university she was smart enough to keep the copyright of the photographs, several of which have become quite iconic in the legacy of Ali and have been immortalized in the film, “I’m Ali”; a film on which she was a credited researcher for. It wasn’t just the photographs that left their mark on her life but the words, the philosophy and even the poetry Ali wrote to her that made this special shoot, extra special and she still remembers them to this day.

“One thing he liked to say was, “If you reach for the moon you might end up next door. If you reach for the stars, you’ll get to the moon!”

She didn’t immediately find a place for the photographs and said she only showed one picture for about 20 years but after an exhibition at a Muslim gym in St. John’s Wood a lot of paparazzi showed up and she realized there was a market for them. She feels very protective of the images and her relationship with Ali, not wishing to make money out of his name but has found a balance by working closely alongside Ali’s family and charities. 

Tapestry, the company that printed the images, wanted to put them in their gallery in Soho, which was a dream come true for the young photographer and she’s since taken the exhibition “In the Rings with Ali” from London to Bradford. When the 2012 Olympic Games came to London, Christina decided to put on an ambitious exhibition as the Games happened to coincide with Ali’s 70th birthday. She readily admits the event nearly killed her. She organized 70 photographs of Ali from photographers from around the world to celebrate the occasion and was pleased with the overall outcome. Although Ali wasn’t well enough to open the exhibition, his brother did and lots of famous faces came along to the exhibition including Michael Watson, the now wheelchair-bound boxer, who opened the Paralympics show and she worked alongside some worthy charities too like Parkinson’s and Amnesty International. 

This has all led her to become an ambassador for a charity ‘Boxing Futures’ who take kids from off the street and that’s her next big project trying to get a boxing charity exhibition into the Houses of Parliament and the Great Hall, something her artistic mentor, Cornelia Parker, managed to do.  She wants to show the pictures and poetry of Ali, as an inspiration that he continues to be as a champion and role model to people and highlight how the ‘Boxing Futures’ charity can provide real inspiration and support to children and communities.

She maintains her connection with the sporting and celebrity world as a portrait photographer and has recently finished a photoshoot with the up and coming boxer Joe Joyce. She also has a close affinity with music and musicians too and shot the iconic looking fender guitar used by Hank Marvin on the song Apache for the front cover of a rock ‘n’ roll history book. She’s most recently been invited to do the official portraits for the 60th anniversary of the Shadows where she hopes to add some more celebrity faces to her own hall of fame including Robert Plant, Van Morrison and Nigel Kennedy from the music world as well as other famous names and faces from television like Jon Snow, Joan Bakewell and Mary Portas.

As she so deftly puts it she has shot everything from food to sex. She was the inaugural photographer for the very first photographic version of the once infamous book “The Joy of Sex”, although she coyly admits she only photographed the cover and not the rest of the book inside – as this would have been “too much even for a Dutch girl”. She also did a photography book about pregnancy and childcare whilst being pregnant herself that gave her her very own step-by-step guide to pregnancy and resulted in a book that was like her very own family photo album of some of the local women at the pregnant mother’s yoga class and included her own naked, 8 months pregnant Demi Moore pose and not forgetting her newly arrived daughter too. 

Her foray into TV was brief and not totally unsuccessful. Initially, she had researched a programme that was to be the follow up to the clothes show. She was unceremoniously cut, she felt, in favour of a male presenter. Hardly breaking news 20 years ago but would maybe raise an eyebrow or two today. She did eventually get offered a show on the BBC, alongside Liza Goddard, about how to take photos of your pets and even though the show aired on primetime it didn’t lead to the series of programmes she’d hoped for.

Whilst having experienced most of what a photographer’s journey entails including weddings, food, travel and babies she’s been most content focusing her attention on portrait photography. 

“Through photography, I’ve been to the most amazing places and met the most amazing people. It has opened doors I thought I would never enter. My camera and I have been all over the place. I never wanted to become a photojournalist like my father. I didn’t want to take pictures of people who didn’t want to be photographed. That’s been my rule. … I thought it best to let people know I am a professional portrait photographer…people don’t trust you if you seem to be too diverse.”

She works from her home studio and besides all the usual technical stuff about photography, she knows from experience as a photographer and a model, the importance of making the sitter feel relaxed.

“I love people coming to my Primrose Hill studio. They always have a good time. They trust me and feel relaxed. I think in all modesty that’s how I get my lovely responses from people. Most people are terrified to start with. When it comes down to it photography is about getting on with people, as well as lighting, composition and using your imagination.

What advice would she give aspiring photographers or presenters? For her, it’s about passion. You have to be passionate about what you do and also be prepared for some of the foibles of a tough industry to be able to survive and succeed. The industry is constantly evolving and she is still learning herself with all the new technology and social media possibilities, something the next generation of photographers will always have an advantage with, having grown up using the likes of Instagram and Facebook. 

When she learnt her craft a lot of a photographer’s work would be divided into different departments but nowadays, she explains they are expected to do it all. These challenges she finds invigorating and she can still stand resolute in her knowledge and mastery of photography on how to create the perfect portrait.

“I love taking portraits. There is a hell of a difference between an amateur portrait. You can get a reasonable pic but if you want a decent, moody, properly lit classic image … get a professional. You don’t have to be famous by the way…I’m very good at making somebody look more beautiful and you can’t see I’ve done it. That’s a big skill. People love to think that I haven’t done anything!”

She is an artist in residence at the Gallery Different in Fitzrovia where you can often find her work exhibited and has always considered herself an artist-photographer. Currently, she is working on a portrait painting of Ali from one of her iconic photographs of the boxing legend. It might turn out to be a nostalgic throwback to her student days when she first started out experimenting with silkscreen printing. We’ll have to wait and see how things develop.

Julian Gaskell