#MWChats: An interview with Joanne Coates

In our interview with Joanne Coates, the photographer behind some of the most honest and real fishing photos you’ll see and an MWC favourite, we learnt about Jo’s creative eye and sources of inspiration, the power of photography to affect change, and much more.

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How did you get into photography? What is your inspiration?

The road to becoming a photographer was not an easy one. Honestly, did I know that being a photographer was a job at 15? No, not a clue. I didn’t know anyone could be a photographer, an artist or in the creative industries. I am from rural, working class England.  Photography was, in a way, my escape route, and I thought London was where I had to be. That was it for me - I left home as soon as I could at sixteen and went to study Arts in London.  It gave me a purpose; it was a channel for my interests.

But it was not all I thought it would be. Having left home young, saved to get to university, and chosen an access course instead of traditional study routes, I felt like a fraud when I was suddenly surrounded by people who already had degrees - people who already had loads of experience, who were really very confident and felt like success was a given. I mean, I had never even owned an expensive camera!

I was very determined, and my ‘outsider’ status within photography I think drove and still drives me on – because I’m an insider when it comes to the issues I like to photograph. Photography for me is all about storytelling, about listening, about using my introvert skills to make a change in the world. From a young age I would immerse myself in books: Hans Christian Andersen, ‘Emily of New Moon’… whatever I could get my hands on! It was here I realised that through stories you can transform and challenges perspectives.

I’ve always had this maritime obsession, an interest in the sea – what is on it, what is in it. Real life stories, literature, coastal communities and rural life inspire me to this day and, I think, always will.

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You have a very raw style that gives a real insight into the lives of fishermen. How did this come to be your distinctive look?

I think it reflects my value as a person. It’s very honest, observant. There must always be more than just aesthetics for me. Photography is an incredibly powerful medium; it can be quiet and intimate but also a tool for social change, a chance for humans from different backgrounds to relate to each other. What I hope is that my work will inspire discussion and reflection and invite people to question and challenge society. I don’t think a single image alone can change things, but we can achieve great things through stories and collaboration.

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What do you find most exciting in a project or an image?

The chance to meet people - humans with stories who don’t even realise how unique, innovative and amazing they are.  I’ve met some wonderful people: fishermen who have told me personal stories, body builders in Australia who have spoken about toxic masculinity and mental health, female farmers who challenge perspectives while working incredibly hard. I feel so lucky to get the chance to meet and speak to people. This is what excites me: learning. Learning about people, about myself, and about stories and challenges.

 What has been the best moment in your career?

Eeeeeeee, well this is going to be a corny answer! Doing what I love. There were a few dark years where I didn’t think I would be okay or even come out the other side, but the chance to work on projects that make an impact for communities pulled me through. Not many people can say ‘I get to do what I love, what I’m obsessed about’. I just feel lucky and excited about every new project, every new story.

Can you give us a snapshot (if you’ll pardon the pun) into any upcoming projects of yours?

Fishing communities are something I will photograph for my entire career, and Brexit is obviously having an impact on them. I am currently looking at this – not in isolation, but also in the light of the industry’s history and the uncertainty of its future, fishing stories, climate change, and sustainability. This is something I will continue to passionately work on. 

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I am always making work about the farming communities around me in the Yorkshire Dales and am currently working on a story about rural schools in the North of England. So a lot of work that is centred around rural issues!

On the commercial side, I also have exciting projects with the brilliant Fishing into the Future, with businesswomen that inspire me across the country, with Creative Darlington on a big project involving social engagement and the community, working in partnership with design agencies, and making social changes to the arts industry through my arts organisation Lens Think. I’ve been working with a brilliant fly fisherwoman Marina Gibson and am continuing on with projects with her that are really very inspiring. I’m sure I have forgotten something!

Thank you so much for giving such an in-depth look into your work, Jo.

Thank you for interviewing me, it’s been lovely.