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Off Camera: Celebrity photographer launches new interview project

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Sam Jones is one of Hollywood’s most acclaimed photographers. His celebrity portraits—of people such as George Clooney, Ben Affleck, Bob Dylan, Kristen Stewart — have appeared on the covers of Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly and Men’s Journal.  

Now Jones has decided that he’s not satisfied just focusing his camera on actors and musicians. He wants to find a way to memorialize what he calls one of the best (but never seen or published) parts of his job — the informal conversations between Jones and his subjects in the middle of a photo shoot.

His solution is called Off Camera, what Jones terms a combination “website, magazine, television show and podcast” featuring Jones’ black-and-white photography and in-depth interviews conducted by the photographer.

Launched in late April, OC’s first four subjects were actors Robert Downey Jr. and John Krasinski and musicians Aimee Mann and Blake Mills. Jones says future subjects could include directors, athletes, artists— whoever Jones believes has a compelling story to tell.

Here are edited excerpts from an interview with Sam Jones about the history and goals of the project:

Why did you want to start Off Camera?

I have had the good fortune of being in the company of many of the iconic artists of our time, and often my greatest memories of those days are not the magazine spread or movie posters or album covers we produced, but rather the conversations that went on while we were working. I wanted the opportunity to get in the room with people that really interest me, and have a deeper conversation about how they became artists, how they approach their craft, and what is important to them. And I also wanted the environment to be able to photograph and film them on my own terms, without having the creative direction influenced by a certain project or client.  I wanted to strip away all that stuff and make a pure portrait of an artist.

What’s the difference between interviewing and photographing people?

A lot of people only know me as a photographer, but I have also made documentary films [the 2002 Wilco film “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart”], and directed many other commercial projects, so I have actually spent a lot of time doing interviews.  What is really different is actually being on camera while doing the interview, which is a whole skill set I am learning.  

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One thing that I have noticed in being interviewed myself over the years is that it is incredibly distracting if the interviewer is doing anything other than listening while you are trying to formulate an answer, whether it be fiddling with their notes, checking the recording device, or looking at something else in the room. So I really try to just listen while guests are answering my questions. Being able to do that, and still have an idea where the overall thread of the story is going, or figuring out what to ask next, is a true art. And one I hope to become a lot better at.

When you photograph someone, you get to have multiple chances to find a moment. You can keep clicking the shutter as you make changes to the scene, whether they are physical or directorial changes, until you land on a photograph. With interviewing, you get one chance to ask any given question, and one opportunity to follow the thread of where the answer takes you. It is a conversation happening in real time, and you don't get a lot of do-overs or anything like that. Conversely, there are a lot of similarities between the two, the most obvious being listening and observing. The better you are at both those skills, the better photographer or interviewer you can be.  

What kind of people do you want to profile?

I want to profile anyone who interests me. I think Off Camera has a chance to be great only if my genuine enthusiasm about the person I am interviewing comes through in the final product. So I suppose you will see a lot of directors, skateboarders, musicians, actors, writers and photographers. I really genuinely love talking to artists, and not in a highbrow fashion. I love to make things, and I love to talk to people who also love to make things.  

Some specific people that really fit my interests would be people like Jon Brion, Jeff Bridges, Jim Harrison, Wes Anderson, Sarah Polley, Cameron Crowe, etc. People that have multiple interests and restless creative energy, and they find time for projects that they are passionate about.  

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What audience are you after?

I think my main competition is just how much stuff is constantly at our fingertips. I love a good long book, a 15,000-word magazine profile, and an uninterrupted listen to an album. But finding the time is always tough. I guess I am after an audience that is like me … they love to stumble across totally absorbing pieces of art — books, movies, magazine profiles, essays, TV series, etc. And if they do fall in love with it, they love even more that it is long. For instance, I read “Lonesome Dove” years ago, and I just fell in love with that book. It was good and long, and yet I was completely disappointed when it ended, because I could have spent volumes of time with those characters. When I found out there were two books more in the series, I was overjoyed. If someone comes across Off Camera, and falls in love with it, I want to give them a totally absorbed experience.  

Who is coming up in future issues?

Well, I don't want to give away the whole slate (where's the fun in that) but some good upcoming interviews are with Tony Hawk, Dave Grohl and Cameron Crowe.

What’s your business model?

Right now I am less worried about making money, and more focused on creating a nice, weighty body of work. I am a firm believer that if you come at a project with great effort and great passion, great things follow. But yes, eventually we will have to look at subscription ideas, or other business models that make sense. My main concern is keeping Off Camera purely about the conversations, without diluting the content with advertising, or sponsorships that don't make sense. I want Off Camera to stand out from the crowd for its independent approach and authenticity.  

What else are you up to?

I am finishing work on a couple of music videos right now with Mumford & Sons that have been really fun to make, and also working on another photography book.  

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