The Power of Documentation and the Preservation of Memories

To celebrate the release of our latest City Edition, Trope Tokyo, we’re bringing you in-depth interviews with the talented Trope photographers, each offering unique insight into their craft.

JESS BARNIEH (@jesso) is a Filipino born and raised in London; when she moved to Hong Kong with her husband, she used photography to document life in a new country. Exploring new cities is second nature to Jess; she draws her creativity from that sense of adventure, along with an incredible aesthetic sense. She recently moved one city further to Singapore.

Her photography is full of colour, scenery, romance, and curiosity; when she chooses an angle, her objective is to showcase beauty and detail, but also leave the viewer wanting to see more. A full-time copywriter, Jess’s words and photos are a constant reminder that beauty and art are all around us, and that taking the time to explore what’s right in front of us can be a glorious adventure in and of itself. Her photographs are featured in the Trope Tokyo City Edition. 

I started consistently taking photos in 2013... when I moved from London to Hong Kong with my husband (@edwardkb), and I wanted to document our experience of living in a new place. However, my interest in photography started in my teens. It evolved from a fascination at looking at old photos of my parents and family. I was drawn in by the colours, the grain, and the stories held within each photograph. It is this power of documentation and preservation of memories that made me want to take pictures.

I use either my iPhone or my Fuji XT-2 to take photos. For daily snaps, I use whatever I have on me, which is usually my iPhone. I love the convenience of always having a good camera with me. I only carry my Fuji if I intentionally go out to take photos or am travelling. In the beginning when the iPhone was my main camera, it influenced the way I shot. I had to work within its capabilities; it had no depth of field and poor performance in low light. The camera has improved lots since then.

To edit my photos, I use Lightroom on my laptop. If I need to edit something on-the-go, I’ll use the Lightroom mobile app. Before I started using Lightroom, I used (and occasionally still use) Snapseed and VSCO. I tried so many editing apps that have long been deleted from my phone. I try not to over-edit my photos. I like to bring out colours or enhance the light or shadows depending on what I’m trying to achieve. I don’t have an issue with using filters; I think it’s incredible how some filters can transform a photo, or realistically recreate the look of film. I personally don’t use filters on my photos, but I do like playing around with them. 

I never know how to describe my style of photography. Someone once told me my photos have a quiet quality that pulls you into the scene, which I thought was a lovely way to describe them. I enjoy taking photos of life around me. Sometimes it’s people and places that catch my eye, sometimes it’s colour and architecture, or details and scenes I want to remember.

When I started, I didn’t consider the technical side of things. I would just point and shoot. (I still think that is part of the fun.) I think my compositions have gotten better, and I’ve learned what subject matter I like to shoot. I would still consider myself an amateur, though, with lots to learn—including establishing a ‘style’.

Everything about Tokyo is inspiring. Every neighbourhood is different. There is always something new to see; from the architecture, the people and street scenes, to the colours of the city and the energy and vibrancy it emanates. There is so much going on that you just want to capture it all.

The first time I went to Tokyo was surreal. I had obviously done very little research into that trip because I didn’t realise it would be sakura season when I was there. My first sight of the city was from the train, where I could see the cherry blossoms in full bloom. Delicate petals were floating on the wind; it was beautiful. I didn’t take any photos then, because I was too busy taking it all in with my eyeballs. When we did go out and explore, I was blown away by how crowded the parks were as everyone congregated to celebrate hanami. I love looking back on those first photos of Tokyo and remembering that experience.

Lots of things run through my mind before I press the button: ‘I hope I get the shot,’ ‘Is this even a good/interesting picture?’ ‘Should I use the other lens?’ and other random thoughts…all things I won’t know the answer to until I press the button and take the shot.

I prefer to shoot outdoors—anywhere with good light! ‘Good’ light can be subjective though; sometimes I want that golden glow, and other times I want harsh light for dramatic shadows. I gravitate towards city scenes, and I also like to have people in my photos.

Instagram had the biggest effect on my photography. It literally opened up the world and showed me places I had never seen before and made me want to go there. In terms of photography, it encouraged me to use my phone more to take photos. In the beginning, it taught me to shoot in an ‘IG style’—subjects directly front on, the ‘look into the middle distance’ pose, the stride-by, etc. We all did it! Finding a community of creatives was very inspiring. Seeing people pursue their creativity and develop their talent and photographic style was amazing to see.

Travel is my biggest inspiration for shooting. I always take more photos when I’m somewhere new—it’s exciting to capture a new place, new sights, a new culture and traditions. However, I can’t always travel and so staying inspired and motivated to take photos when I’m back at home is a challenge. It’s something I need to work on.

Other people’s artistry and vision inspires me to pursue my own creativity. I studied History of Art, Architecture and Design at university, and that helped me appreciate lots of different facets of creativity. For example, I love the colour in the art of Matisse, graphic designer Paula Scher’s exceptional use of typography to create brand identity, and the style and lighting of Wong Kar Wai movies. I love street photography too. Capturing candid street shots well and elevating the everyday is a great talent. These are a few of the things that influence/inspire me; not just in photography, but in all of my creative pursuits.

When getting into photography... my main pieces of advice would be to 1) practice, practice, practice. That’s the only way to get better. 2) Challenge yourself. There’s no finish line to creativity, so keep learning and experimenting. 3) Take pictures you like, not for ‘likes’. Photography is very subjective, and not everyone will like what you do, so you might as well stay true to your own vision. 4) If you’re planning to do photography professionally, take the time to learn the business side of things too. Learn everything from reading contracts and usage rights, to billing and the value of your time and work. And lastly 5) HAVE FUN! Enjoy the process of taking photos.

I would love if my photos made people curious, whether it was about the place, the person, or the story behind the photo. The three words I’d like to hear people use to describe my work would be: observant, intriguing, and unexpected. That makes my photos seem serious, but I hope they make people smile too.

Whenever I’m asked ‘where are you from?’, I always say London... as that’s where I was born and raised, but I am also very much Filipino as my parents are from the Philippines, and it is the culture I grew up with. Random fact: I’ve only ever lived on islands—UK, Philippines, Hong Kong and now Singapore. For my day job, I am a copywriter. I’m self-employed now, but I used to work in-house for fashion retailers and beauty brands. It is nice to be able to indulge in words for my job and pictures for my hobby.

Photography, to me, is a means of documentation; moments I can look back on in the future. It’s also a creative outlet for me, a fun hobby I enjoy, and I am honestly always surprised when people are interested in my photos. It has taught me that I am my own harshest critic. I have to often remind myself that progress over perfection is better.

Five years from now... I hope to still be doing something creative. In terms of photography, I want to be more confident in my skills. In terms of the world, I hope Covid-19 is a distant memory and that the whole world has moved on to be stronger and more united and less about individualism. Oh, and if racial injustice and inequality could also be gone, that would be lovely.