Lou Jones Takes a Long-Term Approach: From Jazz Portraits to the panAFRICAproject


In reflecting back on his long and varied career, photographer Lou Jones says, “In art, I think that you're pushed and pulled in a direction. And being a black artist, especially a black photographer, a lot of my decisions were based upon survival.”

To insure his survival over the past 50 years, the Boston-based Jones has mastered everything from corporate/industrial and advertising assignments to Olympic sports, photojournalism, and, perhaps most notably, self-assigned long-term projects. Starting from his earliest behind-the-scenes portraits of jazz musicians to a hard-hitting documentary project on death row inmates to his most recent endeavor, the panAFRICAproject, Jones has set himself increasingly ambitious goals to differentiate himself and stay relevant as a visual communicator, while also building a remarkable legacy as an artist.

Photographs © Lou Jones

Above photograph: Traditional and contemporary modes of transport commingle in the form of Asante women passing in the street and riding in an automobile, Kumasi, Ghana.

From Physics to Photography

Born and raised in Washington, D.C., Jones was introduced to photography by a college roommate at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, where he earned dual degrees in physics.

A photograph from Jones’s distressed:memories series, which he refers to as “my personal labor to document my internal world, i.e., to investigate those things that I know, I have seen, but that do not really exist.”

“I had no interest in making a living from photography at first, and I went to graduate school and then worked for NASA,” Jones points out. “But the fact that I was so in love with photography eventually caught up with me, and while transitioning from one technology company to another, I made the decision that I wanted to have control of my own destiny.”

He had watched as compatriots from school secured jobs in large companies that forced them to move to cities with little to offer in terms of arts and culture. It was the late 1960s, and Jones felt increasingly drawn by the era’s cultural zeitgeist, which fueled his interest in finding a city with a healthy art and music scene. While weighing his options, Jones also came to terms with a personality trait that had been eating at him throughout his education, namely, “The fact that I did not work well in the sandbox with others. So, controlling my destiny was a major factor in why I've been a freelancer, and have never worked for anybody since that time,” he explains.

Chasing the Music

Jones had admired Boston’s arts and music scene during visits to the city with some of his college fraternity brothers. He says, “Even though it's not New York, you can see almost anything. Every musician, every artist travels through.”

Music was a particular draw, since Jones was a musician himself and had played in bands throughout college. Like most young photographers of the era, he aspired to chase bands and photograph rock stars, but he quickly realized that the competition was stiff. So instead of following others in a high-stakes effort, Jones pivoted to his passion for jazz. “I started going to crazy church basements and things like that to hear these black musicians who were maintaining brilliant music but having a great deal of trouble making a living,” he says. “I couldn’t get access to the rock and roll people, but in those days, access to jazz musicians was a lot easier.”

Dizzy Gillespie kicks back with a smoke and his legendary trumpet at his side, Washington, D.C., 1974. Jones’s photographs of jazz musicians will soon be distributed through the agency mptv Images.

Instead of photographing on-stage performances, Jones opted for behind-the-scenes shoots that would allow him to explore the personality of the sitter. “The jazz series is probably my oldest long-term project, and it’s still ongoing,” he says of the work. “I photographed a lot of the greats: Miles Davis, Charlie Mingus, and Dizzy Gillespie. I chased those guys for years, and still continue to do. But they're behind so many layers of protection now, to get photographs of these people is harder and harder.”

The Science Pays Off

The Boston area is thick with technology, which made it an ideal proving ground for Jones. “Learning how to become a professional photographer, how to light, and to solve problems was a big part of photography,” he says. “Physics is also about solving problems, so as I started chasing high-tech companies and medical people as clients, I spoke their language. It became relatively easy to be invested into the system. And, when you're talking to engineers, and they realize the photographer they’ve hired to solve their problem understands what the science is, it made that communication much easier. In point of fact, I turned that science around, and used it to solve the problems, logistically and aesthetically.”

Jones set up a trampoline in Times Square for this mid-air portrait featuring the choreographer for a Broadway musical.

Within a decade, Jones found himself ensconced in a huge studio, employing five other people. “We were doing annual reports and making a living, and I was supporting a lot of mortgages that weren't mine,” he points out. “I looked out, and everyone was humming away at their desks, and I was sitting in the middle of the studio with nothing to do.”

This led him to reflect on the noble ideal he had initially held that photography would allow him to “Go out and cure the ills of the world. And here I was taking pictures of computers for peoples’ annual reports,” he remarks. “I asked myself, ‘Is this what I want people to remember me for, being a commercial photographer?’”

After deciding it wasn’t, his next step was to figure out what kind of pictures he could make that might have some effect on the world. “I wanted to be able to do things that were relevant,” he explains, “but I also had to think of how this would affect my commercial work. So, I started to do projects that would draw out the aesthetic and have some real weight due to the fact that the project was long.”

Adding Photojournalism to the Mix

It was just at this juncture that Jones received a query from a Cambridge-based government organization. “They reached out to somebody on my staff to ask if I knew any photographers who would be willing to accompany a Congressional Delegation (CoDel) to Central America and document the trip,” Jones explains.

The Salvadoran military on patrol in guerrilla territory during a search-and-destroy mission that Jones photographed as part of a Congressional Delegation.

It was the early 1980s, an era of volatile conflict in that part of the world, coupled with American support of the various regimes. “Nobody wanted to put on a bulletproof vest and travel to where they were shooting at photographers,” Jones points out. “I think the organization was quite surprised when I said, ‘Yes, I know someone who would do it—I will.’ They were kind of freaked out, but they liked my work so much that I did these trips for several years. It became one of the long-term projects. We'd accompany the CoDels to photograph in Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua, two or three times annually.”

According to Jones, the experience was, “like an intravenous injection. It taught me how to make associations with important people, such as congressmen and State Department officials, who could affect what you were getting at the other end. And I was also honing my skills as a photographer, because I was dealing with the Press Corps. They were getting me into places that even the congressmen couldn't arrange.”

The travel skills Jones developed through these junkets, and lessons in obtaining access on an international scale, would come to serve him well in the future.

Picturing Death Row

Jones was on assignment in Japan when he happened to catch the 1987 documentary Fourteen Days in May on TV in his hotel room. This unflinching chronicle of an American death row inmate in the weeks leading to his execution became the impetus for an ambitious portrait series, which had its roots in arguments about the death penalty Jones had with his father as a teen. Over the course of the next six years, he would document, “The unseen, unheard stories of an American subculture—people on death row. It was a long process, and it took several years to flesh out details and approvals,” he says, “But I wanted to see if art could make a difference.”

Portraits from Jones’s Death Row project interspersed with portraits from his Sojourner’s Daughters series, which served as a stylistic example for the latter project.

The skills Jones had gained in negotiating tough access in Central America, plus a well-connected law enforcement official he met when working with the CoDels, were instrumental in helping him secure the needed approvals. However, an equally essential element was his cohesive vision for the photographs, based on an earlier series of his environmental portraits honoring influential women within Boston’s black community. Commissioned by the Museum of the National Center for Afro-American Artists, those portraits had been featured in the 1990 exhibition, “Sojourner’s Daughters.”

“In meetings about prison access, I showed those portraits and explained, ‘This is what I'm going to do for these death row inmates,’” says Jones. “That made a huge difference in peoples’ opinion about what I was trying to do.”

The Death Row Project culminated in Jones’s first book Final Exposures: Portraits from Death Row, earning him the Ehrmann Award from the Massachusetts Citizens against the Death Penalty. This work has also been widely exhibited over the years and will be featured in a Spring 2021 show at the DeCordova Museum, in Lincoln, MA.

The Other Africa

Jones takes an evolutionary approach to planning for each of his projects. “You don't just come up with a brilliant new idea fully fleshed,” he asserts. This is particularly true of his latest endeavor, the panAFRICAproject, which responds to the negative portrayal of Africa so prevalent in Western society by offering a contemporary, progressive view of the 54 countries that make up the continent. “After the death row series, I was looking for another long-term project, and realized how biased Western coverage of Africa was, both within the news media and in our education system,” Jones elaborates. “I had visited Africa a few times early in my career, and I knew this was just not the case. So, I said, ‘What can I do about that?’”

Two female radio hosts in the studio with microphones and headsets, Accra, Ghana

Initially, Jones queried other photographers about joining him to photograph different parts of the continent in the short term. “A lot of them were very interested,” he notes. “But then I realized I didn't want to become an administrator. I decided that instead of taking a vertical approach involving a lot of photographers, I could stretch things out, and build the project horizontally as a long-term project. I came to realize that I was the embodiment of the universal language—photography—and that I could tell a story without words. I could show people what Africa looked like with my photography.”

In August 2013, the country of Ghana became Jones’s litmus test. “I had no idea if what I had in mind was even possible,” he admits. “So, the fact that Ghana just blossomed in front of me, giving me the knowledge, and the confidence to continue, was significant.”

To date, Jones has documented 12 African nations—Burkina-Faso, Egypt, Eswatini (Swaziland), Ethiopia, Gabon, Ghana, Lesotho, Morocco, Namibia, Senegal, Tanzania, and Zambia—before the possibility of travel was sidelined in 2020 by COVID-19. “Each country has such a diverse and completely different story,” he remarks. “But while each has its own personality, and offers a unique situation, whenever we get something significant, it's a metaphor for other parts of Africa.”

A printing plant worker reads a newspaper hot off the press in Windhoek, the capital of Namibia.

Jones had anticipated that his documentation would improve with each country he visited, but the significance of this progress reaches beyond just the photographs. “In other words, with experience, you not only do better research, but you're developing better connections,” he explains. “You know how to maneuver better, and with each trip my associations have been enhanced, and have become more lifelong.”

Steeped in Research

A significant aspect of the panAFRICAproject is the voluminous amount of background research Jones conducts, a process he has perfected over time. “I've kept files on each country in Africa for almost 20 years,” he notes. “And whenever someone gives me a tip, or I read an article about something that would be really unique to photograph, I make a sticky note that goes into the file.”

A female student surveys the wing of an ultralight plane as part of the WAASPS social entrepreneurship program held at Ghana’s Kpong Airfield.

Active planning for each trip also starts months in advance. “We reach out to two or three very diverse countries,” says Jones, “and the algorithm for how we choose our next destination is very complex. It has to do with who we know, who might host us, as well as physical characteristics such as the seasons and cultural events.”

While this research and planning process involves a wide range of sources, Jones relies on human connections and “six degrees of separation” as the most important component. “We chase a lot of contacts, and I make hundreds of calls,” he points out.

The Right Partnerships

Initially, Jones thought that connecting with Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) or Faith-Based Organizations (FBOs) could be a way to help facilitate his trips. “A lot of my colleagues go to Africa and shoot for NGOs to good effect,” he explains. “They do wonderful, important work. And I had assumed that I’d be doing work for some of these organizations in order to help finance the project. But within my first few weeks in Ghana, I realized it would be problematic, since there’s always an agenda connected to this work.”

As an alternative, Jones assembled a board of advisors that includes a mix of old and new contacts hailing from both the United States and Africa. Comprising leading figures in the spheres of business, health care, education, and technology, these individuals have been instrumental in making introductions to local contacts in Africa and offering logistical support.

A doctor fits a patient with a thermoplastic mask for radiation therapy at the Centre Hospitalier Universitaire Mohammed VI, Marrakesh, Morocco.

Such connections enable Jones to home in on what is unique and important about specific environments through first-hand sources. “We're trying to use as much of this knowledge and unique ways of thinking as possible,” he says.

Yet even with robust local connections, there are still hurdles to overcome based on Western concepts that do not translate well in Africa. Jones relates a story from Burkina Faso, when he inquired about the travel distance from the capital city of Ouagadougou to the country’s cultural capital, Bobo-Dioulasso. “Now, I'm a physicist, so the theory of relativity is very pronounced in my DNA,” he points out. “I was looking for the distance in kilometers or miles. My contacts responded saying the trip would take six hours, so they were dealing with a completely different aspect of language. Then, when I asked, ‘Which way?’ thinking North, South, East, West, they had no idea. These were college-educated people, who had no idea what I meant. Instead, they said, ‘Oh, you just go to Bobo.’”

Cultural Immersion

Challenges aside, one advantage Jones discovered about working in Africa is the willingness of newly forged contacts to attend the informal meetings he organizes, which often serve as a precursor to further introductions. “Another really wonderful thing about Africa is that people will answer their cell phone,” he says. “In the United States, you could spend months getting to the head of some institution, but they won't answer the phone, or call you back, or even send an email. In Africa, you just pick up the phone, and say, ‘So-and-so told me to give you a call.’ These connections make the whole thing work,” he asserts.

Jones positioned himself front and center to capture the action at this dance party in Dakar’s Fass neighborhood, Senegal.

Jones typically dedicates at least four weeks to each country he visits, traveling far and wide to document major sites and events. Although his first trip to Ghana was a solo endeavor, he has brought an assistant and hired local guides for subsequent trips. He makes a distinction between guides and more experienced fixers, which can double the expense. He elaborates, “We try to develop our own fixers, since not everybody understands our process. Sometimes the guide speaks English, and also can drive us, but not always,” he adds.

“Our travel does vary, but we’ve been somewhat adventurous, he says. “In some countries, getting around can be very complicated, but we drive, we fly, we float on ferries. We try to get to at least three major areas, and often much more than that.”

Adjusting Photographic Techniques

Before he starts photographing, Jones must assess any specific obstacles he might face. For example, while some cultures don't mind being photographed, “Others do, and for different reasons,” he remarks. “Of course, people who object to being photographed are anathema to us. But once you dig down, you might discover they don't mind being photographed if you ask.”

Vendors and their clientele at a fruit market in the Stone Town district, Zanzibar, Tanzania. The man in the center is covering his face so as not to be seen.

While most of his pictures involve people, Jones rarely makes posed portraits. “I just don't think it's what I'm there for,” he says. His technique of choice involves photographing his subjects somewhat unobserved, often without asking permission first, which can present a serious challenge in certain environments. “There are a lot of assumptions about making pictures to overcome,” he points out. “So, within a few days, you have to try and adjust your technique. You need to be very careful,” he adds, “and sometimes you have to completely change your style of shooting, almost country by country.”

One distinguishing factor that sets his work apart from most coverage of Africa is that up to half of his pictures involve interior environments. Jones explains, “We're going inside factories, hospitals, homes, and schools, to show how people live, and to make sure viewers are seeing everything, from artist studios to clinics.”

Contemporary artist Tewodros Hagos at work in his studio, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Master of the Nikon Speedlight

Jones employs flash for most of his interior work. As the photographer who literally wrote the book on working with flash—Speedlights & Speedlites: Creative Flash Photography at Lightspeedit’s no surprise that he carries six or seven Nikon Speedlights (a mix of SB800s, SB900s, and SB910s), as well as the accompanying modifiers, umbrellas, and  softboxes, along with Kupo light stands.

“We put up speedlights to illuminate a lot of pictures,” he says. “We even work in situations where it's almost black, because there's not a lot of electricity if we’re in someone’s home that’s a mud hut. So, I’ll push my ISO into the 6400 range, and I’ll hold my breath to get a picture with a shutter speed of 1/8 to 1/15 of a second. In those kinds of situations, I’ll use a Gitzo monopod or Induro carbon fiber tripod with my Manfrotto 496 ball head to steady me,” he adds. “But I also carry little Lume Cubes. Everybody on my staff has at least one or two in their pockets, and if we get into a situation where we need a little lick of light for separation or to light up the side of somebody's face, we use those. Even though we're using speedlights with soft boxes and bouncing them off ceilings and umbrellas, it's gorilla lighting because we're moving fast,” he admits.

A hip hop musician performs during a recording session, Manzini, Eswatini (formerly known as Swaziland).

Jones has been a dedicated Nikon photographer since his father gifted him with his uncle’s Nikon FTN upon his graduation from college. On trips to Africa, he packs several Nikon D800 bodies, with D700s as backups. For lenses, he brings everything from a 300mm super telephoto to a 10.5mm fisheye, yet he relies on NIKKOR 16-35mm and 35-70mm zooms for most of his work, often paired with TIFFEN variable neutral density filters. “We’ve developed a very compact system when traveling, since we’re very often on tight little planes,” he notes. “We usually have two cases full of lighting equipment, a camera case full of gear, and a stand bag. We travel heavy, but we have to be a lot more mobile than we used to be in the annual report days.”

Two Cultures in Lockstep

Jones started the panAFRICAproject with the goal of portraying contemporary Africa in a positive light. Yet, as a counterpart to modern urban populations, he was also introduced to a variety of indigenous cultures and told of their importance. “The Western world sees such groups as exotic at best, and at worst maybe primitive,” he points out. “But many people in Africa intentionally want to preserve these populations and cultural traditions that have been going on for centuries. So, I’d go and photograph,” he says. “And sometimes it was difficult to get introduced, but often it wasn't. We found that these two cultures—urban and indigenous—are absolutely parallel. Simultaneous with the modern office worker in a suit and tie, indigenous populations are progressing in exact lockstep.”

A group of Tuareg men in traditional garb at Le Village Artisanal de Ouagadougou, in Burkina Faso’s capital city.

This discovery led Jones to realize that the political boundaries defining the continent offer an incomplete picture of contemporary Africa, and that the national borders really have little to do with Africa itself or its people. He notes, “After photographing several countries, we had a fairly large group of pictures documenting indigenous cultures. I realized that we needed to illuminate where those populations are on the continent, even if those lines are not legally set, or they’re split by the lines of colonialism.”

Jones and his team recently spent several months creating an ethnographic map for the panAFRICAproject website to represent the indigenous populations he has photographed. Presented in an overlay against the political map of Africa, Jones sees this alternative map as offering “a completely different way of looking at contemporary African culture." "There are thousands of indigenous groups in Africa,” he remarks. “Some are dominant, and some are lesser, and so far we've only included the groups we’ve photographed. So, this map will change continuously as we expand our documentation.”

A Compendium of Photographs

Given the considerable amount of time and passion Jones has devoted to this project, the most common question he gets is about producing a book. To that end, in early 2020 he published panAFRICAproject: Volume 1, featuring photographs from the first four countries he visited—Ghana, Tanzania, Swaziland, and Lesotho. Available in both a soft cover and hard cover version, as well as a boxed Collector’s edition limited to 25 copies, Jones financed the publication through the crowdsourcing platform Kickstarter. In 2018, his first Kickstarter campaign helped defray travel costs, and enabled him to upgrade the panAFRICAproject website with interactive maps and image search capabilities.

The cover design of Jones’s recent book, which is available for purchase through the panAFRICAproject website.

He notes, “Kickstarter is a completely new methodology that permits creators, inventors, artists, and other entrepreneurs to raise money." While Jones views crowdfunding as a very useful technique that has enabled him to raise significant funds, he admits, “The campaigns are excruciatingly painful, and it takes months before you actually open up the benefits. You really have to know what you're doing,” he advises.

“Normally, the launch of a new photography book is a time for celebration: lectures, exhibits, book signings, etc. All of that has been canceled. However, #panAFRICAproject has been attempting to stay relevant during the pandemic,” Jones recently wrote on the panAFRICAproject Facebook page. Between his existing archive from eight other countries to edit into future books, and the prospect of 42 African nations still to explore, Jones has the raw materials for much more relevance in his sights. And, more driven than ever, he says, “We are planning the next trip to Africa for as soon as restrictions are lifted.”

Lou Jones in Namibia, with bags packed and ready for the road ahead.

Learn more about Lou Jones on his FotoJones website, the panAFRICAproject site linked above, or by watching his past presentation at the B&H Event Space.

Do you have a long-term photography project that you’d like us to know about? Tell us about it in the Comments section, below.