Jenna Johnston - Winner's Interview

Jenna was the winner of the 2017 Historic Photographer of the Year’s People’s Choice Award for her stunning image of Jedburgh Abbey in the Scottish Borders which she took on a school trip in 2011!

Here she is in her own words…

Why Did You Enter HPOTY?

It seemed like it was a competition made for me. I’m an art & architecture historian that works with historic buildings on a day-to-day basis, and photography is my hobby – couldn’t have been any better suited!

How Did You Feel When You Realised You’d Won?

It was really thrilling. I’ve never won a competition for my photography before. It was very rewarding to feel recognised for putting my shots out into the world. I was very thankful to everyone that took the time to vote for the People’s Choice award.

How Has Winning The Award Affected You?

I went to a meeting for work & was asked by a client, ‘Did I see a photograph of yours in the Guardian!?’ They were excited that they’d recognised my name as a winner of the competition. I’m a Heritage Consultant, so having my name associated with a winning photograph of a historic place is definitely a good thing. Plus, I used the money to start a new camera fund for myself as mine is very old.

Why Did You Select That Image For The Competition?

I submitted a few, but I focused my energies on that one because I really enjoyed the contrast of the monochromatic abbey and the angular composition.

What’s The Story Behind Your Photo?

The photograph was taken at Jedburgh Abbey on a class study trip whilst I was studying a Gothic Architecture module at the University of St Andrews. My module tutor, Dr Julian Luxford, took us to Jedburgh and Melrose to get up close and personal with the buildings we’d been studying. He’s a remarkable and knowledgeable teacher who really brought these places to life for my fellow students & I.

What Is It About The Location That Inspired You?

Jedburgh Abbey is a remarkably beautiful place. It feels relatively complete for a ruin, so you can really get to grips with how the space would have felt to a medieval visitor. I love how permeable it is, being able to see the trees and skies through the vacant arcades. I can’t overstate how worthwhile a visit it is.

What Equipment Did You Use To Take The Shot?

Just my Nikon D3000 & the kit lens, with some Photoshop post.

What Factors Were You Thinking About When Taking The Shot?

Honestly, about capturing images to support my studies. Although I remember thinking at the time, ‘this isn’t an angle you often see’ in regard to medieval religious buildings. The focus is usually on capturing the horizontals and verticals, not the diagonals.

How Did You Get Started In Photography?

I always thought I wanted to get into photography, so my mum bought me my camera for my 21st birthday. Eight years on, I’m still using the same camera – it’s definitely time to retire it, but photography is an expensive hobby!

Which Of Your Photos Are You Most Proud Of?

I take a lot of contemplative self-portraits when I’m doing a 365 project. Even though I’ve never seen one through, it does tend to yield some of my favourite photographs. They have a very different vibe to my architectural/day-to-day shots, though.


What Are Your Thoughts On Raw Images Vs. Retouched Images That Have Been Worked On, For Example In Photoshop?

Go for it. Since the beginning of photography, people have been finding ways to manipulate the images, for a variety of reasons – it’s just a lot easier now with all this software at our disposal. There’s nothing to say that photography is required to be purely a record. Sure, there is a place for that, but manipulating an image to change, heighten or emphasise its meaning doesn’t make it any less valid as a photograph. It’s still art.

What Do You Think Makes An Award-Winning Shot?

A different take on something when thousands of photographs of it already exist.

Where Are Your Favourite Places To Travel For Photographic Inspiration?

I found that Japan made taking good photographs very easy, but generally I’m happy to take photographs anywhere I find myself.

What Kind Of Cultural Or Historical Locations Do You Think Make The Best Shots?

Places that resonate with people.

What’s Your Favourite Period Of History, And Why?

I love Medieval Gothic architecture because everything has a meaning and a purpose. I’m a fan of the Victorian period due to the sheer amount of thinking that was happening about the visual arts, particularly the works of Oscar Wilde. I’m currently trying to expand my frame of reference beyond British/western history, and am taking an interest in Early-Modern Japan and Imperial China.

Do You Have Any Tips For Aspiring Cultural Photographers?

Be respectful. For example, if you go to a shrine, read up beforehand. These places don’t exist for you to take photographs of – they function in the world and have meaning without your camera. If you understand a place and why it’s important, you’re much more likely to get a good photograph, and have a more enriching experience.

What Are Your Plans For The Future?

I’ve recently been promoted at work, so I am focusing my efforts on expanding my Heritage Consultancy services across the country, learning new skills, and taking on exciting new projects. Photography-wise, I’m hoping to get myself a new camera, then start dedicating time to shooting again.

Jenna Johnston

Jenna is a Senior Heritage Consultant based in Manchester. She works with historic buildings across the country, helping to ensure their future survival through conservation, adaptation & regeneration. Jenna is passionate about the positive role heritage can play in local communities; diverse representation within the heritage industry; and she really loves domes.