Jonathan Young - Documentary Cameraman
Jonathan can you tell us a little about yourself, and what you do?
I am documentary television cameraman and I shoot high profile documentaries and subjects around the globe for the world's best broadcasters. Challenging and hostile locations seem to in my skill set.
How did you end up behind the camera?
Family business. My dad was a photographer and TV cameraman, my brother still is a TV cameraman too. I first went on a shoot location when I was 11. Hooked ever since.
Do you remember your first big assignment, and what was it?
Lots of big assignments over the years but you always remember your first filming trip to America. Every Norman Rockwell painting and photograph by Robert Franks and Walker Evans of ordinary life in the US that we are so familiar with, you try to emulate. Without the budget or time!
When did you decide you wanted to be a cameraman?
From the first time I went on set, the smell of the cans of film, the action around me, the team ethic and the sheer excitement of the business. That’s still with me today.
You work closely with Ross Kemp, and he always appears so calm. How do you do it?
Ross is great guy, we have been through some very dangerous situations together and under fire more time than I care to remember in Syria, Pakistan and of course several trips to Afghanistan. We manage the danger by trying to mitigate the circumstances around us through tired and tested protocols and when that fails, humour is the great leveller. On several occasions we have been cracking jokes left right and centre whilst leaping over walls or running through open ground whilst targeted by snipers. In Syria this year, that happened and whilst various team members were behind cover, I was still sprinting across the open ground, still filming but hearing shouted jokes about Usain Bolt!
Being calm is part of the package, once people start to crack and lose their cool, it spreads like wildfire. Remaining cool under pressure is a given. Inside you might be churning and a thousand thoughts running through your head but outside you have to present a calm face. I tell people, if you seem me look worried, get the @£$% out of Dodge!
I can only imagine some of the dangerous situations you have been in. Is there one in particular you would like to share?
The now infamous scene when Ross pushes the gun away from himself when confronted by the Raskols in the Papua New Guinea Highlands. I carried on filming the scene but the producer just stopped dead in his tracks and froze. I was expecting to be hit over the head from behind but the rifle butt to the head never arrived and so with the calm face on, I just carried on filming. Ross talked them down and as we didn’t capitulate, the Raskols had to re-evaluate their position. They expected us to back down but we didn’t. High stakes poker and they blinked first! The whole scene unfolded in less than two mins, two mins that lasted for ever and were over in a flash at the same time. The end came when the “General” as he called himself called off the “test” as he called it and told us we were brave men …..
How do you separate what you see through the lenses and then going home or back to the hotel in the evening?
I have been witness to many upsetting and traumatic events in my career. Some are seared on to my memory. I process each one the same way. I confide in my colleagues who were also there and we talk things through in a meaningful and non-judgemental way. Open discussion about what we have seen ensures no one is left behind and their emotional state left to fester.
EMDR for the treatment of PTSD has also been useful. I keep exposing myself to such scenes because I know and believe that I am in some small way making a difference by presenting these images to the rest of the world. Phrases like “sunlight is the best disinfectant”, “speaking truth to power” and the BBC motto “to inform, to educate and to entertain” all ring true in equal measure.
Working in extreme environments, how do you keep your camera gear dry, clean and functioning?
I spend a lot of time on location each day with kit maintenance –it is a constant battle to keep expensive kit functioning in the snow, the rain, the mud, the humidity. Improvisation and being handy with a screwdriver / leather man are top of the list. On my recent trip to Canada, our 4x4 had a flat battery and we were on the open tundra with polar bears near by. We had to think quickly, so we made some jump leads to get the car started.
Can you describe a typical filming day?
Take the longest working day you can think of and double pretty much.15 or 16 hours a day aren’t uncommon. TV is a very avaricious business, it always wants more content and as professional programme make, it is very rare to one who sits back and says “ok, we are done here”. It is about squeezing maximum creative content out of every day. Squeezing the lemon till the pips squeak. TV people constantly over reach to get the very best content they can with the time and resources that they have available. But it is an exciting lifestyle to lead, it isn’t a job, it is a lifestyle choice.
We have all seen camera crews at the airport with a mountain of bags. When you travel, how do you manage all your bags, and excess bag charges when flying? On a typical assignment, how many bags do you take, and how heavy is all of your gear?
Typically I will take 10 to 15 boxes of kit – some of it spare kit for remote locations as we can’t get more sent out due to timescales / remoteness of location etc. Kit weighs in at about 250 to 300kgs depending on how much survival kit or body armour we are carrying. It depends on each job, is it remote, needing specialist kit or kit we can’t hire locally or trust. My record is 53 cases, not sent cargo, all hold luggage and I still hired kit when I got to the location in Finland.
Working in TV is all about logistics and expectation management. You aren’t just a cameraman. I am a driver, fixer, removal man and UN blue beret all rolled in to one. Diplomacy skills are a must. Especially in airports.
What is your favourite on the road comfort food?
Good chocolate bars and Scottish shortbread biscuits. My latest on location treat gadget is a 12 volt car power Espresso machine
What kit do you never leave home without?
At least two iPhones with Mophie Juice packs; if you loose all your contacts etc and have just one, you are screwed. Also, it doubles a camera, entertainment centre. Good headphones / earplugs and eye mask and neck pillow. Then you can sleep anywhere.
What advice do you have for aspiring photographers, in particular cameraman?
My favourite saying is attributed to the documentary photographer Walker Evans who took photos across the US in the Great Depression. His work is seminal. He would say “stare, it is the only way to educate the eye.” And sit down when ever you get the chance, as a cameraman you are on your feet all day long ….
What is your favourite Armadillo Merino product?
Crew socks are by far the best sock sort any brand I have ever worn. Most comfortable, non smelly and will wash and dry to wear in a few hours.
Can our readers follow you on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, website etc?