Photographer and film director Jonathan Mannion talks with his longtime friend, former “boss” and fellow photographer Ben Watts
Originally born in London, Ben Watts took to fashion photography in Sydney, Australia, but was attracted to New York by the music scene. In that music scene, one of the people pointing cameras at hip-hop stars and other musicians would have been Jonathan Mannion, who cut his teeth as a studio assistant to Richard Avedon and has gone on to shoot more than 300 album covers for artists from Jay Z to Aaliyah to DJ Khaled. Apparently Ben really makes him laugh.
Jonathan Mannion: There’s a lot of different people that I’m interested in and that I’ve spent time with. Big, huge celebs and regular folks, but the one thing and the one word that anchored my desire to call you was “admiration.” There are very few people who have been as consistent as you’ve been just in your work, your work ethic, your decency, your kindness. I genuinely admire you. It’s an honor to call you a friend. This is my heavy kickoff.
Ben Watts: Is this a practical joke, man, or something?
Jonathan: It’s no joke, man. But it actually leads me to the perfect segue to my first question. You are one of the funniest fuckers that I know, man. And it comes down to timing and delivery, oftentimes. But your sense of humor, there are very few people that I’ve laughed harder at and with. Where do you think that comes from, just your sense of humor and your way of being?
Ben: I lived with my grandparents for a while, and my granddad was a big teaser. Funny, not cruel. But definitely pushed the limits with humor and I’ve always been around it. My mum’s very sarcastic. So I’ve always had humor in the family and I changed schools a lot. When you’re the new person at school, sometimes it can be tough, so humor becomes a tool, because if you’re a funny person, you can get away with a bit more and increase your popularity. I guess I used that as a tool on photoshoots to make people feel relaxed.
But I got to say, no one’s laughed at one of my jokes in the last three months.
Jonathan: Yo, but that alone is funny.
Ben: Particularly now, it’s important to keep the humor mill going, because everyone is very cautious about it. You could even call my jokes dad jokes. But it definitely helps relax people. And sometimes it bothers people, and that’s cool, too, because it gets a reaction. It never goes unnoticed. And when you’re trying to take photos, you need something like that. You need to be provocative. Otherwise, you’re just going to end up with a photo that they wanted to give you, not the one you wanted to take. Yeah, I’ve upset people. I played around with Tom Hardy. He’s a very serious guy, and he didn’t really give that much. But I still got a great photo.
When I was shooting Mark Wahlberg, I kept saying to him, “It’s your birthday. It’s your birthday.” And then I stopped, and I said, “Am I bothering you? Is this bothering you?” And he said to me, “No, it’s actually distracting me. Keep doing it.”
So, things like that. But at least I got a reaction, yeah? One guy liked me. The other guy wanted to kick my ass. That’s just a metaphor for life, though, isn’t it?
People appreciate if you’re willing to make a fool out of yourself.
Jonathan: Who were you, as a young Ben Watts, in the moment of being a doorman in Australia? Doormen have this incredible power of sending you in or keeping you out. And I think that that helps you in a lot of ways, to be able to read people quickly. But I want to touch on that. Just who were you as a younger man, before you planted your feet in New York?
Ben: I was studying photography in Sydney, Australia. And I was part of the nightlife thing. I’d go out and socialize and I was into the music. I got into an incident one night at one of my friend’s warehouse parties. We had absolutely no one running any security or anything, but something broke out there and I managed to put it out. And he goes, “You know what? I work at a nightclub. Will you come and do the door?” And I’m like, “Yeah, sure.” And then he’s paying me 80 or 100 bucks a night.
And that was good money to me. And when I started doing it, I noticed that a lot of people that were in the magazine world that could potentially employ me were coming there. So, I made it work for me. And if there was someone that worked at a magazine or in publishing or something like that, or I knew that they were, then I’d make damn sure they got in.
Jonathan: “You’re in,” straightaway.
Ben: Yes. Well, within reason. Then that worked out very well for me because I’d do it a couple of times, and then people become regulars. And then I’d be like, “You know what? I’m looking to be a photographer, and I’ve taken a lot of pictures, and I think you might like them. And if you have the time, I’d love to come down and show you my work during the day, some time.” And they’re, “You know what? Yeah, you can.” And then I got a few jobs from that. Not always, but I definitely did get a few jobs from that. It was a good situation.
And if I didn’t like someone, then it didn’t matter what job they did, they weren’t getting in. There was one incident where I almost blew my big fashion photography break.
That Thursday night I had to work, we were going to do this shoot on Friday. There was this belligerent drunk person at the door, who wouldn’t take no for an answer. They were getting in my face and just being an ass. So, I threw a tennis ball as a reaction and bounced off his forehead and then caught it, and he got pissed. Then the next morning I woke up all excited, Myra rings me in the morning and she goes, “Oh man, I’ve got some bad news.” I’m like, “What?”
She goes, “Oh, the shoot’s been canceled.” She goes, “Look, you didn’t hear it from me. But last night, Jonathan, the editor, said you did something to one of his friends and he’s really pissed off, and he’s decided he’s not using you.”
I got in the car and just went straight up to him and I said, “Jonathan, I’m really upset. I’ve upset you. I apologize. Your friend was belligerently drunk. I did nothing to harm them. I just played a joke. He’s not injured or anything, he’s fine. He was just rude to me and I just wouldn’t let him in because I’d lose my job. He was off his face.” He looked at me, he was embarrassed, and then my job got put back on.
That was a big break for me. That was a huge deal. I’m like, “These guys are trying to fuck me out of a job, well, I’m going to fuck my way back into it.”
Jonathan: Thank you for being exactly who you are. And for your constant inspiration that you give to the world. And I know that you enjoy this ride. And what you’re doing, you really are doing for yourself, it’s fulfilling. But I guarantee that there are people that are constantly taking notice of what you do. But it’s because of who you are that I will always cherish our friendship.