Pictured: Shrewsbury singer songwriter Dan Owen in action by concert photographer Jonny Mo, who enjoys photographing his musical heroes. Jonny is also the founder of the photography walking group 'PhotoSoup'.
This is the second in our 'Behind the Lens' series of articles by Shrewsbury photographer James Warman showcasing some of the many great photographers in our county.
For this latest article in my “Behind The Lens” series I caught up with local photographer Jonny Mo where we chatted about, amongst other things, Saturn, Sign Language, and PhotoSoup.
What’s PhotoSoup? I hear you say, read on to find out.
I first met Jonny at the end of March this year when we were both photographing a gig at St Mary’s Church organised by “Live In The House”. After the usual photography talk ('what camera you shooting on?'), Jonny told me about a club he runs to help people learn about photography and support those struggling with mental health difficulties. An ideal subject for “Behind The Lens” I thought.
Jonny (pictured above) was born in Bolton but lived most of his life in Berkshire, moving to Shropshire about 16 years ago.
He caught the photography bug at school when a forward-thinking teacher ran photography classes, but by and large he is self-taught.
At university, Jonny studied sign language and teaching to deaf and hearing-impaired children. Unfortunately, work in that field was hard to come by and so instead he secured a job in the finance sector, something he excelled at as he’s been successfully running his own consultancy business specialising in payment solutions for banks around Europe for a number of years now. His love of photography was always there in the background, so much so, that one of his first purchases once he had a decent wage coming in was his own “serious” camera.
“I started out shooting wildlife, which I still do today. Learning about nature and the natural world in the process” he explained. “But I also love live music photography and the challenges that throws up. Of course, it also gives you an opportunity to meet some of your musical heroes."
Jonny is friends with Graham Jenkins, the concert promotor formally of Henry Tudor House and now of Live In The House. Through this association Jonny is Graham’s go-to man for concert photography. I’ve seen Jonny’s work, both his wildlife shots (his images of Kingfishers - see above! - are incredible) and his concert work, he definitely has a good eye.
Being a self-proclaimed “night owl” Jonny is also an accomplished Astro Photographer, capturing the night sky, stars, constellations and planets.
“I remember the first time I saw Saturn complete with it’s distinctive rings through my lens. I was so excited I ran in doors and insisted my wife come outside to see for herself, ignoring the fact she was fast asleep in bed at the time!”
Keen to know more about the club Jonny talked about so enthusiastically when we first met, I asked him what the inspiration behind it was and how he came up with the name - PhotoSoup.
“I started it during lockdown when I could see some of my friends and family struggle with the whole pandemic and lockdown thing, I knew how much photography had helped me in the past during a difficult time and I just knew it could help others as well.”
Jonny went on to explain that just over seven years ago he experienced a nervous breakdown.
“It came on suddenly - one minute I was fine, the next it just blew."
Whilst he talks quite openly about it now, I can only imagine what it was like for him. The experience left him unable to speak for two weeks and even now, seven years on, he says he will occasionally begin to stammer when under pressure.
“My wife and family were a huge support for me, but I also found photography, especially astrophotography an immense help. I would go out late at night, when it felt like the whole world was asleep, and I’d spend hour after hour photographing the night sky, thinking only about what I was doing and nothing else.
"Observing the planets and far off stars like this really does put things into perspective.”
Having been through a similar experience myself, although not as extreme, I can appreciate the value of being totally absorbed in an activity to the exclusion of everything else. Like Jonny, I have photography to thank for getting through those difficult times.
Jonny explained that he is a changed person as a result of his breakdown, but believes that, in many ways, it has been a positive thing: "I am much more aware of my own mental health and can take preventative action when I feel things are getting on top of me," he says.
When the world was hit with the pandemic in 2020, Jonny decided to set up a photography walking group aimed at anyone new to photography or who just wanted to brush up on their photographic skills. It proved very popular and through the various iterations of lockdowns, Jonny was able to keep the momentum going, whether it was in the form of in-person meet-ups, online sessions or small group workshops.
This hands shot was taken by Brian Roberts in a PhotoSoup 'Hands Feet or Paws' challenge
“It’s great to see people grow in confidence with their photography as a result of PhotoSoup, and to see friendships form amongst the members,” Jonny said proudly. “But I’ve also got something from it as well. It's been a form of therapy for me. It has taken me out of my comfort zone and I get as much out of it as the members do.”
So, what about the name, PhotoSoup? Where did that come from? Jonny explained…
“I wanted the word ‘Photo' in the name of the club, and 'Soup' is simply a reflection of the fact that it’s a mixture of anything and everything, in terms of subjects covered, different styles and all abilities.”
Now that we no longer live under the imminent threat of lockdowns, Jonny is turning his attention back to setting up regular meet-ups and getting in guest speakers, in addition to the weekly challenges he sets.
“The 52-week challenge sees me set a theme or topic each week for the members to base their photos on," he explains.
The feel of the group is very friendly with a clear statement that there should be no unsolicited criticism, just positive support. Certainly, from the content and volume of feedback Jonny has received, this approach works well.
Photo of the Devil's Chair in Shropshire, taken by Fi Mac as part of the PhotoSoup+ group
In addition to this informal and fun 52 Week Challenge, for those who want a more structured learning based approached Jonny has set up “PhotoSoup +” where for an annual fee of £25 a year, members get a series of more focused challenges designed to take you through the fundamentals of photography, giving you a solid grounding from which you can then explore your own creativity with your camera. And talking of cameras, this is one photography club that isn’t hung up on what gear you use, no camera snobbery here! Even camera phones are welcome.
Membership of PhotoSoup is already nearing 200, and Jonny’s passion and enthusiasm is clear when he talks about the group, it’s members and the progress they have made.
But Jonny’s not one to rest on his laurels, he has plans for the PhotoSoup brand. Using his knowledge of sign language and his degree he’s looking to expand the PhotoSoup remit to include teaching photography to children with hearing impairment as well as those with autism or other special needs.
Given the popularity of PhotoSoup so far, I am in no doubt this new endeavour for Jonny will be just as successful if not more so.
- If you want to know more about PhotoSoup, PhotoSoup + or the 52-week challenge, head over to the website https://www.photosoup.co.uk
Pictured below - Dan Owen in concert at Shrewsbury Abbey, photographed by Jonny Mo