Tales from the Front

by Kate Stanworth

Jensen Walker

July 01, 2010 — Jensen Walker’s photographs are adventures, journeys into emotional states packed with passion and provocation. He has captured many narratives—the furrowed brow of a news reporter as a hurricane approaches, the grimace of a soldier during a deafening missile launch and the determined gaze of a young athlete seconds before the big race.

While some of his photos capture moments of real action, others call for more production to tell the story. But whether it’s a candid image of poverty in Asia, a playful portrait with flying paint, or a staged military occupation on the streets of Texas, Jensen never loses his respect for realism and his commitment to fearless exploration—all characteristics that stem from his background in photojournalism.

Jensen, who recently relocated from Texas to Tokyo, says that early on in his career he was a “big ambulance chaser and adrenaline junkie” skipping classes to shoot assignments for the Fort Worth

The son of a petroleum geologist, he was used to moving around. In his youth his family relocated from Michigan to Texas, then London, followed by California. In 2001, upon graduation from Indiana University, he was keen to pack his bags once again and travel to Southeast Asia, where he documented child prostitution in Thailand for an NGO (non-governmental organization). The project was made into a successful book, titled House of Grace.

Upon returning to the States in 2002 he got a job for the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. Still buzzing from his photojournalistic experiences, he was hungry for more; however, things weren’t so easy in post-9/11 America. “At that point I was living the dream. I’m making money, I’ve got all these jobs,” he explains, “But I couldn’t even get the Dallas Observer to meet with me.”

Stuck without options and quickly running out of money, Jensen was offered some assistant work through a local contact. It opened his eyes to an entirely different side of the industry. “I didn’t even know what assisting was before that,” he says. The job led to a great opportunity to work as a full-time assistant to commercial photographer Stewart Cohen.

For three years, Jensen accompanied Stewart everywhere, from Singapore to Central America. “We worked on half-a-million-dollar Nokia jobs, things that when you went to journalism school you just don’t understand, and you don’t know how to put together or handle,” he says.

It was on one such shoot where Jensen met his wife, a ballet dancer at the time. Jensen married her and they went on to have a daughter together. While his personal life had been transformed, working for Stewart also changed how he thought about photography. “I came out of it thinking, ‘Wow, that’s a style of life that I could definitely embrace,’ ” he recalls. “I liked the big production. I liked having enough money to be able to think, ‘This is my idea; let’s create it.’ ”

But at the same time Jensen was determined not to lose what he had learned in college. “I still really enjoy the journalism, the raw moments, the raw emotion, so I try to ride the boundary between both.”
Continuing to pursue photojournalistic stories, he followed a CNN crew as they broadcasted from the epicenter of Hurricane Rita in 2005, and documented Israeli troops during the Israel/Lebanon conflict in 2006. Jensen also uses his production skills in a wide range of shoots, including editorial, portraits, corporate branding and publicity.

For his more produced shoots, he often draws from the storytelling strength that he developed in photojournalism. “When I’m doing portraits I give people a narrative,” he explains. “I was photographing a track runner for a magazine cover and I asked him to imagine he was about to face the most important race of his career. He rose up onto his fingers and gave me this amazing intensity. I’d shot sports before, but now it wasn’t about shooting the action, but about shooting the athlete as a warrior and a strategist.”

He often transforms a portrait into something with narrative charge by cleverly employing simple lighting, locations and props. In a branding shoot for news anchor Kim Fischer, he used a run-down part of town by incorporating different colors of smoke to stage a chaotic scene where she appeared to be reporting. “I loved the fact that she is willing to push the concept and create more than a standard head shot,” says Jensen. “I’m keen to do anything as long as it’s creative.”

Another playful shoot he did for a band shows each musician being splattered with colorful paint. “We had four people throwing paint at the same time, and I like the realism that it created,” says Jensen. “There are times when you have gaps in the image, so I will take paint from other photos, but it’s all done in-camera for the most part.”

Jensen considers his journalistic mentality to still be there, despite the fact he finds himself doing more digital work, with layers and different looks. “All is done with the intention of keeping it like it actually happened in-camera—authentic, even if there’s hours of postproduction in it.”

One of Jensen’s fears about commercial work was that he couldn’t make a difference in the way he had before, recalling the way his book on child prostitution had funded the building of a shelter to help rehabilitate victims. One job, however, has given him a balance between emotional payback and a corporate wage: a series of shoots for Cook Children’s Medical Center.

“I’ve seen some amazing stuff there, from brain surgery to a heart transplant, and I’ve met some really incredible people,” says Jensen. He produced a story for the medical center, using stills and video, about a child undergoing life-changing surgery for a movement disorder. The footage was shown at a gala. “He stood up and got a standing ovation and his mum was crying,” he recalls. “So it felt like I was making an impact and giving back. You don’t normally get this emotional connection with your subject as a
corporate photographer.”

But Jensen doesn’t just rely on his clients to provide him with opportunities. Each year he does an uncompromising personal project on an important subject. One of these was his trip to document the experience of soldiers in Israel, showing a different viewpoint on a widely reported story. It was never published, despite coverage of his venture appearing on CNN. Nevertheless, he describes it as “the greatest thing I did that year.”

In late 2007 Jensen’s brother was sent to fight in Afghanistan, and his instincts once again compelled him toward a similar project. However, he had promised his wife he would not work in conflict zones again. Without the opportunity to capture real war scenes, he responded by using his skills and experience in production to construct his own. “It allowed me to think, ‘You don’t have to document narrative, you can create it,’ ” he says.

While Jensen considered that the public was tiring of the same type of images from Iraq, he took the opportunity to create a thought-provoking reversal of the familiar press photos. In his Invasion America series Jensen staged an alternative war scenario in which an occupying force is invading America. In one of these scenes, soldiers with guns enter a familiar-looking kitchen while middle-class American mothers clutch their frightened children. And in another image, he stages a setup where Islamic soldiers outside an expensive downtown boutique hold up citizens.

The images are intriguing and haunting. “I wanted to take people out of their comfort zone and to explore subjects that put me in the shoes of the other side,” Jensen explains. Entering into the realm of art, the images pushed boundaries and touched nerves. “From a commercial standpoint, they didn’t know how to understand it,” he says.

Having opened up intriguing new possibilities to explore gritty, traditionally journalistic subjects in a new way, Jensen is undeterred by this series’ lack of commercial success. He is determined that in the future he will find the right outlets for such work. “In hindsight it should have been something that I made a gallery show out of,” he says. “Next time I will make 20 images, so the series would be big enough for an exhibition.”

Now embarking on a new life in Tokyo, Jensen says he would love to push his capacity for higher paying ad work and big budget production. But behind this aim is the burning need to put that money back into personal projects that continue to compel him.

While they might not pay back financially, these projects reignite the very fire and raw excitement that first attracted him to photography and allow him to create images in an unrestricted way. “It is important to give everything to a project that is something totally out there,” he says. “I like to do one really bold thing each year and to go forward totally without fear.”

See more of Jensen’s work at www.jensenwalker.com.

Kate Stanworth is a British-born writer and photographer. She currently works as an editorial photo editor and writes on diverse aspects of art and culture in London and Buenos Aires.

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