Today, we are so honored to be sharing the final piece of our Q&A series, a conversation with photographer Jes Nijjer. We're thrilled to be chatting with this former OIP Trivia Tuesday winner about the keys to a good author portrait, creative transitions, and so much more.
But first, our boundless thanks to all who shared their work and time with us, to all who built and read alongside us over the past two years. Today, we’d also like to offer a thank you to all who played!
OIP’s monthly IG gameshow, Trivia Tuesday, launched in December 2022. We couldn’t have done this project without the efforts of Drake and Alyssa Preston. Our thanks go out to them, to all who participated, and to our guest hosts over the past year—Mary Christine Delea, Daphne Fauber, and Hank Krutulis.
Thanks so very much for playing!
Now, without further ado...Jes Nijjer!
Jes Nijjer is an Indianapolis based natural-light photographer specializing in portraiture and food. Through her work she strives to highlight personality as much as appearance. Her pieces often play with soft light and stark shadows, underlining dualities of human nature. Her work has been featured in Indianapolis Monthly magazine, Pattern magazine, and Absolute Living magazine.
At OIP, we love the fact that everyone has their own set of "classics" (i.e., books, songs, recipes, comics, food, objects, movies, shows, etc. that shaped you). What were some of your favorite childhood "classics"?
There are a few that come to mind right away (some more relatable than others)! I remember being really consumed by books and shows where I felt like I could not only identify with a character, but almost become them. Stanley Yelnats (Holes), Harry Potter, Sailor Jupiter, and Fox Mulder (X-Files) were some early favorites. The One Saturday Morning cartoons had an impact - Recess definitely made a lasting impression on me. Later on Rocket Power became a staple. (I think I still have a Regina Rocket t-shirt somewhere...)
Reading wasn’t even something I thought about doing consciously growing up, it just HAPPENED. It’s hard to remember a time in my childhood and adolescence when I wasn’t hooked on a series and staying up late to read “just one more chapter.”
And food has always played a huge role in my life. My family is from India so I’ve always been spoiled with really great cooking at home (which I try and fail to recreate on my own now). I think it shaped my view on food to a point that influences how I engage with everything now, really. I associate comfort, connection, socializing all with food and it dates back to a pretty young age.
Thank you! I think there’s one key element that’s most important for any good portrait or headshot: comfort. I encourage everyone to wear something they’re comfortable in, take a minute, relax, have some water. Whether it’s a friend or a stranger, I like to chat, catch up, get to know them a little before we start clicking away. It’s one of those things you can’t always put your finger on, but you’ll just sense the difference when you see it. I think the highest compliment to receive as a photographer is when people see a photo of a stranger and tell me “I feel like I know them.” That’s their relationship and comfort with the photographer you’re sensing. Photographers, get to know who you’re working with and make sure they’re relaxed! Authors, call me…
You made the leap from a nursing career to the field of photography. We'd love to get your take on transitioning into a professional life in the creative arts. What advice would you give to someone who wants to forge their creative arts career path? What do you know now that you wish you knew when you began this process?
Oh man. I’d love to offer some grand insight or steps to follow, but in my case I just did it. (Not the most helpful.) I didn’t know what was bothering me about nursing, but I knew it wasn’t the right fit. I actually thought I wanted to pursue something else in medicine. I got a camera the summer before I was supposed to go back to school for pre-med. But luckily I became pretty inseparable from the camera really quickly, I took photos everywhere I went and shared them online. A few restaurants took interest in that and here we are almost eight years later. I was lucky to have a living situation with my family that afforded me the freedom to figure out how to start a creative career from scratch, but that’s rare. So for anyone interested in making a similar transition, I’d recommend cultivating a social group in that industry. Let’s say writing for example. Take a creative writing class, join a writing group, cold email some local magazines and agencies with your sample work. Let people know you’d be interested in taking on some freelance work so they can keep an eye out for you. It’s a lot easier to make the jump if you know where you’ll land. Also, have a personal website and a well curated online presence! You’d be surprised how much easier it is to just have the work come to you when people can see your examples online and share them. More than 90% of my work comes to me through Instagram, my website, or referrals.
I take photos everywhere I go constantly, whether I was hired to or not. So what if this hotel didn’t hire me to take photos for them? Another hotel is going to see these photos and hire me. That’s one of the best ways to use social media to your advantage, build a portfolio as large as you want.
What are some things you enjoy doing off-screen? (*your very own digital disruption):
I love to write any chance I get. It doesn’t even matter what it is: journaling, essays, case-studies about businesses, observations, short stories. I’m almost ashamed to admit this, but my friends already know, I have a bit of a notebook problem. At any given time you can find 3-5 notebooks in my tote bag, all for different things. There’s the ‘work’ notebook, the ‘random thoughts on culture and politics’ notebook, the ‘eventually this will be a dating podcast’ notebook, and so on and so forth. I process through writing and talking so it’s almost essential to write things down to know how I really feel about them.
Snacks while you work–yes/no? If yes, what’s your go-to?
Let me tell you something…I am a snacking PRO. Roadtrip? I got you. Running errands? There’s a snack for that. Co-working date? I planned it around your favorite treat. Recently I’m obsessed with Thai curry cashews, apples with miso peanut butter, and dark chocolate espresso beans. I mean, snack breaks are how you plan the day.
What are some of your favorite tools-of-the-trade?
I keep a pretty light setup, especially compared to most other photographers I know. I almost exclusively work with natural and ambient light so luckily I don’t have to haul much equipment around with me. My primary camera lately has been a Fuji X-T5 and I have a few different lenses I keep on me. Recently I also got a Leica D-Lux 7 and it goes everywhere with me now. It’s a very small, low-profile camera so it makes it really easy to use no matter where I am, and it tends to go pretty unnoticed. Those two are pretty much all I use these days, but that won’t stop me from buying a new camera every couple of months. I edit everything in Lightroom and over the years I’ve made a few dozen presets for different looks. I’m so attached to my process it’s almost an extension of photographing at this point.
You are hosting a party. Who’s coming? Where and when? What’s being served? (Fictional characters and locales are welcome.)
A house in one of my two favorite neighborhoods: Old Northside or Fletcher Place. My good friend Padma Laxmi is helping me cook up an Indian feast, so kind of her. I don’t like to name drop, but Moira Rose, Issa Rae, and Zendaya RSVPed. Ashley Ford and John Green are on drink duty. John Wick is running a little late, but we can understand. Cousin from The Bear? Oh he’ll be here any minute. Cece and Winston from New Girl? Yep they’re in the study. Jia Tolentino and Dule Hill as every character he’s ever played, also invited. And the guest of honor? CJ Cregg.
Any recommendations for the OIP community? What have you been enjoying lately? Or what is something you are working on currently that you would like to share?
Anything by Carmen Maria Machado is high on my list for recommended reading. I’m currently reading Her Body and Other Parties, a collection of short stories. Her memoir, In the Dream House, is also incredible. Also if anyone hasn’t seen Past Lives, please watch it and let it change your life. That movie was an instant favorite for me. And if you’re in Indy, come to CreativeMornings. Once a month you’ll hear from a creative member of the community and make lots of friends over coffee and doughnuts. You might catch me taking photos there.
Thank you so much, Jes!
Discover more of Jes's work at her website, and make sure to follow her on Instagram.
And now, the time has come for us to say our goodbyes.
From all of us, thank you for being part of Old Iron Press. We wish you all the very best on your journey!