Photographer Jill Schweber talks to Alison Sinkewicz

I interviewed Montreal-based Jill Schweber in March. Back then, on Saint Patrick’s Day 2020, we were doing our part as citizens, taking things online and deciding to pause a face-to-face for the time being. Now, that time being feels vague and uncertain. I ran into her just a few weeks ago at a mutual friend’s going away party–when might be the next time I see her IRL?

Rather than ask the unknowable questions, I spoke with Schweber about her photographic practice–an aesthetically poignant blend of documentary-style with editorial instincts. Her photographs, taken from across the globe including her former home of Tel Aviv and her family’s former home country of Mexico, feel close, even when the subjects are strangers. Her work, which has been featured in publications like VogueSSENSEOffice Magazine, and i-D Mexico, captures a warm, familial intimacy. A feeling I am of need of at this moment.

So, how are things going with social distancing? How are you keeping yourself occupied?

They are okay despite the circumstances. I already self-isolated for a week because I was sick so now starts week number two. I keep occupied by pretending like I’m going to be productive– haha–by the time I start doing something the day is mostly over.

I read, I talk to family and friends a lot, I clean and cook and do yoga. I ordered some crochet supplies so I will hopefully teach myself and make something with my hands. I think about the unknown future and how this worldwide pause will have a positive effect eventually even though I feel for everyone, there are so many people that will suffer.

It’s a really strange time–I’m also not quite sure what to do with my days, but trying to find ways to stay connected. You do travel a lot for your work—in what ways do you think your travel has impacted your photography?

It has impacted my photography because I’m usually shooting environmental portraits. It has required me to deal with any lighting or distractions and have less technique, even. I’m so inspired by new places that when I go I can’t look away. I have my little camera with me at all times. I have to remind myself to take a ton of photos in the first few days before I start to get accustomed to my surroundings. When I went to  New York for several months in (I think) 2015, I made a little zine–“A month alone in New York”–it was about being in a new place that I didn’t know very well after living in Tel Aviv for so long. New York and the Western world felt foreign to me. I documented just as much as when I went to Mexico alone for three months to really explore it on my own without being taken places by my family.

Do you remember your first camera?

I used my mom’s Canon AE1 for years. Her father, my grandfather gifted it to her. It’s a classic.

What do you shoot with now?

Contax T2, mostly. <3

When I look at your body of work, something that strikes me is that there is a real familiarity with your subjects. Even in instances when it seems maybe it’s an assignment, your photos relay a closeness and friendship. How do you make people feel at ease?

I think that maybe because I don’t work with big teams, and it is usually a very intimate setting where I go to someone’s house and talk to them one-on-one, we really get to know each other as I take photos. We take our time, and I try to get my subjects to relax and only do what they feel comfortable doing.

Your parents are originally from Mexico, and you do a lot of work there. Can you tell me about your relationship with Mexico?

Growing up in Richmond, BC–a very dry place haha–I was so inspired by the culture and colors of Mexico. I went there every year my entire life so I feel very connected and very at home there. I’m a very nostalgic person, so I get emotional and excited whenever I visit and go to my mom’s favorite cake shop, or my dad’s favorite park growing up or seeing where my grandparents used to live or go to school. I still have a lot of family there and I still have so much to learn about Mexico. Every region has its own special food and traditions and I want to see it all and photograph it all. Mexicans are so beautiful and even though a lot of them have a really hard life they are always, always cracking jokes.

Your photo series with the Mariachi Players of Plaza Garibaldi has a lot of these elements that you speak to. How did this series come about?

I was not in a good place at that time. I was very anxious and depressed and wanted to get out of Vancouver as soon as possible. I knew that I needed to go to Mexico regardless in a few months for a cousin’s wedding so I buckled down and did some research so I could go there sooner. My friend Betty told me about the Plaza and I knew that it was something I wanted to learn about and document. It was great getting to speak with Mariachis that had been doing it their entire lives, whose fathers had done it before them. And learning about the history of such a special part of Mexican culture that is known around the world and has become a symbol.

What do you find is the best way to approach strangers you are interested in photographing?

It’s hard to build the nerve up sometimes. It took me some years to really start to feel comfortable approaching strangers. With the Mariachis, they were so friendly and easy-going. I just went up to them and asked them. I asked them about their lives as Mariachis and how long they had been doing it etc. They have a lot of downtime between the quinceanera bookings, romantic serenading, and the time that people go there at night to get smashed and sing along to their favorite songs. They were eating tacos, ice cream, getting their shoes shined, just hanging out, so they were inviting. I never try to force it. If someone doesn’t want to have their photo taken it’s okay too. 

I struggle a lot with stories to tell, to pitch, that are relevant. How do you identify stories that feel important to tell?

That’s a hard one. I struggle with this too. I usually start to obsess over a neighbourhood, or an age group, or a specific person and I start to take their photos and get to know them more, and eventually it turns into a series.