Elza Jo’s agency HALAL sent me an email with her new campaign for jewelry brand lolaandgrace. The painted frames in her videos and gifs caught my attention, and I got curious. Who’s this Elza Jo? What inspires her? We went for coffee (but drank tea) and talked about the campaign, models and our job: photography.
Toeps: Hi, nice to meet you! Tell me, who are you and what clients have you worked for? Elza Jo: I’m Elza Jo, I was born in Amsterdam, not far away from here, across the Heineken factory. Next month I’ll turn 34. I’ve worked for Converse, Nike, Dazed Korea, Nylon Mexico, Nylon Singapore, Vice and Dutch Glamour and Elle.
T: When did you know you wanted to be a photographer? E: Well, it kinda happened by accident. I’ve always loved making things, and working with my hands. I went to the art academy for graphic design when I was seventeen. Way too young really, I was lucky they even admitted me.
With graphic design, you get to do everything – that was my idea. Painting, drawing, designing fonts… But I found out that graphic design is actually very disciplined and strict. That doesn’t really suit me. And you’re behind the computer all day. I didn’t see myself sitting in an ergonomic chair, with the sun shining outside and me staying inside… I still am though, haha!
I had this teacher, Frederick Linck. A tall, bald guy from The Hague. He showed us some of his work: Circus people, strange folks, celebrities. I thought: “Wow, so then you’d have to go there, photograph these people…” That seemed very exciting. So I thought, that’s what I want to do.
The other layer
By the end of my studies I got back to that other layer more and more. Painting, drawing… I combined that with my photography.
I really like the combination. Photography is high speed, exciting to see what it’s gonna look like, that feeling of relief when finished… There’s a lot of emotions going on. Same with film. Afterwards, I draw and paint. That’s nice and easy, you can start all over again if you want to… You must feel the same when editing.
T: Well, sometimes I just see all that has gone wrong, haha. E: But when you add paint, or glitter, those errors could have their charm. Video is quite a thing, though. I have to print out every single frame I want to paint on.
T: Wow, you really print and paint them one by one? I would think you would do that by computer! E: No, computers can be really convenient, but when doing it this way you get that thing old movies have: scratches, light leaks… It makes it look very real and analog, I like that.
T: What do you look for in models? E: I’m kinda reinventing myself in this regard. Because of the filming, I feel more and more like I want to tell a story. Of course that’s also the case with photography, but with film even more, like a documentary. I want to tell a story that could happen just around the corner. I try to look for someone that’s interesting, someone you want to know more about. I’m looking for the story behind a person.
T: What about young models? E: When a young girl is portraying a 35-year-old, it gets a bit weird. When a 14-year-old can be a 14-year-old, it’s a completely different story.
Who were we when we were 14? Come to think of it, I had purple, plastic foil on my ceiling, haha!
T: For lolaandgrace you shot with Vera ven Erp (CODE Management) and Belgian model Yumi Lambert (Dominique Models). How did that come together? E: We worked with casting director Victor de Bie. It was actually the first time I worked with a casting director, and it really gave the story an extra dimension. You come with a plan and he goes like: “try her and her!” It’s something you wouldn’t come up with yourself, an improvement of the concept.
He didn’t actually discover Vera, but he knew very early on that she would be doing great stuff. We were looking for opposites. When working with two models, it’s best if they complement each other. What I really like about Vera is the moodyness and darkness in her face, while she has this sweet thing going on at the same time. A really cool chick. T: She’s studying at the Amsterdam Fashion Institute, isn’t she? E: Yes, and you can definitely tell.
What I like about Yumi is that she has something intangible. T: And she did great things, like the Chanel campaign. Were you happy you could work with her? E: Yeah, Victor did a great job!
A portrait of London
We shot in London. Both the video and the photoshoot, in two days. It was in january, so that was quite challenging… It was cold!
Sofie Spindler worked on the concept. We like to think of concepts together a lot, so it was very cool to go all out on this one. The idea was that we wouldn’t just shoot portraits of Yumi and Vera, we would also shoot portraits of London. The environment was almost as important as the subject in it. That was a really exciting idea, so we worked closely together with location scouts.
T: So there were quite a lot of people involved! E: Yeah, it was a pretty big team. We also had two behind-the-scenes guys, one for photos and one for film, my two assistants, two models of course, Julia Llamas the amazing producer, two people of lolaandgrace, and John and John, who were helping us with locations and such. Together we moved around town.
All the team members were in the same hotel, that was a lot of fun. When you’re all working really hard to make a project a success, that’s feels very special.
Doing it yourself versus putting things out
T: How much work did you have afterwards? E: Quite a lot! I did a big part of the video editing myself, and later we worked on it with an editor. And I was there overseeing all the photo editing.
T: What’s it like to outsource editing? Don’t you think it’s hard to let go? E: It’s very important that that person understands your style. But when that’s the case, it’s awesome: they immediately add the color tones you like…
It was kinda neccessary, because it’s jewelry. Everything needs to be sharp and perfect, it really is a specialty. You could be doing it yourself, and it probably would have worked… But any small change might have taken me a day, while they do it in an hour.
T: Last week I was building and painting a set… What do you prefer? Doing things yourself or having a big team? E: Doing things myself I like more when it’s my personal work. A good team ads an extra dimension. But sometimes, when a client has a very strong opinion about something, it’s more like: “I do as you wish!”
Art versus client
T: I understand. What do you do, when a client wants something you’re not completely happy about? E: I think you get hired for different reasons. Sometimes a concept is almost completely finished already, then it’s useless to have very strong opinions about everything. Not that I dislike those shoots though. They have a different kind of energy. You try to transform into the client.
The next day I’m in the studio, shooting a video of myself getting killed by a bull fighter, and I’m second guessing my every move. Does this look good? Why am I doing this? That variety is the best.
You have to know when they ask you for your vision, and when they ask you for your skill. But you’re always a little bit of an art director, that’s why they picked you instead of anyone else.
T: There’s these die-hard artists, that can only create what they want to create, and can’t conform to what a client wants… E: I do admire that kind of people! They can get very far. I notice that I surround myself with those people, because I’m more of a happy-go-lucky kind of girl.
I almost always see potential in a project. When someone asks me “Do you want to do this?”, I quickly say yes. I love to have more critical friends around me.
T: It’s good to know how to be commercial. E: On the other hand, having a signature style is important too.
T: My new adagium is “does it spark joy?” It’s by Marie Kondo, a Japanese tidying guru. E: Oooh, I need her in my life – makes a note in her phone – I’m such a hoarder, haha! It’s in my family, I think. My Indonesian great-grandmother had a house that was só packed! Not filthy, just so much stuff… And chickens.
I live in a tiny home, just fourty square meters. All walls are covered, all cabinets and cupboards are full and my table is covered in my treasures. Things I love: candlesticks, vases, figurines… T: Do you get inspiration from them? E: I’m convinced I do! I’m not sure how, but I know it’s true. When you work with your hands and create things, you need to have stuff, right? •
I stop the recording and we talk on and on. About tidying, about clients, about the complicated hipster teapots we got in the overly hip coffee place… Yes, Elza Jo rocks!
Click here to view Elza Jo’s portfolio on the website of HALAL. Hair and makeup for the campaign are by Kathinka Gernant. Styling is by Jos van Heel.