I first stumbled upon Jess Soper while sifting through the #childhoodunplugged hashtag in search of images to feature. I found the image of one of her boys under a bridge, his shoes and socks haphazardly flung to the side and I was immediately overcome with that feeling of nostalgia. I thought of Dean Moriarty and Sal Paradise and life on the road. It’s amazing how you can fall in love with an artist based on a story you gave to a single image. And when I dove deeper, I only fell deeper in love.
I hope you’ll enjoy learning a bit more about her, too.
Tell us three interesting things about yourself.
I got so bored of looking in my wardrobe and wondering what I should I wear, that I’ve decided to wear a type of uniform, minimalist and practical! I’m only a month in, so this could get really dull – but so far so good!
I cry in the car A LOT. Most of the time I cry because I’m happy, I’ll be listening to good music and thinking how lucky I am and how good life is, then the tears will start rolling. But sometimes I’ll be listening to the the news and I’m just overwhelmed with sadness. Luckily I rarely cry when I have passengers (apart from my kids, who are quite used to me being mental!)
All I’ve ever wanted to do is tell stories, when I was a kid I used to make up ridiculous lies. Then I thought I’d be an author, but I could never sit down and write for long, so I got a degree in Journalism, but realised most news is depressing. Luckily my photos are my way of telling stories now and they flow for me much easier than words, I love giving people photos which tell a little part of their story and in the future I’d love to do a documentary project.
What was it like growing up on a farm and how did it shape the way you’ve decided to raise your own children?
I lived my childhood on two very different sorts of farms. The first was my nan’s feral, bohemian cattle farm. We lived in a small bungalow on the edge of her farm and everything there was ramshackle. Farm buildings cobbled together from scrap wood, plants growing through windows, cows escaping into our garden. It was wild and free, a childhood filled with mud and imagination. I’d pop to my nans for tea and she would send us into the garden to collect freshly grown vegetables. We’d return to the house and find a cockerel on the kitchen table or a calf in the shower. And to add to the madness the whole farm was surrounded by the M25 (the large motorway encircling London) and just down the road was a bone factory which pumped out the most awful smell, which I can still remember vividly. So it was certainly not a ‘conventional’ start to country life, whatever that means!
Later on we moved to a much more idyllic farm in the soft, Suffolk countryside, where I think I really found a deep love for nature and the harmony and peace that you can only really get from roaming free outside.
Without a doubt both those experiences have shaped how I bring up my boys. I’m a very hands-off parent and passionate about fostering a love for the outdoors in them. We live in a town house with a small garden, so my kids don’t have acres of land to explore but we spend most of our free time roaming around outdoors. We camp often, go to the woods, swim in the rivers, explore the seashore, even in the freezing rain, we’ll be outside, it’s just become woven into part of our daily lives. I love to see my children covered in mud, picking up bugs and playing games created from their imaginations. I don’t believe kids should be worried about how their clothes look or if there are twigs in their hair, I want my kids to be resilient and independent. I also try to let them do their own things a lot, I had lots of time on the farm, which in all honesty was just plain fucking boring, I didn’t appreciate it that much at the time, but I see now the beauty in unstructured time where you can be not only bored but also silently inspired, so I do make sure I don’t overplan my kids lives and I like seeing how their creativity evolves when they are left to their own devices.
Tell us a little about your boys and a few things that make them unique.
My eldest is a real nature lover, he says he wants to be a skateboarding explorer, who lives in a log cabin in the woods. He is sensitive and deep, a thoughtful child but also pretty temperamental, exploding at the most inconvenient moments! He is also a non-stop-making-machine. Everyday he writes stories, draws, paints, makes models from junk… our house is a mass of paper and strange objects glued together. I definitely see a lot of myself as a child in him.
My youngest is far more easy going, just 3 days after he was born he was laughing in his sleep.Like his brother he loves to be outside, but life doesn’t seem to be so intense for him and he has an infectious contentment about him that just rubs off on everyone. He still loves to run wild though, he loves being in water too and is great at climbing and swinging from high objects!
They make a great combination and most of the time they get on well, I hope that lasts as they get older.
What kinds of things do your boys enjoy?
They are definitely outdoor children, they love running, climbing trees, attacking each other with sticks, camping, burning things and of course making…. so much making! We don’t have many toys at home, which is a deliberate choice, I’m a bit of a minimalist at heart and I want my kids to understand the value and meaning of the things they have, which can be hard in such a disposable age. But also I realised quite early on that my kids hardly ever play with toys. Apart from a few toy cars, dinosaurs, some dressing up bits and lego they seem unfazed by everything else. Infact, recently, what they seem to enjoy doing most with their toys, is throwing them out of the window, so we’re down to the bare minimum now!
It’s the weekend and you have nothing that you need to do. How do you and your family spend the day?
Dom, my boyfriend, normally gets up with the kids because he is a better person than me, and I’m totally crap in the morning. Then he’ll bring us up tea and we’ll hide, undisturbed in the bedroom for an hour or so. After a slow start we’ll normally head out to somewhere outside, the woods, sea, country park etc. normally finishing with a good lunch at a pub and sometimes meeting up with friends, that’s a pretty standard weekend for us if we’re at home.
It’s important for adults to have unplugged time too. How do you like to spend your time when you have a few moments to yourself?
I normally plug myself in, not unplug myself and any spare time I get is spent editing photos, or learning new techniques or finding inspiration! But I try and read books fairly regularly, do a bit of yoga, sometimes I’ll do some self-portraits if I’m feeling creatively blocked up. My real escapism is music though, for me there is nothing as powerful as music in letting you escape. I’ve had a few nights out this summer with my friends, child-free and care free with lots of dancing and that to me is the absolute best way to unplug!
What do you want your boys to remember most from their childhood?
That they were loved and that their parents loved each other That we had some fantastic friends and family in our lives and that we might have been a bit odd but we had a whole load of fun, and most of that fun was free.
I dread to think what they’ll actually remember, probably holidays in wet, cheese-smelling tents, frazzled parents always telling them to be quiet and stop destroying things, a mum who could never find their shoes (or hers) and a dad who was always dragging them to festivals and making them dance to house music in the living room with all the lights off.
I think children who spend more time in nature become more independent and confident adults. Would you agree? Please elaborate.
Yes! I’m super passionate about letting kids have plenty of time in nature!
I don’t think you need to live in the country to let your kids have this freedom though. Nature is everywhere, it’s in that patch of grass on the corner of the road, it’s in that wet, muddy puddle, it’s the slug hiding under the bin. When I stand in the playground and hear parents telling their kids off for getting dirty hands, or mud on their school tops, or telling them to put down that ‘gross creature’, my heart shatters.
Letting your kids get mucky, letting them explore and be free is so important. It fosters excitement and respect for the world around them. Nature is all around us, accessible and free which is hugely liberating to most children who spend so much of their lives being told what they can and can’t do. They can really push their limits, creatively, intellectually and physically, when they are outside. The sense of achievement from things like, lighting your own fires or climbing trees is never forgotten.
Let your children embrace nature, and let them be free and unrestricted, let them take off their shoes and get mucky, let them swim in the sea with all their clothes on, let them laugh when they tread in a cow pat and I have no doubt your kids will be 100% happier and more confident as adults. In fact, I think in many ways, it is the only hope for the human race, without these people with a love and affinity for this world we are doomed, hopefully our kids will do a better job than we have.
I often think of the childhood unplugged movement as being more about what we do instead of what we don’t do, but I’m also curious about screen time in other’s homes. Do your boys enjoy TV/screen time? Is it something that you limit or is it not even an issue?
They love watching films, nature documentaries and a few other bits and bobs. I’m no cultural snob and trust me I’m extremely grateful that this form of entertainment exists, I might have had a breakdown without it by now!
I think our kids are so lucky to grow up in a world with so much access to information, with just a little curiosity you can pretty much teach yourself anything, which is an incredible thing. On the other hand we don’t have a TV and the kids are restricted to watching things on a half broken laptop. Not surprisingly, they don’t spend a whole lot of time on there!
That was a conscious choice when they were little, and they now self-limit themselves fairly well – much better than me! My eldest son asked for a tablet once, as a lot of his friends at school have them. We didn’t get him one so he made one out of an acorn and a bit of paper and was totally happy!!
Are your children ever bothered by you photographing their adventures? How do you maintain a balance of being present and still capturing the moments that you do?
Mostly they are unphased, I think it’s just second nature to them. They do have their moments, normally when they’re tired, where they tell me to not take photos and I try my best to not to. I think it’s important to respect that. In terms of staying present I think photographing them actually helps me to do that. We spend a lot of time outside and when they are off doing their own thing I love to be able to potter around with my camera, it means we probably spend a lot longer outside than we might do otherwise. It also leads us on some ridiculous adventures. Sometimes, I get lost in the idea of a good photo and will neglect bedtimes and all the usual rules about what they can do. Only the other week we were camping and I was putting them to bed when I spotted a great sunset on the way, somehow the ‘going to bed’ turned into a walk through miles of sand dunes, boys in nothing but pyjamas and only a camera between us. We made it all the way to the sea, had a swim, saw the best sunset of the year and returned back to the tent hours later to a very confused dad who wondered where the hell we’d been!
I love that you give your oldest a camera to use from time to time. Tell us about the things he’s captured.
I think it’s really important that you share the things you love with your children, and of course if they’re around cameras all the time they naturally gravitate towards them. He has his own compact which he’ll take out on walks with us or when when we go on holiday. I love looking at his photos, he’ll photograph a lot of nature but if we’re around people they’ll be the main subject of his photos, recently he’s also started getting me to pose in ludicrous places. The other day I had to lie on a patch of grass, trying desperately to avoid the piles of dog poo, because he wanted to get me lying down with my eyes closed in the golden sunset light!
Do you have a favorite photograph and if so, can you tell us about it?
I’m so fickle, I literally change my favourites every week or so. I’m like that with everything, but at the moment it’s this one. I only had a second to grab this photo, we were out on a walk when we spotted this thistledown,my son held this to his face and said ‘it is like soft-pillows for fairies’. I was lucky with the light and within a moment he was off and into something else, but I knew this one would be special to me. I love it as a beautiful picture in it’s own right, but also because it reflects him so completely.
How did you first get into photography? Did what you were drawn to photographing change after you had kids?
My dad was a keen photographer when I was growing up and he used to develop his own films, this obviously had an influence on me. But really it wasn’t until a couple of years ago that I began to get serious about taking photos. Having kids helped re-open my creativity which I think had been pretty repressed for a lot of years. My children have definitely shaped my photographic style, they are wild and free, not the sort of children you could get to sit still for long, so I’ve had to learn to be quick on my feet, looking for beauty in unusual situations. They also teach you to notice all those tiny meaningful details in life that you often forget about as adults. Although being a mother can sometimes appear to be a thankless task, there is no doubt they have inadvertently taught me as much about life as I have taught them.
What kind of gear do you shoot with?
A nikon d750 with a 35mm 1.8 lens which is what I use most the time, I also love my lensbaby edge 80 for when I’m in a creative rut. That’s what I shoot with most of the time, apart from weddings and other work where I’ll have a flash and couple of other lenses, I’m pretty minimal with gear though. I don’t like to feel burdened by stuff.
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