Ethan Aaro Jones

Taylor Falls, MN from Last Summer


Wavepool – What about photography excites you?

Ethan Aaro JonesI’m primarily interested in photography because of its ability to elicit empathy, and as a photographer I’m most excited to make work that engages with that notion on some level. I’m also generally drawn to photography because it often gives me an opportunity to talk and learn about things besides photography, and that’s usually an exciting proposition.

Wavepool – Because your work seems to be very contemplative and observational, I’m curious about how you develop a project. Do you keep an idea in mind while shooting, or do you shoot instinctively and wait for the concept to emerge later?

Ethan Aaro Jones – I’m glad that the work reads as contemplative and observational because that is an important part of my process. When I start a project I usually know what I’m trying to do, but in the beginning I intentionally keep it conceptually vague while I photograph so I’m open to a variety of possibilities. By keeping my ideas less defined I’m hoping to refine my project through shooting and editing. Once I’ve decided on some more concrete terms for my work I then make pictures more purposely as a way of rounding out the project visually and conceptually.

This sort of process leads me to make pictures in different ways. Specifically with Last Summer, the majority of the pictures are more purely instinctive and documentary, but as the project has grown and changed new pictures are somewhat premeditated, directed, and partially created. Despite my evolving approach, I think the mix of working methods is important because it lets me talk about summer as an experience that can be documented and an idea that is created. In both cases I think my photographs play a role in embellishing summer, turning it into something greater than the sum of its parts.


Bemidji, MN from Last Summer


Wavepool – Do you think geography has a direct impact on your work? Would you be doing things differently if you were living somewhere other than the midwest?

Ethan Aaro Jones – I think about geography a lot, but I don’t necessarily think about it in terms of the Midwest. For instance, sometimes I think of myself as a Northerner, and I consider how that had affected Last Summer. I’ve chosen to be a Northerner and Midwesterner (I grew up in Virginia), partly because I’m vastly more fond of an environment that has four full seasons. Wanting to live in a place that has a harsh winter directly affects how I make and think about my work. There is something about how a long cold winter makes you really appreciate the nice warm summer days, and that sentiment certainly plays into Last Summer. Living in the upper Midwest enhances summer through the stark contrast of winter, but I also see summer as a common denominator in America where everyone knows and cherishes the feeling of long warm sunny days.

Wavepool –  There’s a clear interest in seasonal changes and the passage of time in your project Last Summer. Are these ideas referenced in the sequencing of the images? Is there any sort of underlying narrative present?

Ethan Aaro Jones – There isn’t really a direct narrative in the work, but the passage of time and changing seasons are a big part of Last Summer. I haven’t yet settled on a final sequence because I’m still making pictures for the project and figuring out how I want to present it, but I do think about time and seasons when I sequence and edit Last Summer. I have also noticed that it feels easier putting early summer pictures at the beginning of an edit, and leaving late summer photographs towards the end, but the pictures are not in chronological order and they aren’t attempting to convey a linear narrative about the season changing. My goal is to find an edit and sequence that hints more at the variety of emotions associated with summer, and approach finalizing the project with the idea of conveying a feeling of summer.


Minneapolis, MN from Last Summer


Wavepool – Are there images from Last Summer that are staged or structured in some way to reflect the fictional nature of summer as mentioned in your statement?

Ethan Aaro Jones – Some pictures are staged to an extent, but it isn’t really about staging versus observing or documenting. When I have staged or directed a picture I’m usually trying to do so in a manner that keeps with the tone of the work, so I’m not trying to show my hand in fabricating images. 

What I meant by saying that summer is an elaborate fiction is that the different ways in which summer is remembered, romanticized, and ultimately embellished don’t line up with how it is experienced. And while I suppose you could say that about all sorts of things in our culture, there is something specific about how summer is the quintessential cultural experience to inflate with positivity. In Minnesota you know summer will end quickly, and because it’s so brief, I find people living with this idea of holding onto summer in a way that adds texture and understanding to how we think about summer and the passage of time.

Wavepool – What can you tell me about your other projects, which are mostly made up of portraits? What do you enjoy about that image making process?

Ethan Aaro Jones – A lot of my interest in making portraits has to do with empathy. I’m generally interested in portraits that seem to convey a part of the subject’s psychological makeup. As a part of that, there are certain expressions that I think lend themselves to being interpreted as psychological. I’m not always sure how this phenomenon happens, but there are portraits out there that don’t appear to be psychological at all, and then of course there are some portraits that seem to have a real intensity about them. I want to look at portraits (and I could probably do this all day) where some psychological or intense feeling appears to be revealed. I guess in its most basic sense, when I’m making portraits my priority is to convey feeling and emotion in a way that other people see or understand it too.

With the series Athletes, I was exploring how physical exercise relates to psychological intensity. I liked the context of calling the subjects athletes (each portrait was made after they had exercised) because it gave a reason for why these people appear psychologically engaged. By photographing athletes soon after they exercised I thought they would be more likely to yield the kind of emotional empathetic portrait that I’m interested in. Choosing to make this kind of portrait of athletes, instead of anyone, I thought would give context and a reason for why these people might all appear to be in thought.

For a while I was trying to experiment with what it takes to make an empathetic portrait of a person. I was working under the premise that the proximity and authenticity of my relationship with subjects didn’t really matter in terms of creating an empathetic portrait as long as there were certain expressions that seemed to suggest an intensity or gave a sense of inner contemplation. A large part of the Faces work is exploring ideas surrounding the process of reading and understanding facial expressions, and evaluating which images might give me or the viewer a sense of understanding how the subject feels.


(L) Untitled from Athletes and (R) Untitled from Faces

To see more, please visit Ethan’s website.