New London Architecture

Five minutes with...Jason Hawkes, photographer

Tuesday 08 September 2020

David Taylor

David Taylor

Editor, NLQ

David Taylor catches up with aerial photographer extraordinaire and ‘The Changing Face of London’ chronicler Jason Hawkes and hears how London has changed, particularly over the last 15 years from his birds’ eye perspective; about his hairy moments and near-misses in helicopters; drones, and the biggest bane of Hawkes’ life – people stealing his output online.

David Taylor: Hi Jason. How are you?

Jason Hawkes: Hi. Yeah; not bad!

DT: What have you been up to?

JH: I’m just doing a load of edits for some footage I shot a couple of months ago. I did about five days’ filming and I’m just editing it down because I'm not doing any flying at the minute.

DT: Oh, you’re not? Why?

JH:  Well, today, just because the weather's not good enough. I'm just editing stuff to put on my website.

DT: So, how does it work? Have you got some kind of season ticket arrangement with the helicopter guys you use? (laughs)

JH: (laughs) I wish! No. Whatever job comes up I find, if it's in London I tend to use the same helicopter operator. They've got five pilots, and three or four helicopters. So, I will give them a call. I’ve worked with them for years, so I'll just give them a buzz and say, well the next job coming up is… and we'll just discuss it and pencil in a date. That often… well, always moves, just because of the weather. Sometimes you’ll pencil in one day; sometimes you’ll pencil in the whole week. You make a yes/no decision later, either the day before, or even just on the day. But you might go there and not fly because the conditions aren’t quite suitable. 

DT: Is that out of Battersea or somewhere?

JH: No, it's from Redhill. There aren’t any operators based in Battersea. They just come in from somewhere else and pick you up or drop you off. It’s not a very good place to fly from. It's incredibly expensive.

DT: So: How did you get into all of this?

JH: I studied photography, and when I was about 21, I started assisting fashion photographers or still life photographers; anybody I could really work for in London. I was doing it for a few months and I went flying in a microlight with a couple of friends of mine one weekend, and thought what a laugh it was. Obviously, it was years and years ago, way before drones or anything like that ever existed, so the only way you could take a picture from the sky was physically getting up there yourself. So I went flying in a microlight; the flying was quite fun but it wasn't really the flying that got me; it was what you could see. I thought oh, that’s just absolutely unbelievable. I very naively bought one (a microlight) about two months later. I started flying around the countryside for a couple of months taking pictures of stuff.

DT: How do you do that while you're piloting? 

JH: Well, you are with somebody. It was a friend of mine that got his licence; I never quite got mine but he got his. You can't actually make money flying, we soon found out… legally anyway. So very quickly I started approaching people and publishers and managed to get a book deal on London, and obviously you can’t fly a microlight in London, so just after I guess about five months I started shooting from helicopters, and have been doing it ever since.

King's Cross, Before and after © Jason Hawkes, 2006 & 2020
Check out the 'before and after' slider

DT: What have you noticed over the period in which you've done this, because obviously we're using some of your photography to illustrate The Changing Face of London – charting the 15 years of development of London. Is there anything that you’ve noticed urbanistically?

JH: London has just changed completely beyond all recognition, in some parts. A long time ago I used to do lots of books; I did about 50. I haven't done a book for probably about four years because nobody really buys them anymore, but I did do a book years ago that was really fascinating. I found these incredibly old pictures taken from a bi-plane taken I think in about 1920 over London and we did a kind of before and after then and that was just unbelievable, particularly how some parts of London just haven't changed. I mean, they were literally identical, whereas other parts have changed beyond all recognition.

I started flying in London when I was 21 (30 years ago). Canary Wharf then was changing unbelievably fast and it still does change incredibly fast. And then, recently, places like Nine Elms in the 10 years – every single time you go flying you notice something new there that they are building. I think in the last 10 years, London has changed more than I've ever noticed before. I fly over London all the time, and certainly in the last 10 years there are just so many huge construction sites and things going up. 

DT: Do you need anything special technically, in terms of, say, the lenses, for what you do?

JH: No, not really. Basically, you fly in twin-engine helicopters. You take the door off or you have a sliding door. You wear a harness; every single bit of equipment you take is harnessed either to you or to the helicopter. Often, we will stick the helicopter completely on its side, so at that point everything is in my bags or in a harness, so even if the worst happened, nothing could possibly fall out of the helicopter. The helicopter is literally on its side so you’re looking directly below you. 

At night you have to use these really big mounts; they are called stabiliser mounts. You put the camera on them and then you don't touch the camera at all. You set everything up beforehand and then all you have is a cable release, so all you're doing is holding the mount, or the mount sits on the floor of the helicopter if you've got a really big one. That's quite difficult, but other than that, you use exactly the same kit you would do on the ground.
DT: Have you had any hairy moments?

JH: Ah… yeah! (laughs) One or two.

DT: Right. What happened?

JH: Not particularly in this country but I had a really near miss in South Carolina a few years ago, when we were coming down to land. We were talking to air traffic control because we were literally on finals. We were in a little helicopter and they were within 20 feet of us. They never even saw us and honestly I don't think they were even aware…

DT: They were in a plane?

JH: Yeah; they were in a small plane; I don't think they were even aware that they were over the top of a little aerodrome. Even the pilot screamed, and he’d been flying a long time. 

DT: Really, he screamed? 

JH: Yeah. It really was ridiculously close. But most of my work nowadays is in London so you're in contact with air traffic constantly and you’re completely aware of everywhere, everybody else and they are aware of you and it's really tightly controlled. So; fingers crossed nothing like that could ever happen.

Although you do see drones. The last time, because of where we fly, we track overhead in Croydon, and normally we are quite low. We are at about 800 feet as we come into London. But at this point we were starting our job and we had to be about 2,500 feet, so we were at about 2,500 feet over Croydon, and there was a drone right next to us.

DT: Doing the same thing?

JH: No, I mean, it is completely illegal. I don’t know who was in control of it.  It was a small drone about size of camera bag. Legally they can't go above 400 foot. But people just buy a drone and do whatever they want.

DT: Wow

JH:  Most people don't know the rules, I don’t think

DT: I was going to ask whether drones represent a sort of threat to what you do but they can't go up as high, is that the issue?

JH: Not at the minute. Legally, very occasionally you can get a permit to go up slightly higher but certainly can't go up too high. You don’t see them so much but you see the work that they produce, with images all over the Internet everywhere. People just don't know and they don't care. Why would they care? It doesn’t matter to them because they are on the ground.

City of London © Jason Hawkes for New London Architecture

DT: What's been your favourite location or shot, of all the ones you've done? And why?

JH: Years ago, I most liked photographing natural things and graphic patterns and stuff, but nowadays I prefer to fly in the city because there's just so much more to see. In five minutes, you can be from the outskirts of the city and you can see patterns of things; I dunno, train stations or motorway intersections and that kind of thing that are really interesting. And then, literally within a couple of minutes, you could be photographing a skyscraper. You can come in really close and you can crop right in and you can look through the skyscraper or you can look at the people sitting at their desks. So I much prefer a big city like London or New York or Hong Kong. Somewhere like that is far more interesting to me nowadays.

DT: You must love your job!

MJH: Yeah, most of the time it is really good fun. But it’s also incredibly frustrating as well. Like this morning, I mean, I make most of my income licensing images or footage, and nowadays I spend two or three days a month contacting people who have stolen my work. I’m in contact with somebody who put the phone down on me! I said to him: you know, it's not going to go well for you. You have already admitted stealing the pictures…

DT: Was this a publication?

JH: It was just a commercial website of London, funnily enough; a property person. It is very frustrating. It’s so easy to steal stuff these days, and I get it constantly, so I have to use tracking software. Every month I spent two or three days trawling through the software, seeing who has stolen it and contacting them and either dealing with them myself or they end up with my lawyers. It's quite frustrating, but it is just how it is these days.

DT: So, final question, and maybe you’ve been asked this before, but with a name like Hawkes is there a bit of nominative determinism here? Was this all set out for you? (laughs) 

JH: (laughs) I don't know, but I do think, funnily enough that I was incredibly lucky to fall into this kind of thing. And yeah, having a name like Hawkes does work quite well. But when I was a student, I really wanted to do still life photography because I love just working on tiny little sets. Now, of course it couldn't be further removed what I've ended up doing. But flying is just such a laugh. Every time you do it, you look forward to the day you're going to be up shooting, and it doesn't ever lose that. I definitely really enjoy my job and I want to carry on doing it for as long as I can, rather than ever retire.  

DT: Brilliant. Well, it's been fascinating, and it's been great looking at your shots over the years, actually; I have followed your career for many years, so congratulations and thanks for taking part in this.

JH: Excellent! Alright, really good to talk to you. Cheers, bye.

The Changing Face of London exhibition is open and free to visit in the NLA Galleries at the Building Centre from 9 September - February and at The City Centre, focusing on this period of change for the Square Mile, from 23 September - 18 December.

David Taylor

David Taylor

Editor, NLQ

Changing face of London


The Changing Face of London Exhibition

The Changing Face of London exhibition is open and free to visit in the NLA Galleries at the Building Centre from 9 September - February and at The City Centre, focusing on this period of change for the Square Mile, from 23 September - 18 December.


Net Zero experts reveal barriers - and signs of progress


Net Zero experts reveal barriers - and signs of progress

Developers are starting to take action on Net Zero, some local authorities are leading the way and things like Goldsmith...

Housing associations experience ‘quantum leap’ over lockdown


Housing associations experience ‘quantum leap’ over lockdown

Housing associations have grasped the opportunity presented by lockdown to make ‘quantum leaps’ in the way they work wit...

NLA Expert Panel on Healthcare


NLA Expert Panel on Healthcare

The first meeting of the NLA Expert Panel for Healthcare brought together a leading experts from the built environment w...

Stay in touch

Upgrade your plan

Choose the right membership for your business

Billing type:
All prices exclude VAT
View options for Personal membership