“Everyone has a story to tell and I’m fascinated by them all,” says Jill Mead, Thames River-based Guardian staff photographer. Most recently, that fascination – driven mostly by curiosity, admits Jill – has created a vignette-filled project based on the many sides of the royal river
Since the late 1990s, Jill has worked with the Guardian and makes her home close to Tower Bridge in London. But she grew up in North Yorkshire, where she says her love of photography began.
“We lived in a little village and I went out with my family walking on the moors and absolutely loved photographing derelict barns and cottages,” she explains. “I realised that I’m not one of these people who can just stomp across the landscapes. I like dropping into villages, walking through farmyards, seeing real life and humanity. Lots of the farms and cottages were deserted, yet there were signs of the lives that were once there, like teapots and chairs and blankets – sometimes as if the people had only just left. I found it so compelling and that’s definitely where a deep love of photography started. Now I feel incomplete without a camera.”
While the passion for photography was always there, it took a few years for Jill to find her path to the type of images she wanted to create. Following a discontinued graphic design degree specialising in advertising (“It just wasn’t for me”), she approached the London College of Printing, where she was accepted straight into the second year.
“It was absolutely fantastic, although I scrambled to catch up because I’d missed the first year. I floundered around a bit after I left, struggling to balance the need to make ends meet from photography and pursuing my interests. I had a wonderful little regular gig with theSunday Times, called Pets Corner. I would head off and photograph people who might have a giant rabbit or someone with a whole house full of rescued pets. It was brilliant!”
That column eventually came to an end, but the exposure led to more work as a photographer, ranging from the RIBA Journal, Perspectives on Architecture and Country Living to food and travel photography. After accepting a three-week maternity cover, just to help out as a picture researcher, Jill started working with the Guardian.
“It was a very conceptual department with interesting people and a lovely, fabulous boss called Alexis Harvey,” says Jill. “She was massively instrumental in my career going forward and encouraging me to take chances working in different places, such as a trip to New Zealand. She’s now my son’s godmother.”
The opportunities kept on coming. Creative director Helen Lewis from Quadrille Publishing asked Jill to contribute photographs to a food book with Gordon Ramsay. Jill says the offer was a surprise but thinks that maybe her no-nonsense attitude helped: “Basically, I’m quite down to earth and pretty easy-going, and I think Helen thought that would make for a good teaming on the book.”
Jill collaborated on three more books with Gordon Ramsay, one with his wife Tana, also Marco Pierre White (“He’s terrifying,” she laughs), Claire Thomson, Thomasina Miers, Jo Weinberg, Hattie Ellis, Mumsnet and gardening books with Laetitia Maklouf. She also regularly contributed to theGuardian’s Feast magazine, where she made lifelong friends.
Then, in 2017, Jill suffered a devastating loss when her beloved brother Stephen tragically died.
Nurtured by the river
Following her brother’s death, Jill says she genuinely thought she’d never smile again, never laugh again. “I didn’t want to take any pictures… the impact was massive.”
But she found that speaking to strangers, something she found easy to do, started a healing process: “I was very open about why I was doing it. Strangers would also open up. I’ve shared some sad, some extraordinary and some amazing experiences and that’s still an ongoing project. I don’t think you ever truly heal from the sudden, premature death of a person you deeply loved.”
Jill was off work for three months and when she returned, her work had changed from being food orientated to being on the main picture desk.
“I felt like a complete novice, somewhat out of my comfort zone but it was the best thing that could have happened,” she says. “It’s really varied work, and you never quite know what’s coming. I absolutely love it. My colleagues are amazing, from the talented team on the desk to the other photographers who I deeply admire and respect.”
The Thames River project
Then the Thames River project came along and seemed a natural fit for a photographer who lives so near the Thames and loves exploring its many facets – Jill shares a long history with the river as she started mudlarking in the 1990s.
“Back then you just wandered along – there was no social media or permits, nothing like the professional way it’s done these days,” she says. “I did find some interesting things and made some dreadful jewellery out of clay pipes!
“The river has always nurtured me, and I love mooching along on the foreshore when the tide is out. All that activity, all the noises, from birds to boats to humans – it’s timeless and comforting. When I drive across Tower Bridge, having come back from Yorkshire, I feel so privileged to be living just around the corner from it.”
She adds that when her son was young, they could see from her home’s windows when the bascules were raised and watch for the lights on the bridge in the dark November nights; a hotel roof extension has sadly partly blocked that view now.
“A few years ago, my son wrote a letter to the Bridge Master, and he was given a chance to raise the bridge,” she says. “That was very special. And now he works part-time for the London Kayak Company. The river has a huge place in our hearts.”
She explains that the Thames River project has brought other rewards: “I’ve met so many interesting people who’ve been so generous natured and become friends. Everyone’s so relaxed and knowledgeable, yet humble with that knowledge and their heritage on the river.”
Those people include Gary Annis, who is a royal waterman: “His family have been watermen for centuries, and they’ve shared that history with me from the historic barge race to Swan Upping. There’s a lot of privilege attached to working on the river. I didn’t appreciate that before.”
Then there’s Chris Livett, the King’s Bargemaster of the Royal Household who invited Jill on board the royal barge Gloriana for the Tudor Pull: “We travelled from Richmond to Tower Bridge. I was photographing through the traditional carved wooden pole at the back of the boat, almost leaning on it and suddenly it went forward and I thought I’d broken it. And just how would I explain that? Of course, as Chris explained to me, it does go back and forth to clear the bridges.”
Invaluable help has also come from the Port of London Authority’s Nick Tennant who has facilitated so much of Jill’s access on the river and Wendy Tobitt from the Thames Path National Trail who “is wonderful at winging me ideas and contacts”.
Jill travels by train and bicycle, which provides her with the best way to explore the many diverse river tributaries and find chance encounters. She continues to be surprised and delighted by what she finds: “When I went west, up the river, I was expecting people to be posh and exclusive. It was quite the opposite. Everyone is welcoming, and it’s diverse. Some people have expensive craft, quaffing Prosecco and seemingly living a life of leisure, while other people have just got tiny boats that chug along spitting and spluttering. Some without oars at all! But they’re all deeply drenched in adoration of the river. I’d love to photograph absolutely all of it but I’m conscious I won’t be able to do it in as much depth as I would like. It’s a liquid treasure trove flowing with every aspect of life.”
Jill concludes that while there is a poignancy to some of her photographs, she remains a self-described optimist, loving her life documenting the Thames: “I find people endlessly fascinating, interesting and complex. I also think people are fundamentally good and there’s a lot to be said for humanity when you tap into it.”
She has finally found the work that feeds her soul.
Jill has completed parts 1 and 2 of theThames River Project (available at https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2022/may/23/a-year-on-the-river-thames-part-one-in-pictures) with two other parts yet to come, and she is always keen to hear from anyone with photo-led stories about the Thames. Contact her at email@example.com or via Instagram @speediemeadie66.