10 years of LAW: I sold my dream car to make my dream magazine”

Founder and editor John Joseph Holt looks back on a decade of his independent magazine, with friend and writer Bryony Stone.

In 2011, my friend John Joseph Holt sold his beloved Ford Escort MK1 to finance the beginnings of LAW – a London-based magazine and creative studio that has, over the years, collaborated with the most exhilarating of young talent: writers, photographers and filmmakers that shared John’s provocative, and deeply romantic, vision of a young Brit with a whole lot to say.

I wanted to make something that people could relate to, in stark contrast to the fashion magazines that were around at the time,” John tells me, something which would show Britain in a beautiful, positive, united light.”

Then and now, the title (an acronym for Lives and Works) documented the perspective of modern Britain, where the mundane was rendered beautiful through John’s loving gaze. Editorials like Joseph Bond’s Hackney Estate Maps in Issue 4, portraits of Sunday League referees in Issue 3 and Birmingham’s Bullring Shoppers in Issue 5 were nuggets of the everyday, brought to life through LAWs commitment to platforming the youth of today with grit in their teeth”, as the magazine’s saying goes.

Over 10 years, I’ve written for more or less every issue. And against all odds, LAW has lasted as much a magazine as a feeling.

Do you remember the first time we met? I think it was with your brother Tom and your sister Emmeline.

We used to go out dancing together in Cambridge, I think footloose and fancy-free” is the expression. I met you in the dark. Your glamour probably stuck out in the dark caves of the Fez Club.

You left the Fens – the low-lying marshlands where you grew up – to go to university in Brighton. There, during the final year of your Fashion Design and Business degree, you made Issue One of LAW. Where did the idea to make a magazine come from?

The idea of LAW stemmed from my upbringing in the Fens, how I was brought up and my outlook on the world. I’ve been brought up to appreciate Britain and to look after it. Mum used to say if there’s one thing she’s proud of, it’s that her children always come back with a pocket full of rubbish. I’ve never dropped a piece of rubbish in my life.

And what about that name, LAW? Do you reckon you were with the law, or against it?

My brother used to like that film, Man on Wire. There was a line in it, Against the law, but not wicked or mean.” I could relate to that. I’m drawn to things that are on the verge of the law, but I’d never do something spiteful, or show something in a bad light or disrespectful way.

Thinking back, which magazines did you read as a teenager? Did they inform the work you went on to make?

I grew up reading BMX magazines, fishing magazines and fighting over the Argos catalogue. Whilst studying, I spent a small fortune in the library photocopying back issues of THE FACE. It was at a talk by the photographer Jason Evans where I learnt the difference between fashion and style, and realised that I could make a magazine about my style and what I’m into, whether that was my mums sherry trifle or a pebbledash wall. When I started to think about what to shoot, it just came naturally. When something hits me right in the heart, that’s the true power of art and that’s the kind of subject I’ve tried to document in LAW.

Your cover stars are never models, they’re people that you met somewhere along the way. Sometimes they are friends, like Bafic, or street cast teenagers. Inside the pages of LAW magazine, your subjects are all ages. You’ve charted so many lives. I think people trust you because you humanise them.

LAW is basically a documentary magazine, so it’s about trying to immortalize things in print. Me and my brother shot plasterboard portraits of Ely market back at home, because it’d break my heart if there was a stall trader who had been there for 30 years and they gave up their stall without a record of them being there. If I could, I’d shoot every market, every high street, in the whole of Britain. I’m much more interested in shooting someone who has never been shot before than someone who has been shot five times that week.

I’ve never really thought about why I feel compelled to document certain things, but I know loss has been a big part of my life. Growing up, I went to more funerals than weddings and, since losing my brother Thomas, I am more conscious than ever about things disappearing in the blink of an eye and the relentless passing of time. It is true you must try to stay in the present, not worry about the past or the future and appreciate what you’ve got before it’s gone.

There’s a lot wrapped up in LAW which is no longer here. Every page is there for a reason – one day we’ll have to try to join the dots between everything.

There are names too numerous to mention, but who has played a crucial role in the LAW family?

Obviously, you have been there from the beginning, along with Joseph Bond, Jake Day, William King and all my Fenland friends who for everything is a pleasure and nothing is a chore.

The designers Caitlin Price and Sadie Williams were on my course at Brighton – they always stood out a mile from the first day that I was there – and my tutors Jane Shepherd and Yvonne Deacon, who encouraged me to keep going.

As soon as I met Joseph Prince, I knew that we shared a similar taste in tracksuits and trainers. He has been like a brother to me. JP Scott, who we set up our club night, Joyride, with, Elliot Kennedy, the sharpest shooter in town, and a whole host of contributors that I’ve grown up with through thick and thin.

My friend Ruth Flanagan and Rich Evans, who introduced me to Jonathan Freedman, from the legendary British brand, Brutus, who has always believed in me and helped to sustain the magazine – I’ll forever be indebted to him. Edd and Anthony from Colophon Foundry count as family, because I wouldn’t have made one issue, let alone 10 without them. They taught me that less is more – this is one of the founding principles of LAW.

When you started out, you were shooting on a point-and-shoot borrowed from a friend. Do you remember the first image you took for LAW?

I went on a two week-long road trip around Scotland with my friend Edwin, sleeping in the back of his transit van. It remains one of the best holidays I’ve ever been on. We went from the West Coast all the way around the East Coast.

We were in this really remote place called Dornoch in the North and there was a couple playing with their daughter in the playpark. The dad had a two-piece Adidas tracksuit on with a pair of black Gazelles and I thought he looked amazing. I said to Edwin, I need to get over the fear of asking people to take their picture, because I want to make this magazine.

So I called him over – Scott, his name was – I said, I think you look really cool, can I take your picture?” He started laughing, but after some gentle encouragement from his wife, he agreed. I took his portrait and printed the picture in issue one.

A few months ago, 10 years down the line, I got an email out of the blue from a lady called Judith. She remembered a young lad who was visiting Dornoch with a friend in 2010, who had asked her husband for a picture. She said they had thought a lot about me and my magazine over the years and although, unfortunately, Scott had passed away in 2014, he would have been happy to know how it was going.

That email is what makes everything worthwhile for me. The picture I took wasn’t perfect by any means, but it means the world to me. And the fact that I got to print it in a magazine that lives on people’s bookshelves is the biggest honour.

In the decade since LAW began, have you ever felt like giving up?

I have never really thought about giving up, because I’ve never really taken my head out of the sand in 10 years. I’ve been completely consumed by the work I’m trying to make and the effort it takes to sustain an independent magazine. It has also been a welcome distraction and a vehicle for me to pour my heart and soul into. I’m lucky to have that. Recently, I’ve had time to reflect. I’ve realised that LAW will always be a personal thing. It is quite autobiographical. Success for me would be having the time to do important work rather than growing a bigger empire.

And now that you’ve decided that the magazine doesn’t need to exist as a commercial entity, what’s next?

I’m on the verge of releasing the 10th issue. It’s been a long while since the last issue. A lot has changed and it’s been an almighty battle to get to this point.

When I started LAW, I wanted to show what’s so great about the UK and I want to continue to do that. I think it can still play a big part in healing divisions within this country, but I also have so much personal work to make. It’s been hidden in LAW over the years. When is it editorial, when is it artwork? I have an ever-growing list of ideas I need to get off my chest and I think it’s time to step out of the shadows. I’ve never felt more confident in my work and what I’ve got to say. I’m excited about making new work and one day having the courage to say I’m an artist.

I love to hear you say that. You have always been an artist.

I want to continue my brother’s legacy. His influence is all around me – his handwriting is throughout the magazine. I’ve always looked up to him and I always will look up to him. So I feel that everything I do now, we’re doing it together. It’s as much his hand as my hand.

I could make Issue 10 forever, because it will never be perfect. But I’ve kind of said what I want to say and that’s enough for now.

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