Jiří Šiftař: The Czech whose London photos helped make him huge on Instagram

Jiří Šiftař, photo: archive of Jiří Šiftař

With over a quarter of a million followers, Jiří Šiftař must be one of the most popular Czechs on Instagram. Going by the name Jeera on the photograph sharing service, he is mainly known for stunning pictures of his adopted home of London. Jiří Šiftař and I met at a restaurant in the city near his workplace at Lloyd’s bank, where he designs web interfaces for customers. I first asked him whether he had been into photography as a child.

Jiří Šiftař,  photo: archive of Jiří Šiftař
“Yes. In communist times there was a very limited amount of hobbies one could pick and photography was one of them, because East Germany was producing knock-offs of SLRs back then.

“My dad was quite interested in photography and he got me a Russian two-lensed knock-off of Flexaret called Lubitel.

“I was about six years old when I first tried to take some pictures. And then in my dad’s darkroom I developed the film and the pictures.

“It was really magical and exciting back then.”

Tell us about your early days in the UK. Why exactly did you come here?

“It was really to challenge myself. I was kind of fed up with the atmosphere in the ‘90s in the Czech Republic. It was a little bit of a wilderness.

“I wanted to try a different culture, a different approach, different relationships with people, based on something more traditional, maybe.

“Some country with a longstanding history of democracy, if I can say it like that [laughs].

“But basically it was to challenge myself, to see if I could do that.”

And England hasn’t let you down?

“I feel very happy that I made that step and I only feel sorry that I didn’t do that earlier [laughs], to be honest.”

What exactly do you do? I looked at your profile online and as somebody who doesn’t know much about design I couldn’t quite work it out.

“My recipe is to try to depict a place in the way that people will imagine themselves in that place.”

“Yes, it doesn’t have that much tradition, but it’s picking up in the Czech Republic as well.

“It’s called user experience design. It’s designing mostly digital products but it could be even be a fridge or a washing machine.

“It’s all about how we interact with those devices.

“To put it simply, I’m the advocate for the customer, for the user, when it comes to designing products.

“I take their view and I’m trying to design those products in a way that is very easy to use, very simple to understand.

“You will make fewer errors when you’re using these things and you will actually feel delightful and delighted. That’s what I’m doing.”

The main reason I wanted to talk to is that you’re absolutely huge on Instagram, with over a quarter of a million followers. How have you achieved that?

London,  photo: Jiří Šiftař
“[Laughs] I’ve got that question many times and every time I have to give quite a disappointing answer: just hard work.

“There was no magic, there was no trick. I’ve never been a suggested user, for example. I’ve only got followers through my pictures.

“The first three years I was lucky, because in those days the Exposure page, or the Explore page as it was called back then, was displaying around 400 of the most popular pictures at that given moment.

“And because there weren’t that many people on Instagram posting amazing pictures I was lucky enough to get on that page with almost every picture I posted.

“That was bringing me lots of organic followers, people who wanted to follow me for my pictures.

“They didn’t know me, but they liked the pictures and it was growing for years, slowly but steadily. So yeah, I reached a quarter of a million.”

What has been your most popular single photo?

“It was probably some picture of Big Ben, I guess. Or something very iconic in London.

“And I must admit I probably put some fake snowflakes over it [laughs]. It probably took people’s hearts so they were very happy with that picture and they expressed it in likes.”

Is there a particular kind of photo or subject matter that just works on Instagram, that people like?

“There are really many ways to get people’s attention. There are lots of niche areas where you can find an audience, so there’s no general rule.

“The first three or four years in London I was out every weekend with my camera, hunting new places and pictures.”

“But if you’re moving on with photography and you don’t want to do something specific, like portraits or bikes or whatever, if you’re really into places, then my recipe is to try to depict a place in the way that people will imagine themselves in that place.

“Because that’s what ignites the imagination in them and that’s probably the feeling they’re looking for and they like. At least, for me it works like that.”

What kind of camera do you use?

“I’ve been using a DSLR since quite early, I would say since four or five years back.

“I don’t know if this is product placement, but you can always cut it out [laughs] – currently I’m using a Nikon D810, quite an advanced model.

“I’m also using a mirrorless Fuji. It’s now a little bit older, but still pretty good.

“And sometimes I still take shots on my iPhone.”

How much of the final product comes from the actual photo you took out in the field, and how much is post-production?

Jiří Šiftař's Instagram profile
“I would say it’s probably fifty-fifty.

“You have to spot the right angle, you have to find the right composition when you’re there.

“That’s something you can’t go without. You have to take a good picture.

“But still, that picture might be quite bland in terms of colours and dynamics.

“I always love the process of editing on the phone. Lately I’m editing on a computer in Lightroom, because it’s a really powerful tool.

“But yes, if you want a picture to stand out and to be eye candy, you definitely need to do something post.”

Looking through your photos you have so many wonderful pictures from London, from parks and other spots – have you learned a lot about London from going out and looking for such pretty places?

“Absolutely. I can recommend this as a way to get to know London.

“I know people who have lived in London for many years and they’ve never seen the places I depict in my pictures. Because they have no reason to discover them.

“The camera gave me the reason. The first three or four years in London I was basically out every weekend with my camera, hunting new places and pictures.”

Also I presume that London is so internationally popular and loved must really help you?

“It was definitely a boost.

“I think that something has been kind of covered by new paint in Prague. It’s missing that old vintage vibe.”

“Before I lived for four and a half years in Poole, in Dorset. It’s on the coast, it has the sea and lots of beautiful places.

“But when I moved to London and I started posting London on Instagram, it was definitely a huge boost. And there was huge interest from my audience.”

Is what you do [on Instagram] in any way sponsored? Is there any commercial aspect like that?

“That totally took us by surprise, I can tell. Because I was on Instagram from day one. That was in 2010 and the first commercial offers started coming in in 2012, actually a few months after I moved to London.

“It was surprising. We didn’t expect it. Social media marketing didn’t exist that much before, or at least it wasn’t that visible or accessible to everyone.

“Since then it’s gone to new heights and I’ve been approached by many, many companies and asked to do lots of different campaigns.

“But I’ve always taken it as a great opportunity to visit new places and do something I wouldn’t be able to do without those opportunities.”

How does it work in concrete terms? Will they pay for you to go somewhere? Or do they want product placement?

Prague,  photo: Jiří Šiftař
“The types of cooperation are very different, but yes. In the first years it was, We will take you to some beautiful place, you will have a really nice experience and if you post something from that we will be happy, and please use this hashtag. As simple as that.

“In London, because it’s really full of opportunities and companies and brands there were also some other types of deals where they wanted me to attend some events, for example, and to promote some particular products and things.

“I wasn’t always happy and I turned down a lot of these deals to simply promote something that I didn’t believe in.

“If it was something I really loved and was happy to use, it was a no-brainer for me.

“So yes, there are a lot of sorts of different deals.”

Have you published many photos from the Czech Republic and what kind of reaction do they get?

“[Laughs] I feel a little bit bad about this, because during my time in England and, let’s say, Instagram fame, I visited the Czech Republic and Prague a few times but I never posted that many pictures from there.

“I don’t know exactly what it is. I don’t want to explain exactly my feelings towards ‘new’ Prague, how it’s been refurbished and redecorated.

“It’s not exactly my style. I think that something has been kind of covered by new paint in Prague.

“It’s missing that old vintage style or vibe for me.

“So yes, I didn’t post that much.”

Victoria Park,  London,  photo: Jiří Šiftař
Why is your name on Instagram “Jeera”? I presume it’s related in some way to “Jiří”?

“Yes. In the early ‘90s when the whole internet thing started we all had to come up with some nickname for all these discussion forums and services.

“For a few years it was a kind of funny thing to try to transcribe your Czech name – my friends called me Jíra – and try to put it into English spelling.

“So that’s how it happened. I only learned much, much later that jeera, in exactly that spelling, is some kind of Indian cumin.”

Many Czechs in the UK may have trouble with their name but you have not one but three hačeks in your name. How do people pronounce your name here?

“Yes, it wasn’t easy. I basically had to give up on all the diacritics in my name.

“So when people read it they basically end up saying ‘Djiri Siftar’.”