Photography happens when a person sees or foresees not what is in front of them, but rather a picture of what is in front of them.
Q1: Please state your name and occupation, please. Where do you live?
A: My name Levi Shand. I live in Madrid, Spain. I’m an English teacher by trade and also the founder of Crisol Street Photography, a practical-education SP group here in the city. We have just added our 200th member.
Q2: Welcome to The One Photo Interview, by the way. It is the TOP Interview. Do you know what that means? It means that you will only have the opportunity to show one single photograph and you will refer to that for the rest of this interview, right? Would that be ok with you?
A: Sounds like fun!
Q3: Any particular reason for taking that picture, Levi?
A: That winter, I was enchanted by the density of the mountain fog. I had also been thumbing through much of Hengki Koentjaro’s work.
Q4: Is this your style of street photography then? Do you think you have a style? If so, what is it?
A: In a way, yes. A viewer at the exhibition opening remarked that many of my images feature “hero” figures. My style, at least this year, has tended to deal with how lone figures survive within the city’s geometries. That might have to do with this being my first experience with city living.
In terms of “how”, shoot 90% candid street photography and the rest, urban fragments and street portraiture. I like being close to my subjects, with the chance for interpersonal interaction always being just a glance away.
Q5. Tell me what is street photography? Have you got a definition? Let’s hear it!
A: Street photography to me is about hunt for cracks in the social facade. The photography can be candid, a portrait, full of humans or free of them – if there’s a statement or story about the place.
Q6: Give me some basics. How long have you had an interest in street photography? Do you have any mentors that you have learned from?
A: I have been taking photographs since 2010, albeit randomly until 2013. Looking back at my old photos, I notice that many of them are “street” photography although I had no idea what that meant at the time. I didn’t really pursue street photography daily until June, 2013.
I have dearest inspirations, like anyone else, but in terms of a person actively mentoring me, taking the development of my work as a project, I have been an almost total autodidact. “Almost” because I have been an active member of a few online New Street Agenda programs for many months, and have received a wealth of generous feedback from the resident photographers there. I have made many connections in the field this way, and have learned a great deal watching my peers’ progress in their art.
Q7: Let’s talk about equipment. Some have an almost religious addiction to it. Long lenses, short lenses, rangefinders, non rangefinders, compacts. Leicas, Canons, Nikons, analog or digital. What is your opinion of this? What is your preferred gear? Don’t be boring when you answer this, please.
A: Religiosity about camera gear, for me, boils down to a sort of financial Stockholm Syndrome; a person swears fealty not to a company, but to an investment. No one wants to be wrong, so they raise the banner for whomever they paid. Some people swear by gear you could trade for a hatchback, while others are snapping better photographs with smartphones. If a person is out practicing photography on a daily basis, I believe it matters little what machine they use. Had Picasso used a cheap plastic brush, for example, would it have made a difference?
My preferred gear is my Nikon D7100 with a 35mm 1.8. The DSLR is too big for street photography and maybe the APS-C sensor is too limited for studio work, but I use it for both. It is a versatile, rugged machine. I foresee a smaller, full-frame digital camera in my future, something more discreet for shooting in public.
Q8: Are there any particular reason why you call yourself a street photographer? Many people picture landscapes, seascapes, birds caved in. Do you take such pictures as well? What I mean to ask is, do you in fact do much parrot shooting in the zoo? Or similar non-street themes?
A: I love people. I am naturally social, and I genuinely care about my fellow humans. I don’t want to forget them.
I do take other pictures, mostly of events. Amateur lucha libre, for example, salsa dancing events, things like that. I have developed a relationship with a local open-air market and collaborate with them on market events, for example.
What appears in my photographs has tended to be determined by where I am. When I lived in the Thai jungle, insects and plants showed up on the card. Here in Madrid, it’s city life.
Q9: Do you know what is the difference between photography and plain picture taking? If so, tell me what it is.
A: Photography happens when a person sees or foresees not what is in front of them, but rather a picture of what is front of them. They raise the camera to the eye, and try to capture that picture rather than whatever is actually happening.
A person taking a picture is concerned with the physical objects within the frame. They see the objects in their mind’s eye, not the picture of the objects.
That, at least, is my opinion!
Q10: Why do you think that all the best street photos are shot in black & white? How do you explain that?
A: I don’t believe that. I believe that color photography is an art unto itself and in my current phase, I prefer it over black and white for the challenge it offers.
Black and white photographs, however, offer a relatively clear platform for artists to make their statement, or tell their story. The brain must consider a gradient of contrasts, not what a spectrum of colors might mean. For me, black and white photographs are like sentences without adjectives, while color photographs run the risk of losing their message in a flourish of visual communication.
Q11: Do you think that street photography is a serious type of photography? Can anything good come of it? How do you see this?
A: I do. I believe street photography will provide the only record of the range of under-class lifestyles in a given society, long into the future. The question “what was life like” cannot be answered, in my opinion, by any other type of photography, save in-depth reportage. Even in that neighboring field, many of the finest images are posed and thus, touched by fabrication and supported by text. These last few centuries represent the first time in human history such a robust record of the 99%’s lifestyles has been maintained.
Q12: Is there any value in street photography you think, besides your own enjoyment?
A: Yes. If I look closely at many old oil paintings in museums, great scenes and such, even religious scenes, I recognize many of the elements held dear in street photography today. I see that the painter situated himself or herself outside the action and in doing so sought to let their subjects tell an unfiltered story. That is what much of street photography seeks to do, and if a bit of that old storytelling spark is being carried by contemporary street photography, I wonder if that sensibility will be transferred to whichever plastic art form replaces street photography as a popular 2D storytelling medium. Not to say street photography is only a vessel, but that it serves in safekeeping humanity’s ability to tell stories about itself, to itself.
Q13: Your vision? What is your vision for European street photography? What is the vision for your own photography? I am not going to ask how you see the future, but tell me anyway.
A: Europe is entering a strange period, perhaps an identity crisis. Now is a very important time for European street photographers to pick up their cameras. European cities are gentrifying, and the postcard-Europe the world has known is fading. What will Europe be in 50 years? How will those Europeans tell themselves the story of how they came to live the lifestyle they’ll be living? I hope that European street photographers will work as hard as the masters who came before them, thereby bearing the legacy of beautiful and representative work onward.
My photography will grow proportionately to the amount of work I put into it. Travel helps, too. This has been an immensely productive year for me, art-wise, and I hope to continue the trend year-by-year.
Q14: One last question: What is the most important thing with a photograph? With any photograph?
A: That it communicates. If it doesn’t communicate clearly, it is just a picture. A photographer elects to communicate visually rather than verbally, so an uncommunicative photograph is the visual equivalent of talking with your mouth full of food.
Q15: Is it true then that street photography was invented in Europe?
A: Yes! Very true, but Europe has a lot of help worldwide in keeping the genre healthy and growing.
Thank you very much, Levi. Much obliged. Will you see yourself out?
© Knut Skjærven. All rights reserved.
First posted September 30, 2014