In this excerpt from The Candid Frame podcast, Lebanese photographer Fadi BouKaram, a founding member of Observe Collective, explains how he trained his eye as a street photographer, and learned to shoot street photographs that have emotional impact. BouKaram also talks about the value of respecting subjects. He was interviewed by Ibarionex Perello, host of The Candid Frame.
Ibarionex Perello: What things have you done that have helped you develop your eye? [How] were able to be a good photographers within a relatively short period of time?
Fadi BouKaram: I didn’t go to art school, but I did two workshops. The first one was with David Gibson. It was important because it introduced me to all the great photographers. Much of getting an eye involves studying the history of photography. The other part is forcing yourself to say that I’m not good, over and over again. It’s to say: I want to learn. If I want to learn, that means I have to admit, I have to know what my shortcomings are…I’m not saying you’re putting yourself down to the point where you’re blocking yourself. But a little self-whipping doesn’t harm anyone….
Flickr was big in 2012, 2013. We were all part of a group that was a street critique kind of thing, that’s where I met all my friends from our collective Observe. We were really honest about telling each other: this works, this is not working. It drives you to want to improve, at least on the technical level….
But when it comes to having your own voice, that involves a lot of self-analysis. When I started shooting, I was interested more in the forms of things: shadows, light, composition. The first time I realized that I need to concentrate on [content] was when I got a serious block trying to photograph people in Beirut. When it came to photographing people up close, I felt like I couldn’t do it anymore. I realized it had to do with being from Lebanon. It’s a history of war: when you’re a kid, in your mind, the adults are responsible for everything going on, [and] you develop this aversion to people. And you either stop [photographing] or you try and get to the bottom of it so you can move forward. And this is what I wanted to do, just to be able to understand the people more: to be able to empathize with them, even though there’s this childhood block that: [They] are responsible for everything bad going on. I found myself being drawn into photography more, because there was a therepeutical aspect to all of this. This continues to this day. For example, as I’m driving across the United States, I do meet people who might not like my background or where I’m from. But I don’t mind. I don’t want to change their opinions about anything. But I’ve come to the conclusion that having conversations with people from any background, regardless of what preconceptions they have, or I have, brings down barriers. And this bringing down of barriers is beneficial psychologically at least to me, and this also reflects positively on how I approach photography.
IP: What do you find that you’re seeing a lot today [in street photography] that you feel like, man, I wish people would get away from doing this?
FB: I wish people would get away from visual jokes. It’s funny for a second, but then it doesn’t mean anything. I’m talking about the visual puns. At one point I was really interested in [photographing visual jokes], because I thought they were funny so me criticizing them right now feels bad because it’s as if you work to outgrow them, and you’re criticizing people who are still interested in them? It’s like, Who are you to say that? It’s my own view. I try to avoid seeing these things. [A visual joke] seems emotionally empty.
IP: Meeting Full Frontal Flash guys has been interesting, to get an appreciation for why they do it the way they do, like Johan Jehlbo from Sweden.
FB: I have to admit I always had a negative view of people who [use] flash, because in my mind, they are these really aggressive folks. It wasn’t until I was walking with Johan and I saw him in action, I’d see him flashing people and they’d smile back at him. He has this aura where he does what he does without being an aggressive person. That changed my mind about what they do. [Members] of Full Frontal do beautiful stuff.
IP: My appreciation of Michelle Groskopf’s photographs goes along with knowing and understanding how much she loves the people she’s photographing. It goes back to what started this conversation: It’s going beyond the esthetics. Why are you making those photographs? It’s sometimes really valuable to have an understanding of why someone else does it the way they do, because you can ruminate on that, and consider—and reconsider—why you do things the way you do.
FB: When I’m looking at flash photos by these folks, the main reason I’m connecting with the photos is… that even with flash—[I say that] with that preconception I had about flash—you can see the total respect of the subject. By the photographer respecting the subject, I totally connect with that. I do not like to see a subject in a photo where it seems as if the the photographer is making fun of them. This is a big No to me. There was a lot of that politically [during] the presidential [campaign]. People were shooting a part of the population with the intent of making fun of them, because of who they voted for. I do not like that at all because as photographers, we always have the upper hand over the subject we’re shooting. So regardless of who the person is, even if you don’t like the subject, show a little respect! And talking about Michelle, she’s probably one of the few people—her and Stacy Kranitz—they both shot people at political rallies, on both [political] sides, but you could see the respect. Respect the human being you’re shooting, whether you agree with them or not….It’s very easy to make fun of people through a camera. Like I said, we have the upper hand, let’s not use that bit of power we have with camera with bad intentions.
(This interview from The Candid Frame podcast episode 423 was excerpted with permission.)
Street Photographers on Success, Methods, Motivation and Overcoming Fear
Street Photographers: The Gear They Carry
Q&A: Gus Powell on Street Photography as Poetry
You’re Not From Around Here: Photographing Others’ Cultures with Sensitivity and Respect
Stacy Kranitz & Zoe Strauss on Their Collaborative Examination of American Economic Decay
How Stacy Kranitz Avoided Stereotypes in Her Series on Appalachia
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