Slices of life outside the nine-to-five
Brian Kerrigan has headed the photo department at The National since the paper’s inception in 2008. In addition to leading a team of editors, photographers and multimedia staff, he’s also a passionate photographer. With camera in tow, Brian has spent the past two years documenting life in the United Arab Emirates shooting nightlife, street culture and portraiture. In Q& A format, assigning photo editor RJ Mickelson asked Brian about his photography including his approach, his choice of camera(s) and what’s next for him photographically.
RJ: You’ve been in Abu Dhabi for over 6 years as the head of the Photo Dept at The National newspaper. You’ve taken thousands of images in your travels regionally and beyond, however it was not until 2012 that you seriously began focusing on street photography in Abu Dhabi. How did the AD street photography project evolve?
BK: I think I was just ready for a new creative outlet and a number of things lined up for me all at once. I’d go away somewhere and spend my days and evenings just walking around looking for pictures and editing what I’d shot late into the night. I’d come back feeling great but then fall into a routine of sitting at a computer all day and going home and doing the same all evening. This is horrible not just for my physical health but also my creative well-being and general mental health so once I returned from a trip I just kept going with the theme. I’d get off work and head right out the door for the evening with a camera. I also wanted to feel more connected to the city in which I lived beyond the endless days of being in shopping malls and restaurants.
RJ: Can you describe your approach when you head out to shoot? What do you bring? Do you have objectives per se?
BK: I’ve always been an advocate for using the smallest camera bag you can get away with and keeping kit to a minimum when you go out the door. There’s two reasons for this. The first one is obvious, the lighter your load the longer you can spend walking around and so much about photography is walking, looking and waiting. The second is because if you drag along too many different cameras and lenses it’s very easy to spend your time thinking “which camera should I shoot this with?” and in the end you never get into a rhythm and one often comes away with fewer shots. I tend to shoot almost exclusively with a 50mm lens, so I’ll have one body out, usually the Leica Monochrom, with a 50mm on it, and then in the bag there will be a Leica M with a 35mm if I feel the need to shoot in colour. I also bring along a couple of extra batteries and backup sd cards, a notepad, pen and that is it. If I’m shooting film it’s essentially the same set-up with an M film body over my shoulder with b& w film in it and a 50mm, in the bag will be another body loaded with Fuji Velvia for any “colour emergencies”.
As for objectives and my approach, there isn’t much in particular. Sometimes I set myself a challenge like limiting myself to one specific city block, other times I’ve got dropped off on the far side of town and walked home over the course of hours. Really my only objective is to clear my head and hopefully see something wonderful along the way.
For street photography I think it’s more productive to take what the city is offering. Tune into the feel of the place on any given night and try to express that visually. If I set specific goals such as, “tonight I’m only photographing people with hats” or on a rainy day I say, “I’m just looking for people with umbrellas” I can guarantee that all those with hats or umbrellas stay home and I’m too focused on looking for those things while walking right past great moments.
RJ: I imagine language might be an issue when photographing people in the streets of Abu Dhabi. How do you communicate with them during a portrait or immediately after the experience?
BK: Language can be an issue anywhere really, we’ve all been asked, “what are you taking a picture of?” before, right? That’s a language issue, visual language but still, it’s really the same. Its not a massive issue for me because I’m just shooting what I’m seeing. Most of the time, I’m not posing or directing people at all so that doesn’t come into play much. Mostly the communication is just my body language, how walk around, how gesture etc. Afterwords sometimes folks want to see the photo and we’ll have a chat which is really nice, 99% of the time everyone is friendly and it puts you in a good mood. I’m also fascinated by language overall so I love to listen to how sentences are phrased in these conversations. One evening a photographed a cook working in a kitchen and he wanted to see the photo. I showed him the back of the Monochrom camera, which only displays the image in black and white, he looked, smiled, looked at me, smiled, looked back at the photo and then after a few moments finally said, “colour no coming?”. The conversations I have with people on the streets are a thousand times more interesting and more rewarding then anything my TV set can offer me at home.
RJ: Much of your work is done in the evening which gives the work a “noir” quality. Is the decision to shoot in the evening due to circumstances or by design?
BK: It’s not exactly by choice, but it is somewhat fate that I’ve developed a very distinctive style for my night-time photography. When I was a teen and I first started thinking seriously about my photography and trying to capture the feel of a place or a moment visually, it was usually the atmosphere of evenings to which I was really drawn. I can remember a few of them to this very day so obviously I have a very strong attraction to how things look and feel at night. Also film-wise most of my favourite movies are shot low key (low light), noir style and the look that I’m chasing is very much a classic 1940-50s Hollywood film noir look. I spend a lot of time watching black and white era films from all over the world looking at the composition of shots and the overall visual aesthetics. However, circumstance also very much comes into play. I’m stuck in an office during daylight hours. So five out of seven days a week I’m only really in a position to spend a reasonable amount of time out looking for photos after dark.
RJ: What are some of the advantages/disadvantages of shooting street photography in Abu Dhabi specifically in black and white format?
BK: Well, I never have to worry about getting the correct white balance for one thing. I suppose I’m throwing away the beautiful magic hour we have here. Dusk can be very dramatic in Abu Dhabi with a soft, surreal mix of pinks and blues which never fails to put a smile on my face. But that speaks to exactly why I like black and white. When shooting in colour it’s far too easy to get sucked into shooting something simply because it’s pretty. I don’t want my photo to lean too heavily on colours alone to be interesting, for me it’s all about content and composition. When shooting in black and white you’re tossing away that potential crutch of “pretty colour”.
RJ: During the summer months, Abu Dhabi can exceed 50C (122F) during the day and 40C (104F) in the evening. Does you work slow down during the summer months? If so, is there anything you do conceptually with the work or in terms of research during the off season?
BK: The heat and humidity of summer are without question the biggest and most frustrating challenge for me. During the day a black metal camera body can very quickly get too hot to touch and combined with the humidity and the fine dust particles always hanging in the air it’s very hard on equipment. I will push myself out the door sometimes during the summer but I often return home thinking, “I should really know better than trying that.” A couple years back I went out at dusk to the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque with my 1956 Rolleiflex. After about 30 minutes pieces started to fall off the camera, the temperature and humidity were just too much for the camera.
Last summer I came up with my Summer Office Portrait Series as a way to keep myself thinking photography during the summer months. I started mentally cataloguing when and where interesting light happened around our offices. I’d note a nice beam of light in the front stairwell for about 45 minutes in the afternoon, an interesting bit of light in the old press room that lasted about 12 minutes at noon, a pattern of light in an outside stairwell, a sliver of light between storage cabinets in the photo room, etc. Then I’d try to figure out which coworkers would fit this light and environment. It was a great little project with some very nice results.
RJ: How do you remain inspired when going out in AD? Arguably, many Abu Dhabi neighbourhoods are somewhat similar to the next?
BK: It does get to be a bit of a challenge simply because some blocks are always busy while others are usually quiet and at this point the folks in most of these neighbourhoods recognise me and it feels like a challenge to find something new. Nonetheless, usually getting out in any neighbourhood will offer up a reward of some kind. It might not be the perfect photo, but there usually will be at least one magic moment, visual or otherwise, perhaps just a great moment of meeting some folks and having a chat, that makes it worth the effort.
RJ: Do you have any street photographers who inspire you?
BK: I don’t tend to think in terms of street photographers specifically, or feel only a great street photo will inspire me to get out and shoot street. There’s no shortage of photographers out there producing great images and when I see something brilliant it tends to fan the flames of inspiration and motivation, full stop. I think Instagram is a great tool for keeping yourself inspired if you’re choosy about who you follow. I try to keep my follows to be very specifically folks who are using it as a showcase of daily work, reportage, street photography, assignments, studio, etc. With few exceptions if you post a picture of your cat or your lunch, you’re out of my feed.
RJ: If anything, what has street photography taught you that assignment work has not?
BK: I think it’s reinforced what I consider good habits for assignment work. It was getting back to fundamentals such as really observing the environment around you, moving around and looking at something from all angles, people skills that keep your subjects comfortable and relaxed and working in less than ideal lighting situations. I also brought my good assignment habits to my street photography. I never leave images in the camera for example. When I come in the door I start to ingest the images into Lightroom right away and I edit and “file” that evening. I can’t stress enough how important it is to review your work while the shoot is still fresh in your mind, so you can think critically about what you did both technically and artistically. Its also important to be a highly critical editor of your work. It’s unfortunate but people will see your work based as much on your worst picture as your best. I often tell people that I’m a good photographer who’s an excellent editor.
RJ: You have already self-published a book of singles from your street photography around the world. Might you consider a book of strictly black and white photos from you street photography in Abu Dhabi?
BK: I’m starting to compile a second book as we speak so if anyone wants to talk about publishing it …? Books and exhibits are a good counter balance to the “edit your work immediately” philosophy as it’s also important to step back and cast a critical eye over your work as a whole to look for trends, triumphs and failures.
RJ: For photographers who might be interested in beginning street photography, what advice might you be able to give them if they aren’t sure where to go or how to start? Are their some environmental variables needed when considering street photography?
BK: From a technical side I say travel light and try working with one body and lens. If you’ve got very bit of kit you own hanging off you and you’re swinging a massive DSLR and long lens people will get intimidated and you’ll get fatigued pretty quick.
I think the most important thing is to be open about what you’re doing. I’ve seen folks approach street photography as if they’re trying to sneak shots as if they had an odd fear of engaging those around them. The whole point of this style of photography is to become immersed in what’s happening down on the street and your photography will show that engagement. There’s a big difference between unobtrusively observing things and sneaking around. I think 99% of my interactions with folks when doing street photography in Abu Dhabi are heartwarmingly friendly and if someone’s not keen to be photographed I respect that. The last thing I want to do is ruin someone’s evening. Go out, talk to folks, make friends, be respectful of various cultures, learn and have a good time.
For more from Brian follow him on Instagram here
Updated: August 31, 2014 04:00 AM