“For me street photography is a tool to get to know people. Before this I didn’t talk to anyone if I didn’t have to. I didn’t go out to visit places of my city. Photography made me talk to strangers.”
Manuel Chavez (born in 1987) is a street photographer from Argentina currently living in Buenos Aires. He studied audiovisual design at “Universidad de Palermo”, where he also took some optative classes of photography.
Interview with Manuel Chavez
Manuel, why did you become a photographer? And why street photography?
I really don’t know why. It was some kind of coincidence I think. Finishing the University, I got into some optative classes of photography that I thought were about brand or product photography. The class was called “Design and Image of Brands”.
But the first day the teacher told us that the final work was an essay about whatever we wanted to. I thought about doing a subway essay and the first time I went out shooting I remember that I asked some strangers if I could take some portraits of them. They agreed and from that moment I never stopped.
With time I figured out that I loved this, going out and shooting street photography in Buenos Aires. And I also realized that I wanted to create documents of my city. The best way was by doing it with people in it.
What does photography mean to you and what do you want to say with your pictures? Or what it is at all that a photograph can transmit in your eyes?
“Photography made me talk to strangers. I’m very shy and in some part I think that photography is like a therapy to me.”
For me it’s a tool to get to know people. Before this I didn’t talk to anyone if I didn’t have to. I didn’t go out to visit places of my city. Photography made me talk to strangers. I’m very shy and in some part I think that photography is like a therapy to me.
I also get to walk the city and get to know places I would have never gone to. I started getting to know Buenos Aires when I started shooting photos. I want to show to others the diversity of people and places that are here to be seen.
What was your most memorable moment shooting pictures out on the streets?
I really like when I get to know strangers. Some weeks ago I met a woman called Ana. I approached her because I saw her in front of her beautiful old house. I thought that it would be a good photo so I asked her if I could take a portrait of her in front of her home. She didn’t want me to take the picture, so I stayed more time talking with her. Like one hour or more.
In this time she told me that she was a Jehovah Witness and how being a member of that church was good for her, her sons and grandsons, because it kept them away from doing bad things and thoughts. She was really sad about what was happening in the world: poverty, wars, and so on.
I had a really good chat with her. I took some photos of her grandsons that were playing around and one from her. But she told me that it was just for me, and that I please wouldn’t show it – and I won’t.
Which photographer has inspired you most?
I think I can’t just name one. I’m kind of new in photography and I haven’t read or seen many photographers, but I do feel inspired by Robert Doisneau, Elliot Erwitt, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank, Vivian Mayer and Bruce Davidson. And from Latin America I like Adriana Lestido and Alberto Korda. I think they have all made great photos, great documents and they all have great points of views.
What’s your favorite photography quote?
“Sigue lo que es tu gusto y nada más. No le creas más que a tu gusto, tú eres la vida y la vida es la que se escoge. Lo que no te guste a ti no lo veas, no sirve. Tú eres el único criterio, pero ve de todos los demás.“
It’s from Chilean photographer Sergio Larrain, from a letter he wrote to his cousin that was starting with photography. It translates to:
“Just follow what you love most. Don’t believe in anything else but your own taste. You are life, and life is what one picks. What you don’t like, don’t look at, it’s not important. You are the only criteria.”
How do you handle uncomfortable situations while shooting street photography? People, for example, not wanting to have their picture taken or not understanding the concept of street photography.
I only had one bad episode. I was shooting in the subway and I asked one guy if I could take a picture of him. He told me no, and if I took it he was going to break my camera.
He was very serious. I sat beside him and started talking trying to persuade him. We talked several minutes, but in the end I couldn’t convince him.
In case that you ask and people don’t want their picture taken, I think it’s their good right. But you always have the possibility to talk to them trying to change their mind.
What’s your strategy when you walk up close to people. Do you interact with them or take the shot and move on?
It’s really depends on the situation and what you are looking for. In my case I would say 50-50. In some cases I interact with them because I want to know a little bit more about them. I want to get closer or want a portrait of them looking into the camera. And sometimes I don’t ask, if I like the situation just like it’s happening.
Then by interacting you’d break the atmosphere. For example, if you are walking and you see a man that is coming to you and you like how he looks, maybe you shoot a photo of him from a distance of 1 or 2 meters. When you put up your camera he will look you in a mean way or maybe he keeps looking forward. I
f you stop and ask him: “Can I take a photo of you? And please put on a mean face and act as if I wasn’t here.” I think that you have big chance of a no. If you want a certain kind of photo, sometimes you have to be aggressive.
You live in Buenos Aires, Argentina. How would you describe the city as a place for street photographers?
Buenos Aires is a great place. We have different architecture in every neighborhood. And the immigration in Argentina has been very important, so we have a lot of different cultures. That its excellent. I tend to go out and shoot on weekends. I think people are more relaxed and would treat you better. People have always been nice with me. I think it also has to do the way you approach them.
How would you describe your photographic language and creative process?
It’s a documentary language: “I was there and so was life at that moment, just as I saw it.” This is a quote from “The Mind’s Eye” from Henri Cartier-Bresson. I can’t say it better than this. I like going out and shoot things I like. I know that almost every weekend I will go out because I feel like doing it. Amateur photography is great in this, you shoot just for yourself the days that you want to and don’t have orders from anyone else.
What’s important in order to develop an own photographic language?
To be constant, to shoot things you want to. You also have to see work from others. When I started I never looked at a book about photography, but I saw a lot of documentaries and films. I learned a lot from that. Now that some time has passed, I have bought some books and I also get things from there.
Every photographer is going through different stages in his formation. Which “landmarks” do you recall that have marked you and brought you to the place where you are today as a photographer?
For me the first time I went out shooting street photography was a turning point to me. I got closer to a lady and I asked her if I could take her picture. I didn’t even know why I was doing this. I just felt like doing it. Since she told me yes, it gave me courage to continue doing it till today. By then I think I have been in a progressive learning.
What do you consider to be the axis of your work – technically and conceptually?
I shoot from 50mm and below almost all the time. I also shoot more black and white images but im trying to get into color by trying different films. I take my time with framing. With time passing by I hope to cut down on the time it takes me. I like getting things into perfect position. I think it’s impossible, but I do my best trying to.
Do you shoot digital or do you prefer analogue film?
I started shooting digital because it was the only thing I knew. Nowadays, I am shooting film, 35mm and 120mm. And I prefer this, but maybe in some years I go back to digital, hopefully not though!
What kind of post-processing do you do with your images?
I like black and white images a lot. The digital ones I drop them into Lightroom and I retouch them to get a good amount of greys and to reach black and white corners. I try not being too aggressive in post-processing. The analog ones, I just touch contrast and brightness.
What qualities and characteristics does a good street photographer need?
First of all a street photographer needs good shoes. (laughs) Besides the joke, you need to be constant, if you go out more and more times its more probable that you find more situations. You will also get better with your shootings. If you are lazy, don’t even try it.
Street photography is very much about seizing the moment. Things usually happen unexpectedly. How do you train your eyes to “know” when a special moment is about to come?
You have to see the whole situation from where you walk, the place, the people – things that are happening around. I still miss things. Some time ago I used to miss a lot of thing. With time you train yourself to be faster and see things more clearly.
What does a photo need to be a great street shot? Especially keeping in mind that we live in a world that’s more and more saturated with images?
For me the composition is very important and in case that you shoot a photo of someone, the expression or the situation.
Where do you draw inspiration from for your photographic projects?
“I like to say that I’m a tourist in my own city, and as a tourist I like to find and discover new things.”
Now that I’m shooting just street photos, I find inspiration in that. I like to say that I’m a tourist in my own city, and as a tourist I like to find and discover new things.
What’s the biggest challenge shooting on the streets?
Having the eyes open and being fast to frame the image that is passing by.
Talking about gear. What is in your back when you go out shooting?
At this moment I go out with a Canon 1n + 24-105mm and a Mamiya 7 + 80mm. Sometimes I just pick up one camera. I also have a book of my own to show and another book to make a pause and read a little bit. And also a bottle of water!
What’s your favorite website about street photography?
I don’t read or look many street photos websites. I do in tumblr, I think there are lots of great street photographers users in there were you can learn from them. Also many of them if you send a private message they will respond. I also read the Eric Kim website. I came across him looking for a video in youtube. Then I realized that he had a blog and I started reading it. I like the things he writes.
What photography book would you recommend?
I recommend “Subway” from Bruce Davidson. It was one of the first books I have seen. It has very powerful images. It’s a documentary of what has been the Subway of NYC some years ago. And its great how he shows it.
My teacher brought it to me in one class and I was fascinated by it. I have incorporated some things that he says in the beginning of the book: Like making yourself a book to persuade showing your photos to people that don’t want their picture taken. I think the text at the beginning is just great. How he describe the way he prepares for this project and other things, just great.
Which advice would you give someone who wants to get going with street photography?
Have fun out there and get to know places and people! Find your way by trying.