“Street photography is full of paradoxes and ironies. It connects seemingly unconnected things into a single frame. It’s the purest and simplest form of photography, and yet it is probably the most difficult to master. It transforms the mundane into something extraordinary.”
Chio Gonzalez (born in 1995) is an emerging street photographer from the Philippines currently based in Manila. He started photography more than four years ago. Everything Chio Gonzalez learned about photography was mostly through his own experiences.
“I take photographs to document the objective reality that I’m in, through my own subjective way.”
Interview with Chio Gonzalez
Chio, what was your most memorable moment shooting pictures out on the streets?
I’ve only been doing street photography seriously for about a year now, and I can honestly say that every time I’ve wandered and photographed a street, an alleyway, a park, a beach, an airport, a pier, a market, a café, or a neighborhood has been memorable. I enjoy the process of making photos as much as the final images themselves. I wouldn’t get any Zen-like thrill out of street photography without the actual picking up of a camera, pointing at a subject and clicking of the shutter. So, the most memorable moment I had, was the last time I went out and took photographs.
Why did you become a photographer? And why street photography?
It was actually an accident. I was put in a photography club in my school because no other clubs were available. My interest sparked from all the subsequent lectures and “photo walks” that occurred.
I guess getting into street photography happened progressively. I never really enjoyed commercial photography because it required a lot of planning and conceptualizing. To be honest, it seemed too boring and the banality of it all just didn’t pique my interest. I was drawn to more candid situations, where things couldn’t be set up or premeditated. So, street photography was a natural fit.
In its entirety, street photography is full of paradoxes and ironies. It connects seemingly unconnected things into a single frame. It’s the purest and simplest form of photography, and yet it is probably the most difficult to master. It transforms the mundane into something extraordinary. We deliberately plan to go out and take images, yet we thrive on spontaneity when we actually shoot. We take photographs of reality, but do not wish to present it objectively. All of these things drew me into street photography, allowing me to photograph the world in my own manner.
What does photography mean to you and what do you want to say with your pictures?
I don’t think any singular idea can express what I want to say with my photos. Actually, I don’t have a general statement or grand idea that I want to transmit through my photos. All I wish to express are my experiences – where I’ve been, the things I’ve seen and how I saw them. Photography is a visual representation of me, and hopefully my imprint can be distinctly seen in my images.
Which photographer has inspired you most?
I’ve always admired the complex and vibrant imagery of Alex Webb. A treat to the eyes, his pictures have had the strongest impact on me among all the photographers whose work I’ve absorbed. I enjoy nice aesthetics, and the color work of Alex Webb epitomizes the visual beauty I look for. I can flip through his photos and I always find something new in them, even though I’ve seen them many times before. His photographs inspired me to experiment with color, which eventually set me on my own path stylistically.
Aside from Alex Webb’s color photos, I really like the works of Martin Parr and Christopher Anderson. I’m also getting into the photographs of William Eggleston, Lee Friedlander and Stephen Shore.
“Traditional photojournalists arrive with an idea of what they are going to produce or what the editor wants. I approach a subject very much as a street photographer and a wanderer, without preconceptions. I try to leave it extremely intuitive and exploratory.”
What’s your favorite photography quote?
There’s this quote by Garry Winogrand:
“I photograph to see what the world looks like in photographs.”
The first time I read that, it just resonated with me. Sometimes, we’re all looking to overcomplicate things with grand statements and ideas we have in our heads about our photographs. But Winogrand simplified everything with this quote and let his images speak for themselves. I believe that this kind of thinking is something photographers should prescribe to separating the ideas we think we are expressing through our photographs from the photographs themselves.
How would you describe your photographic voice and creative process?
I just go out and take pictures. I’d say that doing street photography is less of a cerebral act but more of an instinctive act. I think about photography a lot but when I’m out shooting, I tend to shut my mind off and focus on taking photographs. I only react to the things that develop in front of me, then I work from there. I find that this is the best method for me going out with a clear mind and with no preconceptions. So really, I have no specific creative process or way of working. I simply rely on spontaneity and adapt to the conditions. The fact that I cannot anticipate what could happen while photographing makes the act of street photography all the more exhilarating. In turn, this uncertainty makes the process simpler and more enjoyable.
What’s important in order to develop an own photographic language?
Indulge in inspirations – look at the works of others and you’ll seemingly be able to filter out what kind of styles you like and don’t like. Absorb these external influences only as a starting point – from there, you have to look within yourself and understand that your identity has to shine through your photographs. So, always remember that your photography as an extension to your own life – your habits, personality and experiences. Embrace change – keep rethinking your own philosophy when it comes to photography until you clearly understand why you do street photography. Most of all, keep persevering. One’s photographic voice doesn’t reveal itself immediately; like life, it is a gradual process of trial and error. In time, that photographic voice will manifest through hard work and experience.
What do you consider to be the axis of your work – technically and conceptually?
Loosely speaking, I’d say my work revolves a lot around the relationship between color and light – how the strong light can push the color palette to its maximum. These characteristics are distinctly present in most of my work. In theory, it isn’t the most original “style”, but I think I’ve been able to make this often used technique my own.
Again, I have no preconceptions when I go out and shoot. There are some things that I plan in advance, though. For instance, I usually prefer to go out when the light is good. I also tend to scout potential locations for good photographs, then I come back at a later time. Then when I go out and shoot, I rely mostly on instinct and reaction but still focus on capturing light and color.
What qualities and characteristics does a good street photographer need?
Before answering this question, let me get this out-of-the-way – no one is born a photographer. None of the most renowned photographers woke up one day, picked up a camera then started taking magnificent images. If you look at all of the greats of anything – art, academics or sports – they all had the common desire and relentless commitment to master their own crafts. So, the most important characteristic a good street photographer needs is an insatiable passion to improve and grow.
Aside from this, photographers need to have intense curiosity for their surroundings. We as street photographers need to be immersed in the simplest of things – pavements, windows, benches, street signs, and so on. This curiosity should encompass everything that is mundane, from the physical streets to everyday life. We need to possess a nostalgia for the present and realize how much more significance our images of today will have over time, when even the most mundane things will change drastically.
What does a photo need to be a great street shot?
For me, a great shot is where form marries content. These two are interconnected – they can enhance each other and at the same time, they can degrade each other. There’s a fine balance between both, and that’s why it is so difficult to create a great street shot. Think of the famous term “The Decisive Moment” and one will see that these so-called “moments” are so few and far in between. Everything has to go well internally and externally to be able to capture a great photo – from the timing, the perspective and the settings to the light, the scene and the elements.
Digging deeper, I think a great street shot nowadays should have something out of the ordinary. We live in an age where terms such as “original” and “unique” are basically obsolete. Every technique, gimmick or aesthetic has been done before. But although originality may be dead, it’s still possible (with some creativity, imagination and luck) to take a great shot showing something novel.
Where do you draw inspiration from for your photographic projects?
Well, I haven’t done any specific photographic projects yet. For most of my work I gain inspiration not just from other photographers, but from other things as well. Music is a huge influence to my work, as well as a lot of fine art that I happen to come across once in a while. Essentially, inspiration for photography isn’t limited to the medium itself but to other practices as well.
What’s the biggest challenge shooting on the streets?
Personally, the biggest challenge would be having the patience to stick to a scene. Sometimes, I get too caught up on trying to capture everything around me (especially when I venture to unfamiliar territory) that I end up not photographing anything of significance.
In David Hurn and Bill Jay’s “On Being A Photographer: A Practical Guide” book, there was a segment where they mentioned that great photographers always left some doubts on their minds when photographing a certain scene. They said that great photographers admitted to themselves that they were never really sure when they got the shot that they wanted. So, they always made subtle changes when working a scene – a different angle, a closer vantage point, adding or subtracting elements – to see what could better the final photo. This requires a lot of patience, perseverance, and a little luck. It is definitely a huge challenge to wait for all the elements to come together in a scene, but the end product – that one photograph where everything “works” – makes it all worthwhile.
What kind of photography equipment and photographic supplies do you use?
For most of my work, I used a Nikon D60 with a 50mm equivalent prime lens. Eventually, I felt that the 50mm was becoming too tight compositionally and I also wanted a more portable camera. So for more of my recent work, I started using a Fuji X100, which solved both of my problems.
What’s your favorite website about photography?
There are many, but I always find myself going back to the Magnum Photos website. Being the most elite photography agency in the world, it comes as no surprise that I find myself always looking at the work of masters. I can just browse and pick any photographer in the website then become immersed in their work. Some work in Magnum may not be my preference stylistically, but I always find appreciation and respect in the photography.
What photography book would you recommend?
Aside from the well-known books from the masters, I definitely would recommend Jason Eskenazi’s “Wonderland: A Fairytale of the Soviet Monolith”. Look at some of the photographs and you’ll understand why.
Jason Eskenazi talks about “Wonderland”
Which advice would you give someone who wants to become a street photographer?
Shoot for yourself and be obsessive. If you’re not passionate about street photography quit while you’re ahead. If you’re trying to take photographs just to please others, quit while you’re ahead. Have the desire to create images, and the work will grow from this commitment.
There are times when I am doing ordinary tasks chores, walking, eating then suddenly, thoughts and insights about photography pop in my head. When I’m looking at things without a camera, I’m unconsciously composing a scene with my eyes, looking for angles. I sometimes have dreams where I’m taking photographs somewhere. I also have sleepless nights reflecting on how to refine and improve my own work. Photography has become such a huge part of my life that it is almost my life as a whole, expressed through visual imagery. What I’m trying to say is this: Make photography an enormous part of your life so much that it consumes you so fully and you cannot get it out of your head.