“I believe the best way to achieve a much more meaningful impact to the viewer is through a series of photographs.”
Fabrizio Quagliuso (born 1970) is a self-taught documentary and street photographer from Italy currently based in London (UK).
Fabrizio Quagliuso is self-taught, but also greatly inspired by an uncle who was professional photographer.
He’s always been passionate about visual arts and in the last seven years has completely devoted himself to photography, a passion that came to bloom during his frequent stays in Japan.
Interview with Fabrizio Quagliuso
Fabrizio Quagliuso, why did you become a photographer? And why street photography?
I wish I were a photographer.
I am a software engineer in my working hours and a photographer the rest of the time.
I think everything may have stemmed from my natural curiosity and my fondness for observing life and human interactions.
However, to be honest with you, I don’t feel a “street photographer”, but rather a “photographer”, in the sense that I try to express myself through photography.
Besides street photographer you also do commissioned work and wedding photography. In which way do the genres differ and what (if so) do they have in common?
I occasionally do wedding photography and – very rarely – some commissioned work.
The ‘customers’ who contact me for these usually come having seen my work on my website or anyway know my way of shooting and (in most cases) they require specifically the same style of my documentary/street work.
“Street photography could be considered as a training ground.”
So for these jobs I often apply the same approach as when I am shooting in the street: after all I think street photography could be considered as a training ground where we can learn things, methods and an attitude that we can then apply to all kind of photography (including commercial work).
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 permeates a lot of aspects of my life, is a way of expressing myself but not only, is also a way to understand myself. As I read on a photography blog recently (sorry, I don’t remember where): “Photography it’s a means to fill a personal void”.
What was your most memorable moment shooting pictures out on the streets?
I hope you allow me to talk about an episode that didn’t happen while I was shooting for my street projects, but happened during my visit to the elementary school of a small village in rural Japan, where I was shooting as part of my long-term documentary project.
“You made me look so cool in black and white.”
I was lucky to be granted access for a few days to shoot in the school. I didn’t only take photographs, but I also spent a long time talking with the children, playing and establishing a relationship with them.
Back in UK, it was around summer, I sent the kids some of the photos I took during these days as a token of gratitude. A few months later, two days before Christmas, I received a large letter in the post.
It contained letters the various school children had written to me, to thank me for the time spent together and for the photos I sent.
One girl also thanked me because (she wrote): “You made me look so cool in black and white.”
What a fantastic Christmas present it was!
You said that your passion for Japan has triggered your career as a photographer. Why?
Maybe “triggered” is not the most appropriate word – let’s say it gave my passion a great hand to grow to the point I am now.
It is actually while I was living in Japan that my passion for photography started. I have a lot of Japanese friends and I absolutely love shooting there.
Which photographer has inspired you most?
“Daido Moriyama – that’s where it all started.”
I have had a lot of different inspirations at different stages of my photographic journey.
If I had to choose one, I would look at the very initial inspiration, and I would say Daido Moriyama – because that’s where it all started.
I still remember the first time I had a clear vision of what I really wanted to do with my photography: it happened six years ago. I was in the “Photographers Gallery” bookshop in London flicking through the pages of a Moriyama photo book (I didn’t know him at the time) and it was like at every page turn the pieces of the puzzle of my “photographic identity” were, one after another, falling into place. It was illuminating.
What’s your favorite photography quote?
I have got many I like actually. Let’s go for one that I have read recently, by Robert Frank:
“When people look at my pictures I want them to feel the way they do when they want to read a line of a poem twice.”
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.
“A smile and a few words exchanged afterwards go really a long way.”
Generally speaking I don’t like confrontations so I always attempt to avoid or defuse them.
As a photographer I always respect the subjects of my photos and a smile and a few words exchanged afterwards go really a long way.
What’s your strategy when you walk up close to people. Do you interact with them or take the shot and move on?
This kind of links to my previous answer. It is in the nature of photographing in the streets that in many case I move on, but when I am noticed I always (at least) smile and say thank you.
Does shooting street photography in Japan differ in any way from shooting in other parts of the world?
Naturally there are cultural differences and the way people act and behave in the common spaces are different from country to country, but I like to think that this doesn’t really affect my “way of shooting”. Rather, it affects what I wish to say/communicate through my photographs.
How would you describe your photographic language and creative process?
Firstly, let me say that I think “photographic language” is not about aesthetic, but about what you are, what you want to say, what matters to you.
“Keeping an open eye (and mind) is very important.”
I like photographs that provoke an emotion; ambiguous images that suggest, hint, stimulate, that generate questions without giving many answers. It is extremely difficult, but this is what I strive to do in my work as well.
As for my creative process, I guess it evolves a lot around projects.
I find that having rough project ideas to start with helps me focus my energy. I believe the best way to achieve a much more meaningful impact to the viewer is through a series of photographs.
But at the same time I have to force myself to achieve a balance: if I concentrate too much on the themes of the projects I have in mind, I may miss on everything else that (may) happen around me.
So, always keep an open eye (and mind) is very important from this point of view.
What’s important in order to develop an own photographic language?
I think I already touched on this in my answer to the previous question: when I was talking about understanding what matters to oneself.
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?
“Aesthetics (form) should not have precedence over content.”
I feel that so far there have been two major stepping-stones for me growing as a photographer.
The first happened around four years ago and was realising that there is way much more to a photograph than just “the instant gratification of visual pyrotechnics” (to quote an expression by David Hurn): I value aesthetics when I photograph, but at that time I realized that aesthetics (form) should not have precedence over content.
The other stepping stone was when – relatively recently – I reached the awareness that in many cases layered photos, with multiple interest points, if well made can create much more compelling emotions and interest in the viewer than “single subject” images (easy to say, but successfully taking this kind of pictures is extremely difficult).
However, I would like to add one more thing.
Often when I look at my ‘old’ work I don’t recognise myself into it.
That is, until I realise that everything I have done belongs to the same photographic journey – my personal photographic journey – and that I should not deny what I have done in the past because without having taken these photographs I wouldn’t be who I am now.
What do you consider to be the axis of your work – technically (color treatment, framing, lens use, etc.) and conceptually?
Black and white and wide lenses (28mm or 35mm). A key point on equipment though – I believe the camera is just a tool – as a matter of fact my choice of equipment is dictated by what I am comfortable with, a camera shouldn’t get in the way of me taking a picture.
What qualities and characteristics does a good street photographer need?
Or emotional empathy? But maybe the main one: being able to answer to the questions: why do I photograph? What I want to say?
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?
“Get in tune with the world around you, follow its rhythm.”
Forget about the camera and try to get in tune with the world around you, follow its rhythm. Go with the flow.
Observe, observe a lot. Be always attentive to people around you and to what they are doing, be aware of light. And then for just a split second…
One of your projects is called “160 Yen” in which you are documenting one day on one train line. How did you come up with that idea and can you tell a little more what it is about?
“160 Yen” is a project I completed in 2010.
In April 2010 I had the opportunity to spend a whole month in Tokyo.
“Commuters as a mirror of the Tokyo life I wanted to document.”
While I had been shooting in the streets there previously for photographic projects, that time I set off with a very precise purpose.
The statement I wanted to make at that time was about Tokyo life, its pure, elemental energy and I was seeking an interesting, captivating and possibly unconventional way to document it – and then I thought about commuters: “using” commuters as a mirror of the Tokyo life I wanted to document.
For this project I chose to shot uniquely on the Tokyo Yamanote Line, the busiest Tokyo commuting line, that goes around in a circle.
I was fascinated by the idea that by simply staying on the same line, going round and round in the loop as the day progressed I would have been able to experience the myriad facets of Tokyo life unfolding before my eyes.
The name “160yen” comes form the cost of a Yamanote Line ticket.
At the beginning of each project one often has some kind of idea in mind as to what the result could be like. Sometimes that changes along the way and the result is quite different. Was that the case and if so what did you learn during the project?
Motivations change and themes develop as the work progresses. Ideas mature, grow and also somehow change during the project.
And that was definitely the case while I was shooting for the “160 yen” project, under many aspects.
For example, for “160 yen” I set off with the idea of “one photo per station”.
But once I started shooting, I realized that that idea not only was too restrictive, but also was not suitable to tell what I was observing.
And I could realize this only after I lived the place for a while and tuned into it.
By now you’ve turned the series into a book. Can you describe the process of turning a body of work into a book?
I think a book is the ideal way to represent a photographic body of work.
Therefore when I started the “160yen” project (but the same happens for my other ongoing projects at present) I always think it will be showcased in a photo book (The “160yen” book is self-published through Blurb).
There are two main things I have learnt by making the “160yen” book and that I feel I would like to share, and these are around two of the most important aspects of book making: editing and sequencing:
- Rather than choosing a sequence of best images I had to choose a sequence of images that worked well together, complemented each other and contributed to the whole story.
- The importance of blue-tac: I printed all the photos from a first rough selection in small size, stuck them on a wall using blue-tac, then I started shuffling them around, re-arranging them, and then I started having a sense of the flow, I started seeing the bigger story coming together.
What does a photo need to be a great street shot?
Talk to the viewer on multiple levels, leave open questions so it is returned to many times.
Where do you draw inspiration from for your photographic projects?
From a lot of places actually: looking at photo books, at the work of other photographers on the internet, reading, going to exhibitions (not only photographic ones), looking around me while I walk, overhearing conversations, taking my time to reflect.
I also like to write ideas and impressions in my Moleskine notebook and re-read them from time to time.
What’s the biggest challenge shooting on the streets?
“I cannot ask that lady to move 10 centimeters to the left.”
I think street photography is perhaps one of the most difficult types of photography. I mean, there is very little we can control: I cannot ask that lady to move 10 centimeters to the left. Or to that man to repeat that interesting gesture.
Often a few centimeters or a fraction of a second are the difference between a great photo and an ordinary one.
Talking about gear. What is in your bag when you go out shooting?
I shoot a mix of digital and film. In my bag I have a Leica M (240) (that very recently replaced my trusted and excellent long-term companion Ricoh GXR that sadly abandoned me during my last trip to Japan) and a Leica M6 with a load if Kodak TriX films.
What’s your favorite website about street photography?
I use Facebook a lot – it is where a lot of the street photography communities and photographers that I follow are active.
I also regularly check the Burn magazine website and photography collectives websites such as “Burn My Eye”, Stroma, etc. – and your site as well, of course!
What photography book would you recommend?
I highly value photo books as an invaluable source of learning and inspiration. The ones I would recommend most are:
“Wonderland” by Jason Eskenazi
“Tony Ray Jones” by Russel Roberts (I don’t own it: a friend lent it to me and I was immediately captured by his work. Unfortunately the book is out of print and the few copies available around are sold for around £200)
Which advice would you give someone who wants to get going with street photography?
Don’t try to please others, don’t be after easy likes and favs, but deeply think about what you want to express with your photography.
Be true to yourself. Photograph the way you like it. This is not easy to achieve and may require a leap of faith but I believe is worth getting this awareness.
And – read the letter that Sergio Larrain wrote in 1982 to his nephew who wanted to start getting into photography.
Last but not least, let’s switch roles: Which question would you have liked to be asked in this interview about your work that I didn’t ask? Please feel free to add it – as well as the answer.
Q: Fabrizio, what is the biggest thing you are working on at the moment?
A: That would be a long-term documentary project around life in a very small rural village in the Fukui prefecture, centre Japan, that is in the midst of various challenging social and environmental changes.
It is documentary work and in many aspect is different from street photography, but I am greatly enjoying the challenge.
I have started the project in May 2012 and I am planning to visit the village as frequently as possible in the years to come (I have been there already three times so far) to document how it will inevitably be changing and how the locals will go on their daily life, most likely adapting to the new circumstances.
I am planning to complete the project in 2-3 years time.