Words Kazeem Kuteyi, Photography Nefertiti Hernandez, Kahlil Hernandez
It’s our first night in Paris and the jetlag is starting to set in. I’m nodding in and out of consciousness. I think this is the third McDonalds we’ve been in – this time in the area of Republique and we’re here for the wi-fi, not the nuggets. Sidenote: Parisians pronounce wi-fi as “wee-fee”.
I fiddle with my iPhone and I’m constantly asking Kahlil and Nef how I can edit my photo to look like theirs. I post a picture to my Instagram page with my customary hashtag, #travelwithkaz and minutes later, the likes begin to come in. But what I’m waiting patiently for is a text from Alistair, a photographer and software engineer-in-training with over 50,000 followers. Minutes later, a text rolls through my phone announcing his arrival. Alistair shows off Paris in a completely fresh way. The photos he posts onto his Instagram page are downtempo and moody. There are no pictures of couples smooching by the Eiffel tower or pictures of a boat on the Seine on a sunny day. This fresh perspective has earned him freelance jobs, a talk at the Apple store and his multitude of followers.
There he stands outside McDonalds, clad in all black, a supreme hoody and track pants. After we greet each other, he asks, “What have you seen so far?” and takes us on a mini-tour of central Paris, while chatting about Paris and its culture. He says the most beautiful girls are from the south of France. We reach the Notre Dame and sit down to chat.
Hmm, that’s actually a tough one. I’ve always had a camera but it’s not that kind of story where my dad put a camera in my hand when I was 5 blah, blah, blah. I’m not about that life. I’ve always had one just because I’ve liked taking random shots. I started getting into photography seriously once I got into Instagram and took photos on an iPod touch. I started following people and getting inspired. I loved what these guys from New York were creating. They were documenting their city, and I was like, if they can, why can’t I? Maybe I should try. So that’s what I started doing. I got a kick out of it, so I bought better DSLRs and lenses and just continued.
I play the guitar and it allows me to relieve stress and feelings. With photography, I can do that but in a different way. There is something about showing the things around me in my own way-through the edits and perspectives and that sort of stuff. I definitely identify myself as a creative mind and I really enjoy being in the right place at the right time capturing that moment.
Is it just a hobby or do you want to pursue this professionally?
Right now it’s mostly a hobby, even though I’m working on paid contracts. I’m not sure I want to take it to a professional level. I mean, I’m currently studying software engineering but I can’t see myself working behind a computer all my life. It’s more like an income security. Maybe after 3 years I’ll take a year off and see where photography takes me. I don’t want to set measurable targets for myself except for the fact that I want to improve my photography.
Keeping that in mind, I try to push the limits of what I can do. And sometimes that comes in the form of crazy shit, like walking on rooftops with a tripod in one hand and balancing yourself with the other, having all the neighbours yelling at you hooligans to get down. I just like to let life take me where it can take me. I don’t like to expect anything because I don’t want to be disappointed. I do have goals but I don’t obsess over putting pressure on myself. I guess I’m just trying to say maybe one day, I’ll be a well-known photographer but that’s not necessarily what I’m after.
How did you learn? Were you self-taught?
I’ve never really officially learned. I think I lack the culture behind photography. My girlfriend always says things like “You can’t be a good photographer if you don’t have good photography knowledge, if you don’t know famous photographers and if you don’t know their styles.” According to her, you can’t create your own identity if you don’t know what has been done. She does have a point but the example I always give her is this guitarist named Django Reinhardt. He can’t read notes, and he’s still one of the best guitarists in the world. I’m convinced that you can’t teach creativity; you can’t teach the eye. It’s unfortunate, but if you’re not creative, you’re not creative. End of story.
Technique you can learn, though. I learned the technique of photography by trying stuff out. And today you can really learn anything on the Internet. I read a few things about composition, rule of thirds, and rule of golden number. At the beginning I also learned by watching what others did, getting inspired and, I’ll admit it, copying-but once you know how to do what you want to do, that’s how you create your own style.
I think you can self-teach photography. That was a question someone asked me the other day in an interview. She also asked if photography could be done by anyone, and I said yeah, as long as that anyone has an eye for interesting things. But then again, what’s interesting to them isn’t necessarily interesting to anyone. It’s a very subjective art form. I don’t think you need to go to photography school to know how to take a photo that someone will appreciate.
“Technique you can learn, though. I learned the technique of photography by trying stuff out. And today you can really learn anything on the Internet.”
Do you think we’re all born with creativity?
I think we’re born with a certain amount of creativity, and it’s what you do with that creativity in your childhood and how your parents bring you up that determines how much of it comes out. When I was a kid, I used to play with Lego and go crazy over building things. It wouldn’t look like anything but I enjoyed it. I’m not saying you have to have a Lego set to be creative, but I think we all have a bit of potential in everything when we’re born. If you’re brought up in a family of musicians, you’re probably going to turn out being a musician, unless you’re about that rebel life and you don’t want to be like your parents. To me, creativity rhymes with curiosity. If you exploit your curiosity when you’re a child, you’re more likely to become a creative person.
You seem to pack a lot into your days. What really motivates you to keep going?
It’s curiosity. I want to know about everything. When I was younger, I used to open up the first cellphones we had and see what was inside. I would break everything we had just to know how it worked. You know about steel wool photography?
What influences your aesthetic?
I’m always going through different phases of edits. Now I’m into this sort of moody dark side of Paris where I’m trying to get away from the image people have of Paris as an old romantic city. To counter this, I’ve been taking photos with moody skies and sunsets and really exaggerating the fading of it. And maybe underexposing to get that contrast of the sky and those colours. I’m sure there’s someone else in the world that edits the exact way as I do but I think I’m the only one in Paris that I know of. I haven’t seen my style of Paris on Instagram. I’m gonna bravely state this but I hate blue skies. I’m not about the HDR life. I don’t want to recreate what the eye sees. When I see a scene, I look at it the way I’m gonna edit it. Like if I see this crazy sunset, I’m going to forget about the foregrounds. And if it’s sunset over the river, I’m going to forget the buildings and all the other distractions. But I don’t know, I’m influenced by the people I follow on Instagram. Some of them are on that crispy moody look, others on the really faded brown sepia and some of them are like mine but they add their own style to it.
Do you think young people are taking over right now? All these companies are coming after content creators. It seems like the power is in our hands to define what branding is. You know, if Apple calls you to teach photography at their store, obviously there’s a motive there; they want to promote their iPhone.
That’s exactly why I’m talking about expanding my knowledge of photography. My limits stop at Instagram. I go to instameets here in Paris where there are older guys and women who take HDR shots, like the cliché of photo of people kissing and the sunlight over the buildings. There’s not that much of a young community in Paris.
In France, we have an unhealthy mentality about a lot of things. One thing is sneakers. In France, when you wear a pair of sneakers, you’re not taken seriously. I went to work in jeans, a t-shirt and pair of sneakers and I told a friend of mine about it. He goes “You’re crazy, you’re an engineer, why are you going to work with sneakers on?” I said “I’m an engineer and I’m in an office where I have to be comfortable to be productive, right?” Whereas in the States for example, if you’re a creative director working on Wall Street in New York, sneakers are ok. My girlfriend thinks they’re children’s shoes but I don’t agree.
So my point with all this is that Instagram is kind of the same thing. Professional photographers tell me I won’t be taken seriously if I’m on Instagram-which isn’t true when you have enormous brands like Jaguar and Go Pro on there. In France, I tell people I’m a photographer and they can see my work on Instagram, and as soon as I say Instagram, they say, what’s Instagram? Or they know what it is but they’ll say they’re not on it because, to them, Instagram is all about cats, sunsets and selfies. They don’t know that’s only a tiny percent of the photo content. So in France, youth taking over is complicated because brands don’t see Instagram as a proper mode of communication like America does.
Obviously young people know how to use these things because they were brought up with them, but when it comes to actually including photography in that equation, in France, I wouldn’t say youth are taking over.
ALWAYS have a back-up plan because you never know what life’s about. That’s one of the main reasons I’m in engineering school–I’m interested in it but nowhere near passionate about it.
So you think global brands would approach you, if anything?
Yeah-not French brands. But then again why would they go and get someone in France when they have someone in New York, for example? And that’s why I was kind of surprised when this person from an agency based in New York contacted me and said they wanted to sign me to their shop. I was like, well you’re based in New York and what do I have to do with that? So you never really know.
What would you do if Instagram shut down today?
Oh damn, I think we’re all in big trouble. If Instagram shut down today, well, I wouldn’t have anything to put on my business card because Instagram is my gallery. I want to make a website but it’s one of those things on the to-do list that’s never gonna get crossed off. If you do get a website, you’d find yourself becoming “famous” (and I’m using quotes because it’s nowhere near famous; it’s just that for some people that number is like “oh my God he has so many followers”), whereas in reality it doesn’t represent anything. But now that Instagram is becoming a major form of communication, I’d think I’d reconsider being a photographer even Instagram shut down. That’s what defines me. That’s where all my photography history comes from. It’s kinda sad, if you ask me, if your photography is based on social media but whatever. Gotta start somewhere.
What would you say to a 15-year-old who wants to pursue photography?
This is the way I was brought up: ALWAYS have a back-up plan because you never know what life’s about. That’s one of the main reasons I’m in engineering school–I’m interested in it but nowhere near passionate about it. With a 15-year-old pursuing photography-unless he knows where life is taking him and has serious contacts-it’s all about networking. I would say to him, follow your dreams as long as you have something to put food on your table. If you’re hesitant between quitting school and doing photography or doing school and choosing photography later, choose the second option. Continue school, try to get a degree that’ll get you a decent salary or wage once you’re finished, and then save up money. If photography is what your life is meant to be about and you’re convinced, you’ll find a way to do it.