Interview by Paulo Lobo
Luxembourg City is still a small paradise for street photographers
Patrick Galbats was born in 1978 in Luxembourg.
In 2002, he finishes his studies of photography in the « École Supérieure des Arts de l’Image » (« le septante-cinq ») in Brussels. Bruxelles. Between 2011 and 2016, he was the official photographer of the weekly Lëtzebuerger Land. He got missions from several NGOs which took him to Haiti, Ethiopia, the Philippines, Bolivia and Cameroon. Since 2001, Galbats has undertaken regular journeys to Romania. Since 2012, he has been focussing on the impact of Europe without borders on Roma musicians’ communities from the northeast of Romania.
In his personal works, Patrick Galbats shows a special interest towards society and its evolutions. In the course of the years, he has moved gradually from social reportage to documentary photography. The landscape takes more scale in his approach. He uses it to testify about a specific period of time and as means of analysis of the problems that worry him. But the human being, his subject of preference, never disappears from the images.
What made you choose photography as a job ?
The fact I have chosen photography was a consequence of my education. I grew up in a context with many kids in the neighborhood. We played and hung together nearly every free minute. When I was eight years old, I joined the boy scouts. During the following 13 years, I learned to appreciate the beauty of daily life. At the same time, I had to accept that we are all different, and that this is how the world is made. Also I don’t like injustice. All this I can express in my pictures today.
What were the main milestones of your journey into photography (schools, workshops, experiences…) ?
When I was 18, I traveled to Haiti in order to plant some trees in a region four hours away from Port-au- Prince. With a borrowed camera, a 50 mm lens and less than ten films in my pocket, I documented everything I found interesting. Taking pictures while I was discovering a world which was perfectly unknown to myself, was the most exciting thing I had ever experienced. At that moment, I knew that I wanted to be a photographer.
What photographers – past and/or present – do you admire or do influence your approach in some manner ?
As a photographer, it seems very important to me to have a great knowledge of art history and the history of photography. One led to the other. Early documentary photographers in the nineteenth century like Timothy O’Sullivan in the U.S. or Charles Marville and Eugène Atget in Paris were preceding a Walker Evans who was the spiritual father of Robert Frank and Lee Friedlander and so on. In contemporary photography, I like very much the work of Alec Soth. He shows us the world in his own poetical way. His pictures seem timeless.
What is the main purpose of taking pictures for you (apart from earning a living) ?
It is my way to express myself. I use photography instead of writing.
What specific domain in photography is of particular interest to you (portrait, reportage, street, conceptual…) ?
I don’t like categorization. My recent work (which will be shown next year) on the influence of nationalist and even fascist politics in the Hungarian landscape is composed of architecture, landscape, street and portrait photography. The whole sequence together can be seen as a conceptual work. Of course I use the only language of documentary photography but I don’t want to limit myself while I am working. Working as a photographer has to remain a pleasure.
Do you have a definition of what street photography should be ?
No, except that there is a photographer who shoots pictures in public areas, mostly urban. But! It is significant that a photographer admits his huge responsibility towards his subjects. We can hurt people if we show inadequate pictures. In countries with illiberal governments we can even put people’s lives in danger. A photographer must understand that today nearly every person on earth has access to internet.
In the streets/public spaces, what kind of situation catches your eye and makes you stop and shoot ?
Honestly, I don’t stop so often when I use my small format camera. I have probably a Winogrand kind of way to take my street pictures. Walking and snap-shooting. I try to capture the identity of a place and its people passing by. So it is difficult to say what makes me shoot. Sometimes it’s the light and sometimes it’s the contrast between the different people in front of me. I like to charge the pictures with some chaos.
Are you more like improvising in the flow of the city, or do you put yourself specific goals or missions ?
I plan and then I improvise. Which means that when I have a job it depends on the job description where I finally go and take my pictures. But once I have chosen the area, I improvise. Of course, I happen to unexpectedly take out my camera, just for a few minutes on my way home.
What is your connection with the people you photograph in the streets ? Do you look for getting in contact or do you just catch the passing silhouette ? Do you keep a distance to your subject ?
In the specific case of improvised street-photography, I am rarely in contact with the people. A situation often lasts less than a second. Impossible to ask the people’s permission before. It would also extremely falsify the picture. I realised that “stealing” a picture of people in the street is often more like a surprising act to them than an annoying one. But it’s still a risk that photographers have to take. Concerning the distance, Robert Capa said once : If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough.
How far can you impregnate your street photographs with social/political/philosophical issues ?
These three issues are the only reason why I take pictures in the street. For example, in Luxembourg-City I want to show the strong mixture and contrast of the population, which comes near to a social and political analysis of the urban landscape. In the city-center, we can find reflections of the world of finance, immigration, rich and poor people, the consequences of the former and recent politics and so on…
What is your favourite camera/lens for shooting in the streets ?
Since January 2016 it’s my Leica M (Type 262) and the 28 mm I have. I must say that I only have two lenses but the other one is a 75 mm which puts me much too far away from my subjects. In fact, I use the Leica for everything else since I have it. I rather prefer to move than to zoom. Before I used a 24 mm for a long time and I loved it too. But I think it doesn’t matter which camera or lens one has. You should be happy with it.
What are your favourite cities ? And why ?
Tangier, Madrid, Brussels and Paris, but even Budapest are cities I like a lot. Southern cities because of its special light and the others because of the mixed population and its chaotic architecture. Finally the city doesn’t really matter to me.
What is your feeling concerning street photography in Luxembourg (Luxembourg City or other places in the Grand-Duchy) ? Do you have any kind of favourite spots ?
“Luxembourg City is still a small paradise for street photographers.”
Luxembourg City is still a small paradise for street photographers. People might request you to remove the picture afterwards or they want an explanation why you made the shot and for what purpose you intend to use it. My favourite spots are definitely the city station, Hamilius and Royal – but also in front of Auchan at the bus stop. The mixture of a frequently changing landscape with hasting people inspires me a lot.
Do you think a photographer is entitled to photograph anything in the streets ? What do you think should be his/her boundaries ?
“The most important for me is the respect we owe to our subjects. I do it while I am editing my pictures.”
The city is like a huge theater whose actors are sometimes running out of control. It is the photographers’ job to achieve some order into the chaos if he wants his pictures to be readable. A street photographer doesn’t need to put a limit to what situations he should take or not. The most important for me is the respect we owe to our subjects. I do it while I am editing my pictures.
In what form do you exhibit your « street » photos ?
Today, everybody has something to say and wants to share it as soon as possible with the community. The easiest way to do this goes through the social medias. Sure I’m also posting pictures on Facebook or Instagram. This is my way to tell the world “Hey it’s me, I am still there”. But before I release a finished work, I like to take a lot of time to be sure that this is really what I want to show/say. While I was working for “d’Lëtzebuerger Land”, the newspaper was my favorite form. It’s slower than the social medias but still fast. Now I like to transform the pictures into objects as well. So I have to print and to frame them. It’s expensive and needs to be thought a lot.
What do you think about the current state of photography and the fact that it has become probably the most popular artistic practice ?
Photography is just a mechanical tool. It all depends on the meaning of the picture and what you finally do with it. A photograph can be powerful or without sense. There are more people owning a pen than a camera, but not everybody writes poems and novels despite the fact that we all know how to write. On the one hand, the digital democratization of photography and also the photographic digital picture give us the possibility to watch/scrutinize the whole world from our desktop. On the other hand, are we really able to understand what happens in the world ?
I think that we still need a better education to understand the
meaning behind the pictures and the difference between them.
I think that we still need a better education to understand the meaning behind the pictures and the difference between them. The kids today should learn (at school) how to read a picture. Many of them are not able to make the difference between a selfie and a portrait. I believe that only when we are able to analyse a situation, we can do or choose the right picture. Otherwise they are only pictures – the same way a word can just be a group of letters.