Interview: Gilles Kayser

Stranger than paradise


Interview by Paulo Lobo
pictures of Gilles Kayser by Lynn Theisen

“It was all about exploring and experiencing life with a camera at hand.”

“Street photography is a mirror of the society that we live in”

Gilles Kayser on Instagram

His pictures, taken in Japan and Hong Kong, have captivated us. They have this special mixture of ethereal mood and distinguished alienation, of luminous clarity and diffuse strangeness. When you look at Gilles Kayser’s photos, you just have to keep looking at them : they grab you deeply and you don’t really know why. It’s not a question of technical virtuosity, it’s more something like a poetical eye.

How did you choose photography as a means of expression ?

Back in High school I was always struggling through art classes. My grades reflected that I did the bare minimum just to pass. I couldn’t find any interest in paintings and art installations… The only thing that always interested me was photography. Looking at the fact that I draw like a five-year-old and can’t sing, it became quite natural to pick photography as my mean of expression.

What were your main milestones in practicing photography ?

Some three years ago, I bought a decent camera and started to shoot photos in the streets together with a good friend. We used to compare each other’s photos and criticize each other’s work. His technique was slightly better, a fact which motivated me to improve.  This was when my obsession for street photography started. I never took any classes nor participated in any workshops. It was all about exploring and experiencing life with a camera at hand.

What photographers – past and present – do you admire or influence your approach ?

Studying the work of other photographers that one admires is an essential part of improving as a photographer.

When it comes to past generations photographers, I admire the work of Fan Ho who captured 1950’s and 60’s Hong Kong with excellent use of light and shadows. Another superb street photographer is Daido Moriyama, known for his gritty black and white shots of Tokyo. A big local influence is Sven Becker who has a very interesting and subtle style of documenting life. Furthermore, I am influenced everyday by a huge number of good pictures I see on Instagram.

What is the main purpose of taking pictures for you?

For me photography is a way of expressing myself. It’s a medium to show people how I perceive the world. It allows me to communicate with the viewer. And most importantly, I enjoy doing it and I have fun.

What specific domain in photography is of interest to you (portrait, reportage, street, conceptual…)?

My main interest lies in street and documentary photography but I do appreciate other domains and genres of photography. I also love portraits that are shot in an urban setting as well as architecture photography.

In what form do you exhibit your « street » photos?

I had the opportunity to be part of two Street Photography Luxembourg Slide night events. Apart from that I didn’t have any exhibitions so far. I mainly use Instagram, as it is a good tool to show some of my work to a wide and varied audience, while allowing me to interact with photographers from all over the world.

What do you think about the current state of photography, and the fact that it has become probably the most popular artistic practice?

First, I think that it has never been easier or cheaper to express yourself through photography. Cheap cameras and smartphones have made photography much more accessible than it was a couple of decades ago. This phenomenon is encouraging more and more young people to get into photography and to express themselves through this art, making it easier for talent to emerge.

On the other hand, I observe that more and more amateur photographers are using their hobby just as a tool to earn extra money. Because of the proliferation of photographers, most people can’t even distinguish between “good” and “bad” photography. This phenomenon often comes to the expense of quality and it is hurting many among the young and not-so-young passionate photographers who have had the courage to make a job out of photography. So please stop charging 200 euros for crappy baby photos.

What does street photography mean to you?

Street photography is a mirror of the society that we live in. It is a way of documenting the human condition and the environment that we engage with. It is a pure form of photography. My own street photography always takes place in an urban setting. I feel inspired by cities and try to capture candid untouched moments on the streets.

In the streets/public spaces, what kind of situations catch your eye and make you stop and shoot?

I love to walk around an area and observe life around me. I take pictures of whatever inspires me, which could be random scenes happening in the street, interactions between people and the environment they live in. I look for interesting light and harsh shadows to give my images a dramatic feeling. Especially at night, I try to capture the light pollution that lingers in the cities, in the attempt of creating photos that express a moody atmosphere.

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 silhouettes ? What distance to your subject?

My goal is to capture raw unchanged moments. I will try to remain as unnoticed as possible. If people catch me taking pictures of them I will smile at them. This made me get out alive of all situations so far. For me it is extremely important to respect the people I take pictures of.

Are you more like improvising in the flow of the city, or do you put yourself specific goals or missions?

Everything I do is pretty much improvised. Since photography is my hobby I don’t have any deadlines or specific missions. I will just go with the flow and enjoy myself out there.

What is your favorite camera/lens for shooting in the streets?

I personally use a Fujifilm camera with a 28mm prime lens. For me it is crucial to use a small set up for street photography. It does not matter much what camera you use, even a modern smartphone will do the trick.

What is your feeling concerning street photography in Luxembourg (Lux City or other places in Grand-Duchy)? Do you have kind of favorite spots?

Street photography has become quite popular in our small country, mostly thanks to the formation of the Street Photography Luxembourg collective and their well-organized events around the subject.

Being extremely diverse and multicultural, Luxembourg can be an interesting place for street photography. My favorite spot used to be the area around the Centre Hamilius (RIP). Other interesting spots are the area around the “Gare” as well as Bonnevoie.

Personally, though, I feel that the small size of the city as well as the number of people I know when walking around the city often hold me back from taking street photos.

Do you think a photographer is entitled to photograph anything in the streets?  What do you think should be his/her limits?

As I mentioned before it is important to respect the subjects on the street. If I notice that someone doesn’t want to be photographed I will not take a picture of that person. I’m not a fan of Bruce Gilden’s modus operandi, which basically involves him jumping in front of people and blinding them with his handheld flash. That’s bullshit, show some respect.

Your Asia experience : What cities have interested you most? And why?

Tokyo and Hong Kong are the places that fascinated me the most. The amount of aural and visual stimuli both places offer is just insane.

I love Tokyo for its diversity, each area has its own identity. Some parts are overwhelmingly crowded; others are just quiet and local. To me Tokyo has something dark and mysterious about it. No matter how much time you spent there, you can never understand this place. The city gives me a weird surreal sensation.

Hong Kong on the other hand is much more straightforward. It’s really crowded, noisy and full of life. The amount of dodgy back alleys and glimmering neon signs give it a movie like atmosphere. It is a blend between East and West. The contrast between its two sides reaches its peak when comparing the more Chinese Kowloon side to the westernized island side. Hong Kong is very energizing. Every time I leave Hong Kong I feel like I am missing out on life.

Tell us about this journey and the way you took photos over there?

My trip lasted seven weeks. After a week in Hong Kong, I went to Shanghai and then stayed a whole month in Japan. There, I visited a lot of different cities, such as Tokyo and Osaka, as well as some smaller places like Takamatsu and Kochi. After that I explored Taipei and went back to Hong Kong before heading back to Luxembourg. While exploring the different places I always had my camera with me and just took randomly pictures of whatever caught the attention of my eye. It was all about getting lost and enjoying the vibe of the places.

What distance and relation did you adopt towards the people you photographed?

As I mentioned before I do not ask for permission when shooting on the streets. There is not much interaction between the subjects and me. Often people don’t even notice that I am taking a picture of them. If they do I will smile or greet them friendly. I’m a rather quiet person so this way of shooting reflects my personality.

Why did you shoot in black-and-white?

There is no rational way of deciding whether I edit my pictures in black-and-white or colour. It all depends on my mood as well as on the atmosphere that I want to transmit trough my images. Both have advantages as well as disadvantages.

What countries/cities are you interested to discover and photograph in future?

In the future, I plan to visit the eastern part of Europe, as I haven’t been there so far. Furthermore, I fancy a trip to Seoul as well as exploring some Chinese megacities.

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