Interview by Niccolò Fano for CALAMITA/À
Peter Bialobrzeski studied Politics and Sociology before he became a photographer for a local paper in his native Wolfsburg (Germany). He travelled extensivly in Asia before he went back to study photography at the Folkwangschule in Essen and the LCP in London. After having worked as a photographer for almost 15 years and published world wide, Peter started to focus more on Personal Projects. In the last eight years he has published eight books. His work has been exhibited in Europe, USA, Asia, Afrika and Australia. He won several awards including the prestigious World Press Photo Award 2003 and 2010. Since 2002 Peter is a regular Professor for photography at the University of the Arts in Bremen/Germany. Furthermore he runs workshops around the world. He is represented by Laurence Miller Gallery in New York, LA Galerie in Frankfurt/Germany and also shows with Robert Morat Gallery in his hometown Hamburg, as well as at m97 Gallery in Shanghai. In 2012 he was honored with the Erich Salomon Award by the German Society of Photographers (DGPh).
CALAMITA/À: Politics and Sociology are two subjects you studied before becoming a photographer; what prompted this transition and how do the two courses of study inform your current practice?
Peter Bialobrzeski: I was far more interested in the practical experience of society rather than just writing clever essays about abstract problems such as China opening up to the West, something which of course sparked the interest to personally go to there. I first went there as a backpacker in 1987, it was fascinatingly strange place, The People’s Republic had been issuing individual traveller visas for 2 years, therefore when I returned to photograph Neontigers and later Nailhouses the rapid change came as a natural subject to document.
A/À: You seem to have a photographic predilection for the night. Can you expand on this affinity?
PB: When I started shooting at night very few people did. It was a clear abstraction of what you would see without a camera, I therefore tried exploring these boundaries by always relating to the subject matter in front of me. Now everybody does it on Instagram, in my latest projects I do it very rarely.
A/À: You mentioned Instagram in relation to a change in direction. What is your view of the photographic medium and its future in the era of smartphones and hypermedia?
PB: That is a complicated one. Traditional, conceptual documentary photography – where data is used to create a series of images that solely reflects the visual information, leaving the interpretation to the audience and its cultural background – will eventually become as exotic as writing poetry. Of course people will publish books, but in very, very small numbers. Images shared via Whatsapp, Instagram, and other social media applications will be more and more a vehicle for anecdotal communication. All this is not meant to make a point, or be coherent, it is the visual equivalent of: oh that’s cool!. The real big change will take place when the camera will gather and analyze what’s in front of it. The information stored can be used as a visual tool, but also as anything else, similar to what military drones are doing today: they gather information that will be fed into the image digest and used as empirical data that will influence the outcome through an algorithm. For example: The image taken shows the exact average of, say the German population in relation to the people depicted. The image as tool for surveillance, sociology but also for artists, opening up a whole new playing field…
A/À: Disaster whether economic, cultural or ecological seems to be a driving factor veiled by a beautifully crafted aesthetic and enhanced by a careful study and dexterity with light. Tell us about the fine line between beauty and disaster within your images.
PB: Disaster is a very strong term, I use a visual strategy that sometimes appears to be seductive; a quality possibly intrinsic with European pictorial tradition. At the end of the day the most important aspect of all this is communication. Will the viewer grasp what I had in mind? The aesthetics are the transponder, every image we see we put in context. So if you take for example my series Informal Arrangements, it employs the repetition of the same strategy by the inhabitants in question to decorate their homes. In the west we read it as abstract. What really matters in the subject chosen is recognition, if you want to read it in an artistic context; it is, what the author wants it to be, in my case, always charged with a strong reference to reality.
A/À: The meticulous repetition of the subject matter is a trait that demands us to focus on the details, the similarity and incongruences. What is your approach towards the photographic series in opposition to editorial assignments where a great deal of attention is given to the impact of the single image?
PB: What I do is always in series, yet I am trying to vary the structure of the image and edit the series accordingly. I can’t really speak too much of editorial assignments anymore as my focus is elsewhere. I am interested in how photographers see themselves as authors, how they express intelligence through images. That does not mean there is a lack of intelligent commissioned work, there is plenty; most of the time you recognize it when you see it.
A/À: You have a close relationship with your students, often working with them on elaborate projects and publications, the book Calcutta is a perfect example, alongside a website that features all the students and their work. Tell us about these collaborations and your role as a teacher.
PB: The Calcutta project has been a real one off, a series of fortunate coincidences that can’t be easily repeated, as we normally don’t have the funds. At the moment we have a Masters Program (Culture and Identity) that uses photography and graphic design to communicate ideas. We have a series of group and individual projects that mostly end up in small publications. The ideas are the result of a collective effort; sometimes the spark comes from the students, sometimes from my colleague Prof. Andrea Rauschenbusch and myself. You can find various examples here cultureandidentity.hfk-bremen.de
Our role as teachers is to moderate the debates (Plenum) during weekly meetings with the students where we provide professional expertise and ask a lot of questions.
A/À: Your series Paradise Now features an aesthetic dialogue between nature and man-made structures. The concept of paradise is founded on a utopic concept, a pleasant and idyllic arrival point. Tell us about this body of work.
PB: I have chosen the title in relation to Thomas Struth’s body of work New pictures from Paradise. The christian ideal of paradise is something untouched, ‘’Paradise Now“ is artificial illumination, not quite Paradise lost, certainly a very big question mark!
A/À: What are you currently working on?
PB: A few things: For the last 4 years I have been working on a project about Germany. I’ll finish next year and will start to work on the book and the exhibition that is planned for 2017. Furthermore I started a small series of books, City Diaries, published by ‘The Velvet Cell’. We released Cairo Diary last year; in October Athens Diary will reach the bookshelves followed by Taipei Diary in spring 2016. Later on there will be Beirut Diary, as well as Mumbai Diary. More info here: www.thevelvetcell.com