Returning to photography after a hiatus, news cameraman Hans Weston has compiled an exhibition, Unscene, to showcase a slice of the street photography he has been producing over the last few years. He talks with D-Photo‘s Point-Shoot blog about reigniting his love of the still image, his influences and his approach to pounding the pavement.
D-Photo: Hi Hans, can you tell us a little about your background and photographic experience?
Hans Weston: I’ve always been attracted to still photography and cameras, I did a couple of night classes once but never considered any formal training or study. I just saw it as a fun hobby. Dad always had a couple of Nikons lying around, and in my teens I bought my own. Getting heavily into the gear – the lenses, the films and the filters – I shot landscapes, old farm sheds, random objects, the cat, family and friends. I loved it.
I started working in photo labs for many years selling cameras and printing a wide range of customers’ work, from professional to amateur. I saw the world through other people’s eyes every day. You’d see how people take the same pictures of all the same places, so when someone did something different or unusual it really stood out. With the professional work, it was a real privilege to be able to see raw rolls of film and contact sheets. I liked seeing the mistakes and how people shoot. I used to travel around all my relatives and friends with an old slide projector and carousel forcing them to see all my own holiday snaps. I once managed a small landscape show at a local cafe.
At some point I changed tack and bought a video camera, made a documentary and studied television production in Dunedin. I landed a job immediately as the camera operator for Dunedin’s local news station. My photography lay relatively dormant while I was distracted with life and my TV career. Then my marriage broke up and inspired me to finally upgrade to a digital SLR. I soon found myself immersed in the world of photography again, but this time I discovered photo books and studying the likes of Elliott Erwitt, Henri Cartier-Bresson, William Eggleston and Ernst Haas. Now I can’t get enough.
What is the Unscene exhibition all about?
For me, it’s about peeling back a few layers and showing the world at more subconscious level. We can become so familiar with our environment that we become blind to it. There are interesting moments happening all the time and 99 per cent go undocumented. There is a theme linking this set, but that’s just for me – If someone else sees it, great! I’m interested in hearing what people say about my work, without my verbal influence. Can photographs be appreciated in a neutral way without any given context?
Also, any interpretation can be into read a standalone image, but placed in between two more it may can change the understanding, much like watching a good movie again after you know the ending. Once the photos are printed and observed, they will take on more meanings than I can think of anyhow.
What’s the appeal of the street photography for you?
The freedom. There are no boundaries, except those I create myself. I never know who I’ll meet, what I’ll discover, in which suburb or cafe I’ll end up in. It’s a total joy and can be quite meditative. You realize how fast everyone moves when you slow down. I love being around people in busy streets, but equally I enjoy the solitude of small towns or an empty industrial area.
I get excited about the possibility of a great photo hiding around the next corner. I love not knowing what I’ll end up with, and hopefully something that is different than what I’ve done before. There can be the assumption street photos always have people in them, but I’m quite selective with photographing people, and about two thirds of my work is people-less (although there’s almost always a human influence in the frame).
Do you think your experience as a news camera operator has informed your photographic style in some way?
Stylistically, not a great deal. I try to be very reactive with my photography, I see something and take a photo immediately. I attempt to capture what I see in that moment – as I first saw it, rather than altering it with my lens. With shooting television, I spend more time using low or high angles, wide/telephoto lenses and changing depth of field to communicate the story effectively.
Having said that, shooting news has been an enormous influence in learning to be patient, staying alert and reacting quickly. As a camera operator I interact with people a lot and that has helped immensely with feeling comfortable. It’s also important for me to pay attention if elements in the frame are changing, rather than taking one shot and moving on.
I’ll try to avoid looking down at my LCD screen to review my photos. I’ve learnt to trust myself, keep shooting, moving, and reframing the composition. St Bathans (below) is a good example of being ready. I heard the sound of child’s feet running, so readied my camera and pressed the shutter when I felt the moment was right – not overthinking it. One chance, if it doesn’t work, no big deal.
When you’re out shooting do you have an idea of where you’re going and the kind of shots you’re after, or do you drift?
I like to leave the house with inspiration but no expectation. If all I get is some fresh air then fine. I want to present things how they actually are, as if the camera wasn’t there. But I prefer to let the photos find me rather than force them. The more I take, the clearer idea I have about what I don’t want to take. I get very inspired looking at others’ work and use that as a motivational springboard to get on the streets. On planned photo outings, I’ll pick a couple of towns, suburbs or areas I want to go and just start wandering. The more I wander, the more I get in the zone and the more I discover. Keeping open to opportunities is key for me, four of the fifteen images in Unscene came from just having my camera with me.
Do you interact with the people you shoot, either before or afterwards?
I have a photo of an elderly gentleman wearing a bright blue jacket, blowing out cigarette smoke and looking right into my lens. To top it off I managed to capture a bit of his ash falling through the shot. It’s up close and confrontational. I caught him in that split second before he realized I was taking a photo. Afterward, we had a short humorous exchange.
I sometimes chat to people after I’ve photographed them, even if it’s just a quick smile and hello. But most of the time people have no idea. Asking permission defeats my purpose because once someone is fully conscious of me, it ruins the magic moment. I’m not interested in street portraiture, it’s not my thing. My photos aren’t necessarily about the people in them, they just happen to be in my photos. If public photography laws change then I’ll change with it, but everyone has a camera now, and people are possibly captured in public now more than ever, especially with all the CCTV cameras around.
What sort of things attract your attention as good possible subjects?
Whether animate or inanimate, it’s all fair game to me. Anything that appears strange or unusual or perhaps just plain ordinary but with a twist. I like things that don’t make immediate sense; elements in a scene that are placed together that weren’t intended to be so. I figure if I’m looking twice and asking questions, then maybe the viewer will too. I usually take the photo and move on, and analyse it another day. I often pick out photos months later that I initially thought were duds. I never hit delete. I like to let my photos simmer in hard drives for a while.
What gear do you use?
A Nikon D5100 with a 35mm lens. Occasionally I’ll throw on my 18-55mm and 55-210mm kit lenses.
Have you ever had any problems with people not wanting their picture taken?
I’ve never had anyone get angry or upset. I try to pick my moments and go on instinct a little. Although, I’ve had many people question me about why I’m taking photos in a particular place. I call it ‘big black camera fever’, because smaller cameras or phones aren’t taken quite so seriously. I’d love to get my hands on a Leica rangefinder one day, so I can be less obvious. I’ve been questioned by security guards in Melbourne for breathing outside Flinders Street station.
More recently, I was reprimanded by a gentleman in Shannon for photographing old cars behind a fence. I managed to calm him down, and actually ended up taking photos of him with his pet goat outside an old bus he was living in. We shook hands and I got a lovely pic out of it. I plan to go back and present him with the picture.
What do you hope people take away from the Unscene exhibition?
An opinion, more than anything. I would like to lift someone out of their current moment and into the one when the photo was taken. If someone walks out of the gallery seeing things a little differently, even for a few minutes, that would be awesome. The world around us is fascinating and changing all the time. Other than that, a print or two.
What’s up next for you?
My next project will be a photo book of around 50 to 80 images. I’m looking for a publisher and will probably have to look at overseas options as our market is so niche. I already have a folder with about 500 images to edit down. Editing is a very enjoyable part of the whole experience. I love seeing what photos work together and forming a narrative. The exhibit came out of an original sequence of 60, and that tells a slightly different story.
If you could travel to any city in the world for a street photography project where would it be and why?
Anywhere, put me anywhere. I like surprises and the challenge of working with what I’ve been given. But if I could go to any city right now, it would be Berlin or New York. Berlin for its amazing history and culture and New York to walk in the footsteps of greats like Joel Meyerowitz and Garry Winogrand.
All images: © Hans Weston, 2012-14