Adrien Brunel | Paris, France | Olympus PEN-F
Adrien Brunel is a quickdraw with his camera. He roams the streets of Paris, seeking out the small scenes that compose urban life and shoots them before they vanish into the past. Each human subject of his is a microcosm of his larger subject, namely, the relationship between humans and the cities they inhabit.
CONVICTS caught up with Adrien in Paris. The Paris based photographer was kind enough to give us his word on the poetry of the lens, the potential of black and white, and the necessary distance that digital photography provides.
Was photography always something you wanted to do, how did you fall into it as a profession?
I started to shoot when I was like between 18 and 20 with my father’s camera, an analog Minolta 35 millimeter classic. I was starting to study design and graphic design and worked in advertisement for maybe 7 or 8 years. I started to feel like there was nothing creative or really meaningful in what I was doing and then I fell back in to photography.
I was looking for something to occupy my way to work, my lunch break, and then my way back home. This was probably like late 2010. Instagram was just born so I downloaded the app and tried to play with the squares. Then it became an everyday routine. It was kind of essential. When Facebook bought Instagram, the monetization of the posts started to be more present. I started to have offers and collaborations so I just kept on what I was doing and I started to say yes on things that cohered with what I wanted to do. I stopped working at my ad company, but was still doing freelance so I had the marketing aspect down. If I wanted to do advertising on a social network, I would still be in advertisement. This was the fun part and the personal part in whatever creative process I was involved with, so I kept it as honest as it could be. Instagram is just what gives me the most impression of creating and the ability to be fully connected with reality and people and the social aspects of society. This is something I think about a lot. It’s a permanent connection. I don’t watch the news a lot, but this is my mirror to society.
What is it that you are looking for when you’re going out to shoot?
Well, first surprise, nothing in particular. Like I said before, I have some routes so I know I’m going to go through different kinds of neighborhoods. The rest is up to, I don’t know what, the chaos around me, the random situations. My only thing is to be quick enough. If it’s there, I just have to be quick enough and capture it.
Has street photography always been your main interest?
Yeah. When I went back to photography, my first photos were basic graphic composition, but people came into the frame more and more. Eventually, I realized I was trying to photograph the human, the city and the relationship between the two. How they’re connected. I always consider the city as a second character in the image. There’s the passerby, the people, but there’s the city behind. It’s always there. It’s shaping us, it’s shaping everything around us. It’s important. It’s one of the main characters in my work.
Your recent work is really interesting in the way that it’s quite intimate, but there is still a sense of place behind it. Can you talk a little about what Paris means to you?
Well, this is where I grew up so it’s full of memories. I saw the world changing through the changes of my city. The fact that it’s an old city and has a history of being fed by people coming from all over the world and all over France. This is part of its identity now. There are different faces, different ways to live and different philosophies, which is related to what we were saying before. All cities transform themselves. So photography and Paris, this is how it’s related because it’s always observing the people, how it’s changing, how it’s evolving.
How do you feel shooting photos in other cities differs to Paris?
It’s weird. It’s like when you meet someone. Some people are easy, some people are not, and some people shake you, unnerve you, or open the door and say welcome. This is what is cool about travel. I’m really used to Paris. You have some things that are familiar, some things that are not. It’s like trying to meet with someone and being acquainted, having an interesting conversation or not. London, I can’t shoot it, I don’t know why. Berlin was cool. Istanbul was great, but London’s tough.
Do you feel like having a close relationship to a city is essential to being able to capture it well in photos?
Loving a city doesn’t mean you will take good photographs of it. It’s like when someone travels to somewhere and see the sort of image they are waiting for. They see a postcard, ‘Oh, it looks like this, let’s go and try and find this there.’ Then it might be harder to shoot some stuff because you have to somehow clean your eyes of all the cliches. Maybe you are paying more attention to buildings right now or to people in cafes because this is the big image of Paris and how people live, but there’s other stuff that you discover by staying here, observing and maybe not shooting for awhile.
Who are some photographers that you look up to or are inspired by?
Of course, [Robert] Doisneau is really interesting. I discovered photography without any kind of references. It was weird, but it was also really interesting because I had nothing to copy or look up to. No influence means you have to discover things by yourself, but in the other sense you are more free because you don’t have the weight of your elders on you. You’re just like, ‘Okay I’d like to do that, I will do that.’ No pressure. So I discovered the classics later. So yeah, Doisneau of course, because the observing of humans and the dialogue also with the city. Willy Ronis too. Of course, I’m going to forget some. Henri Cartier-Bresson and Raymond Depardon also, I really love them.
Have you ever been tempted to shoot cliche Paris photos?
Oh, I do on a regular basis. It’s there and it’s nice. It’s just not what I’m interested to show, because people do it everyday all the time and everyone knows this side of Paris. Sometimes it’s a nice perspective, nice light, so why not?
Your photos are distinctly intimate. Can you talk about that a little bit?
There’s a weird thing: when you shoot someone, you see something that is happening or will happen. You sense it a little bit and then there’s a moment of strong observation of the body language, of how people move. The moment is fleeting: it’s going to happen, it will happen, it is happening, and then it’s gone. It’s a split second thing, this is a moment of real observation. It’s like there’s a really short relationship with a person, the movement, everything around you.
What are some skills you have learned from having to capture these moments so quickly?
Well I don’t have like a really technical profile so, I’m not thinking technique or stuff. I just want to use the camera properly to get what I want. The camera is just a tool. There’s nothing exciting about the object itself. It’s about having something that is convenient for your hands and quick enough to capture whatever you have to do.
Are you always with your camera or is it a different experience when you leave the camera?
No, no, it’s there. It’s there. Because it’s not about creating a moment, it’s about being there when it happens. When I’m not going shooting, when I’m having an appointment or something and maybe on the way I see something and then I just click. You never know when it’s going to happen so might as well be ready and have it. It’s like wearing rings or something. If you don’t have it, you sense something different. If I don’t have the camera there’s something different.
With social media being omnipresent these days and people focussing on capturing moments for gratification more so than for the beauty of the moment, do you feel like this influences the way you shoot?
Well, when it comes to social media… it’s a different process to think about personal pressure and ‘Oh I’m there, I’m going to make an image to show my followers.’ I’m in the moment when I’m taking a picture. I’m taking a picture because there is something striking that I want to share. I don’t feel any pressure to capture something. I just walk and stop when I have to take something, but I don’t choose a frame and then wait for it to be interesting. I just want to walk and feel what is around me. Actually it’s a kind of meditation, I think, because you’re just walking. Your senses are focused on the sounds, on the movements of the people, the cars, the architecture, the lights so I’m not thinking about anything. I’m distracted, but I’m really attentive at the same time. It’s a bit like day dreaming.
Have you ever felt like the photo that you captured isn’t an honest portrayal of the situation?
Always. And then it goes to the trash. Say I’m walking today and I come back empty handed, I’m not miserable, I don’t care. It’s just what is. Nothing happened today or I just wasn’t there at the right time so until next time, it’s alright. So when it’s bad and it’s dishonest, when it’s not what I thought would be in the frame, then I move on. Maybe the next photo will be interesting. That’s it.
What’s your process for getting over the fear of getting in people’s business when they might not want their photos being taken?
Well, I’m pretty shy so it’s always annoying when people see me. Also, I don’t want to be in the frame and I want to capture a situation genuinely with distance and not be part of the scene. Because I’m shy, it was really convenient to be outside and not seen but more and more, I’m getting over it. It’s actually helpful because when people don’t want their shot taken, what you show is that you were trying to be a bit sneaky and it’s perceived as though you’re not doing something right. If you’re just doing something right and you feel entitled to do it, it goes way better actually. So the way you position yourself, the way you talk to people, the way you’re smiling, the way you approach them afterwards is part of the fact as to whether they will say ‘Okay keep the picture’ or ‘Please delete it.’ So I have less and less of that now because I feel more comfy with what I do.
What is your reasoning for choosing to shoot so much in black and white as opposed to color?
Black and white is easier to deal with, whatever the subject of the photo is. You deal with contrast, lights and shadow, then it’s done. Colors add a lot more distraction in the image. You have more variables to deal with for the editing process. As a graphic designer, I tend to be more difficult and picky with colors than black and white. It’s just contrast, so it goes faster. I can spend 1 minute to 10 minutes editing a picture in black and white. In colors, I can spend 4 hours without having any kind of interest in the results.
When you are shooting photos, what do you see as being the most important aspect of a picture?
Well since I’m shooting street photography, my main subject is the people. Sometimes there’s social commentary, sometimes it’s just a funny situation or poetic or something that is making me upset. At least it’s easier when you’re shooting to focus on the situation itself, the human perspective on it. This is easier than thinking about the aesthetics of the photo. There is whatever light you had when you shot the picture, so you’ve either gotten the scene or you haven’t and that’s it.
Film or digital? Do you feel you are capturing something different?
Between analog and digital, I guess [with analog] you care more about each picture, because it’s just going to be a 36 roll and then you need to save the rolls and not shoot whatever you see. But the thing that has been the most interesting for me between digital and analog is the fact that you can’t look at your picture after you shot it. You have to wait and I think this is really important. Then at least that is a part of you detached from your work of the day. You come back to it with a better eye, not the eye of the moment that is full of the excitement. When you’re looking at your memory card after each shot, it’s not good and then you’re missing the connection with what’s around you.
Do you feel like photography’s kind of opened your eyes to the world a little bit?
That’s interesting. In a way, yes. It was important for me to stay connected with whatever happened around me. Photography made that essential. Otherwise, I would have moments where I would watch the news, keep updated, and then put that aside and think about my own stuff. Photography keeps me connected. Or, photography made that connection permanent, let’s say. Staying connected was something important before, but photography made that more permanent and more regular.