[Please note that since isn't a straight interview, Bukutgirl paraphrases Brett's answers and relates some highlights, so everything is written in Bukutgirl's voice. Brett doesn't actually talk about himself in the third person. -- Ed.]
I chose Brett Walker to be the artist that I wanted to feature on Spotlight Seven as a guest curator. I e-mailed questions to Brett but he asked if he could just talk to me on the phone – so he called me in Baltimore at a little bit past midnight from his home in London. We talked for about an hour and a half. These are some of the highlights of that conversation:
1) Brett, although I’ve been admiring your work for years – I know next to nothing about the person behind the camera besides the fact that you live in London – What can you tell me about your life and history that brought you to the photographer that you are now?
Brett Walker was born some years ago in England to a nurse who in his own words, “hated sick people”. Some of his earliest memories are of nurses crowding around his mother’s kitchen on their night off – feet feet and more feet – he ascribes his occasional need to take shots of women’s feet as a result of this experience. At seventeen he began working as a photographers assistant – and from there he moved on to breaking into professional work at twenty-one. Brett was shooting in Japan for a diamond company when, as fate and a little fib would have it, he was suddenly thrust in making commercials and eventually went on to be a successful jet-setting fashion photographer. Somewhere between the incessant flights to Milan and Paris, professional fashion photography began to eat away at Brett. He found himself killing his frustration with the industry more and more with a “little bit of this and that” to the point that he was spending more time killing the frustration that came with the work than doing it. He hung up his camera at that point for about 15 years and wandered off to become part of the Greek Merchant Marine, the highlights of that job included, “working with a bunch of guys that looked like the Supermario brothers” and “learning to count to 50 in Greek”. He came to live out of Brazil , sailing the Belgium-Brazil route for 5 years. From there he moved on to work out of war torn Angola with HIV/ AIDS effected street kids. Although he loved the work he soon became disgusted with the hypocrisy effecting the NGO world and decided to move on. Now life finds Mr. Walker living in London, in a state flat, 500 yards from his job, within 200 yards of a state mental hospital. Certainly the breadth of his travel experiences have impacted his photography, but in addition to that Brett stated that he’s been down his share of dark roads and that those experiences have deeply impacted his sense of self, others, and the world around him. These experiences play out in the lens that he turns on his surroundings, and are echoed in the images that he brings to life.
2) Your work is charged with life and grit – it also has a sense of urgency to it – how much of that is a result of your surroundings vs. your internal world?
Brett spoke at length about how photography is for him a need, as vital as eating or drinking, when he feels as though he hasn’t taken a good shot in a week there’s a sense of “the vultures circling”. “Nothing does it for me the way that photography does, not sex, not drugs, not alcohol”, from speaking with him I could hear pieces of my own story, the intense need to expel some of the internal chaos by catching it on the faces and forms outside of himself, pinning down it’s image and freezing it for all time. He says he’s lucky because his surroundings and the people from the mental institution that frequent his streets and cafes make it easier to catch these things he can’t name, out in the open, but I think, that no matter where he was living in the world he would still go out hunting every day, and go to the lengths it took to bring home the images that would ease the tension, if just for a moment.
3) What is your process when you got out to shoot? Do you go out with a purpose or do you just shoot and let the shots call out to you when you’re editing?
Brett has a formal job, but it allows him a lot of time out in the streets to shoot, he says he shoots on average 400 frames a day, and counts himself lucky if he likes one. He shoots with a wide angle lens and likes to basically shoot street candids, catching the honest moments of a person’s day when they are simply existing. He doesn’t go out with a goal for a certain scene, just goes out to see what the streets will bring him. He said that sometimes he’ll see someone and they fit a memory or an idea, and he’ll try to shoot them to that end, like seeing a man in a market who fits his vision of what his father might have looked like. He shoots often from the hip, afraid to look down to see if he’s “killed it or simply wounded it” – referring to the shot that is, and when a great shot shows up everything else is out of the window for the day, nothing else will do but to go home and edit. In describing the editing process, and image selection he said that he’ll start playing with something in photoshop, not even sure what will come out of it and the image guides his work from there, often dumping him at the end with a shocked feeling that he hadn’t even really realized that that was what needed to come out or that that moment was inside.
4) Of the works that I choose would you mind telling us the story behind your favorite?
Brett didn’t have a favorite per-say of the works that I chose but he had a great personal attachment to this one: [We'll add the photo soon -ed.]
This shot was taken on the very first day he met his son, who was 13 at the time. Brett met his son and went for a walk with him through the streets of his neighborhood. A woman approached him who he had been desperately wanting to photograph for sometime. She was former go-go dancer named Princess, who was certain that Steven Speilberg was about to make a movie about her. She approached Brett and his son and asked Brett if he was a photographer and invited them up to her flat, which was “a sorry little flat, hardly any furniture, covered in old photos of herself, that smelt like there was a dead cat somewhere that she just couldn’t find”. His son sat on the couch and Brett started taking pictures and talking to Princess, half way through she decided to change into something more comfortable and began to get entirely undressed, at which point Brett looked over at his son sitting calmly on the couch and thought to himself, “fuck, today was supposed to be a Hallmark father-son day and now look” he was really worried that his son would reject him over the experience and that his mother would never allow him to see the child again. As it turned out the shots came out great and when his son returned to school on Monday it was his favorite story to tell, “sealing the deal so to speak”.
5) What about portrait work, set up shoots – do you do them? What is your process there?
I asked him this question because there is a woman who regularly shows up in his work and I was curious about how that worked. He stated that she was a neighbor of his who sometimes had trouble meeting her bills, so he asks her if she needs money and she comes up and lets him shoot. He said it’s funny because she doesn’t care about the shots at all, she’s never even seen the work that has come out of those sessions. He figures if he can help someone while they help him then paying for folks to sit for him is perfectly fine. He also talked about other set up portrait work and how people who come to sit for portraits already have an idea of what they want to show, and he needs to disarm them and get them off guard in order to get the shots he wants. He said he spends several minuets at the beginning of a session being quite mean and then starts shooting and building them back up.
6) Is there a shot on flickr that you wish you’d taken? Why?
Brett stated that there was a lot of work on flickr he liked but the shots he really wished he’d taken he found on Square America (which can be found at: www.squareamerica.com/) and Look at Me (which can be found at: www.moderna.org/lookatme/) two websites dedicated to “found photography”– he loves the old shots that he has no idea who took them or what was happening or who was being shot – that they blow him away all the time. This was really interesting from the stand point that Brett reminded me that he never names his shots or gives a description, instead he wants to leave them open for whatever anyone wants to find in them. I find it fascinating looking at his work because I have no idea when or where his shots were taken, it’s like stepping off in to an alternate universe, I never knew why this was until Brett told me that he refuses to photograph anyone with a sign of modernity on them, like an ipod or an Adias sweatshirt, he also joked that this really limited the pool of people to shoot from, as most men these days look like they were dressed by their mother’s and so what he’s left with are the “young wild ones and the very old, the ones who fall through the cracks”.
7)Which of the shots that I chose was the hardest to catch, why?
Brett stated that it was the man in the middle of screaming. He’s a patient at the hospital and he’s very aggressive and violent, people fear him because he spits and they are afraid of Hep C and all of that. Brett was walking down the street with three friends and this man latched on the sight of one of his friends and decided that he was someone from his past who had done him terribly wrong and started screaming at him and spitting, Brett started shooting from about waist level and caught this, a shot that I consider to be truly remarkable.
8) What are your goals in terms of photography? Publishing? Shows? Professional –or is it more of a hobby for you?
Brett is going to keep taking shots as long as he still gets joy out of it – he never wants to be a professional again and isn’t even sure if he’s a photographer, as he thinks of the word as denoting a job, like a plumber, he says that he’s not a photographer - he takes pictures. He is very excited about the web and digital photography and the number of people that have access now. He has students of his own in London, allows them to use his lenses and his computers and occasionally looks over their shoulder telling them to do or not to do something, “like telling a kid not to color outside the lines” to which I told him I thought that was funny for a man whose work is pretty much full of images that color outside the lines. His goal right now is to make images that he will still want to look at ten to twenty years from now. Right now he feels as though he’s moving to the left and right, copying himself, he feels a new push coming though he’s not sure when it’s going to take hold and is vaguely frustrated at the moment.
9) Your shots are full of unfinished stories and personal moments – one of my favorite qualities of your work – what can you tell me about that –
Brett responded that he sees a lot of people who’ve essentially “lost the plot”. That when he’s out shooting he doesn’t want to “see someone begging, because on some levels we’re all begging” instead he wants to find the “pieces that are still right” to make sure that the people that he photographs still have their dignity. When he shoots older women in particular he looks to find a spark, a twinkle, a moment that hints at what they looked like when they were young.
10) You do so much street shooting, how do you approach people, or do you? What is your process there?
Brett stated that street shooting gives him the opportunity to over come some fear barriers – a chance to exercise some of his demons – that somewhere inside of us all, we know when it’s okay to take a shot and when it’s not, and that the times he gets “caught” are the times that he is desperate to get a shot, and stops following his own rules. Then the subject gets mad and all he can do is apologize, “and go sit in a café and say, fuck”.
My hour and a half conversation with Brett Walker left me even more fascinated with the person behind the shots as well as the shots themselves. I hope that you will enjoy his work as much as I have and please visit his stream at: flickr.com/photos/brettwalker/ in order to get an even more in depth sense of his work.