Interview with Peter Bialobrzeski Mapping a City

Chitpur Road Neighborhoods project
Chitpur Road Neighborhoods project | Photo: © Kolkata Heritage Photo Project

Chitpur Road Neighborhoods is a unique Kolkata Heritage Photo Project. In 2006 21 photographers, then students of the University of Bremen, captured the fading magnificence of the cultural heritage of a unique street. This project was realised under the guidance of Prof. Peter Bialobrzeski.

Chitpur Road is a Neighborhoods project, all the participants are individual photographers but this project itself is not individual based. It's a group project?
 
Yes, because starting with the point that there was not even a book on the Chitpur buildings, it was very clear to me that the project needed a certain kind of aesthetic concept, it made sense as a kind of documentary project. I told the group, it was not about their individuality, it was about the skills they learnt, to put those in something collective. I also made it a condition, because if everybody did, what they wanted, then you have some very diverse ideas; some people do portraits, some photograph in black and white, etc., so I just said we needed to get the lines straight because it was about the architecture and since it was a very lively place I didn't want it to be a cold architectural documentary, I wanted to, in a way sell it like a living space.
 
So you set the parameters?
 
Yes, we discussed it but because I am the most experienced one, I showed them some work, from the 19th century, and by other contemporary photographers, who had worked in similar projects and then the group, which later became the “Kolkata Heritage Photo Project” decided that it made sense to do it this way.
 
Moving on, as a photographer, who has influenced you the most? Why?
 
I think may be one of the first biggest influence was traditional photo journalist like W Eugene Smith, later Sebastião Salgado, the younger generation of Magnum photographers like Carl De Keyzer, Martin Parr etc., but at the same time because I studied in Essen, the American New Colour photographers and New Topographics were very high on the agenda and in a way I sort of placed myself in between all these influences, there is a certain kind of narrative element in my pictures, but there is also an element of the pictures that is very much based on 19th century photography.
In India, there is a lot desired in terms of appreciation of photography, there is still a lot to be learnt about photography, about photography as an art form. How important is formal education in photography?
 
I can ask the question, if you want to be a writer how important is it to study literature?
 
I think it is quite important.
 
Yes and that is the same with photography, since you are learning the same thing with a group of people but you are looking at it in very different ways. Photography today is not being a camera operator, its developing your own concepts, knowing about the history of photography, since a lot of photographers, especially young photographers are trying to re-invent the wheel, so you need to be aware and it’s much more fun to be in a group which is passionate about it. Also to have an idea and discuss it. It’s not about the formality, I don't care whether somebody has a BA or a MA that doesn't make any sense, the point is that your time spent at art school, at least if it's a good art school is something you can’t get anywhere else.
 
What is your process like? How do you decide on a project, what are you thinking when you zero in on an idea?

 
Most of the time, I do a lot of things in parallel. I have an idea and I see whether I can find a picture that matches the idea in my head. It also depends on the size of the project, how much time do I require?  How profound do I have to be? For example I have been photographing in Germany for the last three years and I am trying to do some kind of comprehensive portraits of the state of mind of the country through the social structures, through the social surface, so it's a lot of work and takes very long. The project is almost like a glimpse in time, a snapshot of the urban structure of a place I happen to be in and I have also started this in Mumbai, so by 2017 we will have 4 little books on different cities. And that's a different kind of work. I dont sit at my desk and say, ‘oh what am I going to do?’
What is your take on digital photography and this kind of mass distribution.
 
This is something that has been discussed in the 20s of the last century. It's a very old debate, it doesn't matter.
 
Agreed it is an old debate, but can you please comment.

 
You see the technique for example that is being used in the show, the photographs have been produced in 2006. It’s not that long ago, but all these materials we worked with don't exist anymore. So in a way, even if we could have reproduced it in unlimited quantities, we didn't, we made three sets, or 2.5 sets, I think there are 2 equally good sets, and then there is a set where the prints are not that good, so these will be the originals. Full stop. Or what they call vintage prints. Everything is always in the technology and it is changing very fast, so now if I make a print from my digital camera, I print it on Bagetta paper, with a certain kind of printer with a certain kind of ink, in 2 years’ time these materials would have changed, so in a way when I sign this print and I hand it to a gallery, it is also a kind of unique piece, unless I print it a 100 times, but nobody does it because it is too expensive. So in a way the question was the same 30 years ago but people just didn't think about it.
                                           
I understand that this question started since digital photography started.
 
No it started since photography started, it was technically, philosophically infinite in its edition.
 
Yes but now with what I have on my computer is also an original.

 
No, what you have on your computer is a simulation of your photographs made of zeros and ones. And it becomes a print if you use your brain, if you use a certain type of technology, if you use a certain mindset and then you make it and that's a print, and that becomes an original.

What are the basics that you would tell today’s young photographers to keep in mind, with reference to approach to subjects.
 
These kind of advices are always kind of stupid, I always hated it when I was at panel discussions and then you had experienced photographers saying oh I tell all these young people… I would just say open your eyes and think. That's the only important thing to do. And everything else, you need other proficiency as well, you need to have discipline, you have to have a certain kind of, you have to define your own parameters.
 
Also for your exhibition?

 
It's the same thing with the exhibition here. You have to put things into relation with each other, you have to see what’s the thing, how does it work, what is your attitude towards the exhibition, to read it, how to make the images sit in relation to one another, how do you place a group so if you set these parameters, like in engineering if you build a bridge, you have gravity, you have materials, you have static, you have architecture, so all these elements come into play and then you have the width of the river you have to calculate and then you build the bridge, that's the same way how you work with a photographic project.
But a lot of people forget this, because they think it’s just enough to be creative and hold a camera up into the air hope that it communicates what you feel. But you have to understand what you can achieve, in a way photographers are liars, they are manipulative, they are trying to lure you into something like writing a novel.
The photography I do is more to do with writing a novel than some kind of product photography. I think photography is an open art form, so that means if you make propaganda whether it is for BMW or Greenpeace I find it boring, because when I am forced to know what to think when I look at the picture I get really angry.
It's a process, do I find this beautiful what I see, is it a beautiful situation, so this is what art is about, it is about raising questions that make people think.

About Peter Bialobrzeski:
Peter Bialobrzeski studied Politics and Sociology before he became a photographer. He travelled extensively 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, in the last eight years he has published ten books. His work has been exhibited worldwide and he has won several awards including the prestigious World Press Photo Award 2003 and 2010. In 2012, he received the Erich Salomon Award by the German Society of Photographers (DGPh). Since 2002 Peter is a regular Professor of photography at the University of the Arts in Bremen, Germany.