Philip Schulte: A talented young German photographer documents day-to-day life in Hong Kong with a Leica M6
Philip Schulte, a 25-year-old native of Berlin, Germany studied photography at the “Lette-Verein” and plans to leave his native country “for at least 1 year” this coming March, possibly bound for Canada. As a teenager he had wanted to pursue conceptual art and 3D animation and bought a small digital camera in 2003 to capture “textures to work with” but found that he enjoyed taking pictures a lot more than capturing visual elements and then building them into a program. So he kept shooting, and ever since he never really considered getting into another profession or training for some other career. Today he’s a passionate Leica M photographer who shoots a mix of documentary, street and personal images, but he’s still in the process of developing his own style. Here, in his straightforward and insightful words, is the story of his journey of creative self-expression.
Q: What camera and equipment do you use?
A: It actually depends on the project or job at hand. If I need files fast I stick to my DSLR but my everyday combo is a Leica M6 coupled with a 35mm Summicron Type 2 from 1969.
Q: Since you just graduated, do you plan to become a professional photographer?
A: Well, yes, I just graduated and to be honest, right now it’s pretty tough, but I did know this beforehand. So yeah, I want to make a living by being a photographer—I don’t really like the word “pro”. It’s not the easiest career choice, but there’s always a way!
Q: When did you first become interested in photography as a mode of expression, an art form, or as a profession? Was there a photographer or type of photography that influenced your work or inspired you?
A: I started out back in 2003 when places like deviantart.com became popular, so I was mainly influenced by other members’ work at this point. At that time and now I was impressed by the work of fellow Leica shooters and friends including Severin Koller from Vienna and Chris Weeks from Los Angeles, just to name two. Of course there are more people who had an impact on me—the work of Trent Parke when comes to street and documentary stuff and the work of young photojournalist like Dominic Nahr influenced me more recently. Back in 2006 Chris Weeks published Street Photography for the Purist and this might mark the point when I really got interested in street photography and photojournalism.
Q: How did you first become interested in Leica?
A: “Leica” was probably the most often used word in Chris’ publication—just kidding. Actually he just pointed out the advantages of shooting with reliable, well built and virtually silent rangefinder camera while being on the streets or doing certain jobs. After my first hands-on contact with a Leica in 2007 I instantly fell in love with it, although it took two more years to actually own one.
Q: Did you have any formal education in photography, with a mentor, or are you self-taught?
A: From 2007-2010 I studied photography at the “Lette-Verein” in Berlin, which was pretty technically focused during the first 1 1/2 years. You either love it or hate it, but for me it’s been a great experience to do black-and-white analog photography (35mm to 4×5 large format) only for the whole first year and learn the craftsmanship first. I’ve seen way too many good young artists who use photography as their medium, but lack a certain amount of technical knowledge, that maybe could make their “art” even better.
Q: How would you describe your photography at present?
A: Good question—it’s a mix of documentary, street and personal photography but it differs from project to project. It’s an ongoing process to develop a personal style so it might change in the future, but I would love to travel more and do photojournalistic work.
Q: What approach do you take with your photography or what does photography mean to you?
A: For me its way to capture important and personal moments I want to keep with me as life around goes on and on. Video and the Internet made everything so fast it can be hard to follow what’s going on and the sheer amount of information that hits us every day has made most people unable to see the beauty of everyday, unspectacular things. A single image on film or a sensor can make a difference.
Q: The titles of the photos you sent have the phrase ‘lost in translation’ in them. Is there something particular you were hoping to achieve with these images or a theme that’s important to you? How did you pick Hong Kong for the project? In short, please tell us more about them!
A: Well the title was stolen from the movie “Lost in Translation” with Bill Murray. I always struggle to give titles to pictures or projects but this one seemed to fit perfectly. Why did I choose Hong Kong? Although I’ve been asked this question a few times so far it’s still hard to explain. I was always fascinated by those huge Asian cities before I began my studies, but lost track of it for a while until I saw the movie 2046 by Wong Kar-wai. It features Hong Kong in a romantic but at the same time disturbing way.
So after some research the opportunity to go there presented itself and I did. I didn’t know anybody and I didn’t speak Cantonese, but I did have 3 weeks to do whatever I wanted to do. Research is fine if you want to do the usual tourist activities like sightseeing and stuff like this, which I’m not really interested in. Instead I wanted to get to know what it feels like to actually be in Hong Kong, how the people live –in short to see if there’s a certain vibe.
That will give you a rough sketch of how it came about, but no I had no master plan except to respond honestly to what I saw. What I found was a vibrant and almost dreamy city caught in its own history. You can still feel the colonial days but modern China gaining more and more influence and a lot of Hong Kong Chinese aren’t pleased about it.
While wandering around the area for hours every day and going to areas visitors don’t usually go to I was able to get a good impression of what it means to live in Hong Kong now. Once I went to New Territories and I called a fellow shooter I’d just gotten to know if he had any tips on what might be interesting in this specific area. His reaction was like “Why are you going there? There’s nothing,” but what I found there was the other side of Hong Kong—the average side, working class Chinese people living their daily life 40 minutes away from fancy Hong Kong Island and the melting pot called Tsim Sha Tsui. For example, I shot the picture of the man sleeping under the bridge.
This whole series ended up being kind of personal diary; my impression of this area, so I really wasn’t trying to achieve something extraordinary. Of course I was glad to graduate from university, partly on the strength of these pictures, to exhibit them and get good feedback from others. But no, those frames won’t change the world or make it a better place. Nevertheless it’s fantastic when people who have been to Hong Kong or even longtime residents tell you that you “nailed it.” That really puts a smile on my face every time.
Q: Since you use a DSLR in addition to a Leica M6, have you ever considered shooting with or acquiring a digital Leica such as an M9 or an M8? Or perhaps an X1, which has a 35mm-equivalent lens?
A: An M9 would be lovely and the perfect addition to my current setup, but I can’t afford one. So it’s a dream that maybe one day will come true. The M8 on the other hand is no option for me because of the APS-C-size sensor; the same goes for the X1. Don’t get me wrong I’ve seen some fantastic Frames being shot with those cameras but they’re just not what I’m looking for.
Q: What is it, in terms of features, handling characteristics, lenses, image quality, etc. that makes the M6 with 35mm f/2 Summicron particularly suitable for your kind of work? Have you ever thought of using a different lens on it such as a 28mm or a 50mm?
A: It’s silent and very intuitive to use. Focus, Aperture, Shutter Speed–that’s it; no fancy functions or stuff that could cause confusion or distract you from capturing the moment. The 35mm f/2 Summicron Type 2 is “tiny” and produces this nice old-fashioned look. It could be a bit sharper wide open sometimes but all in all it’s a great lens with its own character. 35mm in general is just the perfect focal length for me and comes closest to what I can see with my eyes. Yup, I disagree with the people who keep saying that 50mm equals the human field of view. Shooting something other than a 35mm on the M6? The 7mm difference with the 28mm just doesn’t justify getting one. On the other hand a 24mm lens is interesting but a challenge. I’ve never been a big fan of 50mm lenses on 35mm; nevertheless one is in my bag pack but it’s almost never used.
Q: What in particular did you find inspirational about Chris Weeks’ book “Street Photography for the Purist” or his outstanding images? Do you consider yourself a purist in any sense and what does that mean to you?
A: Plainly and simply it’s his passion about getting a particular shot and the stories behind certain frames. This goes for the other shooters work as well! A picture of a flower might be pretty but doesn’t tell me a story. I want to get something out of picture. Am I a purist? Yes, but more in terms of music than photography. Well, I dig black & white street photography and won’t/almost never do it in color but if someone else wants to shoot street in color, I’m fine with it. Being a purist isn’t something bad, it just mean that you love something and you’re focused on it. I just try to stay open minded but I know it’s pretty difficult at times. Anyway everybody is a purist of sorts about some things.
Q: When you were doing street photography in Hong Kong, how did you feel about shooting distressed or homeless people such as the guy sleeping under the bridge?
A: That’s interesting! I don’t think he was homeless but just taking a midday nap. He didn’t look like the homeless people you see in other major cities and there have always been plenty of people who take naps in the park. Usually I try to avoid shooting poor or disabled people if it’s not necessary or doesn’t contribute something of interest or importance. Of course it’s part of our society but a frame portraying someone in a bad way won’t help him/her. So the context is always important.
As for the rest of the pictures or shooting in Hong Kong in general, depending on your location people will always be aware of you but they’re usually busy, perhaps afraid and don’t want to cause any trouble by arguing with you. It’s just their daily routine you’re capturing; you aren’t steeling their souls.
Q: Your “personal diary” of Hong Kong is certainly a single –subject themed project in the great tradition of photojournalism. Do you plan on creating any other themed “personal impressions” projects of anything else along similar lines in the near future?
A: More “city portraits” are definitely on my to-do list; they’re a great way to discover more interesting subjects that can lead to new projects. Hong Kong was kind of a prototype and the outcome was positive enough to keep me working and further developing in this style. Let’s see what Canada will bring. Traveling for a year will change things again and might end up with a nice photo essay about it. I guess we’ll see in 2012.
Q: These are economically challenging times, so how do you plan to support yourself as a photographer? Are you inclined to try to break into, say commercial or events photography as a source of income or are you likely to do something else entirely different to make money and keep your photography “pure”?
A: There is still some good money in commercial photography but you need to focus solely on this particular field of photography to make it in that field. Of course this applies to all types of creative jobs. It’s just not my type of work. If you want to work as a commercial photographer you need to build a commercial portfolio. If you want to do fashion you need a fashion portfolio—you have to decide what you want to do.
Event photography might the closest field to documentary and journalistic photography to a certain degree. I’d be fine with it if I got a job in this field, but it’s hard work, especially covering bigger events. There are too many agencies and too many photographers.
I got a contributor contract with Getty Images and work for them as a freelance field editor on major events in Berlin, so there’s some income. I hope to work with them in Canada too, if I decide to go there. Apart from this there is always the chance to do other kinds of photography-related jobs. If you really want it you can make it even in these challenging times.
Thank you Philip Schulte!
–Leica Internet Team
To see more of Mr. Schulte’s work, please visit www.philipschulte.com.