Ben Molina is a graphic designer currently based in the Bay Area in California. His work has been featured in several group shows and local publications in California. Currently, he is also part of a major street photography exhibition in Manila in the Philippines. In 2014, his “Now Here, Nowhere” slideshow was among those featured in FotoIstanbul held in Turkey. He photographs mostly in black-and-white using his Leica M4. Eric Kim, a contributor to the Leica blog, conducted this interview.
Q: Tell us the story of when you first picked up a camera.
A: My father gave me a used Pentax Spotmatic with a 50 mm lens when I was 13 years old. It didn’t come with the manual, and no one in our family knew how to operate an SLR because we were used to point-and-shoot cameras so for a while I lost interest. But I always had this fascination about photos in books, and pictures in general. Back then, I only knew one photographer and was always amazed by his cameras and rolls of film.
Q: What fascinated you about pictures and photos in books? Do any early pictures or books come to mind?
A: Growing up in a small barrio in the Philippines, we never really had any access to public libraries. The only way to see the world was through watching black-and-white movies on television and browsing through volumes of an encyclopedia our neighbor had. I was always curious.
I also have an uncle who had National Geographic magazines and on one of the magazines was a photo that has stayed with me since. It was Sam Abell’s “Children and Pony” photo on the cover. I remember it, not because it was good, but because I think it was boring. Years later, I attended Sam’s lecture and still found him boring but ended up learning something new.
Q: So when did you begin to take your photography more seriously?
A: Years ago, I discovered that I really liked walking out and taking photos. I never knew why, but there was a nagging want to see and know what was out there. I didn’t know what I was doing or that there was a term for it. Thanks to the Internet and public libraries in Los Angeles, I discovered the works of Koudelka, Robert Frank, Garry Winogrand, etc. which also led me to different Flickr groups and other social media forums. I also started buying photo books, devouring lectures from YouTube, visiting galleries and exhibitions. It was a gradual process; it became an obsession and then I bumped into you in Little Tokyo when you were out shooting with your workshop group in LA.
Q: I also see a strong sense of Alex Webb in your work with your multiple layers and complex frames. How has Alex Webb inspired you, and how do you think your work is different from his?
A: Thanks, man. But my work is really nothing like his and I’m not trying to imitate him. He’s a legend. I really love his work, and even took Alex and Rebecca Norris Webb’s workshop (which I highly recommended). I really like the game that he plays, and he gives me headaches – the complexities – it’s like problem solving. I think every photographer has his own game for which he sets the rules. That makes it more interesting, challenging and less boring. My work is a mixture of my influences, the result of my curiosity, my reactions and how I solve problems.
Q: What are the biggest problems you see in the street photography world that you want to solve with your own work? And what are some of your own rules?
A: I make pictures for myself and the approach to my work is not better than anyone else’s because we are all different. I don’t like interaction when I’m out shooting – not even eye contact. I shoot and I go. I try to avoid small talk as much as I can. But that’s me. So when other people try to impose their own rules on other people’s game, that’s a problem. Do what works for you, own it, run with it, but make it work and have fun.
Q: Whose work currently impresses you the most, and what do you think are the traits that make a great photographer?
A: I look at a lot of stuff from William Gedney, Mark Steinmetz, Martin Kollar, Lars Tunbjork, Janet Delaney, Olivier Pin-Fat, etc. They’re all different and very inspiring. Lee and Garry are my all-time favorites but my current inspirations are Jun Abe and Jason Eskenazi. A photographer should be very curious, obsessive and have the ability to question and realize what his motivation is.
Q: What do you think are some of the common mistakes photographers make when shooting out on the streets?
A: Stuffing your bag with tons of gear you don’t really need makes you slower and distracted. I’m a believer of the one camera, one lens mantra. Also, going out photographing with a bunch of people wearing the same shirt with the logo of their group is a big no-no for me! Seriously, I like shooting alone. I sometimes would go out with one or two of my closest photography buddies and that’s it. Most of the time we’ll go our own ways then regroup later. Photography is a lonely endeavor and I took that to heart. People should try shooting alone, as it forces you to be creative in dealing with different situations out there.
Q: So what exactly are you looking for when you’re on the streets? What causes you to click?
A: I try to be spontaneous and be open to serendipity, different experiences and situations as much as I can: interactions between people and their surroundings, anticipating moments, gestures, and just about everything I’m interested in.
Q: You love photography books and have quite a nice collection. Can you share why you think photography books are important, and exactly how do you read a photography book? How do you analyze books, and what do you learn from them? And also what are some photography books you recommend every street photographer to invest in?
A: I have a humble but well-selected collection of books. There are hundreds of books that I wish I could have, especially Japanese photo books, but can’t afford them right now. Whenever I get a new book, I always immediately look at the photographs before reading any text or caption, except for the title of course, as I don’t want to be conditioned by whatever is written about the work. So I let the photos do the talking and take me wherever. I do it a couple of times before I read the text.
I used to work in a commercial printing company. I prepared and checked all the artwork and files before they go to printing, so I have an idea of the process of making a book – from selecting the cover, paper stock, binding, ink, finishing, etc. And I love it. So, for me, a photo book is about the photographs, the content and also the experience of going through it and the quality of the book as a whole package.
Buy books, not gear, I suppose. It’s one of the best remedies for gear-buying addiction. Every serious photographer should invest in photo books because they are excellent learning tools. You can go through it over and over again and see different things every time. One can never go wrong with “Looking at Photographs,” “The Photographer’s Eye” (John Szarkowski), “Bystander: A History of Street Photography,” “Exiles,” “The Americans,” “Public Relations,” “Friedlander” (MoMA Catalogue), “Grim Street,” “A Day Off,” “Wonderland,” “Hot Light/Half-Made Worlds,” “Photographers’ Sketchbooks” and “Street Photography Now.” You, Eric, have a good list on your blog and there’s also a list on the HCSP (Hardcore Street Photography) Flickr page. I recommend people to check that out.
Q: Why do you shoot film, and why a Leica rangefinder?
A: The first time I held my friend’s Leica rangefinder was magical. The build, the size, the weight, the handle – it’s quiet, and the simplicity of operation is perfect for me. I just fell in love with it. It’s the perfect imperfect tool for what I’m doing. I used to shoot with a DLSR and the full manual, non-auto focus of the Leica rangefinder didn’t even bother me a bit. Weeks later I hauled off my digital stuff and sold it to get my own. I have a Leica M4 with a 35 mm f/2.8 Summaron lens and have been solidly shooting with it for years now. I use it for 95 percent of my work because I also have a point-and-shoot Contax T3 as backup. It’s the perfect combo.
Shooting with film is very fulfilling for me. I’m not into the whole film versus digital debate, but the medium just works for me. I love the tangibility, the unpredictability, the accidents and the imperfections of using film. It forces you to make better pictures. It’s also very important for me not to get attached to my photographs so I have this habit of not processing my film right away. I’d usually wait five to six months or so before I process them. And once my rolls are developed, it’s like Christmas day all over again. I will probably shoot black-and-white film for the rest of my life or for as long as I can afford it.
Q: What makes you happiest about street photography, and what kind of personal fulfillment do you get from shooting? And if you started shooting all over again, what advice would you have told yourself?
A: The fulfillment is always about seeing your photographs, knowing that they work and that you’ve learned something from them. Fulfillment can also come from the enjoyment of going through the process from start to finish. I’m very appreciative of the fact that lately I’ve met people who I never even dreamed of meeting in person, and I even became good friends with some – all through photography. I told my girlfriend that good or bad, photography has changed me in a lot of ways. It’s mostly good and that makes me very, very happy.
If I could do it all over again, I wouldn’t give myself any advice. Maybe. I would do it all over again but I would start at a much younger age, and probably I’ll tell myself to be more curious and obsessive.
Q: Who are some people you would like to give a shout out to and give thanks or appreciation to? And maybe some contemporary street photographers you recommend people check out?
A: I hope my buddies Dana Barsuhn and Bryan Mollett will, at last, let me sit with them at the same table. Shout outs to the Usapang Kalye crew, Ben Razon of the Oarhouse Pub of Manila, Jose Enrique Soriano of Fred’s Revolucion and former SGSP cohorts. I can’t think of any particular contemporary photographers but I do follow collectives and blogs like In-Public, Burn My Eye, Strange.rs, LPV Magazine, Blake Andrews’ blog, Street Level Japan, John Sypal’s Tokyo Camera Style, all the usual suspects.
Thank you for your time, Ben!
-Leica Internet Team