Chris Suspect: Continuing the Visual Conversation


Chris Suspect, born in the Philippines to an American diplomat father, is a professional new media content creator specializing in video, live streaming, podcasting and audio production. His photos have been published in numerous places, both online and in print, including The Atlantic Monthly, Science, and Forbes. Recently, he was awarded Best in Show for Leica Store Washington DC’s first juried exhibition, which runs through April 30, 2013. In addition, he has previously appeared on the blog as a member of STRATA, a photography collective. Here, Chris tells us more about his interest in photography and what he hopes to achieve with his work.

Q: If we had to characterize your work in a short phrase, we’d call it “the surrealism of everyday life.” Do you agree, and how do you manage to find such weird, amusing and occasionally profound juxtapositions? Is it just a matter of being alert or do you ever set these things up?

A: I really like that description and would describe my work as street photography. However, I do experiment a lot with flash and using colored gels, and I love shooting small bands in tight places. I never set anything up, it’s really a matter of being alert and open to possibilities.

Sometimes I’ll see the potential for something, a visual cue, if you will, and then I will wait to juxtapose something off of it. Other times if I can’t understand what is happening in front of me I will shoot it anyway, knowing that subliminally something set an alert off and then hope I can make sense of it later. Even if it doesn’t make sense and if it is just a strange frame, that can be good too.

Q: The other aspect to your work is that it feels fresh and spontaneous, yet it has a very definite compositional structure and awareness of lighting and space so the element of control is also there. Do you think this is true, and how do you manage to achieve that artistic balance?

A: Practice, practice, practice. And by studying how light affects the environment. These are things you learn with time. In Washington, D.C., I have basically been watching how the sun lights up parts of the city at different times of the year. So if I mentally tag a place in mind that has good light in January or February, I will return there the following year and will know exactly what times are ideal. I also do a lot of experimentation to see what’s possible in different settings and I know that often light meter readings can be deceiving, especially in environments of high contrast light and shadow.

Q: Do you consider yourself a full-time, professional photographer?

A: No, I do not. I think there are easier ways to make a living. In fact, I have been turning down jobs so I can focus on my own projects and do my own thing. Professionally, I do a lot of video and audio engineering work. When I got into photography I started doing all kinds of photo jobs from shooting for my local newspaper to weddings, events and portraits. After a while, I realized that all the contract negotiations, bidding, license management, etc., was sucking all the fun out of it. I decided at that point I wanted to keep photography a hobby, an art, and do my own thing with the medium.

Q: How does your work fit in with STRATA? How has your membership in this organization or the other people in it influenced your work?

A: I’ve been a member of STRATA since July 2012 when it started. We’ve been together a short time, but we have worked pretty hard and accomplished a decent bit in the brief time we have been together.

STRATA was born out of a shared passion for the still image. We seek to document the beauty, humor, mystery and absurdity in everyday life. The goal is to create pictures that are hard to make and even harder to categorize. Images that raise more questions than answers.

One of the greatest benefits of the collective is that we are always critiquing each other’s work and pushing each other to do better. In fact, nothing gets posted on our site unless the majority of us agree that it’s a good photograph. Prior to forming this group, we were all individuals struggling for more attention. By bonding together we have done more things that have garnered us more recognition than any of us were able to do on our own.

Q: When did you first become interested in Leica Camera ?

A: I became interested in Leica cameras when I started shooting film because all of the legends of photography used them. While I wanted to play with a Leica, I had never had the opportunity until Leica opened up their DC store. The Leica store offers these great photowalks where you can go out with the gear and try it out. Needless to say, I got hooked.

Q: What equipment did you use to shoot the images in your portfolio and why?

A: I primarily use a Leica M9 and a Zeiss 35mm lens. I also have a $40 flash from China. For some reason it produces some crazy results with the M9.

The fact that the M9 functions essentially like a back-to-basics camera with manual focus is one of its strengths. It forces you to learn about distance and depth of field to the point where it becomes second nature. The advantage to this is that you become a much faster shooter and you can work on instinct. Whereas with other cameras, especially DSLRs, there is so much more to consider technically when you are trying to make a photograph that it can become problematic. For example, while autofocus may be nice it is essentially a crutch. It is much slower than your instinct, and that can cause you to miss a shot if you have to rely on technology to achieve it. The size of the camera is also great, as it is much smaller, lighter and less intimidating than a bigger camera. Plus, they look really cool and in time it begins to feel like a natural extension of your body.

Q: What are the advantages of shooting street photography with a prime (single focal-length) 35mm lens rather than, say, a zoom?

A: For street work being fast is important. Adding a zoom lens would give me the additional problem of having to adjust my focal-length. I prefer to have fewer complications than more and zoom with my feet. On the street I prefer to have as little relationship as possible with my subjects. I feel a zoom has the potential to create more of one by the fact that it could take me another millisecond or so to get the right crop, if you will. By then the subject may have noticed you and the jig is up, at least for the candid photography I like to pursue.

Q: In this street scene with the girl in the pink coat holding the American flag in front of her face, there are several points of interest. Your eye moves around the frame and it is all fascinating—a moment in time that elicits a smile. How does timing fit into your creative process, and how do you know exactly when to press the shutter release?

A: Well, in that image, my first point of interest was the girl with the flag. While the obscured face motif has been historically cool in street photography, and I love taking advantage of it when I can, I felt it was not enough and I wanted to build on that within the frame. So I took several shots paying more attention to the background and what was happening there. Of the three I managed to get off in the brief seconds of time she was holding the flag in front of her face, this was the one I liked best because of the separation of elements. This picture was taken on the sidelines of Washington, D.C.’s Chinese New Year’s parade route, just before everything got started.

Q: These two images —  one of a girl and a young boy drinking soda in front of a convenience store and the other of two women at different distances both wearing sunglasses, in a suburban yard setting — certainly are straightforward, but they seem to embody some kind of social commentary. Was that your intention, and how did you feel when you were shooting them?A: Those were taken on the Eastern Shore of Maryland in a small town called Crisfield. They hold an annual crab derby in which the town gathers for crab races, picking crab contests and arm wrestling. I went there on a fluke with another friend of mine and it was all so foreign to me that I wanted to soak it all in with my camera. I wanted to understand the culture, because it is American culture, and I live here. I certainly had no conscience intention of making any social commentary other than documenting the people of this town so I could hopefully understand it and get to know it better. I have plans to return to Crisfield again this year, and definitely want to explore some of the other towns in this area.

Q: This image of a couple walking straight toward the camera with carnival rides and lights in the background has a transcendent iconic quality, and the lighting certainly helps make that happen. Did you use your cheap Chinese flash for this shot? And since both people seem aware of the camera did you interact with them or ask permission before you took the shot.

A: I never ask for permission as I find that it ruins the mood. So I pretty much surprised them. I think I may have used a different flash for this, I don’t remember. Sometimes I will use an old, more powerful flash if I know I plan on shooting flash for a long time. The recharge is much faster than the Chinese model I use. In this shot I dragged the shutter using first curtain sync. I find I can have more control over the blur of background lights and intentionally direct the blur to my liking by physically moving the camera after I press the shutter. This is a technique I use a lot when shooting bands, as it often gives more energy or chaos to a scene.

Q: This is a strange and enigmatic image of a guy in a green hat leaning against the back of a car and having his pants pulled down by a muscular arm and hand in the foreground. He doesn’t look happy. What is going on here?

A: Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction. In this case the man was grinding and humping the hood of the car with his pelvis as the vehicle was trying to make its way out of a Caribbean Day parade in Baltimore. A guy in the car got out from the back seat and basically had to drag him off the hood. It was fun and no one got arrested or hurt.

Q: These two images in your portfolio have the main subject bathed in red light — a man smoking a cigarette leaning on an amorphous aqua-colored surface, and a street scene dominated by a dude on the lower left in an orange hat holding up a pink decorated frame of some kind. How did you get these color effects, and do you ever do any extensive post-production with your images to achieve them?

A: Ah yes, the magic of the Chinese flash and its color gels. These are basically straight out of the camera with little post-production. Although, they certainly look like a lot of work went into them. These are really the result of me experimenting with flash on the street to see if I can take it to another level.

The man with the cigarette is by a lighted pool and I just thought it would be nice to see how someone would look bathed in red light by a vivid blue pool using a slow shutter speed. Turns out it looks pretty strange.

The other one was taken on the streets of San Francisco. I wanted to see if I could light up people with different color gels who were in the shade while having a background that looks natural. The result looks like the guy with the frame (it’s actually an iPad) was cut and pasted on to the photo, like a collage. I have a series of these kinds of shots I am mulling over what to do with as I am not aware of any other people doing this kind of thing in the streets.

Q: You self-identify as a street photographer, but do you also consider yourself an artist and can you say something about why or why not?

A: This is an interesting question. Art is a mysterious thing to me and what people define as art can vary widely. I don’t have an art background, unless you call playing music in a punk band in my 20s art. I am not sure I am there yet to consider myself an artist, but I am trying my best to create work that ultimately pleases me. If others deem it art that’s great. And if I ever reach the point where other people that I respect consider what I do art, then perhaps I will consider myself an artist.

For now I feel like I am still in the process of learning what art is. I get the feeling this will be a lifelong process.

Q: How do you see your work evolving in the next few years?

A: I have been noticing certain themes in my work that seem to emerge from gut instincts or my subconscious and I plan on exploring that much more so I can put together a more coherent body of work.

I have also learned a lot of interesting things about photography through street work, and by looking intensely at other photographers’ work, and applying it to projects outside of street photography, like when I shoot my family. I’m also working on a project in my neighborhood that explores its unique demographics, 1920s suburban landscape, and the urban revitalization happening along some of its major corridors.

I feel photography at its best is like a visual conversation. I want to add something new to it to keep it going.

Thank you for your time, Chris!

- Leica Internet Team

To learn more about Chris, you can find him on Twitter, his blog or STRATA website.