In Conversation with Peter Zelewski

Peter Zelewski is a London based portrait and documentary photographer. Born in Detroit, USA, he moved to London in the 1980s and studied at the London College of Communication (LCC). Through his fascination of people and love of the city, he was drawn to the streets of London to take photographs of its citizens, which has resulted in two award-winning projects: ’People of Soho’ and ‘Beautiful Strangers’. His work has been featured in The Guardian, The Huffington Post, The Evening Standard, Huck, Time Out, Stylist, Vogue Living and British Journal of Photography. In 2015 he was awarded third prize in the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize at the National Portrait Gallery in London. His first book ‘People of London’ published by Hoxton Mini Press is out now.   

What is it about the genre of street portraiture that interests you?

For me, first and foremost, the attraction is all about the human connection between the subject and photographer and that is what I have always found most fascinating about portrait photography. I have been taking street portraits for almost 10 years now and I still get that same incredible buzz today approaching and photographing strangers as I did when I took my first portrait. The unpredictability, the tension, the uncertainty are all factors which add certain amount of excitement to taking street portraits which I have never found in any other genre of photography. There is just something very exciting and challenging about working on the street, which make it so addictive. I love the simplicity and easy accessibility of taking portraits on the street. I don’t have to muddle with complicated lighting equipment or large studio set-ups and can simply throw my camera over my shoulder, hop on the tube into town, approach a stranger and take a portrait. It really is as simple as that.

Although I get much enjoyment from taking street portraits I have also acquired valuable skills in working in the most unsuitable and unsettling street environments and also that priceless experience of meeting, communicating and making portraits of complete strangers often in a very short time frame. These are skills have been invaluable not only in my personal portraiture work but also my commercial portraiture commissions.

Is it easy to get people to be your subjects? What sort of reaction do you tend to get?

I have always used a very honest and direct method to approaching strangers on the street. The process of searching for a suitable individual for my projects often results in me walking the streets for many long hours in a day. By the time I eventually find someone who I would like to photograph my enthusiasm levels are usually quite high and this normally came across to my potential subject when I approach them. In most cases, I would have already selected the background location and I have a strong idea of how I would like the photograph to look, so I would communicate with confidence to the individual which in most cases resulted in the agreement from them to be photographed. Although rejections do happen, I never take it personally and just accept the fact that some people just don’t like to be photographed. As making a portrait of a complete stranger is a very intimate and collaborative process, in most cases, I would work with the individual to decide how to present themselves in the most natural way to achieve the best portrait possible.

What are you looking for in the people you photograph?

I never had any real desire to photograph models or traditionally beautiful people but was always more excited to photograph real, everyday people who had personality, uniqueness, charm and individuality. I’ve been a voyeur of London and its people for over 30 years now and have always been amazed by the individuality and diversity of Londoners. Whenever I hit the streets of London with my camera, I never seek or search for a certain type of individual but just observe people until someone catches my attention. The initial attraction may be an item of clothing they are wearing, the way the person carries themselves or something as simple as an interesting expression on their face. Whatever it is, whoever I approach always displays a certain uniqueness and that is what I try and convey through all my portraits.

You shoot exclusively with a Leica M, what it is about the ‘M’ that makes it the perfect camera for your style of photography?

When I first started taking street portraits I used a large DLSR but it didn’t take long before I realised the extra weight and bulk of the camera was becoming a real hindrance in the productivity of my street portraits. The DSLR was also not overly discreet and often when approaching a stranger, I could see their eyes divert directly to my hand which was holding the camera long before they would even look at me. Because forging a trusted connection with my subjects first is so important, I found the large DSLR in my hand just screamed ‘I am a photographer’ and it didn’t help in gaining my subjects trust. I started to seek alternatives but wasn’t impressed with any of the smaller cameras on the market.

Around the same time, I came across an article with one of my favourite London photographer’s Sarah Lee, who is a staff photographer at the Guardian Newspaper. Sarah wrote a piece for the Guardian on the Leica M-E which really resonated with me. The article mentioned very little about the technical aspects of the camera but more importantly the joy Sarah got using it and how it re-connected her with photography. Everything Sarah said made perfect sense and, out of pure curiosity, I made a decision that day to try out a Leica M-E. From the second I had the Leica M in my hands I knew it was the perfect camera for me. The solid construction, the simplicity of the controls and the beautiful design won me over instantly. I walked out of the Leica dealer that day with a new Leica M-E and a Leica Summilux 50mm f/1.4 lens which is the exact camera and lens I still use today.

Getting used to a rangefinder from a DSLR was difficult but I loved the way the whole process slowed me down. I was taking more time with my portraits and working on my compositions like never before. I really connected with the camera and in a way, the process was almost like starting photography all over again which was very exciting. Additionally, the images that were coming straight from the camera were stunning. The Leica just seems to interpret exactly what I see and the images always look so perfect right out of the camera. Also, I never expected to get such a positive reaction to the camera from the people I photographed. Never, ever when using my DSLR did anyone ever comment on it. This all changed when using the Leica M-E. My subjects would always comment on the camera appreciating its good design and looks. As insignificant as it may sound, the camera actually helped in breaking down the barrier between me and the person I was photographing. The small and non-threating appearance of the camera allowed me to converse more freely with my subjects which would ultimately result in better portraits.

Since moving to the Leica M, the camera is now a huge part of me, which plays a crucial role in the portraits I make not only for my personal photographic projects but also my commercial photography work too. It has taken me a few years to discover the Leica M but I am glad that I finally did. Although I love my Leica M-E, I am very excited about the new Leica M10, which has just been released and I’m looking forward to testing one on the streets soon!

You have recently started running street portraiture workshops. How did this come about and tell us more about your upcoming workshop at the Leica Akademie in Mayfair.

Leading a street portraiture workshop was something I had always wanted to do even from my early days of taking street portraits. There seemed to be many ‘street photography’ workshops about but few that dealt exclusively with ‘street portraiture’. Shortly after my street portrait of ‘Nyaueth’ won third place in the Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize at the National Portrait Gallery I was approached by the Gallery to run a workshop in their education studio. I jumped at the chance and thankfully sold out the workshop very quickly. Although nervous at first, I really enjoyed the whole experience of working and sharing my skills with others and I really fed off the enthusiasm from the attendees on the workshop. Because of the accessibility and simplicity of street portraiture, I had participants on the workshop from as young as 17 right up to 80 years old with many different levels of experience. We worked the mornings in the studio where I shared my tips and tricks of street portraiture and then headed out onto the streets taking portraits. The workshop was very successful and I really enjoyed the whole experience and thankfully I was called back to lead another workshop at the Gallery a year later.

I am now very excited about leading my next street portraiture workshop with Leica at the Akademie in Mayfair on the 9th of December 2017. It will be a real honour to work with Leica on the workshop to teach and share my many years of experience of street portraiture inspiring a whole new group of photographers. The one-day workshop will be a combination of discussions on street portraiture in the Leica Studio and then heading out onto the streets of London to take portraits. My main goal will be to get all the attendees to overcome any fears of approaching strangers, improving communication with their subjects and above all taking some great portraits! Although the workshop isn’t aimed directly at Leica users there will be Leica cameras on loan for any of the photographers who wish to experience working on the streets with a Leica M.

What projects are you working on next?

After taking portraits of individuals for almost 10 years I was keen for my next project to involve couples or possibly siblings. Because I have always been fascinated with twins, I decided to put together my next project exploring the similarities and differences between sets of identical twins. The project is called ‘Alike But Not Alike’. Having been inspired by photographers such as August Sander and Diane Arbus I have now photographed over 25 sets of twin siblings in the past two years. The series encompasses twins of various ages, races and sexes including Eritrean born sisters Hermon and Heroda who both unexplainably lost their hearing at the exact same time when they were only 7 years old. Also included in the project are Sophie and Polly, a pair of monozygotic twins who are so identical they have matching fingerprints meaning their DNA is virtually indistinguishable. The telepathy and strong bond between the various sitters is further highlighted by sisters Chloe and Leah, who are so close they often find themselves finishing each other’s sentences and claim to even feel each other’s pain. Although many of the portraits in the series are of strangers I am, for the first time, pre-planning photoshoots which has been a whole new experience for me. So far the project has been fascinating and I intend to photograph another 15-20 sets of twins over the next six months with the hope of exhibiting the series in the spring with a possible book launch next summer 2018. 

Book a space for Peter’s street portraiture workshop on 9th December here.

If you want to view more of Peter’s work visit his website or Instagram