Looking at his blunt and expressive portraits, you wouldn’t think of Charlie Kwai as shy, but that’s how he describes himself in his pre street photography life, when landscapes where all he could think about. The shift happened less than two years ago with the purchase of a digital camera, the perfect instrument to explore his natural interest in people and an excellent excuse to start a conversation with them. His signature candid-camera style images, products of his long wandering walks around London or of the international trips he embarks on as one-third of photographic group Tripod City, capture the awkward moments that punctuate our daily lives, bringing to our attention details that usually escape our less-acute eyes.
How did you get into photography?
I only really began two years ago. Before that, photography was most definitely a hobby, something that I would do just on holiday. I had a film camera and after ten years I got a bit tired of it. Two years ago I bought a digital camera and then I decided to spend more time going around London and it just snowballed very quickly. I had an actual job in graphic design, but today I just do photography. Around a year ago I realised that if you want to get really good at something –to be the very best– you have to do it every day. If you don't do it every day, you’re always going to be mediocre.
Do you find photography more interesting than graphic design?
My battle with graphic design was that I was doing interesting things, but there were always so many obstacles before the end product. Photography is just so immediate and I have complete control over it. With design is not necessarily understandable that you have intelligently designed something, people don’t take notice, whereas a photograph is more engaging and more entertaining. You can have a conversation about it, you can really inspire someone's imagination. Photography ticks most of the boxes that make me happy as an artist. At one point I thought to myself: “what would I be happy to do for free for the rest of my life?” and photography was it. I'm happy to go out every day with my camera and just take pictures for myself.
You have always lived in London. Did the city have a strong influence on your photography?
I think it definitely influences what I photograph. I have lived in Bethnal Green since I was born and I've seen it changing so much from what I remember from being a kid... so I guess photography is my way of saving what I'm seeing now. At the same time, photography in London is my way of exploring a huge city that I think I know – but I definitely don't know. It's just an excuse to spend more time going to places I wouldn't necessarily go to, and speak to people on the street.
Do you have a preferred route?
Because I've done it for a couple of years now, I know where I have my best days – it's like a cluster from the edge of Leicester Square up to Chinatown. I'm editing a book right now and half of the photos that I've got have been taken in those 10 square meters, it’s really strange. In the summer I was walking from my house in Bethnal Green all the way to Westminster, and then through to Trafalgar Square and up to Marble Arch. Then I'll go all the way back down to London Eye. Just walking. Usually I also go to Oxford Street and Regents Street, places where everyone in London gravitates to – tourists because they choose to go there, Londoners because they have to. They go shopping there and they work there, which brings out the best in people because they are all stressed.
You don't usually tell people that you're going to take a picture of them, you just take it. So how do you engage with them afterwards?
It really depends in what mood I'm in. Some days I feel really positive, so I take someone's photograph as an excuse to talk to them because they just look really interesting and I think they have a good story. Some days I can be moody, so I take someone's picture and then slightly ignore them. Of a hundred people I photograph, one person would get angry, I'd probably have 30 conversations, and the rest would just ignore what happened. But I definitely use photography as a means to talk to people. There are always people I want to engage with. You have to be able to talk to the people that you're taking pictures of, otherwise there is no point.
How do you choose the people that you want to photograph?
It's hard to explain because I don't necessarily look for certain people. I look for someone doing something weird that I don't really understand, something slightly odd. Then I take the photograph and I try to examine it. I guess it’s my form of entertainment. Even before I started taking pictures, I was looking at the world and picking up obscure things that people don't normally see. Many people when they see my photographs say: "Oh that's so weird!" But it happens a lot of the time, people just don't notice it.
When you started, were you already focusing on people?
I took a lot of photos of landscapes. Because I used to shoot in film and I was a graphic designer, I had all of these restrictions on what I could photograph. It was an expensive thing to do and I didn’t want to miss a shot, so I wouldn't really take any risks. I would take pictures of a landscape or maybe of a street scene, but it would always be super wide, and I never really gave myself the opportunity to explore the camera and what I was really interested in. I was effectively doing travel photography, savouring the moments that I was experiencing during my holidays. But then as soon as I had a digital camera I started to photograph 1000 people a day. If you look at my Instagram from the first photo to now, you can see the progression.
Speaking of which, what do you think of Instagram? How do you think it influences photographers and photography?
I joined it as soon as I got my digital camera. Street photography is an art form of the people by the people. Everyone is on Instagram and everyone is looking at street photography, and street photography portrays a lot of people who are on Instagram. Basically it shows people an art form on a platform that is consumed by everybody and, at the same time, it is consumed by people that are taking photographs. Street photography before the internet was a very limited circle. My parents wouldn't even know what it was, if it was an actual thing. Now people can see it on their smartphones, so more people engage with it and there is a bigger audience. It just shows that there are so many people that actually enjoy street photography.
You've been to Ghana and China as part of Tripod City, the collective you’re part of. Why did you decide to go over there?
We are attracted to places that we don't know much about. China was definitely one of them. We really wanted to go to Africa because everyone thinks that it’s probably not a great place to go in terms of safety, so we thought it would be a good opportunity to try to change people's opinion of it, showing a different side. We only had four weeks, but in that time we tried to go as deep as we could, trying to photograph in a way that focuses on emotions and how people live their lives, in a positive way.
What did you think of these places before going there and how did your opinion change?
I think in Ghana I was not expecting the people to be the way they are. When we turned up we were super intimidated because people just shouted at us and we couldn't really understand why. Obviously because of the language barrier, I had no idea of what they were saying. We actually realised that they were just talking to us, so by the end of the trip people shouted at us and I'd just go to talk to them and then we’d be like best friends. I thought they were angry at us just for being there, but when I went to talk to them I discovered they were fine about that. I understand a lot more about African culture now.
How does the way you work change between when you shoot as part of Tripod City and when you shoot on your own?
The recipe for Tripod City is that each of us has a completely different style. As soon as you begin to overlap, the concept becomes void. When we go out together, we have to be the extremes of ourselves. That’s why all the photos that I have from Ghana are close-ups, whereas Chris (Lee) has a wider angle and Paul (Storrie) does portraits. When I’m shooting in London, I sometimes go wide and sometimes I set up portraits, whereas in Ghana I was doing none of that because we always try to push what is unique about us to the very extreme. I think it has been good for us because it has forced us to really think about our identities as photographers.
How do you see your work best displayed, in an exhibition or a book?
Whenever I'm photographing, before I take the picture I think in a split second whether the shot that I'm about to take will live on a wall or in a book, or in both. If it doesn't in either, I don't take the picture, there is no point. But because I’m a graphic designer, I see most of my work in a book – I love to take someone on a journey through a book.
Did you ever had a moment when you were not happy about what you were doing, very discouraged?
Everyday! I'm super self-critical. I haven't taken photos for about a month, so I had time to look at which are my best photos so far. When I go out tomorrow, I need to get a photo that is better than those. How can I do that? I have to do it differently, I can't just carry on doing the same thing because I'm just going to have 20 identical photos. It's always about going that extra mile. I think I'm at a point where I'm almost happy with my identity as a photographer. But there is always room to try something different. For example, I usually get really close to my subjects. The reason why I do so is that I can get rid of the background and of all the interferences, so the photograph is only about the person. Now my challenge is to achieve the same focus on the subject, whilst capturing the whole scene. Those photographs are difficult because there is always something in the way. I guess that's part of the reason why I like to be so close, because I'm in complete control. I'm not a photographer who relies on the elements, I'm definitely a control freak. That's why I use a flash. I got sick and tired of people doing a great thing with the sunlight coming from the wrong angle.