The Story of a Photographer who Captures Londoners As They Are

In a city as crowded, thriving, and ever-busy as London, Peter Zelewski is the Detroit-born photographer that manages to break the spell of transit and quotidian distractions and capture people taking a moment to share their stories with him. In his new book, People of London, this winner of the 2016 Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize celebrates the diversity of the city with a collection of 100 revealing portraits, accompanied by intimate quotes from the subjects who allowed their world to be bared in a single image.

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“Although the majority of my portraits are taken on the street, I consider myself first and foremost a portrait photographer. For me, street photography is all about capturing candid moments”, Zelewski told us when we caught up about the inspiration behind his career.

He approaches his subjects with excitement, honesty, and interest in their life stories. He tries to attain an unabashed clarity in his portraiture by including the essence of those narratives through a burning flicker in someone’s eyes, the glow of someone’s skin, the enthusiasm you can read on a slightly open mouth.

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We got in touch to turn the tables, and hear his story.

The Plus: Where does your love for photography come from?
Peter Zelewski:
I was born in Detroit, USA during the 1960s and grew up whilst the city was going through very turbulent times amidst some of the most violent race riots the United States had experienced. I have vivid memories of my father, a keen and talented amateur photographer making his way into the city to document the social unrest during these changing times. As I accompanied my father on his photographic journeys, he taught me that photographs had to be powerful to capture attention and also the importance of good lighting, interesting composition and most importantly showing respect to the people you were photographing. The essential principles of photography which I learned from my father were the foundations of my photographic education and are still relevant to my work today.

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TP: How did you get into this style of photography?
PZ:
Because of my love for London and its inhabitants, I ended up taking street portraits and my passion for portraiture really started to grow from strength to strength. As I gained more knowledge with my portraiture work, I started my first photographic project entitled ‘The People of Soho’ focusing on making portraits of the local people in this small but vibrant area of Central London which I had a real passion for. The project really helped me define my photographic style and brought me unexpected attention  through the press and the photography community which also led to my first set of commercial photographic assignments. The knowledge I gained through taking hundreds of portraits on the streets has been invaluable to my progression as a photographer. I am now very fortunate that I can divide my time between commercial photography assignments and my personal ongoing photographic projects.



TP: What inspired you to begin the project?
PZ:
The ‘People of London’ project was a development from my first two street portraiture projects ‘People of Soho’ and ‘Beautiful Strangers’. Both were inspired mainly by a lifelong love of London, its people and my love of photography. The idea behind the ‘People of London’ project was to put together a series of bold, striking portraits of complete strangers from a cross-section of the London community exploring London’s diverse range of ethnicities, cultures and styles.

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TP: Are there any of your subjects’ stories that have made a particular impression on you?
PZ:
One thing that has always fascinated me about this project was the complete openness of so many Londoners. One of my subjects which I will never forget is Francis (the Biker). I first met Francis on the London streets back in 2011 not long after I started taking street portraits. He was clearly going through some very tough times having just lost his job and his beloved motorcycle, a Harley Davidson. He had piercing blue eyes and a face full of character, but since it was very early in my photography career, I never felt I made a portrait of Francis that did his incredible face justice.

Fast forward almost five years and not long after I was awarded a prizewinner in the Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize, I spotted Francis again not far from the National Portrait Gallery steps in Central London. Slightly disheveled and clearly still sleeping rough it dawned on me how much my life had moved on since our first meeting but sadly how little appeared to have changed for him. We chatted at length once again and he still appeared as positive and upbeat as he did five years earlier. For all the knocks and set-backs he must have taken over the years he still maintained that incredible spirit (and still those amazing piercing blue eyes) and a face full of character.

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I knew immediately that I wanted to re-take Francis’s portrait and felt confident now that I could make a portrait of him which both of us could be proud of. He agreed to the portrait without hesitation and we walked to a nearby quiet street as I helped him carry what appeared to be his life’s belongings in two plastic bin liners. Unlike my initial meeting with Francis, I was now very happy with the portraits I was making of him. I showed Francis the images on my camera display and he gave me a big thumbs up in agreement. Strong, confident and full of warmth I could tell straight away I captured something special within Francis that would have been impossible to achieve with a quick snapshot.

As I thanked him for allowing me to take his portrait, and as we parted ways, I offered to buy him lunch but as a proud man, but he declined. I walked away from our shoot not only with an incredible portrait of Francis but also with the reminder that it is often those who have the least who are the ones who give so much. I haven’t seen Francis since our photoshoot so I never had a chance to share the portraits with him. I am hoping he is now settled back in his home town of Birmingham and carving out a new life he so deserves.

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TP: What is it about street photography that has made it such an enduringly fascinating genre?
PZ:
In all honesty, I have never considered myself a street photographer (in the traditional sense of the word) and it is a genre of photography which I don’t really feel applies to what I do. For me, street photography is all about capturing candid moments which I associate with photographers such as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Garry Winogrand, Lee Friedlander, Vivian Maier etc.

Having said that, whether you are taking portraits with permission or candidly there is something very exciting and challenging about working on the street which makes it so addictive. The unpredictability of the environment and your surroundings all add a sense of excitement which rarely happens when working in a controlled studio environment.

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TP: Is it easy to get people to be your subjects? What sort of reaction do you tend to get?
PZ:
I have always used a very honest and direct method to approaching strangers on the street which has always worked best for me. The process of searching for a suitable individual for the project often resulted in me walking the streets for many long hours in a day. By the time I eventually found someone who I would like to photograph my enthusiasm levels were usually quite high and this normally came across to my potential subject when I approached them. Although rejections do happen, I never take it personally and just accept the fact that some people just don’t like to be photographed.

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TP: Have you seen the habits or manners of Londoners change through your time studying them?
PZ:
I have now lived in London for 30 years and even before I started photographing Londoners I always had a very voyeuristic approach to the city and its people. I think it is fair to say that Londoners can initially appear cold and possibly unfriendly but once those barriers are broken down, Londoners can be the kindest, honest and most open minded people you will meet. Having said that, I do feel Londoners having understandably become slightly more cautious and aware over the years which can sometimes make it harder for a photographer to gain trust when approaching strangers for a portrait.

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TP: 

What next?
PZ:
Up until this point all my street portraiture work has been of single individuals but towards the end of last year I started experimenting with photographing twins. Like most photographers (and people in general) I have always been fascinated by the relationship with twin siblings. The project is in its early days but I have met some fabulous twin brothers and sisters and I am very excited how this project is developing. The project is very London based at the moment but I intend to branch out throughout the UK approaching twins not only as strangers on the street but also for pre-planned photo shoots. I will continue to work on my twins personal project into 2017 whilst additionally working on my commercial photography commissions.

People of London is available now from Hoxton Mini Press.