Not defining culture: in conversation with Reuben Bastienne-Lewis

When defining culture isn’t the aim of a photo, what’s the purpose of the lens? South London photographer, Reuben Bastienne-Lewis, offers an insight into how instant photos are leading to imitation, and why his ambition isn’t to say what culture is. From his album artwork for King Krule to a documentary project in Kampala, Reuben’s work is proof of how patience can be a virtue in photography.

“The most powerful thing you have as a photographer is what you don’t show, or to hold something back” 

Have you attempted to give an insight into the youth culture of today?
I didn’t really intend to. In my work I’m not trying to signify what culture is and isn’t. A lot of my photography started off in a very naive place. You always start off looking for these big events thinking ‘this is culture. This is what means something to you.’ But for me I guess my photography is a reflection of myself in terms of the people I congregate with. You can talk about musicians and stuff, but I think we’re aware this is just for now, but it might not be as significant in ten or twenty years time.

Don’t you think you’ll look back and say ‘that was the culture back then’?
Everything is culture. I want to have a body of work where someone in twenty or thirty years time can access it and get a sense of community. I’m more interested in showing people as people. I might have a picture of a painter, musician, or singer, but I’m not interested in showing a guitarist with a guitar or a painter next to their canvas.

So you’re not assigning it any labels?
I think it’s hard to decide what is culture in the present form. I think you have to give it a bit of distance to understand it and its influence. I want to keep making work and for it to be something someone can look back at in twenty years time and get a sense of place. It’s more how I fell in love with photography – it’s those 60s and 70s photographs where I can look back and look at Bruce Davidson’s or Malick Sidibé’s work and get a sense of the clothes people were wearing. You get the cultural significance. Of course it’s culture because photography is the perfect way to document it. When I started taking pictures I had no idea there was Instagram or that there were so many people trying to document youth culture.

If your photography is a reflection of you is it subjective photography?
More recently I’ve been trying to not think about when I take pictures. You could say I’m objectively trying to be unsubjective. It’s like a double-take. You see something, you decide ‘oh that’s a picture’, you take the picture and go home. I try not to develop film straight away. I try not to look at my digital camera if I’m taking something.

Working with artists like King Krule etc. are you given a lot of freedom to develop your own ideas?
For the first album artwork for 6 Feet Beneath the Moon – I had only been taking pictures for a few years and there was already the finished album cover for me to reference. Archy and his brother already had all these visual references. I remember we were looking at a lot of The Slits album covers and stuff – punk style records where it is very collage. I was still given a lot of freedom to frame things the way I wanted, and it’s that trust you get from someone who is familiar with your work. I prefer to work where I’ve got a sense of trust to experiment. More recently, I was working on the EP for Cosmo Pyke. We found pictures in his family albums and scanned pictures in books and objects and printed them off. I wanted to work with this other artist – Jessica Almaguer – who’s this amazing collage artist based in LA. She doesn’t work very digitally. I did the album cover and designed the type face.

What’s your relationship with music photography?
I love it. Music photography is a great way of understanding the person in front of you. It’s great because musicians often like a certain level of anonymity. It gives you so many more creative opportunities. Being able to be familiar with someone’s sound and being able to aid that visually. I wouldn’t want to make a grandiose claim and say my photography represents a musician’s sound. It gives you a significant thing to work on.

Do you find it difficult to separate the approaches of directing, graphic design and photography?
One of the most important things as a director is you need to have no consideration for production budgets. It’s a bit of a hard ask. I like being in control and ticking the boxes and also being able to be multifaceted. I think people always try to pigeonhole you.

Do you have any ambitions for changing the perception of photography? 
I want to deconstruct a lot of the exclusivity of it. I’m really bored of white wall, indoor galleries with glass fronts. I certainly think we need more variety in terms of curation, galleries and spaces where there aren’t galleries. We need more diversification in terms of artists, but I think there is a lot of diversity that is getting pushed through now. I guess the other thing is I’ve seen this anxiety with a lot of photographers now – Instagram culture – the recognition people get through followers. From that culture you see people imitating a lot of other people. I would want to just fully encourage people to use their own voice. I think Instagram makes people very critical of their own work. Larry Clark took seventeen years to bring out Tulsa – that was work! I want to encourage people to remove themselves from this instant culture of photography because it’s so dangerous. You start putting your work out all the time before it’s fully actualised. I see so many people wanting to take pictures of really controversial things – there are loads of photographers that move to big cities to document this really urban, gritty stuff. I fully want people to explore their own world, being aware of your own voice and not rushing it. Danny Lyon’s motorbike project is 200 pages of text and 50 pictures at the end. That’s one of the most amazing documentary pieces ever! Just don’t compare yourself to what’s going on.

What’s your photographic book – City of the Seven Hills – about?
I had the opportunity to go to Uganda while a friend of mine was working on a film out there. I went out and did a little bit of preliminary research. I hadn’t known what to expect. I used to get on the back of a boda boda – a motorbike – I just drove around all day discovering the city. I was looking at a lot of August Sander at the time – he’s had some controversial ideas and one is everyone is divided into seven categories – he used to go around photographing people full body. I ended up doing something similar – Kampala is an amazingly diverse city. It’s such an amazing place to take pictures. I just shot all this work and had no idea how it was going to come out and a year later I decided to make a book out of it – it’s still a prototype.

Do you find a lot of documentary photography becomes uniform?
It’s so easy to communicate now, so you find people are using a lot of the same equipment as someone else. It goes back to the Instagram culture where a lot of people are imitating. It’s amazing that you have such a wealth of reference but it can get uniform – what I’ve noticed is a lot of ‘framers’ with automatic cameras who aren’t interested in the technological side of it. I can’t count on both hands the amount of times I’ve seen a project on understanding masculinity or understanding male identity etc. People like Paul Graham have pioneered ambiguous documentary which is about the personal insight and the small-scale. It goes back to Robert Frank and William Klein.

Do you always have an intention when you’re shooting i.e. a project?
A lot of photographers just shoot project after project. For me I like to separate myself from the project for a few months. At the moment I just continuously photograph. I like to go into things open-minded and when it comes to bubbling down into the academic thinking it’s afterwards. I like collaboration because there is usually an outcome date. There’s a definite anxiety that photographers need to shoot projects.

Is your photography consciously influenced by subculture and politics?
Of course, because everything is politics. When I started off I would take pictures of protests and stuff. I try to stay true to my work, so I wouldn’t want to go and say this is the state of this group of people. I explore my own world and my own politics – it’s hard not to be aware of politics. Photography can be an amazing tool for activism. It’s problematic because people will always be able to see through it and it’s not true – I can never fully be immersed in someone else’s world. I can never know what it would be like to be a Calais refugee or homeless in London. My work is influenced by post-modernism. Everyone will come up with their own meanings. It’s about interpretation.

What’s your approach to taking a photograph?
I guess for portraits I think I have a certain ethos – there’s a certain thing I do – psychological realism, which is essentially ‘can you put a camera in front of someone and capture a split second, even if it’s that tiny second where you’re not aware that they’ve got a camera.’ That’s what I’m trying to do at the moment. It’s about not trying to put too much academic thought into my work. It’s about shooting first and thinking afterwards. The most powerful thing you have as a photographer is what you don’t show, or to hold something back.

Are there any other photographers you’re influenced by?
Boogie. Everybody Street is a photographic inspiration. Simon Wheatley.

What does photography give you that nothing else does?
A reason to get out the house! It helps me understand what I was thinking at a certain time. It gives me a language which other people can interpret in so many other ways. It allows you to look at something in more clarity. It’s the ability to record something in more detail, with more frequency than my actual brain.

To view more of Reuben’s work click here

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