michel szulc krzyzanowski

 conceptual photography

Interview by Nicole Konsten, photography student, Australia.


Growing up in the Netherlands, Michel Szulc Krzyzanowski has photographed all around the world for the last forty years. Recently he left the Netherlands permanently to live and work in a mobile home. Currently he is based in Brazil.

Photography, for Michel, is a tool for personal growth, rather than a career. As he states; ‘each stage of learning is different’. This is reflected in his photography, expressing what he learned in that stage of life. His work overlaps in documentary and art photography.

Over the past few weeks I have looked at the work you have created over your life time, and have been intrigued by the differences in styles inside your work, and also (it seems) different techniques used. I would love to understand more about the reasons and story behind the work, how through the years you have changed as a photographer, and how you got to where you are today.

The starting point for each of my works is myself in relationship to the outside world. I believe I am a person who accepts to be in a constant process of growing. Growing into a more and more complete human being. Photography is a tool that helps me in this growing process. Growing goes in stages, and each stage is particular. Because I link this to photography, and as each stage is different, each time the photographic result is different as well. It expresses what I needed to learn.

In other words, I adapt the style and technique to assist me in my learning process as best as possible.

You studied photography at the Koninklijke Akademie in Holland. What was the reason you decided to study photography?

My father gave me a camera when I was 6 years old. As of then I have been making pictures. At a young age, 14 or 15, I knew I was going to be a photographer. Not a commercial photographer but an autonomous photographer. Hence, it was logical to go and study at Artschool.

Studying arts, design or photography is now very common amongst teenagers, what was this like when you started? What, for example, was the reaction and support you got from your family?

When I became a student there was no autonomous photography education. It was taught as an applied skill. The education was meant to make photographers that could work for assignments like wedding, fashion: commercial photographers. Late 1960's photography was not considered art yet. I firstly went to an art-school in Breda in Holland and after one year they sent me away. I had to learn everything about the chemicals and the optics and I just didn't go to those classes. Sometime later I could study at a second art-school and there they allowed me to make my own study-program.

In that time there were only boys studying photography. Now the majority are girls.

My father was very supportive. My mother was not. I had to pay for my own education.

Forty years ago photography wasn’t as readily available to everyone as it is nowadays, do you think that there was less ‘competition’ in the world of photographers as there is today?

It is a myth to think that forty years ago it was easier to make a career as a photographer compared to nowadays.

The truth is, it has never been easy and it will never be easy.

Forty years ago photography was not accepted as art. Many times my work was refused because "it was just photography". Many times I couldn't sell my prints because they were "just pictures".

Concerning competition: that has always been there and it will always been there.

In the USA I met a girl for my project "The most beautiful people in the world" and she said: "I am the most beautiful and I have no competition".

That is a basic truth: competition is something you create in your own mind.

I do not feel nor think I have competition: I do what I feel I need to do and that's it. Sometimes it gets sold, exhibited, published and sometimes it doesn’t.

Do you feel that your Dutch background and education has influenced your work?

Yes, very much so. But there are stronger influences; like my father being Polish, the way my parents brought me up, my family, etc.

Since starting as a professional photographer in the 1970’s, there have been many technological developments. Has this changed your work?

There has been in fact only one technical development that has been important for me as an artist-photographer: the digital revolution. Once photography became digital and the internet became available, my possibilities grew enormously.

As a student, I am of course interested in how photographers get their work published.

It is very easy. You need to make work that is original and authentic and of high quality. If you are able to produce that, you will get published and more, but it has to be original and authentic: standing out, different, amazing, impressing.

Leaving any financial reasons aside, how important is being published to you?

It is important to share what you make with an audience. I have something to tell with my pictures and when my pictures disappear in a box in a cave, what sense does all my effort make?

You "are" somebody, when your pictures are seen.

As you have built your reputation, your work is now seen throughout the world. Does this add pressure to you, and your works, knowing it will seen by the public over and over, and go into historical databases?

No, that doesn't influence me at all. I remain a normal guy.

You started on your series the Sequences, when you finished your degree in Holland. What was the initial inspiration behind this?

To find out who I was, because I didn't know. I came out of my childhood as an uprooted person due to family circumstances. I had to grow my own roots and for this I used photography, i.c. sequences.

Soon after you started this series it was exhibited and was very successful. Do you feel the success of the sequences lay out your career path for you?

I don't think so. I gave up making sequences and started new things each time. Of course through sequences I got reputation and that opens doors. Gives more easy access to the world of photography.

But to be clear: words like "career" and "success" are rather empty and hollow for me. They have no meaning for me. I simply do what I feel I must do. I live and work out of passion and make pictures from necessity. Whether this makes a career or is successful is not of my concern. It is not about that. Not at all.

To grow as a person and to enjoy making pictures and to be happy and in harmony and healthy: that is what it is about. All the rest is tralala.

You are now working from a mobile home, throughout the world. Did you change your lifestyle mainly for easier access to continue your life work of photography? Do you feel this change in scenery and lifestyle necessary for you to keep inspired?

Exactly. It puts me in the right context to be creative and full of inspiration. Life is the most fascinating for me in this way for the people I meet and the situations I happen to come in.

As a photographer you can be seen as both an artist and a documentary photographer. Where would you say your heart lies?

Those are labels and I do not stick them on me. People can see me as they like. Help yourself.

I have always been interested in the fact that documentary photographers tend to travel the world for stories, even though stories can be found much closer to home. Your Henny series for example, reflects this. What are your thoughts behind this project?

Documentary photographers are often shopkeepers. They offer for sale what they think the customers will want to buy. In documentary photography we see that subjects have to be more far away than before, more extreme, more dramatic, more shocking, etc. This is all for commercial reasons. One of the bodies that is behind all this craziness is World Press Photo. It is a choice as a documentary photographer if you want to participate in the race for the most extreme images to shock the audience the most as you can. To hunt the world for the most bizarre.

I am not interested in that at all. And follow what I feel I want to express and tell. That is based on humanism. Concern, solidarity, love, affection, etc

Your photography has taken you all over the world, connecting with so many different kinds of people and lifestyles. Have these experiences changed you as a person?

Very much so. That was also the reason for traveling so much: to want to change. It boosted my process of growing and becoming more complete. And it still does. I continue to feel as a debutant. An absolute and eternal beginner. Still surprised and enlightened by every person I meet, every situation I experience.

Many of your works need you to connect with a person to be able to tell the story. For example in Henny or the most beautiful people in the world. Do you ever feel like you are intruding in their lives?

No. Because before making pictures I develop a relationship with the person. When this is established I possibly make pictures when relevant.

Your life has revolved around photography for over forty years now, and to an outsider your life could seem blessed, being able to do what you love. Would you change any decisions you have made through the years?

Never regret. Never feel guilty... Every decision was positive and necessary and educational.

My life was not blessed. I made decisions and choices that resulted in certain things happening. Being able to ‘do what you love’ is a choice. It never comes to someone just like that. You must choose, and this is a constant and daily activity. That can only happen and function when you have passion. Others may call this kind of life "blessed", but it is of the own making. It is a myth to believe that there is a kind of Santa Claus giving a blessed life to certain people.

You, Nicole, can have one too!