Finding Stories in the Ordinary: How Street Photographer Tomasz Kulbowski Sees The World
By Lars - 6 min read
“The devil may be in the details, but the stories are too”
In his photos, Tomasz Kulbowski (@kulbowski) pays close attention to composition, creating masterfully arranged photos of everyday life. We asked him to explain his thought process – and why he doesn’t think photos show the truth.
On your website, you write that you’re in “search of the moments, which can transform ordinary everyday scenes into unique short stories.” How did that quest begin?
That sentence is the shortest way to explain my work, and so I find myself using it quite often. I have always been interested in looking at the world through the viewfinder, but I began to do it more consciously when I moved to London around ten years ago. There, I began using photography as a way to explore my new surroundings and it quickly became an obsession…
“You can learn where to place yourself”
In what way?
I was shooting daily, for several years, creating an endless stream of photos. At some point, I started reading more about photography to gain confidence and control over the creative process. That got me interested in documenting everyday life, public space and our interaction with it – and I kept doing it, even when I eventually moved to Australia and then to Poland.
How do you find the moments you capture?
That is the essence of photography: to be in the right place at the right time. It doesn’t only mean finding a location and subject, but – more importantly – to position yourself correctly, to include or remove certain elements from the frame. With time and practice you can (up to some point) predict where you should place yourself, even before a scene develops into something worth shooting.
You create the conditions and wait for something to happen.
I’m always alert and focused, looking for those kinds of moments which have a potential to become interesting. Once it happens, I’m ready and at that point the composition comes naturally and instinctively.
“All you need is some practice, preparation and luck”
This picture of yours is a great example of what you just said: By positioning yourself in a good spot, you have managed to include three different layers: Foreground, middleground, background. Do you think about composition in those terms?
It’s no complex thought process, but I’m usually aware of composition. In this particular case, I had a general idea of what I wanted to achieve once I had arrived at this location. I knew I wanted to align the ground with the horizon, I had already seen some action on the right side of the frame, so I needed someone to fill in the left side. And I was looking for another element in the center of the frame as well. I was shooting against the sun, so I knew I would get the dark silhouettes and hardly any details. It sounds like a complex and time-consuming process, but usually it’s a matter of seconds. With some practice, preparation and luck, that’s all the time you need.
”I want to stay open to whatever comes my way”
It’s a subconscious process?
When I look at my surroundings, I’m constantly switching between points of perspective – I try to be aware of what is happening close to me, in the distance and in the far background. When I see some sort of alignment, connection, or repetition, I try to connect all those planes into one compressed scene. On the other hand I really enjoy taking simple, minimalistic shots as well. Sometimes less is more and it’s good to keep in mind that we can work with the frame not only by adding more elements, but by reducing the content. It all depends on the context and your goal. I don’t want to limit myself to only one approach or aesthetic. I want to stay open to whatever comes my way.
This photo also uses an interesting perspective; one that takes a while to figure out. Is it fair to say you’re trying to reinterpret space to create these exceptional moments?
Yes, that is one of the visual strategies I’m using in my work. In this case it’s about looking for the individual elements within the crowd. I like to consider the overall area of the shot, the many elements in it, and at the same time be aware of the details. The devil may be “in the details”, but the stories are too.
”Photography is not the truth”
What do you mean?
The surrounding creates a context, but the context itself is nothing interesting. Only once you locate the real subject, something that defines or organizes the context, you have a frame. So I guess you’re right: it is about reinterpreting space by using its elements to bring an idea into the frame and make it clear and readable for others.
A documentarian mainly observes, but a photographer introduces their own perspective. How to you strike the balance between watching and telling a story?
Interesting question! I don’t think there is a way to just observe and not influence at all. In a documentary practice, you always affect the result, or the story, in one way or another – by the words you’re choosing to use, if you’re a writer, or by the elements you decide to include in or remove from the frame, if you’re a photographer. There are so many variables at play, including our own sensibilities, personality, and approach. But I don’t see it as an obstacle or a problem. It’s just a part of the medium. After all, photography is not the truth…
What is it then?
It something that looks like the truth, or an interpretation of it. But that doesn’t mean it’s useless or false – just the opposite. I believe in the importance of creating and sharing honest, not misleading and morally correct stories, not only in photography. That’s what makes them valuable.
Tomasz Kulbowski (@kulbowski) is a photographer based in Lublin, Poland. He also teaches photography workshops in different countries and runs the Eastreet Initiative, an exhibition and publication dedicated to street photography from Eastern Europe. All photos on this page are by him.