Eric’s Note: Brian Soko is a street photographer based in Chicago, Illinois. I was first introduced to Brian’s work by Jason Martini, another street photographer based in Chicago. Brian is a native of Chicago, and has been shooting there for many years- and has experienced the changes and evolution of the city. Armed with his camera, his work is straight and honest — showing a great deal of diversity of subjects in his photos, most of which are quite dark and grim. However he shows a great deal of compassion and humanity for his subjects– and remains very humble about his work. I am pleased to share this interview with him.
1. Brian – glad to have you here! To start off, tell us more about the man behind the camera. Who is Brian Soko and what inspired him to first pick up a camera?
I was born and raised on the near north side of Chicago. I come from a very musical family. My grandfather was a popular jazz musician in Chicago, and I blame him for getting me into this lifelong mess- I mean pursuit- of artistic expression. Music, writing, and photography have been the constants throughout my life. They’re the only things I know how to do, as well as the only things I want to do. Spiritually, they keep me sated.
Years ago, I was going through some tough times- self- imposed and otherwise, and found myself at a kind of crossroad. The person I was living with at the time had a Pentax ME Super collecting dust on her bookshelf. I didn’t have a job, had just gotten out of the hospital, and was for all intents and purposes… lost. I picked up her camera one afternoon, went to Walgreens to buy some film, and walked around all day and night taking pictures of strangers- like it was the most natural thing I’d ever done.
I had never considered that what I was doing might be a little strange, nor did I care. I didn’t even know that street photography was a genre’ in and of itself for a solid year. I haven’t looked back since that afternoon.
2. When we last met in Chicago about a year ago, I shared with you some of my experiences shooting with a flash and we had a fun time experimenting in the streets. Since then, you have really embraced using the flash as a way to visualize your feelings of Chicago. How has this changed your vision in photography?
Using a flash has become another tool for me. When I started using it, I was focused on reactionary techniques. Lately, I’ve been experimenting more with it. I really like the way it feels to light up a candid scene. If I’m doing it right, I find the separation of foreground and background to be very prevalent. A kind of symbiotic tension I guess, an almost palpable push and pull.
When I look at some of the best flash work out there, it looks natural to me, an extension of the photographer’s vision. Non artificial by inherently artificial means. But mostly, I just like it.
3. Looking at your photographs, you seem to have several different techniques and approaches in your photograph. For some of your photographs, you use a flash and shoot at a very close proximity. For other of your shots, you layer and create visually complex images. However you seem to have a common thread going through all of your images- which is your interest in the people, and humanity. Why do you decide to have different approaches in your photography – and what messages are you trying to say?
What really interests me are the moments in a busy city when the sirens die down and the cell phone isn’t ringing, and for the briefest of moments, someone lowers their head in contemplation. Akin maybe to your computer going into “sleep-mode”. Trying to capture “thought” through a visual medium is extremely challenging to me.
It’s always about people for me. Content always overrides composition.
If all the elements come together, then great… but the main objective is to try to make the viewer really “see” the person. The goal is always the same no matter what method or approach I use. The challenge is integrating the different styles to fit into my viewpoint.
4. Chicago is a beautiful city that seems to be constantly changing and evolving. You have been shooting in the city for many years. How have you found the city to have changed over the years?
One of my favorite things about Chicago is her antiquitous feel. She’s a throw- back metropolis. About the only thing that’s in a constant state of flux- is the weather. The architecture, the people, the politicians, the fedoras’, the trenchcoats… on some winter afternoons, it’s like you stepped right out of a time machine.
What I do notice and think about, are the disappearing faces. Characters I’ve seen on the streets for years. People I’ve photographed, walked by, nodded at a thousand times. Then one day you don’t see them anymore. Those are the people I think about and remember.
I’ve tried to visually catalog my city with the faces that thrive in her. And I guess I miss them when they’re gone.
5. I have seen you shoot in the streets, and you shoot very close. Far closer than me and you at times made me feel uncomfortable [haha]. However when we were shooting, you were very good at talking to people and disarming them. How do you deal with people who get upset when you take their photographs, and any stories you would like to share?
It doesn’t feel right to me if I’m not working close. It’s never been ego-driven. I want to feel like I’m a part of the scene, I want the viewer to feel it, and often times, I want my subjects to feel it.
Street photography is one of the few art forms where the subjects are forced to be a part of the composition. The thing about it is, is that we’re working with personalities and emotions. Our own, as well as our subjects. You don’t know if the person you’re about to include in your work has just lost their job, lost a loved one, or in some extreme cases- on the brink of madness for any number of reasons. And on those rare occasions, the interaction can be explosive. And unless you choose to only photograph smiling people from across the street, it’s going to happen.
At this point, when people get upset, I just explain to them what I’m doing- with confidence- and move on. I think people for the most part just want you to be honest, to look them in the eye. It’s shows transparency.
6. Can you share 3 of the most meaningful photos you’ve taken, and can you tell the story of each photograph?
This shot was taken at Union Station. I was still using that old Pentax Super at the time. I knew after I developed the film that this was the type of photographer I wanted to be. This was the type of subject matter I wanted to document. It was a pivotal moment for me.
This shot was taken early on as well. At this point I think I was starting to learn how to shoot with compassion. I could photograph dark, unforgiving subject matter with the respect that’s due.
This was taken on State Street. This sums up my feelings about living in a narcissistic, capitalist society. I could go on for days, but I think this is self-explanatory.
7.You are part of street-photographers.com, a collective of fine street photographers from all around the world. How do you collaborate with one another, and how has being part of a collective helped you?
It’s been a positive experience for me. Julien Legrand- the group’s founder- has put in a lot of hard work and assembled a very talented, diverse group of photographers. We recently published our first book as a collective. Since then, we have been working together as a cohesive team.
We are not a static collective, and don’t want to use it exclusively as a place to showcase our work, but rather a platform to promote the craft. It pushes me to become a better photographer. When you’re in a group this talented, it inevitably drives you to become better at what you do.
8. You have a strong presence on Flickr, and to my knowledge you are using it primarily to share and showcase your work. What goes on in your mind before you decide to upload a photograph? How long do you generally wait, and how do you edit your images?
I need to be emotionally detached from my photographs before I look at them, or begin to work on them. I don’t have a concrete time frame. If I know I’ve got something good, the last thing I want to do is rush the process. It’s not unusual for me to work on a photograph for a couple months- or longer- before I’m happy with it. I’ll work on it for an hour, come back to it the next day, and so on, until I feel all of my options have been expended.
If I keep coming back to it, if it still peaks my interest, I not only feel that I have something worthwhile, but also- at that point- know that I’m looking at it with absolute subjectivity.
9. The majority of your work is done in monochrome, yet I have seen is that you experiment using color as a medium. Is color for you something that you like to experiment with with fun? Do you hit the streets knowing beforehand that you will be shooting in black and white or color? Or is color generally something you realize you want to keep afterwards (when shooting in RAW)?
Color is new for me, and I suspect it always will be. When I started, I only used black and white film. I’ve kind of programmed myself to see in black and white, and by that I mean that when I see a potential photograph, my mind connects the elements in b/w. Not to mention the grittiness of Chicago and the tunnels of the CTA that haven’t changed for 70 years. This town just seems to lend itself very well to b/w.
So no, I never go out with color in mind.
10. Many of your photographs are visually dark and to me have a sense of alienation and confusion. Do you feel that your photos are a reflection of your feelings of the city as well? What is your personal relationship with the city and the people who live there?
More than a reflection of the city, they’re a reflection of myself- at least the self that I’ve spent the majority of my life as. My photographs are a definitive and direct result of the life I have lived.
I really believe that the work you do creatively should say something about who you are, how you view the world. What’s the point otherwise? You can teach just about anybody how to recognize light and shadow, how to adjust their settings, the rule of thirds, how to look like an artist, etc., but you cannot teach someone to have their own voice.
There is only one way to find a voice and that’s to live, to struggle, to have the experience to authentically back up your views. Someone who comes to mind immediately is Daido Moriyama. You just can’t teach that. I don’t care how expensive your camera is.
11. You shoot really close- and I do as well. However the problem that I often find with myself is that this causes some context and the background to be lost. How important is context and background for you in comparison to the subjects you capture?
Subject is always first and foremost. Having atmosphere in the photo is almost more important than context and background. Having some kind of energy either complimenting or fighting the subject. Even if all the elements align themselves perfectly, but there’s no emotive quality… then it’s just a nicely composed picture.
Again, to me, photography is about trying to say something.
12. What are your ultimate ambitions for street photography? Do you wish to publish a book, to exhibit, to be written in the history books? Or something else?
For right now, I just want to keep learning and developing. I’d like to publish a book, but that’s probably a couple years away. I’ve only recently begun to see a semblance in my work. I suspect that one of the reasons all the greats did this until they couldn’t physically hold a camera, was because they never stopped learning.
Whether I exhibit or publish in two years or twenty all depend on whether or not I feel like I’ve said something with my work. Not whether or not someone else thinks so.
13. Who are some photographers that have influenced you and your vision? What else outside of photography has influenced your vision?
Daido Moriyama, Andre Kertesz, Bruce Davidson.
A few years back, I ran into Gary Stochl- which was a big thrill for me. I followed him around The Loop for about an hour before I talked to him. Watching him work had a definite influence on my process. He didn’t take one photograph. He was slow, methodical, evaluative, he seemed to absorb and exhaust a scene before he moved on. I think up until that point I was still runnin’ and gunnin’.
Outside of photography my biggest influence has been my Grandfather. He not only encouraged my creativity, but put a big emphasis on it. When I was a kid, he told me to listen to great drummers, study them, but never try to imitate them. If I spent my time trying to copy them, I’d never develop my own sound, my own style. I’ve applied that lesson to everything I’ve done, photography being no exception.
As I said earlier, when I started photographing people, I had no knowledge of this genre. I had no gauge or influence. I know I’m probably in the minority here, but I still don’t look at all that many photographs.
15. Who is one other contemporary street photographer that you recommend people to check out?
Jason Martini. Not only is he another Chicago guy and a very good friend of mine, but his photographs have a perceptible sense of irony and humour, which is in stark contrast to what I do. And he’s one of the few guys’ who really capture the feel of this town.
16. This is one question that I got an inspiration from Charlie Kirk. What is one question that you would have liked to answer that nobody has ever asked you- and what is it , and could you answer it?
It seems like an obvious question, but no one ever asks me why I do this. Because nothing I do, or have ever done makes me feel like I do when I’m out there.
17. One of the questions I always love to ask people I interview: What advice would you give to aspiring street photographers?
Do it for yourself and only for yourself… and clear your schedule….
If you want to give Brian a shout-out or have any questions for him, leave a comment below!