Interview with Maciej Dakowicz on his “Cardiff After Dark” book Published by Thames & Hudson

Maciej Dakowicz is a Polish photographer, traveller, organiser of photo trips and gallerist living in London, UK. He holds a PhD in computer science, but abandoned science to focus on photography. He is one of the founders of Third Floor Gallery in Cardiff, a member of the Wideangle photo agency and the un-posed Polish street photography collective. He has worked on various photographic projects in the UK and abroad and his interests are in documentary, travel and street photography.

I am very pleased to have interviewed Maciej for his new “Cardiff After Dark“, which is published with Thames & Hudson. The book is available now from various international book retailers, including and the Book Depository (worldwide shipping).

Read more to find out about Maciej and his new book!

1. Great to have you Maciej and congratulations on your “Cardiff After Dark” book that will be published by Thames and Hudson. Before we talk about that project specifically, tell us a bit of the background behind your photography. Is photography that you picked up early on in life, and how did you stumble upon it as a narrative form?

© Maciej Dakowicz

Thanks Eric for the invitation. I picked up photography quite late, I think it was 2002 when I bought my first ever camera, it was a basic film SLR camera, digital was a real novelty at that time. I was living in Hong Kong working as researcher at university doing programming. It was quite exciting to be there and I just wanted to photograph this fascinating place to share it with my family and friends.

When digital cameras became more popular and more affordable I got one and soon started sharing my photos on the Internet. I quite quickly got addicted to the TrekEarth website, where people post travel photos and comment on them. There I learned that photos can be composed, what is the aperture and shutter speed. There I found out about Magnum agency and first time heard “the decisive moment” term.

I got hooked up completely, I lost enthusiasm about my research work and spent all my free time digging photography. I left Hong Kong in Summer 2004 with my freshly bought first DSLR and moved to Wales at the end of that year to do research at university again, but also to study for a PhD degree. I was still more into photography than research.

I started working on short documentary projects travelling abroad to Cambodia, India, Bangladesh, Tanzania, Malawi and got two local projects going on in Cardiff – “The Staff Club” about a social club in the city centre of Cardiff and “Cardiff After Dark” about the city’s night life. Unfortunately the social club was suddenly shut down in Oct 2007, terminating my work about that place.

I left the university in Jan 2009 if I remember well, got the PhD degree a year after and been doing photography only since then.

2. To me your style of photography feels part street, part documentary, and part sociological. How do you relate with each of these classifications and to which extent?

© Maciej Dakowicz

I think my photography mixes all these genres, but there is always a strong sense of street photography in my images, whether I work on documentary projects or shoot portraits.

I think my travel images tell the most about me, as they are a mixture of different styles. For example when I am in India I go out in the morning mostly without any specific agenda, just roaming streets with my camera, hunting for moments.

But if I find an interesting place, let’s say a small bar or a gym, I go in there and get close to people, blend myself into the environment, document moments I  witness, shoot details, portraits and different scenes. Then I am out on the street again doing my street photography.

So if you go through my travel photographs you will find a great variety of styles and subjects in them.

3. For your “Cardiff After Dark” project, tell us a bit of the backstory. When did you realize that it would be an interesting project, and why did you decide to pursue it head-on?

© Maciej Dakowicz

I started shooting Cardiff After Dark sometime in 2005, soon after moving to Cardiff. The vibrant city’s night life was something very new to me, I have never seen such happening night life scene before. I immediately wanted to photograph that.

I remember my first night shooting there – with a Canon EOS 20D and flash, pictures were not very good, too much posed photos, harsh light from the flash. I needed better equipment to shoot without flash. I was experimenting shooting using the available light with 24 and 50mm lenses, but these were or too dark or too long on that crop factor camera.

Luckily for me Canon released the full frame 5D in 2005 which I bough almost immediately when it was in stock. Then I got the little 35mm f/2 lens and I was finally able to shoot the kind of pictures I wanted. I could do street photography at night using available light. So I don’t think I could do the project without this modern technology.

At the beginning I was not very serious about these pictures. I was shooting after going out with friends, instead of going back home from the pub I would hang around for a little bit to take some photos. But then I got into it seriously, I was going to the city centre purposely to take pictures. This work was becoming more and more known and it was stimulating. I wanted to produce new work constantly and share with people.

Positive feedback encouraged me to go out shooting again next weekend.

4. Judging from the photos from “Cardiff After Dark”- you shot late at night in the midst of all the drama, chaos, and intoxicated action. Describe how you would mentally (and perhaps physical) prepare yourself to shoot in Cardiff After Dark and some challenges you faced along the way.

© Maciej Dakowicz

Mentally? First I have a couple of beers in a pub with friends or at home. For me beer helps to relax. You think less about the consequences. You just go for the shot. For this kind of work I say less thinking means better pictures.

Physically? Pack the camera, spare batteries, couple of cards, a lens hood, an umbrella and go. Simple as that.

Challenges? The biggest challenge was often simply forcing myself to go out, as you never know what is going to happen to you. The weather was most of the time quite bad which was not encouraging either. My friends and family were always saying: “Going there again?”.

Anyway, once I got there the challenges included: avoiding posed images, getting close, watching your back, not running into troubles, and finally getting back home safely with some good pictures on the card inside the camera. When shooting a scene often the people around can cause more trouble than the potographed ones, so you need to be aware who is observing you. You can say that shooting at night this kind of pictures is kinda one big challenge.

5. I am sure that there were many people who objected being photographed (but also some people who quite enjoyed it). How did you react to these types of people?

© Maciej Dakowicz

When shooting at night I have he camera hanging on my shoulder and it is pretty obvious that I am there to take pictures. But I am rather discrete, I see the situation, get as close as possible in these circumstances, take my pictures and move.

I try not to influence the situation with my presence, I want to capture the moment they way it is happening. So I shoot without asking and it happens that I get noticed. Mostly people start posing, making funny faces or looking tough in such situations. Some people simply ignore me and continue doing their stuff, others start questioning me, asking why I am taking pictures, while others tell me to delete the shot they saw me taking.

Different reactions, you never know what you are going to get once people spot you. When people start questioning me I do not engage myself into a discussion or argument, they rarely lead to pictures, consume my time and energy and can easily ruin the night. I cut them short and go my way. If it is not possible I try to move towards the nearest policeman. They usually take my side, as it is legal to photograph in public in the UK.

6. To collect enough photographs for a book is a daunting task. Could you share with us approximately how many photos you took (in preparation for the project), how many nights of shooting you put in, and the final number of photographs?

© Maciej Dakowicz

The book contains 99 pictures. The editing process was quite a challenge. I have shot thousands of pictures, most of them were bad. But I need to shoot a lot to get something finally, I need to be in that “Shooting mode”, to be ready for the shot when things happen.

Also when possible I need to work the picture, shoot the situation until I get my shot. So if the night is good I bring home several hundred pictures, on a bad night a couple dozens. Looking from the perspective of the book there were some good nights, from which several pictures made their way into the book. There were nights when none of the pictures were usable.

I have no clue how many nights I shot in Cardiff, a lot I would say, dozens. I would have to go through my archives scattered on several external hard drives, not an easy task.

7. In preparation for editing and sequencing the book, could you describe the process? How much of if was done by yourself versus done with the assistance and overview of others? Anyone in particular that helped you tremendously?

© Maciej Dakowicz

The idea of the book was that it should contain 80-100 images. I started working on it by selecting a set of around 45 images which were the strongest ones for me. The idea was to build the book around these. Then there was another set of around 80 images being my second choices.

I sent the selection to the publisher on a hard drive together with a huge folder containing almost all the technically usable images from the project, hundreds and hundreds of images. I wanted them to have them all, so they could see if there were any that I might have overlooked. And they did find a few – that’s how the pictures of people posing found their way into the book.

So I sent all these images to T&H and a couple of days later left the UK for 6 months. I went to Indonesia and travelled to India, Myanmar and some other places. We were supposed to be working on the book and I was away in Asia. So everything had to be done using the internet.

After a couple of weeks I was forwarded an email with a pdf from the designers of their first edit. It was exciting seeing things as double page spreads. The book coming to life! But quite a few of my favourites were missing. I didn’t feel it quite worked so we started adjusting things, trying to get an edit that would make both the publisher and me happy.

From that point on I was editing the work with Johanna Neurath from T&H. She had an idea how the book should look and worked with the designers on that. Her experience was invaluable here. There were lots of things to think about. We discussed whether to make the book purely visual or try to make it more editorial and tell a story. And hopefully we managed in the end to do both.

There was also a lot of discussion about just how “revealing” the book should be. (I have a few photos of people exposing intimate parts of their bodies for example.) We didn’t want the book to need a “Parental Advisory Explicit Content” sticker on it! But on the other hand we were agreed it was important to make sure we told all sides of the story and to give a truthful picture, without being over or under sensitive.

So it was very important to get the edit right – to make something well-balanced. T&H also wanted to include enough images that are my “classics” perhaps the more sensational ones which are quite well known, but also make sure we included images that hadn’t been published in print before to put the better known ones into a fuller context. I’m talking here about the portraits and some of the quieter and more abstract images.

Anyway, it was Johanna’s idea to make some full bleed images at various intervals throughout the book to create small visual chapters and pauses. The sequencing is very important and a careful reader will find various little stories in the bigger story and there are little visual nuances connecting consecutive images that I hope the reader will notice too.

It took us at least another month until we settled on the final selection of the images and the final sequence. There was lots of emailing back and forth and shuffling things around. It became pretty difficult as we got closer to the final deadline in January since I was in Asia having problems with my internet dongles in Indonesia and India and over the New Year holiday when we finally agreed everything Johanna was in a tiny cottage in Suffolk with patchy internet access, not making the time difference easier.

And the Skype interview I did with Sean O’Hagan from the Guardian for the book’s introduction – that was quite something – I was in a little coastal town Diu in India talking to Sean on my hotel’s balcony at night, barely hearing what he was asking me and almost shouting to my laptop’s microphone, repeating every sentence twice, quite an experience. So making the book was tricky, but we did it.

8. Who are some photographers that have influenced your photography and what are some of your favorite photo books?

© Maciej Dakowicz

It is a difficult question, as I have been influenced by so many photographers. I have been living photography for like 7 years now and during that time I have seen countless number of photographs.

I collect photo books and I have more than 300 of them – there were times I was buying several books a week. I do not buy so many anymore – no space to keep them and unfortunately not much of spare money at the moment. Also I had to ship all my books in boxes to my parent’s house in Poland as they were taking too much space. They were gluing me to one place while I wanted to be able to move easily from one place to another (which I did moving from Cardiff to London in a small van), and this amount of books was making it impossible.

But if I have to list some names then it is going to Alex Webb, Harry Gruyaert, early Josef Koudelka, Martin Parr, Stephen Shore… Their names come to my mind sometimes when I am out shooting. I think to myself – ha, it is a Stephen Shore scene or it is an Alex Webb moment.

And my favourite books? I have a few. Exiles by Josef Koudelka, Lumiere Blanches by Harry Gruyaert, Hot Light/Half Made Worlds by Alex Webb, The Uncommon Places by Stephen Shore, The Americans by Robert Frank, In the Balkans by Nicos Economopoulos, Satellites by Jonas Bendiksen, William Eggleston’s Guide, Magnum Stories.

9. Getting a book published (especially with a prestigious publisher like Thames and Hudson) is getting more and more rare in this digital age. Did you approach Thames and Hudson to publish this project (or vice versa) and what are your thoughts on self-publishing (like blurb) versus getting a traditional publisher?

Cover of Maciej’s “Cardiff After Dark” book

I was very lucky here. Soon after Perpignan and the Daily Mail publishing my photos I was contacted by a brand new publishing company. They asked me if I would like to make a book about Cardiff nights with them. I didn’t know what to think about it, so I emailed Johanna from T&H to ask her advice. I already knew Johanna from Flickr, and because we’d been in touch when T&H were putting the Street Photography Now book together and she also helped with the SPN exhibition at Third Floor Gallery in Cardiff.

So I asked Johanna’s advice and she said: “Wait a minute before you reply, it’s a long shot but why don’t I show your pictures in our next editorial meeting and see if T&H wants to publish it?”. And they said yes. Lucky me. To quote Johanna: “T&H finally decided to publish Cardiff After Dark because everyone in the publishing meeting remembered your pictures from Street Photography Now. To be honest SPN took T&H by surprise since no one expected to find quite such an enthusiastic audience in “real world” bookshops – it proved the street photography audience is not only online… So we are keeping our fingers crossed for Cardiff After Dark!”

Self-publishing vs a traditional publisher? Self publishing requires an investment and distribution is a challenge, as you have to find ways to distribute the books yourself. I didn’t have the money to invest in publishing the book by myself and doing it with Blurb was out of question, as their pricing is not very attractive anymore.

I also don’t know much about publishing or design or book printing, I suppose I would have to cooperate with a designer to make it. So I was only interested in having this work published with a traditional publisher not requiring me to cover the production and publishing costs. The book would be designed professionally by them, printed using quality materials, be reasonably priced and widely distributed.

I am very lucky to have T&H as the publisher, because their distribution network is incredible. The book is simply available worldwide. And the price for such a quality book is very reasonable – a self-published hard cover book with 128 pages of such quality as mine (I mean the book as a physical object) would cost much, much more.

One thing I regret a bit is that because I was travelling and had to work to T&H’s schedule I wasn’t involved in the proofing process which would have been interesting. From what T&H say my images were a real challenge because the colours are so saturated. I think there was a bit of experimenting with different inks and papers until they figured out the best way to reproduce them. Anyhow, I’m pleased with the end results – most of the photos look much better than how I’ve seen them before before in newspapers or magazines.

Ah, and soon after signing the contract with T&H I had another publisher interested in making a book, this time a well established publisher from France.

10. In a recent chat we had via email, you mentioned that Martin Parr is going to write some text in your book about your project. Describe your relationship with Martin parr and how he and his work influences you.

Martin holds the flyer promoting Third Floor Gallery’s (which I established with Joni in Jan 2010) first ever exhibition – LoveUK by Peter Dench, photo taken by Paul Reas, the author of the classic “I can help” photo book

Martin Parr was asked by T&H to provide a short quote that could be used to promote the book. He knew the Cardiff After Dark project and having a favourable sentence or two from such an important photographer seemed like a sweet idea. So Martin was contacted, he agreed and quickly wrote a little sentence. You can see it on the back cover together with a quote form The Guardian’s writer Sean O’Hagan, who wrote the introduction to the book. I respect Martin very much and I am a big fan of his work. He is a very prolific photographer, producing new projects and books constantly and it amazes me how many things he has done in his life. Amazing. One of the most hard working and creative people I know.

11. We know that no photography is purely objective. The photographers who shoot are selective (and even more so in the editing phase). I have read a few scathing reviews of your “Cardiff After Dark” project (before your book got announced to be published) that it was too “judgmental” of the people at Cardiff After Dark. How much of the project do you feel is “straight documentary” versus your own social critique?

© Maciej Dakowicz

Well, to be honest I don’t know if it is a documentary or a critique.

For me it was just a street photography project that I was doing at night. Most of the street photography projects are done during the day and mine was done in the dark of the night. I was taking these pictures simply because I thought that the city centre of Cardiff is a gold mine for unusual moments, so I wanted to be there with my camera.

I never thought about trying to say something about the British society or critiquing certain behaviours. My motives were very simple – getting good pictures, capturing emotions and situations.

Of course I was being selective, not only because of what I was shooting, but also when editing and sequencing images.

If you look at the book you will see a great variety of images, and that’s how I want people to see the nights in Cardiff. I want them to see both the positive and negative aspects of British night life, as on a single night you get these two.

I think the book is very democratic. Some of the papers that used these pictures before were not very democratic, they used them to tell their own story, critiquing the state of the British society or me as a foreign photographer taking pictures of British people getting drunk. But their story was not my story.

My story is much wider than just the one consisting of the images of people who drunk too much. In my story there is place for laughing, partying, fun, love, drinking, eating, getting into troubles, being sick, falling asleep, getting back home, everything.

12. You also travel extensively all around the world and do a ton of charity and NGO work. Why is this type of work important to you?

© Maciej Dakowicz

Most of my recent travels are the photography trips that I organize for very small groups of people, usually consisting of three participants. We travel to exotic destinations for a week, two or more and I share my photographic and travelling knowledge with the group, shooting in pairs every day and editing together. I have already organised seven of such adventures (including several trips to India) and they have been very successful. Spending so much time with me on a trip like that, shooting and editing, changes people as photographers.

Before I used to contribute to a magazine called NEED, that was featuring stories about humanitarian and social issues. For NEED I travelled to some remote locations, including Tanzania, Malawi, India and Pakistan to shoot stories such as the Kashmir earthquake aftermath, street children of Kolkata and Flying Medical Service in Africa. Working on such stories involved cooperation with local NGOs. They gave access to places that visitors do not see. Unfortunately the magazine had financial problems and had to close down.

I really enjoy working on humanitarian projects, showing problems of this world and how they are being solved. Also, this often involves travelling to remote locations, which is very appealing to me as well.

I need to travel, it is a thing that once you start doing you cannot stop. But I travel to photograph, I could not go to a place and visit it as a tourist. I would see pictures happening around me and suffer not being able to capture them.

When I am too long in one place I get  these itchy feet – need to travel somewhere, recharge my internal batteries, bring some new photographs. So I can be living in London,  doing my stuff here, shoot and work on projects, but once I while I need to get far away to come back with fresh mind and fresh pictures.

13. Can you make a selection of three photographs from “Cardiff After Dark” and deceive the story behind each shot?

© Maciej Dakowicz

I was on St Mary St, near one of the clubs. There was some action going on at the entrance and suddenly a man was thrown out of the club by the security guards onto the street – right in front of me! His shirt was torn and covered in blood, his face as well.

Without much thinking I snapped two or three frames. He did not even notice, as quickly I was a part of a small crowd of onlookers. He did not look to happy, I think he just went back home.

I posted this picture on the Internet without any description, as I did not really know what happened to him. The whole situation lasted moments and I just did not think to ask what happened.

I also very rarely caption my Cardiff night photos, I want people to interpret the images the way they want to, without giving them the whole information about it, I want my pictures to ask questions, not give answers. Later this picture appeared in newspapers as one of the few images showing Cardiff night life.

Then I got an email from his mother. She was not happy, she said because of this picture people will think he was a thug looking for problems. She said it was not the case, he was attacked by a group of people in a club just because he was big and ginger. I wish I knew that.

© Maciej Dakowicz

I was shooting on that day with Gareth Phillips, who was doing a story about Cardiff’s night life for a newspaper. We got separated at some point and after a while I saw him shooting pictures of two girls standing in the middle of the road, they were posing for him. There was quite a lot of people watching that around Gareth.

Without much thinking I joined the crowd and got close as well to snap a frame or two. Seems like the girls got embarrassed by all this situation, started giggling putting their heads down for a moment. And that’s when I got the picture.

© Maciej Dakowicz

The scene happened on Caroline Street, a small street of St Mary Street, known as the chippy lane, as there is the largest cluster of kebab shops in the city centre there. I think it was a match day in Cardiff, at the Millennium Stadium that can accommodate up to sth like 60 thousand people. So the city centre at night was quite crowded and lively. Bins were full and overflown.

So I was on the chippy lane among people eating kebabs and chips. Then a group of young people appeared and of of them, a girl dressed up as Amy Winehouse, suddenly laid down on the dirty pavement next to the biggest pile of rubbish pretending to be drunk and her friends took some pictures of her. Just for a laugh.

It happened right in front of me, so I shot it as well, but not including her friends in the frame, to make the image less obvious. The image was later used by one of the newspapers with a misleading caption, saying stuff like a drunk girl lies among rubbish on the pavement, which was not true at all (even though they new the true story behind the picture). If you look closely you will see a gentle smile on the girl’s face.

14. What do you ultimately want the viewer to get out of “Cardiff After Dark”?

© Maciej Dakowicz

Ha, I don’t really know. I guess I simply want them to enjoy the book, have a good time going through it. I want them to be amused, sad, shocked and laughing. I want a full gamut of emotions, as it is what you get on a weekend night in Cardiff or any other British town. I want people not only to appreciate single images, but also to find connection between pictures, all these little stories hidden there.

15. Any other future projects you are currently working on that you would like to mention?

© Maciej Dakowicz

I moved recently to London, so I am still new there, trying to find my way. I try to shoot as often as I can, mostly street photography recently, but finally I have some ideas for projects here and gonna start working on them as soon as I have some time. I have a couple of small ongoing projects in India too, so I am glad I can continue working on them in November, as I am going there again with two groups doing the photo trip workshops with them.

But because of the book I am very busy now. It will be out in October and it is going to be a very intense month for me. I am preparing talks for several events promoting the book, organising an exhibition at Third Floor Gallery in Cardiff and White Cloth Gallery in Leeds, talking about exhibiting this work in Poland and doing some interviews (including this one).

I am also organising a weekend photography workshop with an In-Public photographer David Solomons in London for the end of October (27th & 28th. More details about the workshop here.

I am also finalising details of the two photo trips to India I am organising in November this year. It is going to be my 11th visit to that fascinating country. I am also exhibiting my Cardiff After Dark at Encontros da Imagem 2012 festival in Braga, Portugal and at the 5TH EUROPEAN MONTH OF PHOTOGRAPHY in Berlin (more info here) with the Polish street photography collective un-posed, of which I am a member. And  I just got back from a week in Perpignan where I attended the Visa pour l’Image photojournalism festival. Busy days.

16. Who are some people you would like to give a shout-out-to and please share with us anything I forgot to ask.

© Maciej Dakowicz

I would like to thank Johanna Neurath, who is the Design Director at the Thames & Hudson publishing company, for all her work on the book. She is also an active member of the street photography community and a great promoter of the genre. She herself is a successful street photographer as well with a very unique style. She has been exhibited extensively and was one of eight London based photographers in the important group exhibition “Onto the Streets”, which toured throughout Europe around 2006 and most probably sparked the renaissance of the genre. Thanks to her enthusiasm the highly successful “Street Photography Now” book was published and she is one of the people directly responsible for the popularity of street photography today.

Also I would like to mention Peter Dench here, who has always been very supportive and who suggested submitting the Cardiff After Dark photos to the Visa pour l’Image festival of photojournalism in Perpignan. I listened to him and submitted in 2011. I was lucky as it was accepted and screened during the festival. A few months later after all the media thunderstorm I had a book contract with Thames & Hudson, very lucky. Perpignan was very lucky for Peter as well, as it is there he made a contact with the right people and soon had his “England Uncensored” book published by ! Peter is not only a very successful and respected photographer but also a creative director of White Cloth Gallery in Leeds. We are talking about exhibiting Cardiff After Dark there early next year.

Also I would like to give a shout to Third Floor Gallery in Cardiff, which I started with Joni Karanka in Jan 2010 and run together with him and Bartosz Nowicki for quite a while without any money! We have put up some amazing exhibitions together, including a solo show of the Magnum legend David Hurn, a group Street Photography Now show and the Arab Revolutions.

We managed to build a very exciting place showing top contemporary photography – all that without any budget, relying completely on our savings and donations from the public. Although I am not in Cardiff anymore I am still involved remotely with the gallery, which is a really unique place in the photography world, the only of this kind. So if you are ever in Cardiff make sure to pop in there, see what’s on the walls, chat with the person at the reception desk. And Cardiff After Dark will be exhibited there in October 2012, we expect the exhibition to be a big hit.

Also hello to my Polish un-posed street photography collective, whom I happen to be a member, especially to Zbigniew Osiowy and Damian Chrobak, who are my friends here in London.

Another hello goes to the London based in-public photographer David Solomons, whom I see regularly and who will organise the Night and Day Street Photography Workshop in London in the last weekend of October. Also I am a fan of the in-public collective and it is good to mention them here too.

Also wanna thank you to the people who joined me on my photo trips, it was great to travel and photograph together, it was amazing to see how some of them developed as photographers, getting better pictures than me very often! If any of you is interested in travelling with me then please check out my photo trips page here.

So, I guess that’s all. Thank you Eric for inviting me and this interview.

Thanks a ton Maciej!

Order Cardiff After Dark

© Maciej Dakowicz

Support Maciej and this great project by ordering one of his Cardiff After Dark Books! They are available via the links below:

Follow Maciej

You can see more of the Cardiff After Dark photos on Maciej’s website here and ask any feedback, questions, or comments you have about Maciej’s work in the comments below!

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