Portfolio: Balarama's Streets of London
After capturing Made Fashion Week with his distinctive eye for the unusual, Balarama Heller travelled to London to cover that other fashion week for Milk Made. In between shooting the Pringle of Scotland and Belstaff shows, Balarama turned his lens on London’s streets.
Milk Made: Your street gallery shows a great variation in color, light and subject. Was there anything in particular you set out to photograph?
Balarama Heller: Yes. When I shoot street, I aim to tap into and respond to the base elements of the environment, whatever they may be. The situation presents itself and I do my best to respond from a place of instinct rather than intellect—the same way I approach shooting fashion week. There is not much time to be premeditated because I never know what I will be confronted with. It is being open to possibility and recognizing the confluence elements, and then acting on that. If I think too much about what I am going to do in advance I usually get in my own way and obstruct the process.
MM: Over how many days were these photos taken?
BH: These photos were taken over a period of two hours. I often work best in very compressed time blocks. I go out and I have this sense that I am on a mission, hunting. Everything gets a little brighter, clearer, crisper.
MM: Do you have a favorite shot from the street selects? Why?
BH: I like the one of the nail salon. Generally I find any images with text disagreeable to me; it often overpowers everything else in the image. However, in this instance, just behind the glass there is a whole ecosystem of dynamics at play which I do find interesting. Lines can be drawn between glances, lines of sight, a geometry emerges and the banality recedes. Second to that, I like the image of the man tying his shoe. There is something very simple about it, a regular moment, but a very classic London vibe.
MM: Your personal, travel and street photography is so, so different from your fashion and editorial galleries. What do you enjoy most about your personal work?
BH: However differently the galleries may appear, my approach is actually the same. I come to the situation with a certain idea, which is unavoidable, but as soon as things start happening the idea of what I had and the reality are usually very different. I have to respond to it, I can’t force it. What I love about my personal work is tapping into that space where I am riding a current of synchronicity, where intuition is taking the photos rather than my ideas. When I work from this place I think visual archetypes emerge in the images. I never know what or when but they arise often enough. Those archetypes are like elevated cliches and I believe that is what people respond to in my work.
MM: How so?
BH: Archetypes act like strange mirrors, reflecting a pure, yet distorted essence of ourselves. There is some strategy to this approach of course, but that fades into the background, I don’t notice it as much which is freeing. I get a sense for where the various elements of an image may be or may come together and I go there, wait, chase it, stalk it. Sometimes it takes weeks, sometimes it happens in minutes. Either way, it can be an extremely rewarding process. Moving through a landscape, having unexpected encounters, honing the Jedi-mind awareness. The physical photo is a way for me to measure how keyed into that moment I was. In the case of the fashion work, if I can’t get the image that I feel fully tells the story, I will try to translate its essence using post production tools. I don’t have a loyalty to the supposed integrity of what the camera sees. That’s great if it works out that way, but ultimately I am interested in showing the interior space of the image, so manipulation is not out of the question.
MM: Do you think your street work helps you get a sense of a city?
BH: I started shooting as a teenager because it seemed like a natural extension of my explorations and travels, so yes, it helps me get a sense of the rhythms and textures of a place. It forces me to actually look at the constellation of elements and actors in a space.
MM: How, then, would you characterize London?
BH: I was mostly in West London and Camden so my sense of the city is very limited, but my impressions initially are that it is posh, clean and sorted out like many European cities. Thriving and bustling but contained. Not at all like the frenetic chaos of New York. It seems like there is a strong balance between the vibrancy of youth and newness and the staying power of the Old World, which creates a dynamic tension, I suppose.