An Interview With Theo Paul
Who is Theo Paul?
I’m from Brazil, 27, and I am an adventurous traveler specializing in art photography and videography. I started to travel when I was 16 years old when my mom sent me to Russia to learn the language. Since that time I realized that the world is big and I became compelled to travel to all the corners of the world. When I was 19-20, I lived in United States for work.
In 2010, I got my bachelor’s diploma and decided to go to China to see the other side of the world. My decision at the beginning was to learn the language and explore the Asian countries, but things change and I am sill here now. After three years living here I learned the language and got my masters degree in business and administration in Beijing. My passion for traveling has led me to work in exciting environments throughout the world, allowing me to develop a vast sense of creativity and flexibility under all circumstances. My motivation is to create remarkable pictures and videos, combing modern and traditional storytelling.
The photos you publish on intochina.tumblr.com are very direct looks into the lives of your subjects. Do people ever get upset at you for taking their photos?
When I take a photo of strangers I always say thanks for the picture I shot, even when the subject makes an ugly face to me. You do not need to speak the language, just use your body language with your hands and smile to them. Everything will be fine. The only thing you can never do is take a picture of someone and try to hide it, if you do that people think you are a spy or something.
From all my pictures I only remember two times when people got upset. The first time was in Hong Kong when I took a picture of an old guy, then tried to hide it. When he came towards me I started to walk as I realized he was coming. I opened the camera settings and deleted the picture very fast before he came and asked me to see the picture. When he checked my photos, saw that I deleted them, said OK and left. The second time was when I was in Lebanon. Before arriving in the country I had read a lot of things about taking pictures there, and a lot of website mention that you can’t take picture of police or soldiers. If they catch you, you can go to jail. When I was trying to do some street photography I was stopped by the police two times and asked to show my camera. I showed all my pictures to them and they just let me go. I have traveled to several countries around the world, and many people say France is the worst country in the world for street photography because the people are afraid that we will use their image to make some public media or something. But for me France was one of the best, I didn’t have any difficulty there.
How did you get into photography in the first place?
I started photography when I was in university. I remember I was watching a speech from Flavio Samelo, a skater and photographer out of Brazil. He showed us the way of his life with photography and art. I remember him telling us the stories about how to became a photographer and realize your dream, which motivated me to start my career as photographer. I can remember that day I was sitting with my friend and I said, “man, I will be a photographer”. When I finished my university I had the idea to come to China. I told my mom and she give me the only Sony camera we had in our apartment, a Sony Cybershot 7.0 megapixel. It was a very small camera. She told me to take as many pictures as I could to show my friends when I returned home. The first day I arrived in China I started to take pictures of everything, just shooting as much as I could to show my mom. I remember I did 5k pictures with that camera in one month.
I start to take more pictures and I needed a new professional camera, but at that time I didn’t have enough cash to buy one until I met a girl who taught me how to use Taobao. I spent a whole day searching for a reasonably priced camera and finally found the cheapest: a Lomo camera around 200 RMB. I decided to buy one and start to shoot with analog cameras. I remember Flavio Samelo used to like pictures of buildings with double exposure so I decided to do something like that in China, just to learn and imitate his style. I was hitting the streets and taking pictures of buildings and lit-up Chinese characters. The results were getting cool but the quality of the pictures was shit. Still, I didn’t care about quality during that time, I just enjoyed the feeling of shot. I used everything possible to take pictures, my mobile, my ipad.
After a year and half, I collected enough cash and bought a real camera in my life. My first DSLR was a Nikon D7000. I remember I spent almost all my money to buy it, which was like a dream for me. I started to understand how lenses work, about speeds, apertures and everything else. I used this camera for exactly one year, then I sold it and then changed to a Nikon D800, a full frame camera. When I shot the first picture with that camera with a 50mm lens I finally understood the difference between a professional and a beginner. Currently I am using the same D800 and a Sony A7, for personal projects and street life I use the Sony often and for professional shooting I use the Nikon D800.
What is your current camera of choice?
There are two kinds of situations that inform my camera choice. One is when I am going out for professional pictures and the other is when I go to make street photography and art. For art and street photography I am currently using a Sony A7 with 50mm Zeiss lens and when shooting film camera I use the Nikon FM2, which I only use Kodak 400 TRI-x black and white film with. With these two cameras I can generate incredible results. For professional shoots I use the Nikon D800 with 3 types of different lenses: 35mm, 50mm and 85mm. This camera is extremely sharp and I can get any result I want with it.
Favorite city to shoot in?
My favorite city in the world for shooting is Varanasi, India. In this city you will find so many good photo opportunities, the city is a paradise for photographers. It is one of the oldest habituated cities in the world and it is the holiest sacred cities in India. Varanasi’s mythical status within Hinduism has attracted religious seekers and pilgrims since antiquity, people from all over India come here for religious purposes, so you can find all different faces and expressions from all of India in only one city.
You are now in Shanghai, China. You used to live in Beijing. Did one of these cities have a stronger impact on your creativity than the other? Or does it not matter where you are?
It was really important to be in both cities. When I was in Beijing I could understand more about Chinese culture as it is the capital of China and its way of life is completely different from Shanghai. In Beijing there are old lanes called Hutongs, and these have a very special place in the rich history and culture of Beijing. These traditional alleyways and courtyard homes once covered all of Beijing. When I was there I used to go to these old alleys to talk with the locals and take pictures of them, which was very difficult because those places are full of tourists and the people there are not friendly, as a lot of people go there to take pictures every day. The locals get tired of it so they are not easy to talk with.
When I moved to Shanghai I started to explore its famous Longtangs, which are alley lanes that are distinctive to Shanghai. These re places where communities sit on several interconnected lanes, so these places are very easy to take pictures in. This is because the government is destroying them and they want to preserve their place in the history, so when you go to those places to take pictures the people are very easy to talk with. They like talking because they have few choices and they need move to another place as soon as possible. I think it was very important for myself to grow in photography living in both cities and I enjoy both cities.
Do you shoot photos full-time? If not, what is your day job? If so, when did you become a full-time professional photographer? Any times for somebody looking to do the same?
Currently I am not a full-time photographer. I have some projects every month shooting for some companies but this is not where my income comes from. Presently I am working for a Germany company in the automotive sector. I am a project buyer responsible for buying mechanical and electronic parts for the products we produce to use in cars throughout the world. Your car probably has some parts developed by the company I work for. I would like to be more present in photography but to this point I haven’t had as many opportunities to do so, another reason is that I have dedicated a big part of my life to be in the position I am working in now. But the funny thing is when you can reach your life’s goals you often realize that you didn’t choose the right ones. You must do something you love to do because if you do not you will never be satisfied with yourself.
What sort of things do you like to take photos of?
My passion is travel and when taking pictures I like to go places where no foreigner and no tourists have gone, as these are usually places that people think are boring. However, when I go to these places I can create the most beautiful pictures. I like photographing people, strangers on the road, and expressions and moments that tell a story behind the pictures. For me a picture must have a context behind it and tell a story. In the past a took a lot of pictures of people walking or looking at me but I didn’t realize those kinds of picture have no meaning, because I do not know the people I am shooting and I have no idea what they are doing there. So from this year on I have started to talk with my subjects. Pictures that tell a story are for me the most powerful. If I define my style I would say it is portrait and street photography.
What is your favorite photo you have ever taken?
My favorite photo will always be the next one, but I have one picture I really like that was taken with my 35mm analog camera that I bought in Taobao from a stranger. I chatted with this guy on Taobao and we met at a subway station and he sold me a camera for 300 RMB. When I got the camera I went for the streets to try it and shoot a picture in a location that was being destroyed. This picture has nothing special but for me was interesting because it was the first time I used a camera with black and white film. When I developed it I really liked the result of a man walking in a completely destroyed area of Shanghai with a suit and tie. It probably was that he was going home after a busy day of working in the office in Shanghai. This picture probably is the one I will take with me all my life and want to print it and keep it in my house.
Who are some of your favorite photographers?
My favorite photographers change from time to time, the ones I like today probably will not be my favorite in the future. My main inspiration in the beginning was the one I mentioned earlier, Flavio Samelo, who is a skateboard photographer from Brazil. His pictures are amazing and he has a context in the pictures that he considers himself as an artist who knows how to make good skateboard pictures. For me, the master of lighting is Joey L. He is a Canadian photographer who really knows how to use lights and has incredible technical skills. The coolest thing about this guy is that he started taking pictures at a yougn age and he developed himself as a photographer at a very early stage. The classic photographer of all time always will be Steven Mccury for me he is the father of travel photography. Recently I met a guy from England named Jimmy Nelson who is an incredible portrait photographer. He was criticized by the media for his new book Before They Pass Away for taking photos of tribal people who were said to be manipulated to look more primitive and tribal. But his pictures are amazing and full inspiration for everyone. For street photography, I like a Japanese guy named Tatsuo Suzuki, who is a photographer who knows how to work with Black and White pictures very well.
Let’s talk skateboarding for a minute. Who is your favorite skate photographer? Your favorite skate photo?
In the past I really like Flavio Samelo pictures but recently I have found other photographers who I like more. There are so many good photographers and Flavio needs to work to achieve what those guys are. Currently Sem Rubio is one of my favorites, after you check his material you will understand why, as his pictures can really capture a moment. To be a good skate photographer you need to mix art and good composition; this is the secret to good skate photography. Another really good skateboard photographer is Davy Van Laere.
Do you usually shoot digital or film?
For daily photography I use 50% digital and 50% film, for me the mixture of these two materials allows you to create a very interesting composition. For film, I always use a Nikon FM2 with a 35mm lens and always the same Kodak Trix 400 B&W film. This film is the only one I am use with a film camera. In the past I had used a lot of colorful film like Fuji, Kodak and so on, however I realized I was spending thousands of dollars every month and my results were similar to digital ones. But with black and white I could not achieve the same texture and grains as with film, so I decided to only shoot black and white in film. When shooting digital I use my Sony A7 with a Zeiss 50mm lens. The colors and the texture of the Zeiss lens are the best for me.
Let’s say someone has a thousand dollar budget and is looking for an entry-level DSLR, primarily for shooting skateboarding and other forms of movement. What would you recommend?
Is really hard to recommend something because nobody recommended equipment to me when I started to take picture. You need to buy any camera and start to shoot to understand the camera and the way you want to capture the moment. First buy any camera, it can be the cheapest camera you have found at the market, and go out to take pictures of your friends. Even if you have the best camera on the market, if you don’t know how to use it it doesn’t make sense to have.
I will try to recommend a camera that I am not using but which I think will work for those just starting to get involved in this area and who have a limited budget. For lens, there a lens from Korea called Samyang, which is a fisheye 8mmm f/3.5 lense. This lense is a good deal, it is cheap and good for beginners. For cameras, I would recommend the Canon T3i, which is a nice DSLR camera. It is not full frame but it is cheap and you can easily find one in a second hand market for a good price. This camera can help you to catch pictures from the low view. As skateboarding is a movement sport you need to have a flash to freeze the moment, so I would recommend a Chinese flash called Yongnuo. This is unbelievably cheap. It isn’t the best flash but for the price you can get some great shots with it. I think with this setup you can capture nice skateboard pictures from the beginning.
Plans for 2016?
For 2016 I want to keep shooting every day and dedicate myself more on photography, I want to keep learning as much as I can, I never get tired of devoting myself to self-learning. I want to open my own studio and take photography more seriously. I also want to finish a project that I started last year about China called intoCHINA. This is a self-project that I am doing on the streets of China. Moreover, I want to travel to new countries countries and complete my dream of going to 100 countries around the world before age of 30. I am almost there and I want to see this fulfilled as soon as possible.
Where can people find you on the interwebs?