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20x20 Live NYC (Sources of Inspiration) Sep 17, 2014   NYC, Observations, Photography, Talks

This is a memory trascript from an event that took place at the Beatrice Theatre // School of Visual Arts, at 333 West 23rd Street in New York NY.

It was a fully booked event and the lineup of photographers and speakers was quite excellent. I would like to thank Anne Conover for inviting and nominating me for the lineup. And Mathieu Young for making everything possible and also for introducing me at the event.

The other speakers were the legendary George Steinmetz, Erin Patrice O’Brien who claimed to be afraid of public speaking but then delivered a superbe and funny presentation, Zun Lee who is just about to publish his book and was one of the nicest people, Jill Greenberg who is pretty darn intense, but in a good way too, she also bent the rules a bit, showing maybe 50 or so pictures, Doug Menuez who is also about to publish a book of incredible photographs from the recent history of silicon valley, Phil Toledano the guy I sat next to at the event, what a man, Sacha Lecca of Rolling Stone, who was rather cool and a pretty great photographer too, Amy Pereira of MSNBC who seemed simply brilliant and also kind, somehow a deeply good person and Michael Norseng of Esquire who really knew how to give joy and meaning to everyone in the room.

So here is my transcript:

Thank you so much for having me here. When Anne Conover and Matthew Young first invited me to part of the event, I was not sure how it could even be. The other photographers on stage today are such heavyweights. The work is so brilliant. I grew up admiring a lot of the work discussed here today.

But maybe it makes sense for me to be here? In recent years I have traveled around the world many times, to work with some excellent photographers. I transformed my work to be more and more about photography and also introduced the idea of storytelling into it. While on assignment, I was able to build my very own point of view of the world and the universe, and was able to collect some fragments and particles that allow me to understand the context of us and of myself a bit better. The interdependability of things, the interconnectedness. The presentation here today is a bit about those little findings, it is about this journey and the inspiration. Little particles.

It is a bit of a story of contradictions. Not everything follows a logic. But I hope that some of it will make sense.

Inspiration can be in everything. And it probably is. But some of it is very contradictory.

[I forgot to say “You can find inspiration in everything. And if you can’t, look again.” It is one of my favorite quotes. It is by Paul Smith.]

New York (Inspire/No Trespassing) 2014

A lot of the inspirtion I tend to look for is in a space that is somehow prelingual. I like to take a picture before I can even express the idea in the picture. And many photographs and images in general do not need a description, or any connection to words directly. They are images after all.

New York (Between circles) 2014

So looking for inspiration, I seem to try to connect to some origin of it, something that is below the surface a bit. Something that connects us before we can express it. Where does that something come from? Sometimes hints at it come in surprising places.

This is a girl I encountered in a slum in Mumbai. I don’t know what her condition might be, but that shirt she is wearing is quite profound, I think.

Mumbai (God) 2012

I also ask myself where do ideas come from in general, and where do we come from? I not only stopped thinking that there is such a thing as the “exotic”, I also think that we are in the middle of a development, not at the hight of it. This is a head of a Siberian King, it is in a side gallery at the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. I think his head was preserved some eight thousand years ago, but it looks so completely contemporary.

St. Petersburg (Siberian King’s Head) 2013

Something about that head connects me to the following picture, of a man in his thoughts near Wangfujng in Beijing. The idea of being able to dive into something in us as a source of inspiration must have been with us since the very beginning of us being human.

Beijing (Wangfujing) 2012

One can feel that raw source of inspiring energy probably best when looking at unspoiled landscapes like this one. It is a view of morning mountains somewhere in China. The picture looks unspoiled, but we can see what looks like a big wall. There on the left.


Well, so we can pull inspiration from a certain natural source, but what we have been consistently doing over the last centuries is to divide the natural space we are in, dividing it further and further into tangible, sellable little pieces of something. We are turning things into something that can be sold. In the process we are creating something completely artificial.

Houston, Texas (Homes) 2014

Once language gets hold of certain feelings, it takes control of them. Once then words become established, they can be used to sell products, they can take on a new meaning until they no longer fit their original intention. Here is a scooter in Beijing. Beauty brand. We like to think that this is funny, because the word has been used a bit too quickly.

Beijing (Beauty) 2012

But things don’t look so good much closer to here either. This is in Manhattan, near Rockefeller Center. Layers and layers of surfaces. All designed to sell us some sort of idea, some sort of product. And these are deep reaching sales too. We are sold patriotism and caring and smiles, I could go on and on.

New York (American Girl Surfaces) 2013

In a way what we have succeeded at doing is creating an artificial environment for us to live in. Probably about as artificial as this monkey cage at the Berlin Zoo. One of the scariest details of the photo is probably that monkey face on the little door. It is not visible at first, but then it is there. Why is it there? So the monkey can understand that this is a door? Or that monkeys are in there? It is some sort of magic?

Berlin (Zoo) 2012

We are creating a similar magic for ourselves. It is to connect us to the natural world, but we are part of a larger machine that does things to us. With our consent. While it also tells us to be afraid, and then tells us that it can protect us. It is a peculiar thing.

New York (iTree) 2014

And that kind of magic and attempt of separation and protection has been around for a while too. Here is a part of the Temple of Heaven in Beijing. A place where the Chinese Emperor would come to pray for a good harvest. Because even the allmighty Chinese Emperor could actually be removed by the people, if he did not deliver a good harvest.

Beijing (Temple of Heaven) 2014

We have subtle ways to remix and to add images and messages to just about anything now. Here are some trash containers in midtown Manhattan. The message seems to be big and political. But then once we look up Racin’ Jason, the picture takes yet another twist.

New York (Heroes) 2012

What is happening to images and how they and their messages speak to us, has reached a certain level of ridiculousness.

New York (Liberty) 2013

So where can we possibly look to still find that piece of the natural something that is the orginal source of inspiration. Where can we find some tiny piece that has not been translated yet, something that has still the original glow to it, and also something that will still make sense after we are all gone, and after all the messages around us now will appear to be jokes.

New York (If You See Something) 2014

I think this image from Nanjing is a bit of a key for me. Nanjing is a historically very relevant city, obviously. And a lot of violence happened here. I don’t want to talk about that too much. But What I like about this picture is that certain connection and disconnection between the people in it. It is a father and a daughter. We are in the middle of the lake. The lotus flowers were pretty magnificent.

Nanjing (Lotus) 2013

It feels that there is a bit of that original source of inspiration living deep inside of each and every one of us. And what it takes to bring it to life is a certain ability to open up. To become vulnerable. To not translate. To be able to make oneself vulnerable and also giving to others. It often happens naturally between a parent and a child,

New York (Kiss) 2013

But it actually is possible and it happens all around the world, and to all of us. The ability to open ourselves to others and the ability to experience friendship and love is an incredibly powerful source of energy and inspiration. Once we manage to not think of ourselves as the center of things, once we are able to connect and feel that we are connected to someone or something worth being connected to.

Shanghai (In the back of a Bicycle) 2012

Once we let ourselves fall in love with someone and the world, once we learn to forgive and experience compassion and try to understand the other person. That’s when truly amazing things can happen. And it is something that is not far away or incredibly difficult to get to.

New York (Mercy) 2013

It is a very universal something that is part of us being human. It is the connecting element in every one of us. Also every one in this room. By opening ourselves to the world and the stories of others, we can experience something much bigger, but also something that is universal enough to still have a meaning to those who will come hundreds of years after us.

Here are some people watching a scene of a mother putting her child or children to sleep. It is an American film, but the place is Beijing. There is no need to translate anything here.

Beijing (Goodnight) 2013

Thank you so much for this opportunity. I feel very honored that I was allowed to speak about some of my work tonight. Thank you.


ophelia chong

beautiful words, beautiful images. I can feel the slight tiny space between me and the people in the images, but that tiny space is time, not emotion.
thank you Witold.

ophelia chong

the emotion i can feel. the time is now, then, past and present.


Thank you.

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