INTERVIEW

February 16, 2022

SMOKING CHEFS

IN CONVERSATION WITH JAN ENKELMANN

Photography by Jan Enkelmann
Interview by Melanie Meggs

The act of taking photographs has always been driven by a personal passion for documentary photographer and graphic designer Jan Enkelmann. Originally from Germany and now based in London, Jan first found photography when he was gifted his first camera on his sixth birthday. Instantly discovering something special, photography became a big part of his life forever.

Regularly shooting on location within the domain of found photography in and around the streets of London, Jan's work is conceptual with a defined theme. Whether he is capturing a particular expression of emotion or state of mind from strangers on the street, or showing human beings in a state of contemplation and quietness, or documenting the stillness of a city in lockdown, Jan's photography projects are a layered narrative structure illuminated by various visual angles.

"I let the photos do the talking and let others interpret what they are seeing."

TPL: Jan please tell us about yourself. How did you become interested in photography?

JE: I was born in 1970 near Stuttgart in south-west Germany. My dad was – and still is – a passionate photographer. He always managed to get his photographs published in books and get commissions for the kind of stuff he loved to shoot alongside his job as a school headmaster. He gave me my first camera, a little Kodak Pocket Instamatic that used 110 cartridge film, for my sixth birthday. I can’t remember anyone else my age having a camera at the time. It felt really special. The first few rolls were black and white, just because it was significantly cheaper to buy and process than colour film, and the camera used single-use flash cubes, which were themselves a pretty exciting part of the experience. I think I got to shoot colour film once my dad saw that I got the hang of it pretty quickly.

When the Instamatic camera broke, I graduated to a succession of 35mm film cameras, shooting mainly slide film – again following in my father’s footsteps. Initially, I mainly photographed my family and quickly became the class photographer on school trips. But soon I became interested in travel photography. I did a lot of traveling when I was in my early twenties and that was probably the time I made the first images I was really proud of.

I ended up becoming a professional graphic designer and moved to London in 2000. It was there that I started taking photography more seriously, especially with the arrival of the first affordable digital DSLRs. I managed to get a book of travel photography published in 2007 and have been dividing my time between design and photography ever since.

Over recent years, my focus has shifted towards documentary and street photography, although I still occasionally do travel photography and other commissioned work.

TPL: Talk to us about your photography project SMOKING CHEFS. Can you tell us the story behind your series? What was the inspiration behind it and when did it begin? Is it an ongoing series? What do you want the viewer to experience when they look at this series?

JE: Here is the artist statement I released with the book:

In the noisy bustle of London’s West End, I have been looking for sanctuaries of quietness and contemplation. I found them in the back alleys and doorways of Chinatown.

At night, when the countless restaurants compete for tourists and theatregoers, throngs of visitors collide with Chinatown’s tight-knit ethnic community. By the time the restaurants open, some of the kitchen staff have already been working since early morning. Many of them are recent immigrants who speak little more than a few words of English. Some will have clocked more than 60 hours when the week is over.

They may not always be aware of my presence, yet I think of "Smoking Chefs" as kindred souls. I am sharing with them the few minutes it takes to smoke a cigarette, condensing this timespan into a single image.

Just like the chefs have established a ritual of seeking out the same locations, following the same routine to escape the relentless demands of their work, I have created my own, always trailing the same path along the streets and back alleys.

Most of my personal photography work consists of long-term projects and I often work on them in parallel. I come across something by accident, which then needs some time before I will figure out for myself what it actually is that fascinates me about it.

SMOKING CHEFS is one of these projects. Chinatown of course is full of restaurants and a few years ago, I noticed a number of chefs sneaking out for a well-deserved cigarette at pretty much any time, day or night. Being close to all the theatres, Chinatown is one of the busiest areas in Central London. At first, I liked the challenge of capturing these smoking chefs in a way that made it appear as if they were completely alone with themselves in a quiet part of town. In reality they were often surrounded by crowds of people.

I did some research and got to know the owner of several of these restaurants. He arranged for me get access to the kitchens, and to be able to speak with and photograph the chefs at work. These images are not part of the project, but it gave me an insight into the staggeringly strenuous work these individuals do. The Chinese restaurant personnel is often targeted by immigration police and although there are some with missing paperwork, the majority are in the UK legally. There have recently been protests and walkouts because they feel unfairly targeted by the government.

So there clearly is a social commentary to these images. But, as with much of my work, I try to let the photos do the talking and let others interpret what they are seeing. Someone has described SMOKING CHEFS as “simultaneously intimate, voyeuristic, weary, sad and timeless.” I’m pretty happy with that description. To be able to formally move on, I have published the series as a book. But I still occasionally go back and make more images – maybe for the next edition of the book. However, the pandemic has also changed Chinatown, and probably the chef’s schedules. It’s definitely become more difficult to make these images over recent months.

TPL: What does documentary and street photography mean to you? How have the streets and culture you capture influence your photography?

JE: For a long time I have resisted the term street photography for my work although I now do most of my shooting in the streets or public spaces in general. I guess it’s the randomness that’s often associated with street photography that doesn’t ring true for what I do. I almost always work to a theme or have a clearly defined subject. Maybe it’s also the fact there are a lot of repetitive, clichéd or simply not very good images out there that have given street photography a bit of a bad reputation recently.

But maybe I masochistically enjoy the challenge of not knowing if I will be able to manage to get a usable image any time I go out to shoot, which is what probably drives many street photographers.

My work tends to sit somewhere between documentary and street photography. As with any good documentary work, I will try to do a really thorough job, get under the skin of my subjects, spend a lot of time on a subject and try to illuminate it from various angles.

I always aim to create a body of work that hangs together on both a formal and a thematic level. I guess the trick is knowing when to stop before I start repeating myself.

TPL: What have been some of your favourite memories or moments in your photography journey? What have you personally gained from your experiences?

JE: I wouldn’t consider myself a ‘people person’ and I’m more of an introvert. I find it quite easy and enjoyable to interact with strangers, though, when I have a camera in my hand. It’s like a piece or armour. It also helps me to think about and understand my own work better when people ask me, and I have to explain to them, why I want to take their picture. Photography therefore opens up a way of engaging with people that I would otherwise not have.

Although there have been many amazing moments, encounters and memories I’ve had over the years while out and about shooting, the bit I enjoy most is probably seeing the individual images turn into a coherent project afterwards – whether that’s a book, exhibition or something else. I find it very satisfying when others simply get what I’m trying to do without me having to explain it.

TPL: Do you have any favourite artists or photographers you would like to share with us, and the reason for their significance?

JE: Of course there are many photographers I admire, but I hope you won’t be able to tell who they are from looking at my own photography 😊

I really love the work of Gregory Halpern, Michael Wolf, Fred Herzog, Tom Stoddart, Sebastiao Salgado and Alec Soth, to name but a few.

TPL: If you could just choose one photographer to shoot alongside for a day... who would you choose? And why?

JE: I probably can’t imagine anything worse than working alongside another photographer. For me it’s a very solitary activity. But I would love to be a fly on the wall with maybe Alec Soth or Gregory Halpern to see how they manage to make some of their very intimate but totally natural looking photos of strangers they’d just met for the first time.

TPL: Does the equipment you use help you in achieving your vision in your photography? What camera do you use? Do you have a preferred lens/focal length?

JE: I suppose one chooses the equipment one feels most comfortable with. I have been shooting with digital SLRs since making the switch from film almost 20 years ago. I know there’s a big revival of film-based photography and a certain snobbism towards digital from some people. I guess I’m with Martin Parr, Salgado and others who spent decades shooting film, then made the switch to digital and never looked back. They managed to retain their style and look of their images and few people care about the equipment they were made with. I often get asked whether certain images were shot on film or digitally, which I guess proofs my point.

Over the last few years, I’ve been shooting a lot at night, for SMOKING CHEFS, PAUSE, my project documenting a deserted London during lockdown, and also commercial work. It would have been very difficult to make this work using a film camera. I have been using Nikon cameras since the early 1990s. It was a revelation when Nikon released the D3 back in 2007 for its low-light capabilities and I’ve stuck with them over the years. The photos for SMOKING CHEFS were made with D800 and D850 cameras.

I do prefer certain lenses for particular projects. For SMOKING CHEFS, I have only used a Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8 zoom lens. For the current project I’m working on, I’m shooting exclusively with a Sigma Art 50mm f/1.4.

TPL: What are some of your goals as an artist or photographer? Where do you hope to see yourself in five years?

JE: I hope to keep getting inspiration for finding satisfying projects. It’s hard to come across something that hasn’t already been done, but if I can at least find my own take on a subject, that’s probably as good as one can hope for.

For me the most fulfilling work is when it resonates both with the photography community, but also with the general public. If I’d be able to finish one such project each year for the next five years, I’d be more than happy.

TPL: Congratulations Jan on the recent success of your book PAUSE. Are there any other special projects you are currently working on or thinking about that you would like to let everyone know about?

JE: Thank you. PAUSE was my way of dealing with lockdown and not having any work for a few months in early 2020. I am very grateful it resonated with so many people.

I’m hoping to put the finishing touches on another long-term project this year. It will be called "ALL RIGHT, CATCH YOU LATER" and extracts from the work can already be seen on my website [https://www.enkelmann.co.uk/brixton]. It’s a documentary project about Brixton in south London. I’ve been living in and around Brixton for more than twenty years and have been fascinated by its people, but also the transformation the area has been going through over recent years.

TPL: "When I am not out photographing, I (like to)…

JE: I'm a dad to two boys, one of them has just become a teenager. Do I need to say more?"