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June 16, 2023


Photography by Jan Ponnet
Interview by Melanie Meggs

Street photography for Jan Ponnet is an exciting form of photography where he can capture the spontaneous moments of everyday life on the street. Born in Antwerp, Belgium and now living 15km from the city in Sint-Katelijne-Waver, Jan trained as an engineer and had his own business in the central heating industry. Since his retirement, Jan has picked up the thread of photography full-time again.

“My passion for photography lies in the street. It is challenging because it often involves observing and looking for something interesting in an ordinary place. It involves also photographing unknown people in public spaces, without asking their permission. When people say no, it is important to respect their decision and not be intrusive.

Although most people say they don't want to be photographed, only an extremely small number confirmed this to me - the vast majority quietly allowed me to do it in a way that says: look at me!”

Jan is a street photographer who wants to “look for the snapshots that try to portray a positive mood, a smile, a tender moment or just the image at the right moment.”

By walking through the streets and observing people's behaviours, Jan tries to develop a keen eye for the subtle nuances and rhythms of life on the street, and learns to anticipate and capture these moments that might otherwise go unnoticed.

“I was about 20 years old when, before the digital age, I watched images appear in the darkroom, in the developing pool. Turning a moment, a flash, into a lasting image grabbed me and I still have that feeling. The play of light and human contact brought me to the streets.”


THE PICTORIAL LIST: Hello Jan…welcome to The List! Let's start by telling us something about yourself.

JAN PONNET: I was born and raised in Antwerp. With an engineering degree and experience in some big companies, I started my own central heating business. When it turned out that none of my children would continue the business, I sold everything. Around age 60, I then found the time to photograph more. Now it is an out-of-control passion.

TPL: Could you tell us what growing up in Antwerp has inspired in your work? What special qualities unique to this city influence your street photography and the way you portray your community?

JP: Antwerp is one, by Belgian standards, of the bigger cities—a port city with a multicultural and generally accessible population. However, I don't think Antwerp has anything specific photographically. I think I can photograph in any city. you just have to look, see, feel...

TPL: What first attracts you in the moment, movement, light, color, or texture? Or do people and their personalities play an important role in how you portray them?

JP: When portraying a city, I first look for a suitable background. Then I just wait for someone to pass by. Like love at first sight, I pick out someone who I think will do well. After a brief introduction, most of my actors are willing to be portrayed. So far, I have rarely been wrong.

TPL: Where do you find your inspiration to create?

JP: Outside exhibitions and books, there is so much to follow on the internet these days to broaden your horizons.

TPL: Does having a spontaneous approach to your street photography allow for the serendipity at the moment to dictate the frame?

JP: Of course, you need some luck to capture a decisive moment. But I believe in the fact that this is also a matter of practice. The more practice, the more you see, and feel the moment coming to dive into the scene.

With many people, I have a nice chat before or after photographing and that gives me great satisfaction.

TPL: What was one of your favorite moments photographing in the street? Where was it? And why? What are some of the challenges that you have faced out photographing on the street?

JP: One of those favorite moments are parades, manifestations, processions. These are the favoured circumstances for me to focus not on the subject of the day but on the bystanders. The challenge is not to contravene privacy rules. So always be friendly and accommodating because of privacy states. You cannot get a good expression on demand, you have to shoot this directly. With a little chat afterwards is usually OK. If not, the customer gets his way! But always be friendly and accommodating.

TPL: Do you have favorite locations you like to point and shoot, or do you prefer the challenge or inspiration of new locations?

JP: I don't feel tied to certain locations. It's always fun to explore new surroundings.

The reason why can be very different…look, a smile, clothing, a silhouette, a pose. As long as there is someone around, and preferably with whom we can make contact.

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

JP:There are of course the classics, for example, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Vivian Maier, Fan Ho, and Capa because very frequently I ask myself: was I close enough to it? On social media I follow inspiring photographers such as Alan Schaller, Paul Reid, and Chris Mozyro.

TPL: What was the first camera you ever held in your hand, brought to eye, and released a shutter on? What is the camera you use now and your preferred focal length? Is there anything on your wishlist?

JP: I started with one of the first Minolta reflex cameras. I'm not going to be flippant about equipment and whine about its unimportance. Currently, I walk around with a Leica 10M, simple, small, and handy.

When I want to dive into the scene and frame it into a fascinating environment, I take a 28mm. Portraits I do on the street usually with a 50mm

TPL: Are there any special projects that you are currently working on that you would like to let everyone know about? What are some of your photography goals for the next 3-5 years?

JP: I do walk around with some ideas. In recent years, I've been staying in different cities for several months. The best way to be immersed in the city and its population. So follow me.

TPL: “When I am not out photographing, I (like to)...

JP: I like traveling and visiting cultural places and museums. My passion naturally involves a lot of walking, which I hope is good for my health…haha. In the evening I like to play Bridge the card game.”

Jan's passion for street photography is inspiring and shows just how creative and beautiful photos can be when taken in unexpected places. Through his work, Jan has shared an appreciation of street life that many of us never get to see. It is a reminder to keep seeking out the beauty in everyday moments and to not take life for granted. We should all take a page from Jan's book and strive to live life to the fullest and capture those special moments. If you would like to connect with Jan and see more of his work, please follow the links below.

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