WHAT LIES BENEATH
IN CONVERSATION WITH BASTIAN PETER
Bastian Peter is a street photographer living and working in Basel, Switzerland. He is also the co-founder of photography collective The Swiss Street Collective. Growing up within his family's mask-making atelier in Basel, an early curiosity developed surrounding what lies beneath someone's façade. Without any background in photography, Bastian picked up a camera and started walking the streets, on the lookout for any interesting scenery, feeling natural for him to explore his city, which in turned fueled his passion for narrative and a point of view. He is drawn to the use of colour, perspective and light as a vehicle for emotion and storytelling in his photography.
"Find your own inspiration and your own way."
Tell us a bit about yourself. How did you become interested in photography?
I was born and raised here in Basel in Switzerland, and still live and work here. To be honest, I have always been interested in photography. It's just that I never pursued it the way I have in recent years. I never had the confidence to do it. My mother was a professional photographer and I vividly remember her studio, the darkroom and the smell of freshly developed film and the chemicals needed for the process. She and my father were always involved in art and photography and so it was always a part of my own life growing up. My personal interest was piqued when I got my first Sony point and shoot camera in the mid 90's. My interest came and went and in the last few years I got into street photography without knowing it was a real genre. Since the beginning of 2019, I've been shooting regularly on the streets and loving it. It has become a big part of my life.
Do you have a favourite quote/lyric/saying that especially resonates with you?
Of course I know a lot of quotes or sayings of a number of legendary photographers. And like I think they all are true and have their place, I think it's also true to find your own inspiration and your own way. Don't get me wrong, I love reading about all those great photographers and I own a number of their books of course.
A quote I read a few weeks ago, did stick with me. I never heard it before and it was by Alfred Stieglitz. It goes like this: “In photography there is a reality so subtle that it becomes more real than reality.”
Where do you find your inspiration?
Great question. My inspiration comes from many places, to be honest. First of all, there is my childhood and like everyone, I have dreams and subtle memories. Often feelings as well. Emotions associated with places, sounds, images or even the smell of a place. All of this is connected to nostalgia and a kind of brooding sense of stories and romance. It sounds a bit pretentious and pompous, but that's because it's hard to find the right words. It's very abstract.
Another answer to this question is cinema. Ever since I can remember, I've always been a fan of cinema. In my country, we don't have the rich and diverse and old film culture as in other countries, so maybe I've always been fascinated by foreign cinema like French or German cinema, from which I'm still trying to learn visual storytelling.
What has been the best advice you have ever received in photography?
That's a difficult question. I don't think I can narrow it down to a single piece of advice or a single source. Over time, I've read and seen so many interviews with artists I admire, like photographers or filmmakers, that I've found it often boils down to one feeling. And that is artistic freedom. So I always try to remember that there are no shackles. No rules and no one to tell me what's good and what's bad or how to do what I do. This is not to say that there are no rules in photography. There are certainly a lot of rules. But as with any craft, it's a balance between technical correctness and an artistic expression that is completely subjective. Not forgetting that, I think, is really important.
What is it that you enjoy about street photography. What happens when you walk the streets with your camera? Explain your technique? Have you ever had a negative encounter?
I've become quite introverted over the last few years. So when I walk the streets with my camera, it's a great feeling of freedom. It's a completely different look at the streets, the people, and maybe society itself. At least while I'm taking pictures. In Switzerland, street photography is not really an thing yet. At least not in the sense that it is for me and for you. I haven't had any really negative encounters. There was once a security guard who walked up to me and gruffly asked me not to take a picture of any of the buildings I walked past. That still makes me laugh because first, he had no right to ask that and second, he totally pointed out this particular building that I personally didn't even notice. I never did figure out what was special about it or why he didn't want me to photograph it. Maybe he was just bored. Then a few people asked me what I was doing with my camera. I tried to explain, but there's pretty much no understanding of street photography. And when I mention that I'm a street photographer, they look confused and don't know what I'm talking about. Often employees or store owners leave their building to see if I am doing anything illegal. Obviously, I look suspicious. It makes me smile in the moment, but in the past it has often lowered my confidence or killed my mood. I'm trying to work on it and prepare myself. So I made business cards with my website address on them so suspicious people can see for themselves. Waving your smartphone around and showing people your social media doesn't always work out so well. But I haven't had any really bad encounters yet. Fortunately.
What is it like photographing on the streets of Switzerland? Why do you think street photography in Switzerland is not viewed as an art form?
It is mostly peaceful. Of course, that also depends on the photographer. If I were to send angry signals to people, for example, that would change, of course. But if I'm not in the mood, I'm not on the street to shoot. People are mostly busy with their schedule. They're in their own head, obviously thinking about their day and their own stuff. It's the unusual perspectives or the unusual places that often get the attention.
When I started doing this, and it wasn't too long ago, I didn't know street photography as a genre. And when I started sharing my photos on social media, I was so surprised how big the "online scene" is and how many people are there taking photos on the streets. It was so great and motivating to learn that I'm not alone. After a while I met other people online from my country, even from my city, and most of them - like me - had no idea that they are not alone in this.
Your photography has this beautiful abstract narrative about it...full of light, colours and textures. What do you want to express through your photography? And what are some of the elements you always try to include in your photographs?
That's a very interesting question. First of all, thank you so much, your compliment means a lot to me. I really mean it. I experienced a lot of days and nights, where I really tried to focus on certain elements like texture, color or a certain scenery. Or where I tried to stake out a certain place and really was planning to work on a specific corner and wait - however long it takes - so that I have that one background to a scene that I like. But it never worked out. I am not the guy for that I think. I have absolutely no patience to wait somewhere. I learned that I am most comfortable in walking around. Sure, I can stay on a corner for a few minutes just to get a feel of it, but never long and I never am able to plan something. It just happens. Sometimes I don't even think the shots on a certain scene are working and when I get home I am surprised that it did work. The same happens in reverse. Sometimes I get really excited because I feel like I've taken a good picture. And then when I'm at home on the laptop, I realise that it's totally meaningless and boring, or that it just doesn't work.
But what I can say is that I'm totally into storytelling and atmosphere. And I try to use everything available. Be it textures of different surfaces, natural elements like rain, light or the time of day.
Colour also plays a role, of course, but I look more at what I don't want to have in the picture. There are some hues that I try to avoid. But even there I have no rules.
Do you have any favourite artists/photographers? Who do you think has mostly influenced your style?
It's hard to say who influenced me the most. I think influences go back to unconscious childhood. Longings, stories, wanderlust, the magic of imagination. And that has fostered my openness to visual art, cinema, photography...really all art in general.
For example, I love French cinema. Filmmakers like Godard or Melville, but also American cinema and Asian cinema. Wong Kar-Wai, Kim Ki-Duk, Sergio Leone, Takeshi Kitano or Nicolas Winding Refn. The list is endless. Also in terms of photographers, Vivian Maier, Saul Leiter, Robert Frank and Nan Goldin, for example.
Are there any books that you have read that have inspired your creativity and that you would like to recommend to us?
I own many books by filmmakers and photographers. I can easily recommend you Vivian Maier – 'The Color Work' or Saul Leiter - 'Early Color'. Although it's in German, I totally recommend 'Zeiten Bilder' by Barbara Klemm. And one of my all time favorites is Nan Goldin's - 'The Ballad of Sexual Dependency'. Its so rough and unfiltered. So emotional and real.
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?
I mostly use a 50mm prime lens, but I try to use also a zoom lens and a 35mm lens. I own two Sony alpha cameras. The reason I chose them was my budget. It isn't high. The two cameras I own are not very new and therefore not very expensive. So are the lenses. They are small and for me very intuitive to use. I don't have time to change the settings that much. Especially at night every corner in the city has different lighting and I screw up my settings on a regular basis. I try to learn that it isn't that important. But it is a process. We see so much flawless stuff on social media. We have to try ignore that and don't let it pressure us.
When you go out photographing, do you have a concept in mind of what you want to shoot, or do you let the images just "come to you", or is it both?
I had that in the past. But it never worked out. Since then, I just try to see what comes my way. That's something about street photography that is very exciting and special. Spontaneity on my part and of course the natural course of the streets and the people.
You have a family business that has been creating masks for The Carnival of Basal. Could you tell us more about this family tradition and how the pandemic has affected the business and you personally?
In Basel, in my city, the Carnival, here called Fasnacht, is very important. It is one of the things that has always accompanied us. It is very important for our morale and also for the economy and tourism. Our atelier, the Larven Atelier Charivari in Basel City, has been around since 1976 and we have been making masks by hand since then, in accordance with tradition and traditional methods. There is still a part of the Basel population that prefers these methods to plastic. Our customers visit us every year to commission new masks or to have older ones repaired.
Now that the Carnival of Basel 2020 has been cancelled, they are of course sitting on unused masks and have no reason to order new ones. It gets worse now that the 2021 Carnival has also been cancelled. But I don't give up hope and we try to keep our heads above water as long as we can.
Personally, all this worries me a lot and causes headaches, fears for the future and sleepless nights. But it also allowed and forced me to focus more on photography.
What are some of your goals as an artist? Where do you see yourself or hope to see yourself in five years?
I am looking forward to the new year, among other things, because a gallerist from Basel let me know that he is interested in exhibiting my work.
And of course I also want to bring the @swissstreetcollective, the swiss collective of street photography further forward and we are also planning a group exhibition together.
You mentioned that you are one of the founding members of The Swiss Street Collective. Talk to us about this project, how it came about and what are the collective's goals? Are there any other special projects you are currently working on that you would like to let everyone know about?
Thank you for this question. Yes, the Swiss Street Collective is the first Swiss collective for street photography. We got together last year and planned the project since summer 2020. It started with sharing experiences and chatting about our work. Mutual exchange of opinions and criticisms. We soon realised that our small group, as individual as we are, had very similar experiences on the streets. And we all realized that we were not the only ones. Of course we found each other, but also there were other street photographers from or in Switzerland. Most of us are rather private people and our opinions and views are sometimes very different. This presented us with some difficult decisions. But I am very happy to say that we all pull together and try to do our part to establish street photography as an art form in Switzerland.
We want to shine light on it and show its artists, as well as simply show our work. We are working on different things like creating a directory where Swiss Street photographers can register. We are open to all kinds of projects and look forward to the future. We are also open to accept new members. There is a lot to do and we can use all the help we can get. Therefore I am very grateful to be able to introduce and explain the collective here.
“When I am not out photographing, I (like to)...
...spend time with my family."
Thank you so much for this interview and the opportunity. I feel very honored and I am so glad I could talk to you.