Hi David. To start with, please introduce yourself and tell us how photography
came into your life.
I am a photographer from Prague in the Czech Republic. I started off as a pure street photographer, and even now I spend most of my time shooting on the street. I studied anthropology, but rather than studying specific cultures, I am driven more by trying to understand human perception. I spent the first years learning photography while I traveled, but I've always been intrigued by photographers who see something special in their immediate, familiar surroundings. If I use the two of the most famous Czech photographers as an analogy, I would probably rather have the eyes and brain of Josef Sudek than Josef Koudelka.
The first time I was intrigued by a camera was when my older brother started shooting film when we were both teenagers. I read a book or two about how to set the camera up and whatnot, but I honestly never really thought of photography as something important in my life. That changed when I had a breakdown in 2011, left university in London and went back home to get myself together. It took a bit longer than expected, and in 2012, I started working as a bartender in a jazz club. I was still struggling with anxiety and hated the packed subway rides to work.
At a suggestion of a friend, I started to carry a camera with me to distract myself from the nervousness and to help me focus on something in particular rather than feel like I needed to perceive all the stimuli at once. It was a relief to have a small rectangle to look through. I definitely hid behind the camera; it was a shield to protect me, but it also felt empowering at the time. I thought to myself, “Shit, if the camera can do this in such a short period of time, what will it do over a lifetime?” Since then, I never stopped thinking about the abilities of the camera. It’s a research tool for me. I wanted to understand how I see and then be able to manipulate it. I still believe that it can reveal and shape your view of the world. There is honestly nothing sexier for me than seeing something new, and letting myself be transformed by it.
Many street photographers really enjoy the chaos and crowds of big cities, but in
your case it seems to be the other way round: you used photography to retake
control over the alienating and dehumanizing experience of living in a huge city like
London. How has photography helped you in dealing with this?
For example, when I arrived to Tokyo for the first time in 2014, I thought I had my big cities handled by then, but it was still really overwhelming. All the shit came back, the anxiety of not being ok, of not perceiving my surroundings healthily like a “normal” person would.
As most therapists will tell you, the most effective way to overcome a particular fear is to go through it and realize it doesn’t really kill you. So I just kept going to the busiest areas, and I would get familiar with the place from what felt like a relatively safe viewpoint - from behind the camera - until I just didn’t care about the busyness anymore. I am a curious person and have a need to share what I discover, so making a book about large cities seemed like a natural outcome of what I was doing.
The thing was, I felt like my brain became dysfunctional at the age of 21. Until then, it was the thing I was most proud of - I was a quick thinker, very confident, and felt like whatever difficulties life threw at me, I would be able to overcome it because I felt smart and was hard-working. That changed, and it made me feel like I had nothing to be proud of, because I couldn’t handle stress, I couldn’t focus, and I became a fearful person. I couldn’t really work properly. So when I discovered my eyes and brain work well when I don’t analyze things, and just react instinctively, I decided to dedicate myself to it completely. It’s a very different way of working than we are mostly expected to operate in in today’s society, and it felt healthy. It gave me a purpose and hope for the future.
How did the idea/concept of your project Metropolight come about?
I remember that, as a teenager, I quite liked cities. I thought Prague (1.3 million people) was too small, and I wanted to move to a bigger place. I also knew that cities are the pinnacle of society - culture is turned up to the max and all its citizens go through a heavy-handed socializing process. It always felt like there was something sinister about the whole concept of cities, but it kind of attracted me. After living and studying in London, and noticing the pressures of a larger city, it became a bit clearer to me what a place like this can do to the human psyche. It’s intriguing and worrying at the same time. We are all more alone; we perceive the social inequalities as more pronounced there, and it creates a whole lot of pressure that I was quite sensitive to. It’s a bit like what they say about New York - it makes you or breaks you. And London broke me. I kept coming back, though. I eventually finished my degree and might actually move there again next year.
While at university, I was reading an amazing essay from a philosopher and sociologist Georg Simmel, called “The Metropolis and Mental Life”, and it resonated with me so much. I remember reading it and jumping out of the chair in joy that somebody captured it so precisely. It gave words to what I was feeling at the time, and became the backbone of the book’s structure. It made me think of the solitude in cities, and its effects, and how it also spurs new creative directions. Also, coming from a family of builders and architects, it was natural for me to perceive the effects of the postmodern architecture in cities, and I wanted to emphasize that as well. It took me a while to sequence the book for those things to come through, but even when I look back at it now, it still seems to work for me. When I gave the book to my psychologist, he said that it was a challenge to go through in some way. I think if you’re sensitive, it should be a bit disruptive, in a “what the fuck are we living in” sort of way. At the moment, I’m happy to be in Prague. In the future, I hope to find more comfort in nature.
For two years, you traveled to many metropolises for the making of your project. What was your working method during these trips? Did you have specific places in mind to visit beforehand, or were you just exploring the city and being led by its flow? What was the most challenging aspect of the whole process?
I actually shot the book in eight months, with a few pictures from previous trips included. I woke up, worked on a computer for a while, or just read/studied something, then had a big lunch to knock me out for a nap, woke up, exercised, had a coffee and then went out to shoot in the afternoon. That was the daily routine. I couchsurfed the whole way through, so a lot of the places I explored were defined by where I was staying, but often I would head in the direction of business districts and such. I knew how to shoot there; it’s easier because of all the reflected light, and the mood resonated with me somehow. When I was choosing the cities, I searched for the most “metropolitan” cities…there are definitions and criteria for that (like population, foreigninvestment, different nationalities, etc.). I adjusted it a tiny bit by going to Seoul instead of Beijing as I already had Shanghai in China. Then I looked for the sunniest months to visit those places and tried to make an eight-month trip out of it. I have a tendency to be very structured in some ways, but try to keep the shooting very loose when it comes to it, so that I can react to whatever I find interesting at the time.
The most challenging was definitely creating the Kickstarter campaign for the book, andthen doing all of the stuff like packaging the books, taking them to the post office, etc. I had a bad experience with my publisher, and somehow the books that got printed had paper dust in them. The first hundred of the books I sent had this issue, because I didn’t realize it, but when I did, I put on some gloves, took a cloth, unpacked and cleaned the remaining 700 books I sold, page by page. It was an ordeal... I smoked a lot of pot during the two weeks that I was doing that.
Lately you photograpjed in your hometown, Prague. Tell us a bit about this project
and how different it was shooting in a familiar city in comparison to unknown
The project was commissioned by the Institute of Urban Planning in Prague after they saw Metropolight. It was a dream job. I was shooting my hometown for six months and got paid for it. The thing was, I hated shooting in my own city for long periods of time, because after a while I would get depressed that I don’t see anything interesting. I thought it was an opportunity to learn how to see something even in the more basic and mundane things, and it was painful but I broke, or smoked, through it eventually. 2017 was a weed year for me, I was probably burning 3-4 grams a day. I smoke from time to time now; you can’t really do it daily when you need to do things that don’t revolve around creativity. And I started running out of money this year, so it was time to be a bit more responsible again.
It all ended up in a huge exhibition in Prague; I don’t think I will get such space again in the next 10 years. Some of the photos were printed on the wall, and then there was a 25-meter long walk with an 8K projector, so some of the photos got projected. We also took the textual signs and various visual debris you see in the city, and printed it out and stuck it onto the floor. Prague’s a mess visually; there are a lot of advertisements everywhere, and I wanted to bring some attention to it. Since my photos tend to be quite clean, I thought showing the audience all the shit I had to avoid would emphasize how much visual pollution we live in.
In a previous conversation you mentioned you were now trying to reinvent
yourself photographically. How is this going? Any plans for new projects?
When I was shooting in Prague, something new happened. I started to focus and enjoy the emotional charge of shapes and colors. I lost a bit of interest in people. So I guess now I am shooting a lot more unpeopled photos. But I like the human presence in my pictures as well, so I go out with a friend once a week and shoot her in different places. It’s partially constructed and partially improvised, but it allows me to try and work with new things. I haven’t really processed these images into a coherent series yet, so you can only see them on my Instagram at this point. Sometimes I have really wild and vivid dreams, and feel like there is some untapped imagination there, so I am slowly trying to bring it out through the pictures. I can really relate to some surrealist and magical realism paintings, so I suppose I am exploring where my own brain can take me. I am hoping it will all fall into place (and a book) eventually. Sometimes, when I scroll through Instagram and see all the things people do around the world, it’s really humbling and makes me question why I even bother with all this, but then I systematically remind myself I am doing it to satisfy my own curiosity and to learn something. It’s also a bit like eating; I have to do it to stay alive.