Welcome to our Premiere Spotlight Feature Story with photographer Benizi Santamaria, now living in Melbourne, Australia. A member of street-photography.co since 2013. Benizi is the truest form of story teller, both in image and word. Read on.
sp.co: Hello, Benizi, tell us about yourself, where are your roots, and why street photography?
Benizi: I learned in writing school that the best thing you can ever write about is your own story. Even if you wrote fiction, that so called imagined world you have created is just some kind of reflection of your own life’s story. You create a character out of nothing so to speak but will still have to move your character through a story using your own judgements and emotions. You believe and live the character.
I spent my childhood in Melaka in Malaysia. It was then a little town where trishaws and rattling buses ran down narrow streets. I remember the potholes, puddles and winding pathways through rubber plantations and rice paddies that made my childhood an adventure. Even now, when photographing in the streets of Melbourne, I can’t help but make those comparisons in my head, looking say at a whole bunch of office people dashing across the road to Southern Cross Station just to be home for dinner. Why are they rushing? Would missing a train mean missing out on dinner or missing their favourite TV show?
When photographing a certain subject, I am thinking up stories. There is that magic of juxtaposition where by just positioning yourself you can mix and match your subject with a certain background. I see a couple in the corner having some kind of an animated conversation right in the middle of the mad rush. Is this an argument, a domestic quarrel laid out in public or is it just a work discussion. I take a shot of him with one hand raised, a man in that rushing crowd just ducking in time to avoid him. I take another shot, this one with the woman now pulling the necktie of the man. Is she being aggressive with him now? You can read a story into the image, any story just as I would make up stories in my childhood when walking pass a few menacing buffaloes. They were monsters I had to fight with my stick. Without hearing any words from the couple, you cannot say with any certainty if the man and the woman are is a lovers quarrel or just a passionate conversation about last weeks game. Then they may just be discussing a few points to be raised at tomorrows meeting.
And why street photography? I suppose like writing, there are all sorts of possibilities. Every time I go out with my camera, I am heading off to a little adventure. The fact that you don’t know the truth makes pressing the shutter and capturing that moment in time a whole lot more exciting.
sp.co: What does photography mean to you?
Benizi: People and their stories, surely. The is the reason why I shoot in the first place. I will not say that I am a Street Photographer or a Landscape Photographer. Those are just titles that are rather restricted in meaning. I take photos as my way of documenting my travels.
In my 2010 visit to Java, more specifically to Parangtritis Beach south of Yogjakarta city, I met a fisherman who appeared to be frustrated with his efforts. After watching him for a while, I decided that I would have a little chat with him. In our conversation, he tells me about how things were and how things are now with the pollution and the lack of fish. He throws his net again, pulls it up again and shows me the plastic bags and bottles and an assortment of plastic waste caught in his nets. Untangling a bottle from his nets, he tells me about the Earthquake of 2006. About 5000 people died. I found my wife in the rubble. Lucky her, she only broke her arm.
After telling me about the Government’s slow rapid reaction but slow rebuilding efforts, he invites me into his house for a meal where we are joined by his wife and three children. He tells me that he can only afford to send one to school, the eldest boy of course. In Flores island just last year, I saw children helping out with building a road. The sight of a 7 year old child carrying a bucket of gravel on his head is not a rare sight in this part of the world. Of course you’d never see this in Melbourne. That would be branded as “Child Labour” or “Slave Labour” There are different standards in some parts of the world.
Late last year, I spent a month just wandering the streets of Manila. I got a bit sick from the pollution but when you see naked children their bodies soiled from road dust emerging out of their cardboard shacks to ask you for money, then you think less about your own ailments. Photos can be powerful things. I am always moved emotionally but what I see in my travels, some things ugly and some beautiful. I take photos of both just to portray a balanced view of things. Too much negativity of a certain country and you may be banned from visiting again. It is always a challenge venturing into the unknown. I can say for sure what inspires me to shoot.
sp.co: What inspires you?
Benizi: The stories of the people I meet are inspiring to me.
sp.co: When did you know you loved photography? How old were you when you picked up your first camera?
Benizi: When you are in your late teens or a young adult you are kind of narcissistic in a way. The word “Selfie” has now officially included in Oxford’s dictionary. A new word for an old habit. When I got my first camera, that’s what I did, just taking heaps of photos of myself in different character poses. You can only take so many photos of yourself. Studio photographers may argue with this of course saying that you can create as many moods to a subject/person as you like just with different shades of lighting. When I grew tired of the Selfie, I began taking photos of people I met. The trip to 2007 visit to Morocco and Tanzania was a starter of sorts. In 2009, I bought my first DSLR. Digital had opened up new possibilities. For the first time, I could control the whole process from the capture of the image to the final output in Print. So it wasn’t a sudden thing; I did not wake up one day to find myself loving photography. It was a mixture of different events and the progress in technology that brought me to my present place in photography as both practical tool as well as an art form. I love people and their stories. Photography is my way of documenting this.
A pair of revellers emerge from Flinders Street Train Station after the running of the Melbourne Cup, a Horse Race also called “The Race that stops a Nation”
sp.co: Do you have any tips for shooting?
Benizi: Shoot from the heart, not from the hip. definitely. Some photographers will brag about some secret formula to shoot. Some have made a good living out of holding workshops, often in different Cities in the world telling participants the obvious. $400-$1000 bucks a pop just to learn about some “Ten Things you should know about Street Photography” and amongst others, some hard and fast rule about composition, juxtapositioning subjects against backgrounds, and some narrow definition of Street Photography itself. I have myself never subscribed to such hard rules. There are some bloggers or pseudo street photographers who have accumulated such a following by offering such tips as commandments that they have now gained a cult like status. Fifty Thousand “Likes” on their page and a million followers just to tell you “How to overcome your fear in Street Photography” And you will see them in some Youtube video in the middle of a street chasing their subjects almost to the point of harassment or stalking by getting in too close and flashing in their faces. What I can offer as a tip if at all is what I mentioned earlier, ‘Shoot from the heart.’ Sure workshops work to a point in imparting some technical knowhow about composition, framing and so on, but if you have little feel for what you are doing or interest in your subjects and are more interested in hard definitions of composition, framing and the like, then you’d be missing out on the whole point of Street Photography itself and that is the character and spirit of your image. I can go on all day talking about this and giving you examples but that would require a further interview or two I suppose. I am willing. There are so many people I would like you to meet in my images. Each time I look at the images I have taken, I am transported back to those people in it that I have met and I have even joined with for a meal and a chat. You make memories with each image you take.
sp.co: What is your next travel or photo project?
Benizi: Last year’s “UNSEEN-Images from the streets I know” was my third public Exhibition held in Melbourne. This is a collection of my street images of the City I have based myself in for the last 20 years. It is always an expensive undertaking when doing a Solo Exhibition. There is the cost of printing to begin with. Michael’s Camera was kind enough to offer me their gallery space upstairs for free. So that’s good. They even did the publicity and provided wine and snacks for the opening. I have been dabbling with a few ideas in the last few months. Perhaps I should do a PhotoBook. I am also trying to get better in marketing myself on Social Media. I must admit that I am not passionate about the process but it’s a necessary evil. I have also begun a charity project. It is still in its infancy. I have a few more trips to the Philippines and Indonesia in the next year or two before I can even think of sponsors and other forms of support. To me, every image is a window’s view of some part of the world. Without windows, you may have a dark room. But that’s not all bad if you are still developing film.