Something that not belongs to the scene: an interview with Nicolas St-Pierre / #URBANinsights
Let’s start 2022 with a new episode of #URBANinsights, the exclusive contents dedicated to the winners of URBAN Photo Awards. Today we talk to Nicolas St-Pierre, URBAN Book Award 2021 winner with the project Where Have The Birds Gone?. Enjoy!
Hello Nicolas, thank you for your time. How would you introduce yourself to those who still don’t know you as a photographer?
Thank you for giving me the opportunity of introducing myself to your readers! I was born in 1974 in a small town located some 60 km outside of Montréal (Canada), but have spent a significant portion of my adult life abroad, first as an exchange student, then as a diplomat posted to China and Japan. Curiosity about the world is very much part of my identity, both as an individual and as a photographer. You won’t thus be surprised to hear that I devote most of my spare time capturing the places and people that I encounter through my professional and personal travels.
To me, the camera is an extraordinary tool which helps me step out of my comfort zone. It is an invitation to explore and a mean to build bridges between myself and the other. The camera provides me with both an excuse and an incentive to get closer, to connect emotionally and physically with the outside world. It has also become a mean to dive deep into myself and express my own feelings and state of mind.
When I look back at the last three decades, I cannot help but recognize that my photographic practice has considerably evolved over time. Of all photographic genres, documentary and street photography are currently those that appeal to me the most.
I want to congratulate you for Where Have The Birds Gone?, the winning project of URBAN Book Award 2021, selected by Francesco Cito. Can you tell us the “behind the scenes” of the project?
Thank you very much! In summer 2015, I moved to Tokyo to take a position at the Embassy of Canada in Japan. A few months into my stay there, I had the opportunity of attending a one-week workshop offered by then Magnum photographer David Alan Harvey. This workshop pushed me to the limit and sparked a deep reflexion about my photography. In particular, it prompted me to explore how I could use photography as a means of expressing my own emotions. The body of work presented in Where Have the Birds Gone? started to take shape in the wake of that workshop.
During the four years that I lived in Japan, I spent countless hours exploring on foot the streets and back alleys of Tokyo. Almost every day, I was stopped dead in my own tracks by the unexpected sight of something that did not belong to the scene, or the deafening silence of something that cried out to be there.
Despite all the time and efforts that I had invested to learn Japanese and acquaint myself with local culture, I was never able to completely shake off the impression that I had set foot in a strange land.
My book Where Have the Birds Gone? constitutes my own attempt at rendering the sense of alienation and unease that I felt while living in Japan, and which will be so familiar to those who have visited the country.
How would you describe your style? Which photographers have influenced you?
I would be hard-pressed to describe my own photographic style as it varies from one project to the other. In fact, I believe that style should be at the service of one’s vision and message, not the other way around. If there is any constant, however, I would say that I continuously strive to capture fleeting moments, uncover the extraordinary in everyday life and lead the viewer to look at the world with a fresh pair of eyes.
For the last decade, I have been spending a lot of time in the company of great photographers by collecting and studying photo books. Moriyama Daido and the other photographers of Provoke, with their contrasty, grainy and blurry black and white images, have no doubt influenced the way I approached Japan. When it comes to street photography, I find myself constantly drawn to the work of Alex Webb and Harry Gruyaert. Of late, the visual poetry of Alec Soth and Alessandra Sanguinetti, and the creative approach of Bieke Depoorter have made a lasting impression on me.
How long have you been photographing? How did you get interested in it?
My interest for photography goes back some 30 years and is closely related to my long-standing passion for travels.
When I was 17 years old, I had the chance of spending a year as an exchange student in Napoli, Italy. A few months into my stay there, the point and shoot camera that I had brought with me to document my experience let me down. For Christmas, my host family thus gave me a rugged Zenit SLR camera and a few lenses made in the USSR. This camera, which felt like a tank in my hand, was my first genuine contact with analog photography.
Upon my return to Canada, I bought myself a more advanced SLR camera which I subsequently took on all my travels around the world. But the real turning point was the purchase of my first digital camera ahead of my eldest daughter’s birth in 2003. From that point on, I have been taking my camera with me pretty much wherever I go, and my interest for photography has never ceased growing.
What equipment do you use? Do you spend a lot of time editing your images?
For the last eight years or so, I have been shooting exclusively with Fujifilm cameras as I truly appreciate their portability and responsiveness. In fact, I currently own three of them: the X100v, the X-T3 and the GFX 100s. While these specific cameras have served me well, I remain convinced that ultimately, the best camera remains the one that you have with you at all times since you never know when a magical moment will happen before your eyes.
As far as editing is concerned, I enjoy going through the images that I shoot, picking the best amongst them and sequencing them to tell stories. However, I spend very little time on post-processing itself as I have no patience – and to be honest no talent either! – for Photoshop.
What advice would you give to an aspiring photographer who wants to approach photography professionally?
I wish I was in a position to offer advise in that regard, but as it turns out, photography is not my profession. This is not to say that I do not practice photography with the utmost level of seriousness and commitment, but only that I do not earn a living out of it.
To me, passion – and the dedication that flows from it – is probably the most important thing needed to get noticed as a photographer. I know this will sound like motivational self-help, but if you relentlessly pursue your dreams and never stop seeking opportunities to hone your skills and become more literate as a photographer – something you can do by attending workshops, visiting exhibitions, perusing photo books, etc. – you are bound to become a better photographer.
What are your projects for the future? What are you working on now?
When I returned to Canada from Japan in 2019, I made the deliberate decision to turn my camera towards my own “backyard” and look for local stories worth telling. From the outset, I knew that such an endeavour would prove difficult since for as long as I can remember, I have been hooked on the excitement and novelty that travel provides. In fact, if it had not been for the COVID-19 pandemic which forced me to stay at home, I might not have succeeded in making that mental shift. Today, I probably have more project ideas than I could possibly realize in the foreseable future!
Amongst other projects, I have recently started hanging out with my camera in an old tavern close to where I live, with a view to soak up its history, meet its patrons and try to understand what brings them there. With their threadbare billiard tables, their fluorescent Molson clocks, their large shelf- temperature beer bottles and their basic menus offering baked beans as well as eggs in vinegar, taverns have long been an integral part of the landscape of cities in the Province of Quebec (Canada). Since only a few have survived to this day, I find it all the more important to document the fast-disappearing subculture that they embody.
Other than that, I am also pursuing a project about Chinese restaurants in small-town Canada.