Adam Balcerek left his home country of Poland to become an architect in Germany, then walked away from a promising career and moved to Paris to pursue photography. It was a brave decision that enabled the hopeful creative to develop his talent behind the lens. In his interview with Gosia Sobiczewska, Adam describes how he made the transition from complete novice to an award-winning, professional photographer and explains what he believes is the key to success.
How did your story with photography begin?
I’m not one of these photographers whose great grandfather was a photographer and who received their first camera for the 4th birthday. I never even owned a camera until my fourth year of studies when I started to play with the camera of a friend, and Ioved it. I decided to earn money and buy such a great toy for myself. So, a few months later I bought my first camera, a Canon Eos 300 film SLR. During this time I was shooting about 30 films (36frames/film) per month, which believe me, is a lot, especially for a student! You need to buy film, develop it and so on. And that’s how it started.
You graduated from architecture in Germany and worked over 4 years in one of the best architecture offices in Europe - how did you become a professional photographer?
It was one decision followed by a long process. I remember one sleepless night (while working as an architect) when I started to think about what I would like to do most.This night I realized that I love photography and began to wonder why not do something about it. That is how the whole process started.Do you know ‘Inception’ - the movie with Leonardo DiCaprio? It was pretty much the same with me that night. Once the idea sprouted in my mind I couldn’t get rid of it, everything that followed was the result of a single thought.So, the day after I signed for a school of photography. I wanted to develop my skills and learn about photography as much as I could. I was attending classes during long weekends, I did a lot of my own projects and started to take more and more one day vacations from my office to do photo shoots or to finish my photographic projects. It was a crazy time without sleeping and without any breaks. Working two jobs at the same time. Finally, I realized that I just could not go on like this and I needed to make a choice. So, I quit my job to move to Paris and to assist the best known photographers in the world.A new chapter of my life started.
What is the recipe to become a great photographer? Determination?
Yes, that for sure. But the key is to love what you do, to love photography.Otherwise you will stop one day and never return. I always teach my students two basic rules how to become a good photographer. One is to practice! Practice, practice and once again practice!
It was Patrick Demarchelier who looked at my portfolio (while I was assisting him in Paris) and said: “Make 100 photo-shoots more and then we can talk!” By that time I have accomplished about 15 or 20 photo-shoots, so 100 was an incredible number for me. Nevertheless I did what he said and started to count. Before I crossed the magic number of 100 (which was about, I guess, two years later) I knew exactly what he meant. With every photo-shoot, with every project I improved my skills. I learned about poses, light but as well about the whole production process. I never had a chance to speak to Patrick again, but having performed the 100 photo-shoots, I didn’t need that so much anymore.
The second advice I give is to watch! Look at a lot of pictures - good pictures by good photographers.Personally I am watching fashion photo-shoots and analyzing everything in them (poses, light, emotions, colors, framing) all the time! This way you create your own taste, which is super important in this profession. Even by watching things you don’t like you are learning a lot. There is a great number of things I can give advice for, but in my opinion those two are the most important!
Adam Balcerek. Agora Bytom, Outdoor campaign
What inspires you? Who is your favorite photographer?
I don’t really think that something specific inspires me.The different ideas simply come and go. And when they come I’m writing them down to not lose them. I used to watch paintings, trying to analyze the light. Take as an example Bouguereau, Tissot, Winterhalter or polish Wacław Koniuszko or Jan Matejko. I’m not pretending to be like one of these great artists in my photography, but it is always a great learning. These painters were repeating what they saw and recreating a light similar to the real one. There is always something ‘wrong’ about their light and that’s the best part. I love this kind of imperfection.
Speaking about photographers, I have favorite pictures or photo-shoots rather than favorite photographers! I have this terrible habit to criticize and analyze all the pictures I watch (I’m doing it in silence of course). I especially criticize my own work but also that of great photographers; nobody is perfect and even the greatest make mistakes. Generally, I love Eugenio Recuenco for his ideas, courage and amazing light. I like Steven Meisel for his diverse stories and David La Chapelle for his colors. I love the creativity and the purity of Erwin Olaf, the craziness of Terry Richardson, the poses of Greg Kadel and also the perfection of Peter Lindbergh, who is catching and perfectly framing the human feelings.
To become a professional photographer you need to be inspired by the greatest and work a lot.
But you still need some equipment, right? How much does it matter? Which camera do you use?
You probably know the story of Ernest Hemingway complementing the pictures of Irving Penn? He said: "Your pictures are great, what camera do you use?" Irving replied: "Your books are great, what typewriter do you use?" There is a universal belief that the camera doesn’t matter – it is the skills that count! Generally I agree with that. But the truth is that a camera matters much more to a photographer than a typewriter to a writer. It really is a pretty important element in the creation process. If you have something in your head then you need a tool to accomplish this. It may be the camera in your iPhone or else a pinhole camera or a Hasselblad H4D with IQ180 digital back with an 80 megapixels matrix. So, to answer your question: I always use a specific camera at a specific moment to execute a specific, individual job.
Adam Balcerek. Photography for Nairobi Social Project for Saatchi & Saatchi
If you analyze your project “Photography for Nairobi”, it seems that in your opinion everybody can be a successful photographer. Is that right?
The answer is not as simple as that, but generally I would say yes! The idea behind the “Photography for Nairobi” project is to give people ‘a fishing rod instead of a fish’. The fishing rod in this case is a camera. The base of this project is to give talented youngsters from Nairobi (who have trouble to find any job) a good camera and the knowledge how to use it. So, instead of looking for work, they can create their own small businesses and earn good money for themselves and their families.That’s how it works and WORKS is in this case a key word because this project simply worked!
Coming back to your question: I strongly believe most of us can achieve whatever we want! It’s just a matter of great determination in pursuit of your goal. If it is well specified, if you take the action in your hands (not waiting for others to help you) and you’re consistent enough, you will always achieve what you want! Of course, this is easy to say but harder to do. But at the end of the day a clear plan of action, focus, and determination has to go along with every talent. Talent is important, but without hard work it never is enough. So, if my students from the Photography For Nairobi project prove to be strong enough in pursuing their goals, even with a little talent they can reach them!
Adam Balcerek is now based in Warsaw, focussing on fashion and advertising photography for which he has won many awards. His projects take him all over the world, and his clients include Vogue China, Glamour magazine, Oriflame, Sony, Toyota, Saatchi & Saatchi and BBDO.
Adam Balcerek. Living in a Hotel editorial, New York Moves magazine