If you want it raw, if you want 'in your face', Alex Coghe is your guy. An Italian expatriate living in Mexico he is, among other things, a photojournalist, a writer, an editor, a publisher, an entrepreneur, an educator, and a Kujaja curator. His gifts are abundant. His words are uncensored. Alex Coghe IS a force to be reckoned with.
To follow: Coghe, uncensored and for the record.
A photographer… especially of impulses, visions and nightmares. Hot monochromatic, metropolitan animal, acid and minimalistic pen, bard of low-fidelity and the slums, all sarcasm and very little sanctity, I am rose and chrysanthemum, lost in a barrio of Mexico City, essentially a visual provoker switching between street photography, erotica and fashion ."Alex Coghe
WSP: You refer to yourself as a ‘visual provoker’. Literally translated, a provoker is an instigator. Yet you also say you prefer small cameras because they allow you to be discreet, even invisible. These two statements are contradictory. So, can you better explain your meaning of the words ‘visual provoker'?
AC: I don’t think it is contradictory because these things are not related. I use small and compact cameras because, as a street photographer, I need to be “invisible” to document without intervention on the scene most of the time, although sometimes instead I use an approach that is more ‘in your face’ to make visual contact or to exaggerate the visual impact with a certain character. I call myself visual provoker. Maybe it is only an artistic presumption, or maybe, I just take pictures of anything… an old newspaper, the label on a bottle of tequila, lips… especially lips and eyes. Everything is about sex on the streets…yeah, the city is a tasty and juicy vagina and my camera is the tongue.
WSP: Your favorite photographers (classic and contemporary) include: Daido Moriyama, William Klein, Mark Cohen, Jonathan Van Smit, and Michael Penn. These photographers all have something in common… a film noir style of street photography. Is that what draws you to them and how does this translate in your photography?
AC: Well, the fact is that I have a propensity for the sick and those guys are pretty sick! Seriously, I love their work because it is not designed to be a pleasant experience. Their photography is not reassuring and, above all, these photographers present fragments. I feel their presence for a lot of reasons. I share their attitude and vision. These are not guys contemplating their own photos with adoring eyes. Instead, they have a need to just go out and create their own thing. This is the fucking attitude in my opinion.
WSP: Some of your favorite people outside the world of photography include: author Bret Ellis (Less than Zero, and American Psycho), film director David Lynch (Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart, and Mulholland Drive), musician and film director Rob Zombie (Soul-Crusher, Make Them Die Slowly, Halloween), and rock band Motorhead (classic heavy metal). The images each create with words or frames or music are quite similar. How does their style align with your photographic vision?
AC: Tiamat and Type O Negative, also… and Electro Body Music (EBM). Photographers alone are not the only people who influence me. Artistic influence is like food. What I eat influences my body, maybe also my character, right? When I took up photography again, I had abandoned the writing… mostly poems and novels. Fuck, I was very sick then. Writing poems is an admission of loneliness. Still, photography is just a continuation of that path. I imagine that writing about lesbian nuns was no longer a part of my life. I don’t consider art something to be divided into watertight compartments. It is something more fluid than people think. When I saw ‘Tetsuo: The Iron Man’ for the first time, I was pretty disgusted. Any experience, visual and not, can be absorbed. I really don’t know if this is visible in my photography, but the names you’ve quoted and many more are part of me, of what I love.
WSP: You have stated elsewhere that Charles Bukowski is your favorite writer. On you Tumblr blog, you quote Bukowski’s, “So You Want to Be a Writer”. In sum, Bukowski says about writing: if you have to search for it, work for it, wait for it, have to copy others for it, don’t do it. Do you feel the same about photography?
WSP: Your website includes links to ‘The Gonzo Papers’ (your street portfolio), and ‘These Gonzo Days’ (your Tumblr blog). Gonzo is a reference to Hunter Thompson’s journalism, which is characterized by the drug-fueled stream of consciousness writing technique. How has Thompson’s literary style impact your photographic style?
AC: The impact of Thompson applies mostly to my writing. I need to bleed to offer something real to my readers. It’s a flow, isn’t it? The Gonzo term refers to something you are creating… making them feel your presence… can you see me behind the camera? Gonzo is also a porn reference… the point of view part… the observer, the photographer. It is a never ending story, letting you be me.
WSP: Can you identify a recurring theme in your photography?
AC: I am pretty sure there are recurring themes in my photography because it is me and my experience. My vision will always be influenced by who I am as a man first and foremost. I still like to think of my photography as documentation of the environments around me and what I find interesting to record.
WSP: Vision is a word that can leave readers/viewers unsure of its meaning because it is rather vague. Looking at the photographers and notables we just talked about, would you say they have helped you define it?
AC: I don’t know if I have a vision. Maybe I have several visions. I recently went back to color on the streets (though I never left it for my commercial work). I feel it is different from my black and white, yet at the same time I can recognize something, typical of my visual research, within it. I hope others can see this as well. Every day for me is a new beginning. In any case, vision is something personal so, no, I think we should separate influences from the vision. Vision is what you are, who you are… the outside world chewed up and spat out from your inner world.
WSP: I quote you, “Today the [street photography] genre is really popular, and someone, somewhere, began to think that it is possible to make a living with street photography. FALSE: This is one of the most frustrating aspects today in my opinion.” Why false?
AC: Because, apart from Daido Moriyama, I don’t know anyone making a living with street photography. Bruce Gilden is also reporting. Meyerowitz is not just a street photographer. Everyone at Magnum Agency do many other unrelated things. Conducting street photography workshops is not making a living with street photography. I don’t have any problem saying I make money with street photography: with my books, with workshops, sometimes with prints, but I am a commercial photographer. My clients are fashion brands and camera brands. Among my clients there are also models and hostesses. I also realize books and portraits for people in my studio here in Mexico. In the past I worked for agencies as a photojournalist and correspondent from Mexico.
Today photojournalism is a difficult thing. Recently I left an agency because they made it clear that, for them, Mexico is interesting only when it comes to its drug violence, hurricanes, and earthquakes. This is their focus. This is what they find interesting and relevant… breaking news. For this reason, I decided to present my journalistic covers via my website. I prefer to document life, as shown recently with the last Gay Pride event in Mexico City.
WSP: What is the most challenging part about being a photographer?
AC: Being able to pay the bills at the end of the month, haha? Humor aside, as a photographer I try everyday to challenge myself because this means growth. As a professional photographer, the challenges come to me at work on assignment, where the only really important thing is being able to do the work that meets the expectations of my client. From a personal point of view, I try to push my limits always... as a photographer and also as an editor.
WSP: Other than street photographer, you are also know for your fashion and erotic photography. Both collections are gritty, raw, and contain a film noir element. I see bits of Helmut Newton (Violetta Sanchez, Paris, 1979, Cyberwomen6, 2000), Augusto De Luca (Analogue photography, Nude, Human Figure), Craig Morey (Natalie, San Francisco, 1996), and Lindsay Garrett (Melting, The Bath, and Lazy Afternoon) within your work. There is definitely an audience for this type of photography, but there are the dissenters. What are the issues and obstacles you’ve encountered moving into these genres?
AC: I work with fashion brands. Anytime they have hired me it is because they are looking for something spontaneous. I think today’s fashion photography has changed in respect to 70’s-80’s. There is more variety and I see many art directors who are more open mind in this sense. Issues or obstacles? No. However, I would like to say… American Apparel, I am the perfect photographer for you!
WSP: Along with your street, fashion, and erotica photography, you also conduct photography workshops in Mexico and around the world. What types of classes do you offer?
AC: Let me say this: I do offer workshops but I am lucky enough to say these are just a part of my business. I know photographers who offer workshops because they can’t make it with photography only, so they teach. My workshops are designed as a real experience, simulating a classic day shooting as a photographer, but leaving the freedom to my students in order to let them develop their style… to meet their own vision. I also offer street photography workshops that are a total practical experience, not just a slideshow presentation. All my students receive my ‘Guide to Street Photography’ before the workshop so they are prepared for our practical day(s) together from an aesthetic and motivation point of view. My street photography workshops are structured as one-on-one workshops for a maximum of 5 students (the best way to participate in a workshop in my opinion). The same thing is true with my erotic photography workshops. I direct the workshop participants to my ‘Guide to Erotic Photography’ which I publish on my website. On the day of workshop, I offer a typical experience of a session with a model (sometimes two models, depending on the requests and needs of my students). In this case, the workshop is a one-on-one shoot with a maximum of 3 students. In any case, the photographers will end up with a stunning collection of photos from the 6 hour session, with the freedom to publish them because the models all sign a model release.
WSP: Your current tour, Day of the Dead is scheduled for October 26 - November 11, 2015. Tell us something about this workshop.
AC: The Day of the Dead photo tour will be a great experience! Any photographer attending this workshop will live a human and photographic experience in one of most wonderful places on Earth. I’ve totally fallen in love with Oaxaca. It is a magical place and we will be there during one the most ancient and spiritual celebrations in the history of man. We will learn how to make the ‘bread of the dead', we will spend time in the mountains, we will drink Mezcal, we will eat fantastic food, and, of course, the photographers will return with some amazing photos!
WSP: How do you choose the places where you shoot?
AC: I cannot speak of a unique method. Sometimes I choose a favorite location where I know there are a lot of opportunities for a photographer. One of my favorite places is Zona Rosa, a little neighborhood in Downtown of Mexico City, characterized by many bars and sexy shops. This feeds the presence of interesting and alternative people. Zona Rosa also hosts the Korean community, so it’s a fantastic place where I make a lot of shots. Sometimes it’s more random. I find myself in places I visit for the first time. For my ongoing project I am documenting life in the barrios, popular neighborhoods, often not that safe, so I am shooting in places I know but also locations that are new for me. There is not a rule. I can photograph everywhere.
WSP: When you are out shooting, how much of it is instinctual versus planned?
AC: If we are talking about street photography, instinct is paramount. I trust my instincts a lot and usually I press the shutter as a reaction to what I see before me. The thought is quick and I decide the best solution in fractions of a second. However, even for commercial work, the instinct is always present. I apply my street photography approach also when working with models. Even when the work is planned there are still many instances when I can move freely and trust my instincts. I consider myself lucky because my work on assignments usually come from customers in which spontaneity is one of the essential characteristics.
WSP: RAW or JPG and why?
AC: I use mostly JPG. Street Photography doesn’t need excessive editing in my opinion and I prefer a straight approach. Street Photography is essentially a challenge with myself. At some point I decided to work with JPG because I do street photography essentially for myself. Another thing is commercial work: for my clients I usually work with RAW. Recently I started to work using JPG also with my models and some projects we are doing together.
WSP: How important is content versus form in photography. Do you think one plays a stronger role than the other?
AC: Yes, of course. Content is the key of photography for me. Form is just the calligraphy that we decide to use. As we see, the work from the masters is far from formal perfection. Also, the father of us all, Henri Cartier-Bresson - bold advocate of form - was not perfect in any composition... the cut feet, sloping horizons, and distractions of some photos by the French master? Formal perfection is a concept that belongs to schools of photography, to the academic approach, but the stylistic exercises are not photography. It is the main difference between a photographer and those who makes photos that may be fine for a review on the aperture of a new lens.
WSP: What type of images do you view as cliché, overdone, or too common?
AC: Clichè is inevitable. We all make them. The important thing is that your photography is not all a repetition of clichés. For example, I'm tired of seeing too many people using flash, copying the Gilden style. I use the flash sometimes in the streets, but usually it isn’t my thing. This can’t be the only approach when it comes to street photography otherwise you are hiding your inability to recognize and capture a moment without intervention. The issue with flash I am seeing is that many street photographers are using it for every shot. Bruce Gilden is Bruce Gilden. It is his style. But how many times do we need to see the same photograph? The flash, the reaction, usually an expression of surprise or terror… I am sick of this. Street Photography is much more than this, and I prefer to see other things, other photographs.
WSP: Has social media played a role in your photography?
AC: Social media is very important for my business. I am publishing e-books, I have magazines coming out with monthly editions and sponsors. My blog has important statistics from readers around the world. I find most of my customers through internet. Social media is fundamental for my work.
WSP: What are some tips/advice you would give to yourself if you started street photography all over again?
AC: Any advice I could give to myself would never have to do with avoiding the mistakes I’ve made in the past. I am the photographer who is thankful for the many errors committed.
WSP: Your published work includes: Mexicana Magazine, Life in the Barrio Magazine, An Alternative Guide to Erotic Photography and the book, Made in Italy. Talk a bit about these publications and what we can expect from you in the near future?
AC: I sell a lot of books and magazines every day. People appreciate electronic books more than one might imagine. With the Street Photographer Notebook, we have many readers and subscribers. We also have a sponsor and others will be joining the project in future. I am the editor, the publisher, and graphic. We are proposing something different. I am showing what I can do as an editor and my experience as a content proposer. With all my publications, I am presenting myself, my knowledge and my professionalism. I am not just a photographer.
WSP: Finally, what is one question no one has ever asked you that you wish they had asked you?
AC: Where do you see yourself in your old age? The answer will be: I will stop with street photography and I will buy a cottage in Tuscany or Sardinia. It will be my “buen retiro” and I will change myself into a landscape photographer. Yeah, I will never leave photography.
WSP: Thank you for this interview Alex