by Eryk Fitkau
Subject: Prostitutes & Horse racing
I chose one subject, about which I knew quite a lot, which was horse racing. The other subject I chose was hookers (it happened that I had small affiliations with the local prostitutes). Now, people normally condemn prostitution but through my involvement with the black market I was always in close contact with these kinds of people. I was in contact with girls who worked at hotels, to put it bluntly, hookers. I felt that prostitutes were a very interesting subject and I aimed to show the other side to them, the one which society was normally blind to. The story I produced showed, through visual interpretation, that they are human beings just like you and me, and at some times, they are actually morally better people. I wanted to show the amazingly beautiful side to them, which mainstream society was oblivious to. I produced a photographic story, which aimed to show the real truth about a business which society condemned. Some of these pictures were very graphic and thought provoking, but at the same time, I took a lot of pictures to show that they are people with big hearts, feelings and emotions. To produce the photos using a story board my photographer friend called the head guy from a photo journalistic department. This guy was 100 percent a photojournalist, not paparazzi, a pure photojournalist.
To give a better description of this photojournalist, when he had a heart attack and was lying in hospital, he asked his young wife to bring him his camera, and his wife thought it would make him better to have his equipment next to him. The real story was that he knew somebody would die the next night. He unhooked himself from the drips and spent the whole night taking photographs (not caring about his health in the slightest). He wanted to be able to capture through photos, the moment of death.
When my photographer friend asked me to show him the story, which I produced, the photojournalist was impressed and asked me if I could work for him and if I could, when could I start? It was really incredible that from the moment I took my first photograph, only three months later, I was working efficiently as a professional. I worked as a photojournalist for five years, experiencing all different emotions and situations, some spectacular and inspiring, whilst also some really tragic and horrific situations. Photojournalism taught me to use the camera like a gun. With a gun, you do not hesitate to shoot when faced with another gun, because if you do, you are dead. You have to press the button on the camera before something, which you want to capture, vanishes. In other words, "when you see the shot through the camera, you know that you have missed it".
Now I am working in advertising/ fashion and creative photography in Australia, and my photo journalistic background has helped me a lot.
My modeling experience in Poland helped me a lot in knowing how models feel and what drives them. This somehow gives me an advantage in getting the shots, compared to other photographers who have not had modeling or photojournalistic experiences. This gives me a big advantage in capturing the moment, which usually happens naturally, instead of directing and controlling and then maybe missing a split second of spontaneous action.
I came to Australia without any English or money and one of the reasons that made me come to a different country and not knowing anybody, was so I could find out whom I really am. When I was living in Poland, we heard a lot of things about the Western world. That there is only sex, lazing around, and money is falling from the sky! Compared to what I had heard Australia seemed like a convent full of nuns to me.
For the first three years in Australia I tried different things. I worked at a factory; building sites; working all the different kinds of building jobs and at some stage I realized that photography is what I know best, and it is who I am and what I want to do.
The moment I set foot in Australia I had the strong feeling that I had to make this land my home. I slowly cut myself off from the Polish community, which I felt was restricting and debilitating to my career. I quickly go an Aussie girlfriend and Aussie roommates, which helped me with my limited English.
In Australia photojournalism does not exist like it did in Poland. I realized the only way I could work with a camera in my hand was to get into the advertising and creative industry. I tried to get as much information as I could with my broken English, and the strong belief that I could actually make it. In Melbourne I found the top photographer, Brian Brandt, who spent a number of hours with me, showing me the folios of successful photographers and I remember his quote when he said, "advertising is like a cake which is sliced and all the slices were taken and what is left is crumbs." He was trying to explain that you couldn’t survive only on the crumbs.
Documentary - New Australians
Because I didn't have any financial backing and very minimal English, I had to start from the bottom. I was doing various jobs and one of those was a fashion business where I created a line based on the concept of aluminous clothing. I went as far as creating flashing make up, run by little batteries. It was at this time, through this little business, my hard work and persistence finally began to show results. So much so, that I got asked to be involved in an interview as part of a documentary about "up and coming Australians." The documentary was based around Australians who had come from overseas and made it big 'Down Under'. After being involved in all of these various business ventures and jobs, I realized that my true calling and true passion still lay in photography.
I then began to start a business with my Polish partner, but I realized that my chances of breaking into the advertising scene were not very likely. I already knew by this time my life experience was far greater, and that going through what I had been through made me see a whole lot more to life than the average Joe. I realized that to have some chance in the advertising industry that I had to stand out. I love photography with a passion and I was doing photojournalism and whilst analyzing why I succeeded in the first place (if it isn't broke, don't fix it) I realized that photography is who I am. I started working off as a photojournalist in Poland as nothing, to someone who was later approached by Magnum (the top Photo Journalistic Organization).
I was now at the firm decision that I would have a shot at the impossible, and try and break into the scene down under. My idea was to create ideas in advertising that had never been seen before. I had a feeling that my best chance was to create original ideas that stood out from the commonly seen ideas of photographers in Australia. Considering that I started photography without any formal training or schooling, I had an unorthodox method of photography, which helped me to stand out. I realized that a lot of the photographers, who I had at first admired, were actually more of the same. The photographs that were being taken were all too similar and I realized that this was to my distinct advantage. Looking back now, I could say that my photographs were six to seven years ahead of their time. I also had a distinct advantage because of my history in photojournalism, which meant I could anticipate when to take a shot; I had a gut instinct when to take a shot.
Even with these skills it was very difficult to break into the scene in Australia. What you needed was to be able to go to a go see at an advertising agency, where you take your portfolio and the agency assesses whether they can employ you. This however, was a difficult task, because there were so many people who wanted one of these meetings; just think of the number of photography graduates who are looking for a job; all of these people wanted a meeting. Of course, the advertising agencies could not manage to interview everyone; if they did they would do no work, only interview applicants all day! Nonetheless I tried to gain an interview, I had of course this Polish "never say die"attitude and would not stop until I had achieved what I wanted. After a while I learnt that the receptionists were trained to screen calls of students trying to apply, I realized I needed to try a different approach, so I thought of a plan to get myself an interview. I found that if I rang around, I could find the names of the bosses of the agencies, so once I knew legitimate names of real people working in the industry, I would ring the agency and tell the receptionist that another prominent photographer had insisted that I have an interview with the art director or creative director. I made myself sound very busy and important by pretending to talk to imaginary staff so that she thought I was already a professional, who was set up with his own staff. I did not let her say no, and asked WHEN, not if, it was possible for me to come in for an interview. Amazingly, this plan worked and before I knew it, I had an interview with an advertising agency.
1st Agency Meeting
The agency art director was impressed with my folio and so he agreed to take me and my partner into his agency.
One day we got a call to come into the agency. I knew that meant that we had our first job. Now, we went into a meeting with the art director of the company and he asked us how much money we would need to do the shoot, he asked us to give him a quote. Now, thinking about how much money I was making working in construction, and adding on to that money we would need for film and developing, I estimated that we should quote approximately $150. I was talking about this price with my partner in Polish and he agreed that this was a good price to quote. Now, I feel that as a person I have good gut instincts. For example, when I am shooting, somehow I know when the right moment is to take the shot; it is a gut feeling that I have. So, when we were about to give this quote to the director of the agency, I had a feeling that we should not tell him what we thought. I quickly said to my partner in Polish that he should not say anything and also show no reaction to what the director said. I said to the director that we are new to this country and we do not know how much is the going rate here, so could he please give us some idea of a budget. He replied that it was a small budget of about approximately $1600. Now, this was a very big shock for me because I was expecting a lot less, but I kept a poker face and told the director that this price would be acceptable to us.
1st Advertising Shoot, a mistake that worked!
Now, you remember that I had no formal training in photography; I only had my photojournalistic experience. What I knew of lighting, I had taught myself from simply observing how light falls naturally in nature and any surroundings; inside, outside, wherever there is a light source. I did not realize that it is possible to adjust the exposure of the film, and to do test strips to check whether the exposure was correct. Now, this was at a time when photographers did not usually develop photographs in their studio, they sent the photographs to get developed somewhere else. So, when we went to pick up the shots, we saw that they were all overexposed. There was no chance of a re-shoot, and my partner was so worried about what we should do. The shoot we had done was for a beauty product, and I realized that the overexposure made it look as thought this skin was absolutely flawless. Although it was a mistake, the photos actually looked good. I sold this to the director of the advertising agency, and told him that we had purposefully overexposed the shots. He loved it, and so did the client! The funny thing is, that we had not done this on purpose, but the response from this shoot was amazing, and it created somewhat of a trend amongst other photographers; pretty soon everyone was experimenting with overexposing shots!
This was of course a big fluke! I do not lie to people, but sometimes I say a thing which can be interpreted in a number of ways and that is what I did when I told the director that we had purposefully overexposed the shots. Sure, we had really made a mistake, but it actually looked good; I believe we actually got a better result out of this mistake than we would have out of what we actually planned to produce. Now we were paid well for this job, but my partner and I wanted to set up our own studio and to do this we would need a lot of money for the equipment and rent. First, we decided that we needed to look like partners and create an image that people would notice, so that people would remember us and then hire us for jobs. We bought long matching trench coats and I already had long hair and he had dreadlocks; both of these styles were pretty different for that time, but we wanted to push it to the extreme. He also had a beard, so what I did was I got a shaver and shaved diagonally through his beard, then his eyebrow and then his hair. So that all the hair in that diagonal line was gone. Now we looked really different and we stood out! We did not want to be identical, but we wanted a combined impact that would make people stop and look at us. Now that we had accomplished the look we wanted, our next challenge was to find work so that we could make money to fund our studio. I was working in the studio in the morning and at night I found a good way to use my photography to make money. I would go to events or restaurants and take photos of people out with their friends and family and then I would run back to the dark room, develop the photos and then run back to the restaurant or function and sell the photos to the customers. This venture was a bigger success than I had ever imagined and it was also a good starting point for my future success; it taught me how to interact with people, and also made me become accustomed to life in the fast lane. It turned out that the restaurants where I was working began to make more and more money because of the work I was doing. I started to get paid by restaurant owners and function co - coordinators to come to their event. I remember one night I went to a function for the Deaf and Blind society. Now, these people might be Deaf and Blind, but they certainly weren’t dumb. These people were switched on. This was possibly the biggest function I worked at, there were so many people and I did not think it would be possible to be able to take photographs of everyone. So, I thought of a new way to approach the situation. I got up on the stage and explained to them what I was doing and I said "whoever wants to have a photo taken to please be ready in your group so I can just come and take the picture straight away." To my amazement the whole room stood up and quickly got ready in their formations for the photographs. I got thought everyone and quickly went to the dark room to develop the photos. When I came back, I got back up on the stage and then asked if anyone who wanted to buy a photo to please have their money ready for when I came around. This was the smoothest night, everyone had his or her money ready and by the end of the night I could not even hold all the money that I had made. I hade money in all my pockets, down my pants, everywhere! When I went back to the man who had organized the night he said to me that he was sorry he had given me that job and he knew it must have been a waste of time, but he had no one else who could do it. Now, thinking fast, I told him that it was a bad job and I hardly made money (of course this was a lie) but I said out of the goodness of my heart, whenever he had a job like this again, that he should give it to me.
I was working a lot at this time, but my partner was not. In the beginning we had decided to go fifty - fifty in everything, including rent and the cost of the studio and all of the equipment. I began to tell him that he had to find work no matter what. I tried to introduce him to the work that I was doing at the events and restaurants, but this did not suit his character, he could not succeed in that job. At this time, he was practicing his airbrush technique all day. He said that it was necessary for him to master this technique so that in the future we would be very successful. Eventually, I said that he needed to get work, no matter what it was, because I was making all the money, and he was just sitting at home practicing airbrush. One day, I came home and saw a man leaving the house in a white coat and covered in blood. I did not believe my eyes, and thought I was in a dream, hallucinating. Then I saw another man leaving the house and I realized it was not a dream. I went in, and saw that my partner was shooting pictures of meat. He was doing a catalogue for like a supermarket, and so this is how we made the money to fund our studio in the beginning.
The second major campaign we got was for a Fletcher Jones catalogue. We shot this in one small room in our house, with a velvet curtain as a background. We had only one camera, a lens, and two lights. We were always trying to be the best, and always trying different things. We were just starting out in the industry and so we didn’t have much money to buy expensive equipment, so we experimented with this, to see if we could somehow make an advantage out of this situation and maybe create something new. I played with a cheap filter, by using grease from the side of my nose, to make it so that the filter could create soft focus, or even a really soft focus (and I am still using this technique today). I used this technique when shooting the catalogue and I explained to the client that fashion is like a dream and we were going to create a catalogue with this feeling in mind. We shot the whole catalogue with limited equipment, but by thinking outside of the square, we ended up with a very successful campaign.