A talk with Derek Beck about film photography, traveling, and chance encounters
Photo Walks. Even the places you visit thousands of times become new to you the moment you have a camera in your hand. As you make your way from location to location, you surprise yourself looking up more often than usual, attentive to the scenes forming around you, hoping to capture that special something.
I’ve always preferred the works of street photographers. There’s something honest about their work that I seem to be drawn to: It’s not trying to be anything else than what it is. It’s straightforward. It’s relatable. It’s capturing the things of our every day that we don’t always notice.
It’s particularly true with the people around us — and it takes slowing down to notice them. To really notice them.
It takes a lot of courage to look at a complete stranger through a viewfinder and take their portrait. Even without a camera, just staring at someone long enough is a tough feat. I know first hand how many opportunities I’ve missed because I lack that instinct to shoot.
But Derek Beck, on the other hand, seems to miss none of them.
He is the photographer and creator of a photo series entitled “WALK_”. Through his work, we’re able to follow his journey documenting various neighborhoods with his film camera, first in New York, then across Europe. His project stands out because every photograph is accompanied by the ambient sounds of the exact moment a photo’s taken, giving this surreal impression that we’re an active participant in this photo walk. Every shutter and sound bite we hear in his series brings me back to the days where I enjoyed photography most: Just me and my roll of 36 exploring my city, new to photography, trigger-happy.
I took some time to chat with Derek about his work, his process.
On the concept
What inspired you to create this series? What prompted you to do it in its final form (audio + photography)?
I started the WALK_ series while strolling around a cold Central Park in the winter of 2016. I’m not sure what initially prompted the idea: I was hearing bits and pieces of passing conversations, and I think the idea just struck. I took my phone out, started recording audio and began shooting with my Canon AE-1. Since then I’ve shot 26 total rolls for the series.
How do you prepare for the different walks? Anything specific you look for when going out to shoot?
For the European leg of the series, I would arrive in the city by train and try to feel it out a bit before deciding to shoot a roll. Once I’d make the decision, the next day I’d get my gear together and head out in a random direction around noon. It usually takes me about 3 or 4 hours to complete an entire roll which is roughly around 36 photographs.
How do you adapt to the different places you shoot? I imagine a walk in Chinatown, NYC must be very different from a walk in Florence.
The game stays the same but the size and scope changes from place to place. I believe when I shot in Chinatown, I probably overlapped the path I walked a couple of times because it’s such a small area in Manhattan. Florence is a good-sized city, so in that case, I’d head out the door, follow my nose, and hope that I’d stumble upon something worth capturing along the way.
During one of your walks, what gets you to photograph something? Do you sometimes miss out on a good shot / do you ever go back in your steps to photograph something you might have missed? Personally, I find that shooting with film changes the way I approach photography — I’m much more selective about what I shoot.
While I’m shooting, I’m actively thinking about all 36 frames from start to finish. Sometimes a photo shot at the top of the roll will prompt another photo later on. It all depends on the environment and what is catching my eye/ear in the moment. Something I’ve kept true about the series is that I leave in every frame, even if it’s a throwaway or “dud.” Shooting on film can be difficult — I’d like the series to convey that.
When I shot WALK_Chinatown, something went wrong when I loaded the film, and I ended up shooting an entire roll to discover that my film didn’t catch. It was such a devastating feeling but also kind of funny in retrospect to think I was out there shooting blanks for 3 hours. Afterward, I took a moment to regain my composure and then started from the top.
You meet a lot of people in your series. Do you find it challenging to take people’s portraits? Any memorable stories you want to share?
Taking people’s portraits is my favorite part about doing this series. For the most part, my interactions are fairly quick, but sometimes a friendship is formed.
For instance, in WALK_A Coruña, I took a photo near the end of the roll of a random guy eating some tapas and having a beer. His name was Lee Kirby and just celebrated his 31st birthday the night before. It turns out he was also a photographer and had moved to Spain with his wife from the UK. He was the only English speaker I had heard in A Coruña up to that point. We ended up hanging out over the next few days. We watched World Cup games, went to a Spanish junkyard and also had lots of beers with his mum who was visiting at the time. She told me a story about how she once stepped on Paul McCartney’s foot by accident, just outside the BBC in the ’60s. Crazy. Lee is a super talented photographer — check out his work here.
In WALK_Cinque Terre there’s a moment where I run into an old friend named Ivo that I had met ten years prior while visiting Italy. Ivo ran the only restaurant/bar in town at the time, and one night invited us to play poker with him and his friends. They were all chain-smoking hand-rolled cigarettes, throwing cash around and yelling at each other in Italian. It was one of those nights you just don’t forget. To my surprise, a billion tourists later, we meet again, and he remembered me! It was wild.
During WALK_Sintra, I hiked up to Castelo dos Mouros, a castle that overlooks Sintra. After I took a few photos, I followed the road back down to the town. I saw a car zipping around the corner, so I put my thumb out hoping to hitch a ride. The car stopped, and I got in. The driver was a South African man named Pedro, and he was driving a car he had dubbed “The French Ferrari”. As a passenger, I snapped a few photos of him while he was driving. These are some of my favorite snaps from the entire series. As I was walking away, I heard him saying to his friends — “I’m going to be famous!”.
On the medium
What’s your current setup/equipment?
I’ve shot all the photos for WALK_ on a Canon AE-1 with a 28mm lens. It’s a pretty standard analog camera, nothing too fancy but I like the images it produces and also it’s got a great shutter click. I usually shoot on Portra, Ektar or Fujifilm. As for audio, I record with a Zoom H1N mounted to my shoulder using a Peak Design CapturePRO camera clip, and I also hang my iPhone around my neck with a passport holder and record on that as well. You’d be surprised how well that iPhone mic performs.
Film is an important part of your work. Have you ever tried recreating it with a digital camera? Does it work?
I think shooting on film gives the series a set method or limitation. There are only 36 frames, and that allows for no second chances or re-dos. It raises the stakes a bit, and also, in my opinion, film produces more magnetic images. I love that feeling of getting a roll developed and seeing the images for the first time. It’s like unwrapping a little present. It’s the best.
There’s a “point and shoot” feel to your work that I enjoy; nothing staged or overly posed. Do you attribute that to film photography? To the fact that you’re on the go? A mix of both?
I’d attribute the aesthetic to the nature of street photography. When you’re shooting out in the world, things can be slightly manipulated, but all you have is what’s in front of you. You have to make decisions on the fly on how to best capture the moment. Also, when I shoot portraits of random people, I’m very aware that I’m taking up some of their time, so I try to make the process as quick and painless as possible.
On the photographer
If we followed the life of Derek Beck on a normal day, what could we expect to see/hear in a roll of 36 exposures?
That’s a doozy of a question, Charles! You’d probably see and hear me…freelance editing random videos for clients. Riding my bike around town. Chilling with my cat, Gusto. Listening to true crime podcasts. Writing scripts. Reading Harry Potter. Playing basketball. Watching movies. Daydreaming all the time. Grabbing beers with family and friends. Noodlin’ on my guitar. Constantly procrastinating.
What do you hope to see come out of this project? How do you see this evolving?
The next chapter of the series will be WALK_Texas/Mexico. I recently was a recipient of the “Support for Artists and Creative Individuals” grant from the Houston Arts Alliance in Houston, Texas. This summer I’ll be traveling through parts of Texas and Mexico and documenting different cities along the way. At the end of 2019, I plan on putting together a show displaying the work.
My ultimate goal is to use the WALK_ series as a vehicle to explore different places, communities, and cultures across the globe. I think traveling (in any capacity) is extremely important to personal growth. I say, immerse yourself in the unfamiliar and risk becoming a more empathetic and caring individual!
Want to support the series? You can follow Derek Beck on Instagram and on Unsplash. You can also visit his site to learn more about his latest book featuring the photos and sounds from WALK_Europe. If you’re interested in purchasing a copy, please go here.
Do you enjoy photography and are looking to use your camera more, why not attend a photo walk? Find one in your city (Unsplash, Apple, Meetup) or organize your very own photo walk. There’s always something new to discover and even rediscover as you walk the streets of your favorite neighborhoods.