Interview with London Underground Street Photographer Tarik Ahmet

Interview with London Underground Street Photographer Tarik Ahmet

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Tarik Ahmet interview cover

We’re in a privileged position here at in that we’re lucky enough to see a lot of different street photos from loads of photographers all the time. Just a quick browse through our Flickr or Facebook group gives you an example of the great work we get to enjoy on a daily basis. But what really gets our creative juices flowing is when we see a street photographer who not only pushes themselves out of their comfort zone, but also goes a step further and creates a set of photos that combine together to form something cohesive and powerful. We’re talking of course about street photographers creating projects. The particular project that caught our interest in this instance came from Tarik Ahmet, who dropped us an email to tell us about his experience on an epic 24 hour street hunt on the London Underground. Intrigued? You bet we were! Read on for our interview with Tarik discussing the finer points of his crazy project.

First off, how fantastic to have put together a street project like this – it’s all too easy to just snatch street photos here and there and not have a consistent theme tying them all together. What gave you such great and unusual idea for a project like this?

Thanks for the kind words. Well I’ve always found the London Underground a fascinating place – such a vast mix of people cooped up in a vessel made to stand closer than they’d usually stand to strangers, all the while managing to avoid eye contact at all cost (well in most cases). I however always find myself looking at people wondering what their story is, where they’re going and what they’re thinking. It’s so intriguing.

The “#freethenight” posters caught my attention one morning and it just clicked. I’d actually spent about 5 years away from street photography and was shooting a lot of weddings which involves a lot of story telling. So I found my approach to this project instinctively moved into a semi documentary style.

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Were you inspired by a particular street photographer’s style during your underground shoot (perhaps Bruce Davidson’s Subway project), or were you shooting in your own style and going by gut instinct?

As it was the first time I’d shot street in the underground I didn’t really know what I wanted from this series, how I wanted to tell the story and what to expect from people. I approached the project with a completely open mind to be honest. A few years ago one of my photography friends Christopher Andreou had been sharing some shots he took with his Fuji X100 which I always found really cool, so I just thought as soon as I get an opportunity to start shooting street again, the underground is where I’d like to start. I’ve always found wedding and street photographer Ross Harvey a big inspiration creatively when it comes to “following your gut”. So I guess I just went with my gut instinct and just shot what intrigued me.

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24 hours is certainly an epic length for a street shoot! How did you manage it? Did you hop off at tube stops to fortify yourself with coffee and food?

Yes it certainly was. I really didn’t think it was going to be so difficult. It felt lonely, even though I was surrounded by people which was a strange feeling. But it also felt really calm and I felt the least distracted I’d felt in a long time; listening to Bon Iver kept me connected to my thoughts for most of the day.

My hub was Waterloo Station for using the loo and grabbing some food so I found myself having to plan ahead before making my way to either end of the line. Apart from that I just explored. At around 8pm my girlfriend brought me some food down to Balham station, I think this was the point that I started to think I’d bitten off more than I could chew. It was so tempting to just call it a night and go home, but I really wanted to see the “night” part of this project through, otherwise the journey would have been incomplete and I probably wouldn’t have shared anything I shot because I would have felt like I’d failed the project.

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What was your camera and lens combination? Is this your go-to street setup?

I’d just purchased a Fuji XT2, which was partly responsible for inspiring this project. I wanted a camera that was inconspicuous with a silent shutter and a flip out LCD and this camera just ticked all these boxes. It’s a beautiful bit of kit and has really reconnected me with my street photography. It has very quickly become my favourite camera that I’ve owned. I shot most of the project with the 23mm f/2 (35mm equiv). This lens is just brilliant; super quick to focus and really sharp. I did have my 35mm f/1.4 (50mm equiv) with me too, but being new to Fuji I really struggled with this lens on the underground and didn’t really shoot much with it. It’s slower to focus than the new Fuji WR lenses and also less forgiving when shooting wide open, which is how I shoot about 90% of my work. However having spent around 5 months shooting with the Fuji now, the 35mm f/1.4 has become one of my favourite focal lengths for street. It’s really sharp and renders bokeh beautifully. Some of my favourite work captured in Cambodia recently was with the 35mm.

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Describe your shooting style for your underground project. ‘In your face’ with the EVF, or super stealthy using the flip out LCD screen and silent electronic shutter? Slow, patient and methodical, or more spur-of-the-moment run and gun and instinctive? Autofocus or manual zone focusing?

As I’ve mentioned I wasn’t really sure how I wanted to approach this project as I didn’t really know what to expect from people and where I’d find myself. Instinctively I wanted to be as invisible as possible so that I could capture candid moments and document the journey of the day as it unravelled. So even though I was able to capture those close up portraits, I kept my distance where I could. The thing with carrying a camera on the underground is that people notice you, regardless of if the camera is pointing in their direction or not. It just seems to catch their eye. I’m not entirely sure if this is sheer curiosity as there’s not much else to do whilst commuting. Or if it’s fear of being photographed? The moment my hands touched my camera, I could feel eyes were locked on me. The challenge was to find a way of taking pictures as inconspicuously as possible, just so I can capture real, authentic moments. So I took full advantage of the flip out screen, switched to silent shutter mode and turned off the focus assist lamp. This meant I could stand right infront of someone, compose my shot and they’d be unaware that I was photographing. But I still had to be pretty stealthy about it.

I’ve always shot autofocus and the 23mm made this easy to work with. However, since then I’ve started experimenting with other techniques and really like the flexibility that zone focusing gives you. Had I experimented with this method prior to the project, I think it would have come in handy.

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Did shooting in a relatively confined space like this force you to change your approach a lot? I can see a common theme of architectural minimalism and leading lines carried over from your other street work, but it looks like with this underground project that you got much closer to your subjects too!

Shooting in the confined space made me change my approach on the fly for sure. Usually I like to take my time and think about the picture I’m creating, but you don’t have the freedom to set-up a shot like you usually would when taking portraits in an open space. So I shifted my focus to people and wanted to try and capture their emotion. The people are the ones that really intrigue me. I found that there wasn’t as much good light to play with, though there was always flat light to work with. However all the tunnels, stairs and lines meant I could work with other elements to create interesting pictures. So when I lost my nerve to grab a close up portrait or missed an opportunity I could take a step back for a moment and look around for other architectural inspiration.

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Did one station or part of the line in particular stand out as being fantastic for street photography?

Over time the stations were quite hard to distinguish – it just turned into an array of tunnels and steps. But King’s Cross seems to have left a mark with me. It’s huge. There’s so many long tunnels and variations of surfaces, textures and levels. I could have possibly shot the whole project in this station alone. The iconic webbed ceiling in the station is a thing of beauty.

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Any memorable incidents during your 24 hour long photo hunt? I see one photo shows a guy lying on the floor with a scarf as a tourniquet around his leg! Any altercations or awkward moments you had to talk yourself out of? Did tube staff ask you to leave at any point?

I anticipated a lot to take place between 11pm-2am because of all the party goers making their way back home. But it was actually quite the opposite and I can only imagine that because it was the first of the night tube, people were more relaxed about making their journey home. There seemed to have been a really equal spread of folk between the hours of 12am-4am. The moment you refer to was an odd situation to find myself in; the lad decided to slide down the middle reservation of the escalators and of course this didn’t go as planned and he injured his leg pretty badly. Because he and his friends were all a little drunk it was half way between a laughing matter and a panic for the group as they waited for emergency services to join them. In a state of delirium I was a little shocked by all the blood and stopped to observe what was going on. One of the friends asked me about my camera and then invited me to take a photo if I wanted. So I did. But the injured lad didn’t like me being there so I didn’t hang around for too long.

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Did you learn anything from your underground shoot that you can see yourself being able to put into practice in your street photography in the future?

I’d have to say I learn something new every time I pick up my camera, and that’s the beauty of street photography to me. No two situations are ever the same. I think the hardest thing to deal with were my own nerves during this project, if I could do it all over again I’d have tried to have been a little more relaxed and taken more chances. I’d have also slowed down my thought process so that I could have taken more in and enjoyed it. The pressure to make every frame brilliant can be a huge distraction, when in reality 24 frames in 24 hours would have told the story just as well, even though I ended up with many more shots that I was happy with in the end.

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If you had to choose just one photo as your favourite, which would you pick, and why?

It’s a tough question as there’s about 4-5 images that I really like from the set. However my favourite image is the frame of the lady at Moorgate Station looking down at her feet on the train platform. Something about this picture draws me in every time I look at it. I don’t think it’s technically the strongest image in the set and there’s actually quite a lot I’d like to change about it. But ultimately I can’t help but question her expression and wonder what she’s thinking, where she’s going, if she’s happy, if she’s lost? It just leaves me guessing and these are the kind of photos I like to look at. I also really like how the light sculpts her face too.

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What’s next for you? Any new projects on the horizon? Will you be repeating this experience on any of the other London Tube lines or on other underground metro systems around the world!?

I have a few projects in mind – I’m always adding to a list of “ideas”. Some will fabricate and some will never go further than my notepad. I doubt I’d go again on the London Underground, but having spoken to a few friends over Instagram, I’ve thought about heading over to Berlin or Moscow. Who knows. However, I’m not entirely sure I want to spend 24 hours on a train system again anytime soon.

Thanks for taking the time to share your work with us and answer our questions Tarik! Have any of you embarked on any similar projects recently that you think our readers would be interested in checking out? If so, make sure you get in touch!

Want to see more of Tarik Ahmet’s work?

Tarik Ahmet Street Photography Portfolio

Tarik Ahmet Instagram


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