INTERVIEW // TOMASZ WAGNER
This week’s interview is with Vancouver based Tomasz Wagner. Tomasz became interested in photography during college whilst studying visual effects. After a few years in this field, he decided to change direction after a wave of company lay-offs. Tomasz describes why it’s important to learn, play, and experiment during work, his relationship with his business and life partner Amy, the art of observing and so much more ..
Tomasz is also attending The Experience // ARC in October as ARC comes to life in the form of a unique 3 day conference. More information on that in the post below. Thank you for joining us in this interview series Tomasz!
Bio Photo by: Amy Tran
Interview by Sachin Khona // August 2016
PHOTOGRAPHY WORK & PRACTICES
HI Tomasz! WHERE IS HOME FOR YOU AND WHERE DO YOU WORK?
Vancouver, BC is currently home.
HAVE YOU ALWAYS LIVED in Vancouver OR WAS THERE A CONSCIOUS CHOICE TO MOVE THERE?
I was born in a small town in Poland and spent part of my childhood there until my parents decided to leave for Athens, Greece before emigrating to Canada. I still remember parts of my childhood in Europe quite well. In my early twenties I had an opportunity to move east to Montreal, QC for work (I used to be a visual effects artist) but decided to stay here—and I’m so glad I did.
IN WHAT WAY DOES LIVING IN BC INFLUENCE YOUR WORK?
I make many of my images in British Columbia, usually in natural settings throughout the province. But over time I’ve found myself moving away from making locations the obvious subject matter in my work whether I’m creating at home or abroad—when it comes to weddings anyway. People will sometimes say it’s like they’re there in the image and they’re being pulled into the scene when they look at it. I hope that’s because of something more than a beautiful and nicely composed image or an awe-inspiring setting.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately: creating more depth in my images.
when did you know that you wanted to be a photographer?
I never set out to be a professional photographer. I dabbled in photography in college for my visual effects degree and landed a full time job in that field after graduation. Several years into my job and the work became too tedious. I was hungry for something more challenging but the prospects seemed low at this company. When I became part of the massive wave of lay-offs, I couldn’t have been more relieved. I decided to travel for a while and figure out if self-employed life was right for me. I haven’t looked back since.
That’s not to say everything clicked from the start and I knew how I wanted to approach wedding photography. This was/is always evolving for me. It’s taken me several years to embrace who I am and what I do as a “wedding photographer” and to have the agency to create what I want.
Do you have a designated workspace or office?
I have a dedicated room I share with my business/life partner, Amy. It’s nothing to brag about at the moment. Boxes line our walls as we prep for a move sometime in Oct-Nov 2016. Exciting times ahead.
WHAT HAS BEEN THE MOST DEFINING MOMENT IN YOUR CAREER?
When Amy and I decided to join forces. (You can ask Amy if that was a turning point for her, too, haha). At around this time I was enjoying the place I had arrived to on my own: I was booking a healthy number of weddings, mostly working with couples who connected with my images, and liking the direction I was going in with my photography. But when Amy’s brain and heart connected with what I was doing and where she wanted to go in her own life, it was like moving in hyperdrive.
We’ve had our fair share of growing pains and have asked ourselves a lot of questions throughout this process. We’re continuing to learn and grow and we’ve discovered our lives overlap in meaningful ways when we work together. We’re always trying to figure out where to meet in between slow living and hyperdrive, how to talk about the things we struggle with and how to complement these with our strengths. It all kind of ebbs and flows, which is probably just the nature of what we do. Needless to say, I am very fortunate to have a partner like her. She is just so damn talented and patient and I wouldn’t be where I am without her (hopefully I’ve contributed to her life as meaningfully).
CAN YOU DESCRIBE YOUR STYLE VIA A SERIES OF 10 PHOTOS THAT YOU FEEL DEFINE THE WORK YOU’VE DONE IN THE LAST YEAR AND WHERE POSSIBLE DESCRIBE WHY EACH ONE WAS INCLUDED.
This was from one of my first rolls through the Mamiya RZ67, a medium format film camera. I decided to ignore my light meter when it was telling me there wasn’t enough light.
2. Keeping things interesting.
I wanted to create a different kind of portrait, one where you drag the shutter when the light is soft. Not only to create some visual interest in an otherwise good but ordinary portrait, but to encourage me to think about my process further and satisfy my curiosity.
Many wedding photographers describe their style as documentary or photojournalistic but I’ve been exploring what this means to me. What being in the moment means and how to convey a real, authentic moment within a larger story.
I like to see this image as more than just a couple of blokes smoking. It’s more raw than “perfect” and helps to situate the story and contribute to it in a subtle way.
5. Keeping things real.
The most powerful images for me are the ones that keep it honest and real.
I guess I keep overstating this point but it’s a big one for me.
I’m drawn to the quiet moments, and by quiet I don’t mean static or sterile. I want the silence and space to be part of what’s so impactful about an image, like it has its own pulse.
Sometimes I want to balance the darker feel and moodiness of my work with something more fun and playful, but not contrived. I asked these two to keep each other warm as the wind whipped around us and this is what happened. They were giggling behind their hands.
Different is good, different is essential, and I like how different can mean so many things. In this case, I got extremely close with these two and Nick on the right just sort of popped into the frame. I love the quirkiness of it.
9. Motion blur.
More than being out of focus and looking as if I don’t know how to use my camera or compose an image, I’ve been playing with intentional motion blur to explore concepts such as drawing the viewer into the moment; surprising the viewer with an unexpected image; and lending some meaning to what many might consider an imperfect image.
We’re always trying to “correct” things about our images: blemishes, body shapes, a branch that “ruins” a minimalist background, perspective, lines. But sometimes I think the image loses something when it’s made to be “perfect” especially without any understanding of why the change was made.
WHAT INSPIRES AND MOTIVATES YOU TO CREATE tomasz?
Fear and fearlessness.
DO YOU DO ANY CREATIVE TRAINING OUTSIDE OF YOUR WORK?
No “training” per se but more like immersing myself in films and music, or shooting 35mm film while travelling. Work is already a huge part of my life so anything outside of it has to have little to no direct association. While I think it’s valuable to learn, play, and experiment outside of work no matter where you are in your practice, I prefer to do most of that while “on the job.” It can be risky for sure but both the pressure and fun of it has helped me progress further than I would have by playing it safe and never realizing my ideas.
IF YOU GET STUCK CREATIVELY, WHAT IS THE FIRST THING YOU DO TO GET UNSTUCK?
I’m not usually the kind of person who can shoot through a creative block. I prefer to step away from the pressure of having to create. I could be cycling or climbing, watching films or seeing friends—anything that engages my mind in other ways and allows me to disconnect from work.
As creatives, we’ve probably all been guilty at some point of downplaying the importance of rest and detachment.
HOW DO YOU KNOW WHEN A PIECE OF YOUR WORK IS FINISHED AND NEEDS NO ADDITIONAL WORK?
More than anything, it’s the feeling that I conveyed the moment, emotion, and/or subject matter the way it was intended.
ARE THERE ANY KEY LESSONS IN YOUR CAREER THAT YOU’D LIKE TO SHARE?
Create the kind of work that moves you and gets you excited. You’ll know it when you experience it and you might surprise yourself. Where you’re not entirely sure why or what about the work captivates you so much, but that it does in a real way that stays with you. The work may not be popular, expected, or even technically “correct” but as long as your vision and heart’s been poured into it, it’s yours—that’s the most important part. Don’t create “nice” work that doesn’t say anything.
I’m only five years into this career but I’m learning that creating for myself is essential to keeping motivated for the short sprints as much as the long haul; for being able to keep up with the long work days during the busiest times in the year, and for opening up opportunities with others who trust in your vision.
As for your vision, this rests in you and relies on what you choose to say and how you choose to say it. It’s cultivated over time as you experience life and everything that shapes it: loss, relationships, failure, new loves, etc.
But I think the best way to play an active part in crafting your vision are to study, remix, and be curious and aware: of the people around you, the places you visit, the things that inspire you, what happens in the world—everything.
CAN YOU SHARE ONE CREATIVE TIP THAT YOU USE WHEN YOU ARE WORKING?
For me, the most interesting and powerful images are the ones that are honest and a bit mysterious. When the moment presents itself in combination with the right light and subject and there’s a quality in the image that’s hard to place, but you know it’s there: the story underneath all the layers, the tension between all the parts, the imperfection in the perfection. I try to keep that curiosity alive in others as well as myself.
Sometimes observing means having a strong connection with my subjects. Other times, it’s removing myself so I can better understand the entire scene, especially the light that’s available. But what it always means for me is waiting, being quick on my feet, and decisive with my shots. Moving closer to, away from, and around your subject is the easiest way to see and play with different kinds of light. And while it might feel uncomfortable and perhaps risky not to be shooting constantly, you’ll be rewarded creatively for waiting and being intentional about what you’re documenting.
DO YOU HAVE A PHOTOGRAPH BURNED IN YOUR MEMORY THAT YOU NEVER TOOK BUT WISH YOU HAD?
I’m certain there are times when I’ve wished I had taken the shot, but these aren’t burned into my brain. The way I see it: if I missed it, I missed it. I’m not one to regret.
WE’RE EXCITED that YOU’RE JOINING US mid OCTOBER AT THE EXPERIENCE // ARC IN VANCOUVER ! WHAT ARE YOU MOST LOOKING FORWARD TO AT THE experience?
Being with a group of like-minded artists who believe in this event and what it offers.
Also the social events, planned and unplanned—always a favourite.
is there a speaker in particular that you’re excited to hear?
Brian Morrow, whose legendary Powerpoint and Clip Art skills I’ve witnessed before and am looking forward to basking in again.
Also keen on the BIG IDEAS / Mini Presentations speakers, half of whom I’m glad to call friends.
More information on the experience // arc can be found at the end of this interview.
WHAT ARE THE 3 MOST IMPORTANT THINGS IN YOUR PERSONAL LIFE?
Compassion. I can’t think of any issues in the world that couldn’t be fixed or helped if there was more of this.
Space to cultivate new loves, curiosities, and balance.
Peace (and quiet) in an otherwise busy, overstimulating world.
DO YOU WORK IN ANY OTHER FIELDS OF BUSINESS?
Except for cat herding, photography and cinematography keep me occupied.
CAN YOU SHARE A BIT ABOUT YOUR DAILY SCHEDULE? DO YOU HAVE A MORNING/EVENING ROUTINE?
I like to start my morning starting the kettle for tea or coffee and making breakfast. I may go for a morning workout. This is followed by anything from emails, editing, and shooting to errands, brainstorming, or trying to answer interview questions like this one. Wink. I aim to finish my work day by 18:00h but this almost never happens, especially in the busier summer months when I look over at the clock and it’s more like 22:58h.
My biggest struggles are always social media and emails. I enjoy phone conversations and in person meetings and any other method of communication but there’s something about having to communicate through these online channels that paralyzes me. It’s strange.
WHAT WAS YOUR HARDEST / PAINFUL CREATIVE FAILURE TO DEAL WITH AND WHAT DID IT TEACH YOU?
Tough question! I’m glad I haven’t experienced any painful creative failures, more like lots of learning via mistakes that are relevant for anyone trying to understand themselves, their clients, and how to become an expert in their industry. Not to sound cliché, but I strongly believe we all need to take risks and make mistakes to grow in the ways that matter. But along with that comes self-reflection and to do the hard and uncomfortable work of analyzing your strengths, weaknesses, and your specific circumstances—constantly.
WHAT WILL YOU BE DOING (OR HOPE TO BE DOING) 5/10 YEARS FROM NOW?
Sometimes I don’t know what I’ll be doing beyond a few months! But hopefully, hopefully in 5-10 years from now I’ll be continuing to create interesting work, watching and adapting to my city changing, digging deeper into filmmaking, and working on an important personal project.
CAN YOU SHARE AN IMAGE THAT YOU’RE PARTICULARLY PROUD OF AND TELL US WHY?
I’d been playing with the idea of doing a different kind of double exposure but was never thrilled with my results until I made this one on the Isle of Skye in Scotland. The image required a lot of patience (from me and from the couple) especially when the wind picked up and we were losing light quickly. Their gazes are soft but also kind of severe. Even though you can’t see where they are, I think the mood of the landscape and the way it affected them and me comes through here. The image is haunting and mysterious and although I’ve looked at it many times now, I always stop and stay with it for a while.
THE CORE // FOUNDATION
IF YOU WERE NO LONGER ABLE TO USE A CAMERA, HOW ELSE WOULD YOU EXPRESS YOUR CREATIVITY?
I’d want to be doing a few different things to keep me going creatively: directing and editing films, pottery, gardening, and climbing. You can be creative with rock climbing, right?
ARE THERE ANY MANTRAS THAT YOU LIVE BY?
Not a mantra per se but recognizing that your struggles are my struggles are his or hers or their struggles. We’re all in this together.
IF YOU ONLY HAD 24 HOURS TO LIVE, HOW WOULD YOU SPEND YOUR DAY?
Amy and I would escape and spend a quiet day together.
HAVE YOU EVER DOUBTED YOUR TALENT? IF SO, HOW DID YOU WORK THROUGH YOUR DOUBT?
Always. I think every creative person does at least once in a while. I’m generally quite confident about my work and I try not to dwell on things for too long, but I find disconnecting from the pressure to create as well as some positive reinforcement from friends, colleagues, clients, cats… helps a ton.
IF YOU COULD CHANGE ONE ASPECT OF OUR SOCIETY THROUGH YOUR WORK, WHAT WOULD IT BE?
To be more compassionate.
QUICK FIRE QUESTIONS
Your favourite podcast(s)
Radio Lab & 99% Invisible are a close tie.
Favourite Music // Artists?
Most types really, however soul, electro funk, and ambient have been on my radar lately.
Film / Documentary that is a must watch?
Your favourite book // A book you are currently reading?
The Beggar’s Garden by Michael Christie
A website you regularly follow?
Last place you travelled?
Favourite photographer or photo project outside of your genre?
Parker Fitzgerald and his Overgrowth Series
“I’m not a quotes kind of guy.” —Tomasz Wagner
Last gallery / exhibit you visited
Vivian Maier Exhibition at the Hungarian House of Photography in Budapest
Your favourite photography book
A creative you’d love to see interviewed on ARC?
Andre is an upcoming interview on ARC!
Links to your personal work // projects
Can you share a short assignment / project that has benefited you in the past?
It wasn’t until traveling to Japan again in 2014 and bringing along a Contax G2 as my only camera that I began to really understand film photography.
There was something about the places we ventured to, the landscapes, the light, and the mood that seemed to follow me and Amy around that helped me achieve some of my best personal/travel images. I was also getting the hang of scanning my own film and slowing down the process of image making even further, which has played a huge part in my digital work
THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR YOUR TIME, TOMASZ!
You can see more of Tomasz’s work here // Web
And connect here // Facebook // Twitter // Instagram
JOIN US AT THE EXPERIENCE // ARC
We’ve just raised the bar..
Welcome to The Experience // ARC, a one-of-a-kind event for passionate photographers and creatives.10 speakers from all over the world joining us over 3 days in Vancouver, BC
The Shark Pig
alongside our host James Moes
find your voice, challenge your perspective, refine your vision
You’ll experience expert training, creative challenges, bold new techniques, powerful connections, amazing adventures and have a hell of a good time, all in one of the most breathtaking cities in the world as our backdrop, Vancouver, BC.
Check out our new site for The Experience, meet the speakers and check out our schedule of events
Limited tickets remain.
WHO WOULD YOU LIKE TO SEE ON ARC?…
Let us know in the comments below!
Stay tuned for an interview with Helena and Laurent up next!
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