For the trio of photographers who make up collective Tripod City, a project begins by searching for a place “with a strong cultural identity or places that are heavily stereotyped”. Consequently, the photographic studies of Chris Lee, Charlie Kwai and Paul Storrie, offers “an alternative, yet honest” depiction of a place, displaying the benefits of having three pairs of eyes in a country rather than just one.
Through their images and the alternate gaze they provide behind their lenses, the trio strike a balance between the candid and sincere, whether it be portraits of Ghana, and now a truthful portrayal of Mexico which shows the warmth of a population.
Sweet Dreams is Tripod City’s recent collection of photographs, bound together in a book they are currently campaigning for on Kickstarter to make into a printed reality. Below, we catch up with Chris, Charlie and Paul to discuss their aims, thoughts, and perceptions of the collective’s latest worldly adventure.
Why was Mexico chosen as the next Tripod City destination?
Paul: Mexico has had its fair share of troubles in recent history, and unfortunately a lot of the time that’s what’s focussed on in the media. This was a big reason why we wanted to base our next project there – to try and level the playing field, and show there’s much more to this vast country than the common misconceptions often placed upon it.
Charlie: The ignorance of stereotypes is what drives Tripod City to create an alternative perspective and challenge what we believe, and what everybody else believes. Misconceptions tend to overshadow the truth, and Mexico is definitely a victim with all that’s going on in America at the moment. To present an alternative story was exciting, it was the perfect candidate for the next Tripod City project.
Chris: We had already visited Asia and Africa, so Latin America was a logical choice for us. Mexico in particular is a rapidly developing country that has been mentioned a lot recently in light of Trump’s rise to power. We really wanted to witness the country first-hand, and represent Mexico for the bold and beautiful place it is through photography of people. The idea of what separates different cultures from one another is what’s attractive to me as a street photographer. For us, it’s simply about exploring new places, reimagining them together in new ways using our own personal experiences.
What were your perceptions of Mexico before this trip – and what are they now?
Chris: Any place I’ve visited has almost certainly been different to what I’ve expected. There is no amount of research or planning that can be done to preempt this experience of a place. Our work is about challenging this, which is why we rarely go somewhere with preconceived ideas. I think in particular, we were all touched by the compassion and respect for others that was clear wherever we visited.
Paul: As this was the first time I’d ever been to Mexico, my perception was based solely on what I’d seen second hand, so pretty limited. But after experiencing it first hand, what stood out to me was the warmth of the people we encountered wherever we ventured. People were open, sentimental, extremely welcoming and sincere.
Charlie: My perceptions were shaped by second-hand information. So I guess it was Cancun, taco and cartels. Those are definitely a thing – especially tacos – but there’s so much more to Mexico than those stereotypes. Attempting to discover the truth is an invaluable experience, and that’s what Tripod City is all about.
Why did you decide to visualise love, life and death? Did the trip purposefully coincide with the Day of the Dead celebrations?
Charlie: Love and death are the fabric of Mexican life. Public displays of affection and the celebration of death was hard to avoid, and dominated my experience of what I photographed. We made sure we experienced Day of the Dead, and it was super interesting to see how it’s celebrated in a modern day context. It ended up being a prominent theme and influenced what Sweet Dreams became.
Chris: The theme, ‘love, life and death’ was inspired and developed from our shared experience around the people of Mexico and their shared charisma. Public displays of affection are common all over the city, people are not afraid to show their love for one another, the same goes for their efforts to celebrate the lives of the dead in such a unique way. This burst of energy around this time of the year reminds us that life is precious.
Paul: The themes came naturally to all of us. After the initial period of exploration and immersion into the culture, we started to identify aspects of people that surprised us, or seemed ubiquitous. This was an overwhelming sense of emotions, a heart-on-the-sleeve mentality, and an overwhelming sense of warmth.
I think Day of the Dead had a big impact as well. We witnessed a lot of poignancy and reflection. It was fascinating to see how people commemorated the dead with such devotion. We purposefully chose to go to Mexico during the celebrations as it’s a time of cultural significance. But, like most things, it was quite different to what we had envisioned.
What were your personal objectives to shoot?
Chris: As with every project, we focus on photographing people across as much of the country as we can. My main objective was to make sure our coverage was not restricted too much, and that our time in different areas was planned carefully. With Mexico City being so big, I knew it would be challenging alone, which is why we dedicated time to familiarise ourselves with the different areas. A good thing is that working in a trio already broadens our coverage, taking some emphasis from our photographs appearing too biased inhibited to a single point of view.
Paul: Once we had established the core themes of the project, I began looking for emotions in people that I felt were most representative: tenderness, vulnerability, longing and nostalgia. My task was to capture these feelings and moments in an honest and sensitive way.
Charlie: Ideas I have before a project always change when I get there. And then again and again, once I start working on it. But that’s the beauty of making work like this and I embrace that wherever possible. My objective is always to try and creative positive work that inspires new ideas of places, people and create work that has purpose.
How was your interaction with your subjects?
Charlie: Working out ways to shoot without compromising too much in unfamiliar environments is what I enjoy so much. Most of my time is spent getting familiar with the culture and people I’m interacting with, and because these trips can’t last forever, that process is fast-tracked. The experience is different with every place I go, but Mexico was very laid back wherever we went, which made it a fun project to create.
Chris: My general approach is all about avoiding any interaction with people until I have taken the photograph! This way I can be sure that the moment is genuine and that the person remains themselves without the self-consciousness that often comes from the awareness of a camera.
Paul: Luckily, I know enough Spanish to have basic conversations with people, which was massively significant. Not just because I could explain to someone who I was and why I wanted to take their photo, but because I quickly got a sense of how people were, their sensitivities and collective traits. The first thing that hit me was how nice, how warm and funny people were. Beneath that I saw a lot of openness, expressiveness, hearts on sleeves. I don’t think I would have formed quite the same interpretation of the people and place without speaking to the people I did.
How do you feel Sweet Dreams differs to your previous projects?
Paul: I think Sweet Dreams is much more focused than our previous projects. Although it’s still broad in the sense that we are predominantly capturing street scenes and impromptu moments, we identified clearer and more specific themes early on and looked for these elements in the everyday.
Chris: I think Sweet Dreams differs in how we have continued to refine our shooting style and improve the way we present our work. We attempt to attach every project in mind of improving upon the previous, which is why our latest is our most ambitious to date. In mind of Mexico’s recent representations in the media, we really want to give the country the positive attention it deserves and how it for what it is.
Charlie: I’m an extreme version of myself for the Tripod City collaboration. It’s important to contribute a different point of view and that process pushes us to do things differently, and craft a unique perspective. Most of my photographs in Gold Dust were super up-close. They didn’t give much away in terms of the environment in which the people I photographed lived, and that was intentional. But I wanted Mexico to have more context, so I tried to achieve a greater range of distance between myself and my subjects – yet still trying to maintain the same sense of intimacy and drama.
Are there any particular photographs which you feel represent the aims for the project?
Charlie: Sweet Dreams is an optimistic fairy tale that embraces love and death simultaneously. The skeleton dog embodies everything that is Sweet Dreams for me. He’s dead and alive at the same time – and clearly living the dream doing it. Photographs that leave enough room to wonder why is what I love the most. I think this one does that.
Chris: The idea of contrasting our work together as one is really about allowing people to explore connections between the photograph and to use their imagination. In particular we spent a lot of time pairing different photographs together in the book to evoke certain thoughts or feelings about Mexico that might keep you wondering.
Paul: It’s hard to pick out one in particular as I feel they collectively present the different aspects of the Mexican persona. However, if I was to choose just one, I’d have to go for the elderly guy standing against the tree. It was actually the last photo I took in Mexico, but I’m always drawn to this one for how much emotion I see in his eyes. It’s not specific, but I feel there’s a lot that he’s giving, a lot to read into, even though it’s just his face with no context of where he is. That’s what I’m always looking for.