Max Miechowski is a documentary photographer whose work, which is centred around portraiture, explores themes of community and urban culture. Originally from Lincoln, he now lives in London where the majority of his photographic work is made.
Is there an event or time period in your life that led you towards your photographic path?
Growing up as a teenager and into my early 20’s, my main focus was on making music. I was obsessed with playing guitar and playing in bands, and that was definitely where I was putting all of my creative energy. It wasn't until a little later, around the age of 24, that I got my first camera and started playing around with photography. I did a little urban exploration stuff, shot some bands and live music, and started taking photos of my friends. I didn't really take it very seriously to begin with. When I was 25 I decided to quit my job, leave the bands I was playing in at the time, and go travelling around Southeast Asia with some friends. This was when I really started taking a lot of photos - being in new and beautiful places, and experiencing different cultures, It felt really natural for me to photograph everything around me. It didn’t take long before the whole trip became all about making images - I was making specific journeys to photograph places, getting up early to try and catch the best light, and taking lots of portraits. I actually ended up cutting the trip short as I wanted to return to England and use the money I had left over for a better camera, as I knew I wanted to pursue it more seriously.
What got me really excited about photography, and still does, is how it changes the way in which you interact with the world around you - it forces me to look a little harder and to explore and nurture my curiosity. There are so many amazing people and places in the world, and photography gives me a reason to seek them out.
When someone wants to start a new project, what advice would you give them?
Thinking of a project, or concepts for photographs, can be quite a frustrating experience and can leave you wondering how everyone else is managing to cook up these great ideas whilst you're twiddling your thumbs and coming up with nothing. If you are in that position, the best advice I can offer is to forget about 'projects' for a while and just get out and shoot. Just keep shooting, and eventually little ideas or themes might pop into your head - write these down, and start thinking them through. The main thing you need to consider is how practical these ideas are, and how easy they will be to achieve. Of course, you need to challenge yourself, but it's more important to set yourself small achievable goals to begin with and let your projects grow and become more ambitious over time.
One of my early projects, where I felt like I started to find my feet a little as a photographer, was shot entirely on my old street in Leeds - 'Cemetery Road'. It was a quite a rough area, and people were often a little shocked to discover I had moved there. But I actually loved it there! I never saw any crime or violence, and insisted that it was actually a lot friendlier than people thought. So the idea for the project was to show how welcoming people were in the area by taking the time to get to know as many people on the street as possible and asking if I could take a portrait of them inside their house. A lot of people took part in the project, and I think I ended up with around 50 portraits. If somebody didn't want to participate then I photographed their front door instead. I turned it into a small book, and sequenced it from the bottom of the street to the top, going; door, door, portrait, portrait, door, portrait etc. It was easily achievable as it had a clear goal in mind, zero travel costs/time, no other expenses, and was something I could personally relate to. It was a very simple idea, but was really effective.
The projects I work on now are really not that dissimilar to Cemetery Road, and are still centred around my local area and the other people who live there. What these projects allow me to do, is to grow my visual style as a photographer and to really explore and understand what is important to me as an artist. This is helping to build a strong foundation on which I feel confident undertaking more and more ambitious projects in the future.
Can you speak more on the idea of travel and how it impacts your approach to photography?
As I mentioned previously, travelling is what first sparked my passion for pursuing photography further. However, since then I haven't done a lot of travelling as I've been so engrossed in making work in England. This is not to say that I don't love the idea of indulging in some far off adventure again, because obviously I would really love to, but I got a lot from that first trip that has stuck with me ever since. What I found fascinating about Southeast Asia, is the same thing that I find fascinating about Southeast London - the world around you is a vast and wonderful space that is free to explore. Whether you're making a journey across Vietnam on a motorbike or you're walking through the streets of Peckham - there is beauty and adventure in it all.
Can you tell us about your favorite interaction with a “stranger” you photographed?
When I lived in Leeds, there was a guy living on the street behind me who would make birdhouses, paint them crazy colours and hang them all over the area. He was an incredible character who bought a lot of life to the street. He would mow peoples lawns and do odd jobs for a living, and then spend a lot of his free time doing volunteer work for charities. Since moving to London I've not been able to keep in touch with him, but I'm hoping he's still lining the streets of Beeston with his quirky birdhouses.
You recently became an Exhibiting Photographer for the Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize and a winning photographer of the Portrait of Britain, what do you look for in the competitions you submit to? What advice can you give others in their submissions to competitions?
This is the first year I have begun submitting my work for prizes and competitions, and have been lucky enough for the portraits to have been well received so far. I do think that prizes can be great for young photographers, as they give you a platform for your work and give you a high benchmark to strive for. Of course, they’re not the be all and end all, and it’s important to look elsewhere for inspiration and other opportunities to progress your work. The priority is to make good work that successfully achieves what you had set out for it to achieve, and if it’s possible to bring more attention to it via competitions and institutions then go for it!
What role have mentors played for you?
I think mentors are absolutely crucial to developing as a photographer. I have been fortunate enough in the last couple of years to have become friends with some amazing photographers who have given me an incredible amount of support and guidance - I really don’t know where I’d be right now without them! Namely, Danny North, Andrew Whitton and Jenna Foxton. All really talented artists, with their own unique approach to image making, who have been more than willing to impart their knowledge onto me and now continue to help guide me through my development.
I think getting into assisting is a really good way to find mentors. You learn a lot in the process and there’s a good chance you’ll spark up a strong relationship and find someone who is willing to help guide you through.
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