The Brussels Street Photography Festival interviews Chris Suspect, the 2019 winner of the Eyewitness in Brussels contest organized by the BSPF, this interview was included as part of his prize package.
A brief introduction
Chris Suspect was born in the Philippines in 1968. He is a street and documentary photographer hailing from the Washington, DC area. He specializes in capturing absurd and profound moments in the quotidian. His street photography work has been recognized internationally and has been exhibited internationally. His documentary work on the underground music scene in Washington, D.C., was published as a book, Suspect Device, by Empty Stretch in 2014.
Where does the “Suspect” name come from?
I have been in several bands, and the first of note was a punk rock band called The Suspects. Hence where I get my name. My real name is difficult for people to pronounce, so when I was playing in The Suspects, everyone just called me Chris Suspect, and when I got on the internet in the 1990s I chose it as my nom de guerre as they would say in French.
Your past as a musician seems to have presented itself as a subject in your photography since you take a lot of photos of the punk rock scene. Did you also take photos while you were in this band?
I didn’t take photos while I was playing in a band, but I really wish that I did. So I decided to go back and revisit my childhood days in a way, because when I was growing up and going to these shows it was really scary, and fun, and exciting, and when I was looking at other photographers’ work it did not really convey that sense to me, they were that regular kind of static photos. Therefore, I wanted to go back and create images that were both exciting and also could seem to be recollected memories.
Do you tend to go the same venues multiple times, is it mostly random? How do you go about it?
Back when I was really doing it for my book project, which I did over the course of four years. There were several venues I liked more than others, particularly I felt that the smaller, the better. I really liked it when people had shows in their houses, because it would get a little bit crazier, and it would feel more personal. I prefer basement shows, and dive bar shows. There’s this bar called Slash Run that just opened not too far from where I live, and that place is fantastic. I go there quite a bit.
So everywhere you go you get recognized as “that photographer guy” after a while?
Yes, I was shooting this show at Slash Run, and this person I know overheard this other woman talking to her friend saying:
“Why is there always a creepy old dude with a ponytail? I think it is a musical dick measuring system.”
So now I am the creepy old dude with the ponytail. But thankfully most of these people love it when they see the actual photos. There are several bands that use my work as record covers, promotional things and such. It is really rare in the punk rock scene that anybody gets offended. In this scene, at least in D.C., people know who I am, and this is what I do.
To an outsider to the scene, the shows, the music and the photos that result from it might seem to be quite aggressive. Does that aggression result in confrontations between you and the people that you are photographing?
As aggressive as I make it look, it’s a lot safer really. Photos lie and the situation may be completely boring, but I see something interesting and I take a photo of it and I make it seem a lot more exciting than it really is in reality. It is kind of like making something seem much cooler than it is. With that said, I did witness a major brawl once in Colombia, in a communist-anarchist punk show in a big squat in a bad part of Bogota. I showed up and took photos there, and that was great, and then this big fight breaks out and I photographed that whole thing as well. Some skinhead guy threatened me to stop taking photos and then got punched in the face by a girl and then forgot all about me.
What is it that draws you to subcultures?
I like subcultures, I find them interesting because they all have their own language, rituals and quirky things that everyone in that subculture recognizes and identifies with. For me it is interesting to try and go into those subcultures and try to decode them with the camera.
Do you mainly shoot black and white with a flash? Do you tend to series more often than singles?
I like to shoot in colour during the day, even though a lot of people seem to like my work in black and white now. When I was first getting noticed as a photographer it was for colour street photography and I entered several street contests and the whole time I was doing that I was doing the punk rock scene thing which became a book, and all of a sudden people were calling me the music photographer. I’ve been shooting at bars and places like that and now people call me the party photographer. But this whole time I’m still taking photos on the street. It’s easier to pull together a series with a consistent theme. If I am shooting the punk rock scene then that’s that. On the streets it’s so much more dynamic in difference, it is a little harder to put together a series. But I have been doing that with a series on balloon heads, which will be exhibited in the Xposure International Photography Festival in the United Arab Emirates.
How do you go about shooting street photography, and how often do you do it?
Nowadays, it is a bit harder for me to go out in the streets on weekdays, because of the constraints of my schedule, resulting in me taking more photos during the night. A lot of the street photos I take, I sit on them for a very long time. I was just in Italy and then San Francisco, and I still haven’t looked at the photos. I like taking my time so I can give them a good look. It has been a busy year; I had enough time to shoot the photos but not enough to look at them.
From what I can tell you travel a lot and get to shoot in a lot of different cities, what is your favourite place to photograph?
If I am not travelling for photography, sometimes I get to travel for work, and I take my camera everywhere I go. Usually I’ll see where I can go and shoot. I will hang out at the end of the day in street corners, a busy area of that city and shoot street photography. If there are any interesting bands or shows that I can find on the internet, I’ll go and photograph them. I look for little quirky things to photograph. I have three favourite places to photograph, for different reasons. One of them is the Black Sea coast of Romania and Vama Veche in particular, it is this beach party town that is popular amongst the locals. Then recently I did a workshop in San Miguel de Allende in Mexico, it is a beautiful town to do street photography during the day, and also at night especially during The Day of The Dead. I also love shooting in San Francisco, it has it all, it is great for both shooting street photography and night life photography.
How does shooting in Brussels compare with these places?
I find it to be quite difficult. Everybody there is so concerned about people with cameras in the street. People seem really suspicious of photographers, but that does not mean you can’t get away with shooting there. This one time, I was standing outside of Central Station and I had my camera on me and had two people were yelling at me “No photos!” while I haven’t even touched my camera. I guess people there want to really maintain their privacy. They are really on guard, and they pay a lot of attention to cameras compared to most other places I’ve been to.
What is the story behind you winning shot of 2019 Eyewitness in Brussels Contest organized by the BSPF?
That was taken during either the 1st edition or the 2nd edition of the BSPF festival and it was a Halloween night, I found it really curious that people in Brussels celebrated Halloween. With Halloween, people dress up and when they do, it is easier to take photos. I took some photos that night and the winning photo happens to be one of them. What I didn’t understand until later was the translation of the street sign which was something like fidelity way, or chastity way. And on the neon sign it said meat in French. A lot people in Brussels thought that was interesting.
Are there any projects that you are currently working on?
I am working on a project right now that is neither street nor documentary but rather fine art. It is a project that involves photographing nudes in beautiful landscapes, with no post manipulation. I use a mirror mask and the light from the sun to create a flash effect. The project is about the anxiety around climate change, and the environment. I am trying to get complete strangers and convince them to pose for me, which is not always so easy.
Eyewitness in Brussels was organized by the BSPF in 2019, and for our fourth and latest edition we are back with two main contests: Singles & Series. Submit before August 1st 2019 for a chance to have your work exhibited and win more than 4900 EUR in cash prizes.