Michael, tell us a bit about you and how your passion for photography started.
I'm a Kiwi (born and bred) and I moved to the UAE from New Zealand in 2006. My day-to-day work is in the environmental sector, working for local government, to ask challenging questions about our strategic performance on all environmental and climate change themes. Life in the UAE is not the hardship that it might have been in the 1970-1990s. The infrastructure is well developed, the weather is very comfortable most of the year (except summer), and the locals (many of whom I work with day to day) are wonderful people. Being a hobby photographer in the UAE is not easy but I have utilised its airport hub to great effect to travel to many wonderful landscapes around the world.
My passion for photography began (even when I did not practice it at the time) in my teens (1980s) when looking at a Magnum Photographers book of an image that has forever remained etched into my soul – that famous clown smoking in the rain, a photograph by Bruce Davidson, 1958. I purchased my first camera, a Minolta SLA around 1987. I dabbled a bit – but I would say I did not take it more seriously until 2016.
I always saw the power of the photograph, and I believe we ultimately photograph what we know – and being brought up in the Wairarapa, with that beautiful view of the Tararua’s – landscape photography was always be something I had an interest in.
Today I use both Canon and Sony equipment along with Lightroom, Photoshop, and Nik Effects.
How would you define your photographic style?
It’s probably best for others to comment on my style as I’m almost universally against style. I see style as a mechanism to nudge people into doing one thing or another and not experimenting in something else. Therefore, in recent years, I’ve become distinctly anti-algorithm and anti-style. It hurts my ability to build a wider reputation because this currency of being unique is just how a photographer tries to stand out from the pack. However, that said, I do have some default go-to preferences that perhaps can be seen across genres and photography projects and that is the square crop and minimalist compositions. I was greatly influenced by the photographer Michael Kenna in this regard.
As I’ve matured as a photographer, the search for a single image has waned and it has been replaced by a desire to shoot project work that aims to use the power of photography for ethical purposes in a larger body of work.
What do you love photographing the most?
Everything. I’ve done recent projects on conceptual/ethical art; a colour project; there is no limit on what can be photographed. As I paraphrase Alex Soth, "photographs are like flowers – there can never be too many flowers in the world."
Do you follow any particular processes when taking your landscape photos?
Landscape photography is hard because it is largely dependent on luck! Be it light or mood which are both essential for unique images.
I take very few dedicated landscape photography trips so, in order to maximise my time, I like to do plenty of location planning and research beforehand so that I’m not wasting precious family time. That said, I’m experienced enough to know that flexibility is key, and one must adapt to the conditions you find yourself in. Follow the light!
Do you have any tips for amateur photographers wanting to take better landscape photos?
While it can be fun travelling the country and the world and capturing those epic landscapes, there will always be locally based photographers that will have a higher chance of success in the search for the unique image and conditions. By all means, go get your version of the epic image if you’d like (I still do it sometimes) but instead, go local on what you know well, and create. Creativity is essential.
Tell us about your special photo projects…
Photography is ultimately a process that mirrors our own development as individuals and a global community. So every year I set up some projects that I care about, with the possibility of making something special. It doesn’t always come off – but it’s a lot of fun trying.
My work on the polluted waters project is a direct homage to W. Eugene Smith's Minamata project. Eugine and his wife made an incredible social documentary project about the suffering that polluted waters can have on human life in Japan. One of the consequences of living in a country with very strict and yet also ambiguous privacy laws makes doing humanist projects very complicated. During 2013-2015 I did some social documentary work using photography in my study of migration as part of my PhD. But I have not shared these images - albeit some will appear in my next photo book. So to scratch an itch, I found a conceptual way of doing something to draw our attention to water quality issues in a safe way. In the artwork, I poke at the ludicracy of making cocktails with polluted water and the resulting damage that would happen to our biodiversity health; and yet we will often do nothing about the fact that our water ways around the world can be quite polluted (In New Zealand, I heard the statistic that 7 out of 10 rivers are no longer suitable for drinking).
My work on objects we worship was to draw attention to the objects that we dedicate much of our time to today i.e money, social media, rituals etc. I put these objects on a pillar within nature to again poke at the ludicracy of 'worshipping these objects rather than life, beliefs, family, nature etc.
My 2022 photo project is called ‘Abandoned’. The notion behind this series on abandoned objects in the environment is both existential and sociological. Existential in that we all return to dust just like the objects I’ve photographed; and sociological in that society often just abandon certain individuals within it, just like the objects in the series. As we all get older, we have to work extremely hard to fight against this will of society to discard the aged… I could have done the usual trope of photographing abandoned people, but in the United Arab Emirates that would be quite a difficult and potentially dangerous undertaking. So in my series (like many artists and writers before me) I was using the objects/buildings I photograph as metaphors to represent this dilemma. The locations are here in the UAE where I live, and I had planned to draw upon the large body of resources that New Zealand has in this regard during my recent trip – but my priority was to photograph those gorgeous NZ landscapes so that my 4 and a half-year-old son had some images by his Dad, from his home country.
I hope to continue with future conceptual and ethical projects in a similar fashion in 2023. At present, I'm working to re-assemble much of my work in the past 6 years into my second phonebook titled ‘footnote’. Hopefully, it will be ready to go to print by the end of this year.
Can you choose some favourite images?
I have, let’s say, ‘portfolio images’ that I believe make the level of a community standard, and I have favourite photos that I like for varying reasons. These are not always the same, for example, I love an old film image of my grandmother in the home where I grew up. It's a terrible picture - but it holds so much meaning with it!
For my ‘portfolio images’ I’m closest to my most recent creative projects. I love to take landscape images (as I recently had the pleasure of doing in New Zealand) and to make abstract images (nature or otherwise), but it is my last two projects on a) polluted waters; b) objects we worship (both pieces, a single artwork made of nine pictures); that are most special to me. Why? I'd suggest (but I'm not certain) that it was the turn toward projects that combined my love for photography as art; with conceptual and ethical work.
Where can we find you online?
My portfolio can be found on kiwicito.myportfolio.com. I’ve abandoned Instagram and recently joined Vero under @michaelcowengallery.