Alex Coghe is an Italian photographer based in Mexico City, making distinctive work across street, social documentary, street photography, portraits, fashion and erotica in a style all his own. More than a man with a camera, Alex is also a writer, editor and educator. Currently focused, among other things of course, on passing on his talents through workshops, he has several photographic expeditions upcoming – the first to Guelaguetza over the summer and then another Day Of the Dead reportage expedition following the success of last year’s. We caught up with him to chat about barrio life, humour’s place in photography and Leonard Cohen.
As an editor and writer as well as a photographer, how does your work in those spheres influence your image-making and vice versa? Are you chasing one creative vision across genres?
I think any and every professional role I cover is strictly connected with the other, but I am not chasing one creative vision. It is pretty interesting how, as in every creative process, I can find elements of inspiration for other projects. I think I make every single work with the approach of the beginner – really passionate and curious, deeply interested in hearing other points of view – if you want you can call that visions. This is inevitably a very open perspective towards others and sometimes even ends up influencing my perception of things, and my photography.
I believe as a kid you began taking photos with crappy point and shoot cameras. Your career has led you to work on assignment for Leica and Fujifilm. How important is having the right kit and do you have a favourite camera?
I think is more important to have skills and visions. Don’t get me wrong, because it would not be honest of me to say the camera is not important. Any camera or lens is important insofar as it is able to make sure you achieve what you want. However simply having the most expensive camera clearly is not a solution to always achieving the best results. It is important we are able to choose the best camera for the goals you want to achieve. When I started my career as a photojournalist in Mexico, I decided to sell all my Nikon equipment for buying an Olympus E-P1 with the pancake lens 17mm (a 34mm in 35mm format) and I worked with this and just a second compact camera, a Panasonic Lumix LX3 for 4 years. A photographer, a real photographer I mean, should be able to achieve appreciable results with any camera, even with a pinhole camera. However, of course, I have my preferences and I have my specific requirements of what a camera should be depending on what I am doing.
When it comes to street photography and social documentary, how big an impact do you feel familiarity has? Is your process and practice affected, dependent on whether you are somewhere new or your own street?
As a street photographer, and the photographers attending my workshops, know this pretty well, my approach is often in your face, getting very close, with no fear. That said, I think a good photographer is a person with some psychology skills and the environment you are working in can (it should) – affect the approach. When I am in the Mexican barrios my approach can not be the same of when I am shooting in Downtown.
Mexico City plays a huge part in your work and aesthetic. The visual image of the city that tends to reach international audiences often dramatises drug and gang violence, and yet your portfolio presents a very different, ‘everyday’ side to the same areas. Is this a conscious aim of your work?
I would say yes. But also…it is not as planned as you may think. I limit myself to documenting what I find, without pushing certain issues, so often used by other photographers. I could make the similar images, but what would be the point? Another photographer presenting the drug and violence themes? I think we have enough. I am living in Mexico. I live in a barrio, a real Mexican barrio. I eat, sleep and piss in a barrio, and I am interested to show the everyday life in a barrio. There are so many positive aspects and I am making a normal life in a barrio in Mexico City. This is part also of my philosophy as a photographer. Maybe it can not be so spectacular as certain usual themes, but I am presenting the truth. I am making documentation as a person completely involved and surrounded in the reality of my neighborhood. Anything you see through my pictures is a genuine portrait of the real life for many Mexicans. I could be wrong but I think that my work is very important… maybe my work will be recognized not immediately. But as a barrio resident and photographer there is also an element of pride in my decisions to avoid the cliches.
Your street work is characterised by energy and immediacy – what advice do you have to photographers seeking to create dynamic images?
We should always consider that a street photograph needs to present that particular tension present in the street. I am talking as a photographer but also as an editor: I need to advert the energy, that particular tension, that particular imponderable scent, the sensation of randomness…otherwise we could still obtain, maybe, a good image perfectly composed, but emptied, off, innocuous…This is achievable technically through experience and particular compositional skills, but is it is important and fundamental to live the street and to become a real expression of the street. I often say, to be a good street photographer you need to become street. I mean: a street photographer should be a metropolitan animal and his photos should reflect this because he is living for real the street. Otherwise, better to try your luck with studio photography.
I also note a quirky sense of humour in much of your personal work, reminiscent of Mark Cohen among others. When you are out in the streets are you looking for funny as well as unusual moments, or is this more a question of framing?
I am very happy about this question. First of all because it is the first time in a interview I am asked about my sense of humour. Of course humour is in my work, but not the one you usually expect from people, so sometimes it is a little bit cryptic and not so immediate. I love Mark Cohen’s work. To tear apart people is an interesting experience. Hahahahahahaha!
Is your commercial fashion and erotic work about paying bills or do you get the same creative kick as you do working on your own projects?
Fashion and erotic work sometimes pay my bills. Sometimes not. When not is usually because I am working on my personal projects. I would clarify I photographed many nude girls, but my real focus is fashion photography and this will be clearer in the near future. Anyway…my agenda is always on for models, actresses, hostesses and, uhm, escorts if they need a book.
I believe you teach photography workshops in Mexico City – do you ever learn something new from your students?
I teach workshops in Mexico and in any part of the world where they want me. I always learn something from my students. It is a real interchange, because I am also learning. And I can learn also thanks to a question coming from the most experienced or beginner of my students.
As an all-round creative with fingers in many artistic pies, what inspires you from outside the world of visual art? What is on your iPod right now and are you influenced by the world of cinema?
I agree. Currently Scarlett Johansson and Rosario Dawson are great inspirations for me…seriously, inspiration can arrive from anything. Cinema, literature and music are great sources. Leonard Cohen is often in my head when I am out in the streets, but I can be inspired also by the ruthless leopard hunting buffaloes just seen on my TV. I am not a Hollywood movie fan. I prefer the blaxploitation, Russ Meyer, Troma movies…and then the neorealism Italian cinema. What inspires me really? ‘I soliti ignoti’ my favorite movie from a great master, Mario Monicelli. Music in my ipod? Motorhead, Judas Priest, Journey, Punk Rock, uhm…Misfits, Ramones…but also Type O Negative, EBM, Renato Zero, Litfiba, jazz. Hey, I am totally omnivorous, I can listen to Prince and Bjork, Tom Waits, Alessandro Mannarino, Vinicio Capossela and then also Donatella Rettore and Nujabes (he is great when I am editing my photos).
Finally, what are you working on right now and what can we expect from you in the future?
Currently I am in Italy where I am giving street photography workshops and also working to my ITALIA, DOLCE VITA, the social documentary project I started in 2013. My photography has changed. Again. But I feel the need to focus more on social documentary and photojournalism, leaving behind some single shots, and continuing to feed these projects. Photojournalism is my focus and this will be still more clear in future. Also the photographic expeditions we are proposing are a clear sign in this sense. Next year I will propose a photographic expedition here in Italy, and this is the first time I am revealing this. You will know more soon. I don’t approach my projects as something to make in a short period and conclude. I think ITALIA, DOLCE VITA and LIFE IN THE BARRIO could continue for a lifetime, because as I see them they represent cosmos that encloses more within them.