HUCK × VANS
THE EXISTENTIAL GUIDE TO STREET PHOTOGRAPHY

In a new film, Charlie Kwai is living proof that you don’t need to be obsessed with craft or top of the range equipment to take great photos. For the Londoner, it’s simply about being curious – and getting really, really close.

“Why are you taking my picture?’’ demands a surly, middle-aged woman after street photographer Charlie Kwai puts a camera up in her face and hits click. “I had to”, he replies, full of mischievous charm. “Your face brightened up the morning.”

It’s fair to say that when it comes to taking photos, Charlie’s approach is direct – almost confrontational. With the Londoner’s work, there’s no lurking, no furtive captures: if he sees a picture, he jumps straight in there and shoots it.

While you might think such a method would result in a bunch of disgruntled subjects, it doesn’t. Using this honest, straightforward modus operandi, the results are overwhelmingly positive. The pictures speak for themselves, encapsulating the dynamic relationship between the subject, the photographer and the city that surrounds them both.  

Charlie – who is East London born and bred – is self-taught, so has avoided many of the pitfalls that can often come with a formal education. He’s not obsessed with notions of craft and cares little about equipment, nor is he interested in developments in photographic technology. Likewise, when he shoots, he’s unburdened by the weight of photography’s short, intense history.  

“I explored myself through the way I engage with people and how I photograph them, so my approach was just an inevitability,” he explains. “And that’s always evolving because what I create is just a reflection of my personality.”  

The way Charlie works is driven by an instinctive curiosity. When he started taking pictures, he remembers, there was a long period of time in which he made every mistake in the book. After countless days spent hitting the street, dedicating at least five hours a day to shooting (on occasions, covering up to 30 km in a single session) he discovered, a setup that suited.

Frame after frame, scene after scene, his process has been stripped back. Now he simply walks, watches and shoots. This is photography as a physical practice, art as existential dance. And it works.

Look at the Londoner’s images and you’ll be met with the tight, saturated street portraits that have become his trademark. He’s so close to his subjects that you can practically feel their breath. Charlie is living proof that good street photography isn’t about a fancy camera or equipment; it’s about an honesty, attitude and commitment.

At the root of it all, though, is the fact that he is genuinely curious about people. He is fascinated by their choices, their habits – and hungry to explore their way of being in the world. There’s an exploration at the heart of his practice. He breathes the same air as his subjects. Amazing pictures emerge from this process as surely as night follows day.

“I’m fascinated by the choices people make, and that’s what I photograph. And I want to make work that influences people’s behaviour and opinions. So photography is perfect, because I get to explore both,” Charlie adds.

“I think these intrigues stem from growing up in a massively diverse area. It’s all I’ve ever known. Photography lets me engage with everyone, and understand them better.”

Thank you to Charlie Kwai, who's insatiable appetite for street-level stories made the film possible.

Read our feature on How to Make it in Photography with more advice from Charlie.

Find more stories from This Is Off The Wall, an editorial partnership from Huck and Vans.