Photographer Nadav Kander says politicians are trickiest to shoot

There is more to a portrait than mere likeness, says photographer Nadav Kander

Nadav Kander’s works include a portrait of actress Judi Dench (above) and Shoes In Dust, Pripyat from the Chernobyl series. -- PHOTO: NADAV KANDER
Nadav Kander’s works include a portrait of actress Judi Dench (above) and Shoes In Dust, Pripyat from the Chernobyl series. -- PHOTO: NADAV KANDER
Nadav Kander’s works include a portrait of actress Judi Dench and Shoes In Dust, Pripyat (above) from the Chernobyl series. -- PHOTO: NADAV KANDER
Photographer Nadav Kander (above) says politicians such as US President Barack Obama (background) are tricky to shoot. -- ST PHOTO: AZIZ HUSSIN

From politicians to actors to celebrities, renowned Israel- born London-based photographer Nadav Kander has done unforgettable portraits of famous names.

With over 80 solo and group shows to his name, his work has travelled to many parts of the world, yet this is the first time he is making a solo outing in South-east Asia.

Nadav Kander 49 Works, now on at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, features 49 of his photographs from five series, showing his range as a photographer equally at ease with portraits as well as documenting changing landscapes.

Many of the pictures in his series titled Portraits have made the news. Among them are portraits of American President Barack Obama, award-winning actress Judi Dench and screen siren Sophia Loren.

"Politicians are harder to photograph," the easy-going Kander, 53, tells Life!.

In 2009, he was commissioned by The New York Times Magazine to shoot 52 portraits of members of the Obama administration. This was the largest collection of images by a photographer to be published in The New York Times. The idea, he says, was to get a snapshot of a presidency.

Asked what he seeks in his portraits, he says: "I look not so much for the iconography. I look for the semantics, the signs that make a person who or what they are. When they come together in a potent way, they become universal to human beings. They look like something each of us can recognise because you see something like vulnerability or envy or pride or power. I am going for that emotion."

He rubbishes cliches of photography such as "capturing a person's soul", saying it is almost impossible and that he has very little time for such artistic pretension. He adds that some portraits work better than others because of the subject. "Obama is a very good-looking man. That helps."

Politicians generally are trickier to photograph, he says and adds: "Some people understand that there is much more to making a picture than a likeness, there is an atmosphere that needs to be created. Actors and musicians understand that, politicians don't. Politicians live in their heads, they live in their brains, that makes it harder."

Equally at ease with landscape photography, he likes to leave "things unseen", so each viewer can take what they wish to take away from a picture.

That much is apparent in his selection of images shown here. These include photographs from four series - Yangtze, The Long River, on Asia's longest river which flows through China; Chernobyl, on the aftermath of the terrible 1986 nuclear accident; God's Country, documenting his road trips through America; and Dust, featuring towns on the Russia-Kazakhstan border.

Kander did not formally study photography, having got his earliest lessons from his father, a photography buff. He spent time in the dark room printing aerial photographs after being drafted into the Air Force in South Africa, where his family moved to when he was three.

He apprenticed with professional photographers and is big on influences and references. He relies often on historical materials and artists of the past to inspire him, saying that he learns all the time "through references and referencing".

He also likes to travel, often with not too much of a pre-determined plan. "I like to walk a lot when I get to a place. It is a good way of finding out what I want to document. I look for the atmosphere."

The results of those walks are apparent in the series shown here. His series Yangtze, The Long River was made into a book and won the Prix Pictet in 2009. Established by Pictet & Cie, a Swiss private bank, it is the only major international photography prize for works addressing sustainable development and environmental issues.

Addressing the overarching themes of his work, he says: "As a photographer, I am looking at how man interacts with his surroundings. I am looking at how we are, what our common conditions are and how we exist on this planet."

So while travelling through China on five separate trips, he was documenting not just the changes along the Yangtze from dam building and economic development, but also the fragility of relationships caused by changes made to the environment. In one image, a bony man dressed only in shorts is portrayed with his back looking at the rising city in front. It is a haunting image, one which makes you think about change and at what cost.

In God's Country, he presents another side of America. What he was trying to document, he says, were its paradoxes as well as the largeness and openness of the land. His 2005 photograph titled Dinosaur And Grave shows a lone dinosaur statue in a brown, barren landscape.

The sense of abandonment intensifies in the Chernobyl series. He visited Pripyat, the ghost town in Ukraine where thousands of workers at the nearby Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant and their families once lived, long after they had been evacuated.

The series is a timely reminder of both human intervention and human absence. There is paint peeling off walls in spaces long abandoned and in one intensely telling image, shoes sit abandoned with layers of dust on them.

Speaking of this image, Kander says: "All my work is about human beings. Often the things that we leave behind tell us more about ourselves. The signs that we exist are what I look for in a landscape, as well as in portraits to some extent. It is very poignant in Pripyat. I visited nearly 20 years after the disaster. People left in a hurry so what they left behind tells us a lot about ourselves."

His most recent series Dust came about when he learnt that a Google Earth satellite had discovered several closed Russian science towns near the Kazakhstan border. These were developed for atomic bombs and ballistic missile testing.

Dust again captures ruins as well as signs of human habitation, intervention and human absence. He is interested in these intersections because he says "there can be no beauty without suffering, no black without white. I am an artist who uses what is in front of me as a catalyst to excite emotion. But your emotion is your truth and my emotion is my truth."

His work keeps him on the road and he says he looks forward to returning to London, where he has lived since 1982, and spending time with his wife Nicole and their three teenage children. They understand the demands on his time though none of his children have shown an inclination towards photography yet. "I guess I don't know how to teach."

He says it breezily before getting back to the more serious intent of his craft: "I am creating a tableaux for you to react to. I am not arrogant enough to think I can look into the soul of a person. That's just nonsense. It is about drawing on an emotion. That's what all art is about. Entertainment and reaction and experience."

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