Explore your world
into the darkness
into the darkness

Nils Külper: On Street Photography and Learning To Look At The World

Picture of Harriet Blackmore
Updated: 25 April 2017
From Taoism to the internet, we spoke to Nils Külper a German street photographer based in Hamburg about the work he does and the way he does it — on presentness in photography, learning how to observe the world around you and the impact of digital photography, Külper describes the attitude behind his photography, and moreover, his attitude to the world that informs this. His photographs offer snapshots of his own interactions with the people and the details and places around him, capturing what he describes ‘a slice of life’ and the often overlooked moments that happen in front of your eyes.


© Bang! | Courtesy of Nils Külper ‘This photo was taken at the decisive moment. I am still very happy with this one.’

Nils Külper started out experimenting with different styles of photography, music and skateboarding growing up, working with the moving image before he found his way to street photography. Külper migrated towards street photography, appreciating the candid quality, and was keen to seizethe magical moments and preserve them.

With upcoming projects including a public exhibition and the possibility of a photobook in the works, Külper shared his wonderful insights into attitudes to not just photography, but observing the world in general.

The Culture Trip (TCT): On your website you say you started later on with photography — could you describe a little how you got that introduction? Was it a natural progression or inspiration? What first made it appeal?

Nils Külper (NK): I was always attracted by visual stimulation and music. I created short films about skateboarding, I experimented with video art as a VJ. I also did my own parties as a DJ and love to draw comics from time to time. As a child I was an assistant for my dad. He had a Minolta XD7 and put a lot of effort into his hobby. So it was nothing special for me. Sometimes he gave me his camera to do some skate shots or for a vacation.

The reason analog photography played a smaller role in my life was that I was too impatient to wait for the results from the lab. Digital photography fixed that issue for me. I know that film is more Zen-like and today (as a little Taoist) I try to slow down the whole thing and see photography also as a kind of meditation, not as snapping or shooting pictures. Photography can help you being more focused on just one thing and being an observer.

After starting digital photography without a real destination I discovered street and travel photography. I love the diary like character of these styles. You can tell a story with one or a series of photos. Nothing is made up. You are documenting real life and add your personal view on reality to the final result. This will create a life log of all your emotions, journeys, people, moods and special moments. And if other people also like my stuff it will be the icing on the cake.



© Gold | Courtesy of Nils Külper ‘This is a good example of creating a different mood just by changing the exposure value of your camera. The real street scene was not that dark and creepy at all.’

TCT: So do you feel that analogue slows the pace at which you take photographs? With phones and digital photography you can take many photos and it becomes quite disposable — do you think your appreciation of  Taoism links with analogue in selecting what you appreciate more meditatively? 

NK: Analogue has this slower pace built in, but I think the real challenge is to slow down without any tricks. Inner peace means that it comes straight from your head. If you read the fantastic blog of Eric Kim (a street photographer from Berkeley, California) you will notice that he writes more about philosophy as photography. There are many technical knowledges and creative principles involved in making a photo shine, but at the end it should come from your heart and soul. You can learn a lot of things from philosophers like Seneca, Lao Tse and other great people who had the talent to bring their thoughts to paper and maybe connect philosophy with photography like Mr. Kim did.

As an observer you can focus just on the things that are happening around you. All of your problems go away in this moment. You notice the details and the whole picture at once. That makes you aware of things you won’t notice in the daily grind. For me photography is a bit like therapy. I am a loud and fast person full of thousand ideas. My brain is working overtime every day. So I need to learn how to visit a mind-island from time to time to prevent the inner CPU from overheating.


© Down | Courtesy of Nils Külper 'There is a subwaystation in Hamburg that is that colorful and full of brushed metal. The only thing you need is a person that shines in the middle of the escalator.'

© Down | Courtesy of Nils Külper ‘There is a subway station in Hamburg that is that colorful and full of brushed metal. The only thing you need is a person that shines in the middle of the escalator.’

TCT: What do you most appreciate capturing in an image?

NK: What I appreciate? I try to capture ‘a slice of life’ at the right moment when everything is there, like someone else created it just for me. And I just need to take my little visual copy machine and slice out a personal interpretation of the scene. Don’t forget: nothing is real. You can take an image out of the real context and change the message like the media industry does sometimes. But if you are one of the good guys you won’t do any evil.


TCT: Do you feel that if you spend a lot of time looking through a lens that it helps you to appreciate what’s in front of you, or means that you often miss what is happening in search of a photo? For instance, people at concerts often watch the whole thing through a screen instead of being there. Do you think there is a way of using photography to be more present?

NK: If you learn to be a good observer you also learn to appreciate even the smallest mundane things. So there is no need for you to hold a camera in front of your eyes most of the time. I use my phone only to read articles and do a bit of twitter and email. When I meet other people, go to a concert or similar things it remains in my bag. You will lose too much of what is going on around and in front of you. Why meet someone else and spend the time with that device? I feel sad when I am at a restaurant and see a couple where both are distracted by looking at their phones, without any communication between them. When you’re aware of what is going on around you, you know when the time is right to raise your camera up to your eyes. You will know it…trust me!


into the darkness

© Into the Darkness | Courtesy of Nils Külper ‘I captured this moment in Berlin at the station at Potsdamer Platz. The people in the photo are walking straight into darkness.’

TCT: It’s really interesting you see it as singling out the special moments or scenes when a lot of people take a lot of unselected images because there is no limit, like there is with film. How do you think this ability to access and to take a huge quantity of images influences our reactions to images? 

NK: You already answered the question by yourself! It is the process of selection that makes the difference. I also take a lot of photos, but I only show some hand picked results to the world that have a special meaning for me. Film is more expensive to shoot, but there are still billions of photos taken with analogue cameras resting in a box or album. The only difference from twenty years ago is the internet.


TCT: Do you think that images have less of an effect with this saturation of information?

NK: Now you can show your photos to a bigger audience without too much effort like back in the days. This is good and bad at the same time. Good that you have an easy and cost effective way to show your work to the world. Bad in terms of saturation. A friend of mine once said: ‘A picture says more than a thousand words, but what about a thousand pictures?’ For me, a well curated Twitter account can help to follow some interesting and creative people. It depends on how you use the web with all the great possibilities it offers.


© Afterwork | Courtesy of Nils Külper 'Is he heading home after work? It tells a story. And the lines of the surrounding architecture do the rest.'

© Afterwork | Courtesy of Nils Külper ‘Is he heading home after work? It tells a story. And the lines of the surrounding architecture do the rest.’

TCT: Is there a progression that you notice, or a change over the years, in how you approach or engage with photography?

NK: If you know how to use the web you can meet other people virtually or in real life and you can do something great together. Let me give you an example from the street photographer community. There are websites like In-Public where photographers do something together, like exhibitions, writing essays and promoting their work. They work as a collective. Today many people are focusing more on what they can do with their tools and how they can share knowledge with others. Just take YouTube as another example. You can learn so much about photography via YouTube today for free! People just realized that there are tons of new gadgets released every year but the question is what you gonna do with them.


TCT: Is there an attitude or message that informs the way in which you engage with photography, or in engaging with and observing the world around you?

NK: I have to mention something. But the message isn’t new: be kind and respectful to other people. Don’t force things to happen. Try to live a life full of adventure, leisure time, friendship and love. The rest will happen automatically.


© Segway | Courtesy of Nils Külper 'Modern technology can lead to strange photos. People driving a Segway in circles. The light was great and created this strong diagonal.'

© Segway | Courtesy of Nils Külper ‘Modern technology can lead to strange photos. People driving a Segway in circles. The light was great and created this strong diagonal.’


By Harriet Blackmore