Interview with photographer Helene Cook

Hello again and welcome to a new interview with another photographer. This time I had the chance to talk to Hélène Cook, a Brussels-based hobby photographer. She started photography a few years ago and she is a member of the Viewfinders’ Photography Club since 2017. She participated for the first time to an exhibition in October 2018 called “Schieven Regards”, which was organised by the Collective of Photographers “Bruxelles Pixels”.

Now, after seeing her active and valuable contribution to the club, from the perspective of a member of the club’s committee and after being impressed by her portfolio and her approach in photography, I wanted to find out more about how she sees photography and share the answer with you. For this, I have prepared a set of questions, in order to find out about who is behind these photographs.

Sebi: For how long is this passion for photography?

Helene: I started about 4 years ago. A friend of mine told me about a photography class she was attending and she made me very curious, as I had always liked looking at good photos, while mine were crap. I enrolled to a beginners’ course and it very quickly became a passion. Photography for me is not just about creating beautiful images, it is also a very enjoyable relaxation from the daily constraints and it is a lot about sharing and making new friends with very diverse and interesting backgrounds.

Sebi: Digital vs Analog; did you use film cameras? Would you recommend a film camera to someone passionate about photography?

Helene: My first camera as a kid was a film camera, but all the ones I acquired later on were digital, I suppose I was following technology developments and trends. I mostly use digital cameras for their convenience (instant result on the screen, almost no limit to the number of shots, developing the photos myself on my computer, etc.). However, developing films in the lab, discovering the magic behind the negatives and the development of your best shots in successive baths, under the infrared lamp are among my best memories of my photography classes though. Learning the basics of analog photography helped me a lot to concretely grasp the main principles of successful photography and I would certainly recommend all enthusiastic photographers to give it a try, if they have the opportunity to do so.

Sebi: Landscape, Street, Travel, Portrait – what type of photography do you enjoy and in what order?

Helene: Landscape is the type of photography I am the most comfortable with. When shooting landscapes you can take the time to observe and enjoy your environment, compose your shot, set a tripod when needed and try different compositions and settings until you get the best of a scene. I mostly shoot in Brussels where I live and I find cities and architecture a constant source of inspiration, but I also always take a camera with me when I am travelling, or when I go hiking in the mountains (another of my hobbies!). I like to integrate a human presence, or convey strong emotions to make my photos more interesting.

Street photography is the grail for me: most of the photography books I own, or the exhibition I go to are about street photography. I love funny or timeless scenes, photos that make you wonder what is going on. I walk a lot in Brussels and I am amazed about all the interesting things I see in this city everyday. Nevertheless, this is the most challenging type photography for me. It is all about being constantly on alert and being ready to frame and shoot in a fragment of a second while remaining transparent and unnoticed in the street. There is no second chance in street photography contrary to landscapes and I find it much more difficult.

I am a bit less interested in portrait photography, at least not the staged/studio-type portraits; I find candid portraits shot on the street, or during concerts (another hobby!) much more interesting.

Sebi: What are your favourite lenses?

Helene: I love my 16-35 mm wide-angle lens, which I use for landscapes. It stretches the images towards the angles while giving a dramatic effect to scenes and buildings and I love to play with lines and perspectives. I use it on my Canon DSLR camera and I am amazed by its image quality and performance in low light. I always find it worth carrying it in a backpack, together with my tripod, on photo trips, or when I travel to a nice destination, even to the top of the mountains. I also use a lot a 24-70 mm lens, which is convenient in most situations and it is perfect for concerts.

I am also lucky to own a Fuji x100 with a fixed 23 mm lens (equivalent 35 mm). It is a small, light and discreet mirrorless camera. It is always in my bag with me even when I am going to work and it is very convenient for practicing street photography, or just for any occasion.

Sebi: Black & White or Colour, for you and why?

Helene: I mostly take colour pictures; this is more natural for me. Life is colourful and colour contrasts attract me. However, I also like black and white photography and I use it for timeless scenes, for making a street scene more obvious, or making an image even stronger.

Sebi: What would be the difficulties / challenges in your photography?

Helene: I am rather an intuitive photographer and I cannot be bothered too much by technical details. That is probably why I still miss too many shots 😉 I also still find it difficult to select the best pictures and delete the least interesting ones; it takes a lot of time, but this is a necessary step for making progress in photography. In addition, I would like to become more consistent in my photography work and start thinking more about building proper photograph series.

Sebi: How much do you value post-processing for your work?

Helene: This is very important for landscapes (to get the shadows and the highlights right, as a camera is not as perfect as a human eye, then to play with contrasts and other image settings). It is important for concert photography (also for handling highlights and shadows mostly and to reduce the image noise, present at high ISO), for architecture (for straightening the lines and correcting the perspectives). I use it less for street photography, which is more about shooting at the right moment with the right framing.

Sebi: Could you tell us three great photographers that inspire you?

Helene: If I can only name three, I will mention old photography masters that impress me very much, such as Henri Cartier-Bresson (for his art of composition and for his ability to capture the ‘decisive moment’ as he called it), Dorothea Lange (for her touching portraits of migrants during the Great Depression), Vivian Maier (a nanny who shot hundreds of thousands of films in the street during her free time and whose work was discovered only after her death).

If I could list more, I would add contemporary photographers I had the chance to meet during workshops, or exhibitions and which I find truly inspiring, like Matt Stuart, Steve McCurry, Joel Meyerowitz and Sophie Voituron – a very good friend. I also learn a lot from all my photographer-friends, especially those from the Viewfinders’ Club.

Sebi: Where do you find your inspiration?

Helene: Almost everywhere, but especially by looking around me in Brussels, or by looking at photos from others (books, exhibitions, the social media, at the Club, etc.).

Sebi: Based on your experience, could you tell us some of your essential tips for a growing photographer?

Helene: Be curious, look at what others do and ask yourself why you like their photos (or not), exchange as much as you can with other photographers. Be critical with your own photos, always try to find the reasons why you missed a shot, why it is not good enough and try to see what you could do better next time. Always have a small camera in your pocket, or in your bag and practice everyday. It does not have to be fancy gear, training the eye is the most important aspect.

Sebi: Your next project?

Helene: I will be exhibiting again at “Schieven Regards II” together with Philippe Clabots (another Club member) and the “Bruxelles Pixels” Collective in October 2019. For more info, please visit the link to their Facebook page at: https://www.facebook.com/bruxellespixels/

Helene Cook

At the end of this interview, I would like to thank Helene for shading a light on her passionate work. You can find out more about her photography on her artist website at www.helene-cook.eu, or her dedicated Facebook photography page at www.facebook.com/helene.cook.photo.brussels/, or follow her Instagram account at “helenecookphoto”.

All photos were used with permission – © Helene Cook 2019 / www.helene-cook.eu. Featured image –  © Helene Cook 2019. Interview questions & introduction – © Sebastian Boatca 2019 / www.sebastianboatca.com

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