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  • by Amanda Rataj

IAN WILLMS: Beyond street photography

Ian Willms recalls his first visit to Detroit, Michigan, in 2005 as feeling like he “had just landed on the moon.” Drawn there by music, the underlying pulse of the city, Willms saw things that stayed with him. Memories of the people he encountered drew him back to Detroit from 2007 to 2010 to document his impressions by using his plastic Holga camera.

At first sight, the images in the Detroit series feel like stepping back in time. At points both gritty and soft, these black and white photographs of unkempt yards, people, and buildings often reveal themselves as contemporary only through minute details such as modern cars and street furniture. The Holga’s quirks coalesce to create what Willms calls a “beautiful, surreal rendition of reality,” which gives his exploration into one of the largest and most impoverished cities in America a visual depth that goes beyond traditional street photography.

Willms’ tentative interest in photography was encouraged when he won a camera in a photography contest as a teenager, and, like many, he began to use photography as a response to his surroundings. Inspired by the work of street photographers he found in the Life Library of Photography books, Willms attended the Loyalist College Photojournalism program in Belleville, Ontario, to learn the technical and practical skills needed to work at any major Canadian or international newspaper.

While shooting with a Holga has its own mechanical challenges, street photography presents other trials, as photographers are often on their feet for hours, waiting for the Cartier-Bresson “decisive moment.” They must then gather the courage to photograph a stranger in that split second — something that Willms still struggles with. His education at Loyalist prepared him for the legal particularities around these kinds of images. Unless used commercially, Willms doesn’t need a model release; though, he notes, he does always try to be polite.

Willms favours small, simple, 35mm film or full-frame digital cameras for his work and uses cameras like the Holga only when he has a good reason. Otherwise, he notes, with “all the apps that make your $600 cellphone into a $6 plastic camera,” it can quickly become contrived and meaningless. Willms approaches each project individually by choosing cameras and film type depending on the mood he’s trying to create. But he notes that the best tool for new street photographers isn’t fancy equipment. Instead, he suggests wearing practical shoes. While Willms’ freelance work as a photojournalist can be found in major Canadian newspapers such as the Globe and Mail, his personal work in series such as Detroit give Willms an alternative view of the streets based on observing and recording, as opposed to the more journalistic approach of uncovering and categorizing. Street photography, he says, is more of a question for the viewer, a layering of situation and meaning, while photojournalism is more about uncovering answers and understanding facts. Willms’ work ultimately blurs the lines between these two practices, offering the photojournalist’s meticulous understanding of truth and narrative to the more perceptive ruminations of street photography.

In many of his images, Willms manages to perfectly capture the dichotomy between his two roles as both street photographer and photojournalist. He understands the photojournalist’s removed role as storyteller but simultaneously uses his involved, personal position as a street photographer to probe beyond the image’s didactic qualities to create poignant statements that speak to lived experience.

See more of Ian's work at:

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