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Excerpts from a working holiday: Duran Levinson turns an analogue eye on Asia

Photographer and filmmaker Duran Levinson has a history of travelling on work holidays, traversing the globe and documenting the people and places he encounters along the way. His style is experimental and impossible to pin down, and his latest collection of work photographed across Hong Kong and Vietnam spans architectural shots, street photography and portraiture.

Recently, along with fellow film photographers Dustin Holmes and Gideon de Kock, Duran has brought out Backchat Boys Volume 1 – All image no spinach. The book is a look at life throughout the streets, venues, and not-so-touristy destinations of Hong Kong, all documented on 35mm film.

We had a quick chat with Duran to find out more about his background with film and photography, how travelling has shaped his approach, and his first endeavour into the world of self-publishing.

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Let’s begin with a bit of background. Can you tell us a bit about yourself and how you came to experiment with photography?

I am currently working in the film industry as a cinematographer and on set visual effects technician. I’ve been in the movie industry for six years and started off shooting my projects on Super 35mm and working on projects being shot on film. As the shift to digital cinematography became the new norm, I picked up a 35mm camera and began to feel passionate about photography again. It became an obsession and over the last three years has become my main creative outlet.

Can you tell us about your first self-published book that’s just been released?

The book is entitled Backchat Boys Volume 1 – All image no spinach, it’s shot exclusivly on 35mm film on point-and-shoot cameras. The book consists of three South African photographers exploring Hong Kong street culture. It’s a collaboration with two of my good friends who live in Hong Kong, Gideon de Kock and Dustin Holmes.

The first edition of the series is a “poor attempt” at capturing human nature, love and depravity.

The book itself is self-published and was printed in Hong Kong – 68 full colour pages, offset print on wood free paper, perfect bound, hand numbered and personalised. Only 300 copies were printed, with 100 being sold in Hong Kong, 100 in South Africa, and 100 between Shanghai and Seoul.

All my photos for the book were shot on my last trip to Hong Kong and feature some of my favorite photos I’ve ever taken.

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You’ve recently done some work in Vietnam and Hong Kong. Can you give us a bit of a breakdown of your travels? Were you there for work, vacation, or a bit of both?

Everytime I go somwhere I treat it as a working holiday. I was in Hong Kong to see friends, network and work on my photography. I don’t think I would ever be able to go overseas again without spending days/weeks/months on end focusing on capturing moments that mean something.

Was there anything about the environment in these places that you specifically sought out to capture?

I think it’s safe to say after three visits in the last few years that I am obsessed with Asian culture and ideologies. Every country is obviously different but by specifically focusing on Hong Kong in this project I was hoping to capture the scale and feeling of being in the middle of one of the densest cities in the world, surrounded by never ending skyscrapers, attitude, expressionism and the club sandwich mashup of Eastern and Western cultures.

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How did the model shoots come about? Did you have contacts lined up or did you meet people as you went along?

All the specific shoots I shot in Hong Kong are not with professional models, they are people I met through mutual friends or through my Instagram account. The spontaneity of the photos and the mood I was able to portray lead people to believe that they were professional shoots with much thought behind them. This actually isn’t the case at all! I prefer to keep my fashion and model work as spontaneous and fun as possible, and the results generally speak for themselves.

You shot mainly on expired film. What inspired this decision and what type of effect does this give off in the final product?

With film photography there is always room for experimentation, it keeps the magic of the medium alive for me. I don’t stick to one film stock for a particular project as I like the look and feel I get from different stocks. In Asia film photography is very much alive and buying and finding hard to get film is a breeze in Hong Kong. Expired film is cheaper than a bottle of water and gives off a cool subtle feel. The film I was shooting on expired around 10-5 years ago. I like shooting on expired film as well as high end film stocks like Kodak Porta.

You feature a lot of portraits in the project. How did you go about photographing total strangers and what was the general response to your work?

I love taking street portraits with strangers. Sometimes it could be a quick moment passing by and just grabbing the shot, and other times there is communication involved. It depends on the situation. Also, I should note that the entire project was shot on a single point-and-shoot camera, which is really small and unobtrusive. I think most people thought I was a complete amateur, which suits me just fine.

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You shot a combination of colour and black and white images. When and how do you decide to shoot the two styles?

There was no real planning here. I enjoy both mediums and I suppose I got known for my black and white work from China. I used to shoot exclusively on black and white but now I mainly shoot colour with a bit of Ilford thrown in for good measure.

Tell us a bit about how your work has progressed over the years. Are there any specific styles of photography or specific themes you favour?

I honestly think when I stopped giving a fuck and creating invisible boundaries my photography improved immediately. In Asia it’s a bit easier to get away with shooting pretty much anything, and then there’s also the foreigner card, if it needs to be played. Let’s just say its safer to push the envelope in Hong Kong or China more than in Africa or other countries I’ve visited and shot in.

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You’ve previously taken your photography to Rwanda and China too. How do you find travelling outside of South Africa has influenced your work?

It’s helped me grow as a human and influenced the kind of work I’m keen on continuing with. Travelling is the only way to understand a big part of the ‘human condition’ and how you fit into this world in whatever way you percieve it.

Being a filmmaker, do you find that your photography and filmmaking speak to one another? How do you balance the two?

They definitly do. I’ve been lucky enough to get to a place in the film industry where I get to work hand in hand with some of the best directors, cinematographers and crew that are down here on long-form jobs such as feature films. I get to watch how the masters light and compose their films and it’s inevitable that I’ve been heavily influenced by that. In terms of getting to shoot it’s difficult to find a lot of time to focus on photography when I’m on a long shoot. That’s why my work tends to be travel based projects every few months when I get to take time off between shooting.

To see more of Duran’s work or if you’re interested in purchasing a copy of Backchat Boys Volume 1 – All image no spinach, get in touch on Instagram and through his website.

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