An Interview with Hubert Kilian

© Hubert Kilian

Hello Hubert, can you tell us a bit about yourself? Why did you use the name “Yubai” on Flickr? And what’s the meaning of Taipei Terminus?

Yubai is the Chinese name I have been given in Taiwan. “K” is the first letter of my family name. Yubai K can also be read as “500 K” in mandarin, a play on words referring to a part of the inner-world I try to picture in my photos.

Taipei Terminus, which is the name I chose for my blog in 2004, refers to a final destination from where you can’t leave. At that time, it was a way to express the feeling given to me by Taipei’s urban moods and sceneries.

What do you do for a living? Are you a professional photographer?

I am journalist. I have worked and am still working for several Medias in Taiwan and France. I am not a professional photographer even if I had some photo-reportages and photos published in several magazines. Only a small part of my work actually involves taking pictures.

When was your first encounter with photography? Do you still remember your first picture and your first camera?

If you ask me about the very first time, I remember that one of my uncles offered me a Kodak instamatic camera. I can’t remember at all what I did with it. I was something like 10 years old. Afterward, I used to take photos of family life, friends and some building too.

Finally, in 1996, under the influence of one my cousin, who’s a famous fashion photographer in the US and Europe, I bought myself a second hand Olympus OM 40-P with a 50 mm and 135 mm. That was the very start of my photographic odyssey.

© Hubert Kilian

What prompted you to start taking pictures on the streets of Taipei? What do you see in Taipei?

That is a vast question. The first time I came to Taiwan in 1999, I was already in a photographic mood, so I just followed my inclination to document cities moods. But Taipei is a very interesting city, of which the beauty is never given at the first sight, and which is retaining a kind of “obsolete modernity” that is fascinating to me. It takes time to discover it and to understand it.

I see Taipei and its dwellers as a whole. It’s a big dramatic picture where time has frozen, where the city looks like a stage for lifelong dramas, with heavy moods and lost feelings. That’s my own and very subjective interpretation of what I see in Taipei. I call it “beauty” because there is a huge amount of humanity here.

You take a lot of photos at night, you even have dedicated sets on Flickr like “Dark Taipei” and “Colors of the Nights”. Do you often go out at nights? And do you always bring a camera wherever you go?

I like the night moods in Taipei. It is full of beautiful and rich colors, shadows and atmospheres. There’s a great deal of sensations to dig in. It is a pleasure to get lost in the little back lanes of that city at night. I am walking 6hrs a week (by day and night) to catch all those secrets corners and moments. The other reason for my night photography is that I am working on a full time basis. When I am out of the office: the night has already fallen on the city.

Yes, wherever I am going, I always carry my two cameras: a Nikon D700 and a Nikon FM2n with 3 prime’s lenses: a 28mmAIS, a 35mmAIS, a 105mmAIS. It’s a little bit heavy and inconvenient, but I don’t like the insecure feeling of being without my cameras. Well, maybe I should see a doctor! On the week-ends, I also take my Yashica-mat 124G with me.

What is your favourite subject to photograph?

I like to depict moods, atmospheres, old buildings with their people. Decay places where time has frozen but where people are still living in. I also like to shoot old cars but there are only very few in Taipei. I also love ports for their moods and stories. Basically, my subject is “cities and their people”.

© Hubert Kilian

What is your philosophy/style/technique in taking pictures? Do you wait for the right moment or take a quick snap while passing by? Do you interact with people before/after taking pictures?

I really don’t have any philosophical references in photos. I didn’t read much about the Masters’ thoughts. But to me, a photographic style is a very personal affair.

My style came very naturally to me, as the obvious projection and the evident result of my inner-world. I built it from my childhood memories and my adult experiences. I am keen on contemporary History (from the 1950’s to the 70’s) and I especially like the 70’s. The “look” of this epoch, its politics, its wars, its conservatism, its modernity, its music and movies, its atmospheres, which I imagine and feel from the books I am reading, the music I am listening to, the movies I am watching as well as from my childhood memories. They are the main providers of my style’s materials. In short, I am nostalgic for the vanished golden age, which pre-dates the electronic era, and am trying to revive it through photos.

Regarding techniques, it depends on what camera you are using.

With films camera, I am taking my time to feel the place. I am slowly working on a framing, to create a stage for a story. Then, I am waiting for the right personage to get in. I can wait half an hour if needed and finally renounce to take the shot. Light is important to me too.

With my digital cameras, the process is almost the same, except that I am shooting much more, giving any idea (framing, lighting or composition) a try. Digital camera allows me to be much more reactive too. But with time, I like to slow down the pace and to wait much longer for the right moment, to avoid taking too many useless shots.

My next objective is to be faster to react with films cameras.

And finally, I love to use tripod and very long exposure shots, like 30 seconds: it produce a fantastic sharpness with beautiful lights.

All in all, I like to observe, to concentrate my eyes on moods and unseen atmospheres.

Another very important part on the technical side is the way to interact with people, how to approach them, to make them comfortable with the camera and with the idea of being taken in photos. That’s a very important part: to share something with them.

Shooting fast and running away is not an option for me.

© Hubert Kilian

One of my favourite photos is “A second stolen”. You are good at capturing personal moments in public spaces. Can you tell us the story behind this photo?

Thank you for your nice appraisal. It was a late and hot evening, in a small lane behind a huge building that I love because of its decay, in a central district of Taipei. I just passed by, saw this beautiful woman, and instinctively shot with my digital camera. I shot twice. At the second one, she turned her back and I took her by surprise, just at the right moment. I then slowly left, not giving her a chance to protest or to ask questions. I just wanted to keep in mind this golden second.

Usually, I am giving some positive signs to engage conversations with my subject. Taiwanese people are really exceptionally nice (and I want to express here my gratitude to all those I met) in those crowded districts where private and public’s spaces are mixed together because of the lack of space and the very high density of the population.

I have had a lot of wonderful experiences with some shops owners offering me a nice chat or free drinks, like tea, beers or even whisky, while I was passing by, sweating with all my cameras on a hot and humid night. As I was saying, the capacity to interact with the subject and to make them willing to share something in front of the camera with you is critical to get the right mood. That’s not that easy every time but it must be try.

You seem to enjoy using wide-angle lens. What is your favourite lens & camera, and why do you like it?

I, of course, love the Nikon FM2n, and also the Nikon F3, maybe the best film camera to me. Their mechanical feelings are so nice to me. I am also very impressed with my Nikon D700. It is a very reliable camera with fantastic results in low light, which I need.

My favorite lens is the 28mm f/2.8 AIS for its quality built, its performances, sharpness and its wideness which is not too difficult to handle. Coupled with the D700, it produces some amazing results. Since I like to capture a whole environment in my picture, wide-angles fit my needs better. I also especially love the Nikkor 105mm f/2.5 AIS for its amazing sharpness and comfort to use. Basically, I prefer using a manual focus lens. I have missed a lot of photos because of the time needed to do a proper focus, but the feeling is so great and it makes you more committed to your photo.

Finally, I only like primes lens. I used to have a 16-85mm f/3,5-5.6 AF-D VR with my old Nikon D80, but today, I avoid those very costly zooms that, apart from being convenient, do not always provide excellent results.

© Hubert Kilian

How important are blog & Flickr to you?

It is a fantastic tool to share your work with others photographers, to confront it to others people ‘critics and comments, but also to discover others photographers from all over the world. Over the last 5 years, interacting with them thought Flickr and my blog has brought me a lot. I met there some amazing photographers and I have learned a lot from them on Flickr, it definitely helps me to improve my techniques, to better define my style, and to understand more about photography. For me, there’s not a day without checking Flickr.

Who is/are your inspiration(s) in photography?

This is a very difficult question. Every day on Flickr, I see a lot of fantastic works that I truly admire. Some are simply amazing photographers and they played a role in my inspiration processes.

I really admire Shen Chao-liang [沈昭良], a Taiwanese photographer whose black and white work is purely amazing. His work had a great impact on me.

I love the last work of the French photographer, Raymond Depardon, about France. I am also a fan of the French Robert Doisneau because of the sociological value of his incredible work. In a way, he could be my reference.

But in fact, there’s too many to cite here.

© Hubert Kilian

What do you do when not taking pictures?

I am spending time with my wife and my son. Otherwise, watching movies (mostly French movies from the 50’s to the 70’s) is also important to cultivate my inspiration and books are also part of it.

What is your advice to young photographers who are interested in street photography?

Feel the city, dream it, explore it and shoot it every single day. Learn how to love it, how to see and pursue its hidden beauty, with the technique that fits you best.

What is the meaning of photography for you?

Everything. To halt the course of time and to show what only you can feel.

© Hubert Kilian

Hubert Kilian is a French journalist living in Taipei. He started photography in 1996 in Paris. Empty urban spaces and cities shapes quickly became his favorite subject. He slowly learned how to look at the streets, its movements and perspectives, and how to retain the beauty of all kinds of lights on films. Fascinated by marks left through times by the humans on the cities’ walls, photography then became his tool to mix past and present, to record his own emotions and to freeze the course of time. By choice, Taipei is one of his favorite subjects. He has also photographed Phnom Penh and Osaka.

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