Marcin Konkel

"I'm not always humble!" - an interview with Michał Huniewicz (part 1)

NORTH KOREA / Inhabitants of Pyongyang commuting. Copyright (C) by Michał Huniewicz.

Michał Huniewicz is one of those Guys who don't go for mediocracy. He also does not settle for what lies on the surface but digs deeper, goes further. Having seen quite a bit of the world and shared hundreds of stories with his photographs either on his blog, exhibitions or media he certainly had a number of occasions to learn, fail and develop his craft and opinions. He is also one of the few people I met with a great talent to freeze the moment in the right time and in a compelling way that conveys emotions and makes you think. Michal is making it to the headline news all over the world as we speak with his North Korean photographs showing a different reality to this presented by the government in Pyongyang.

I decided to interview Michał from a bit different angle than is presented in the media. I was curious about his experiences, developing craft and the story behind his passion. One might see that as the story which led him to North Korea or as the way he looks and experiences things. Under the selected photographs from Michał's archive you may find some additional background in terms of the circumstances where the photograph was taken or the history behind the shot.

Where did he visit the red zone? Who does he find being the harshest critic? Where from does he take his inspirations? Where is "the Island" located? These, and many more, questions you will find answered in our interview. Note that this is the first part of a two part series. Without any further ado, let's start.

NORTH KOREA / Little Horseman. Copyright (C) by Michał Huniewicz.

MARCIN KONKEL: Michal, you are all over the news right now sharing your thoughts and photographs that you managed to smuggle out of North Korea. You're showing us the side that once could be experienced only by being there on the spot. It's a perplexing, to put it lightly, situation for the North Korean government that at any price wants to keep up appearances. I surmise that being able to show us the "other side" in a way you did requires not only, so called, luck but also something more. How did you prepare to this journey?

MICHAŁ HUNIEWICZ: Before coming, my assumption was, one does not mess with North Korea. Any kind of bravado seemed to me plain stupid, why would you risk being detained?; don't try to be a hero, it's not worth it. One day before boarding the train to Pyongyang, my Chinese guide, a man I generally trusted, told me about a Westerner who defied his North Korean guides, and walked out of the Yangakkdo hotel, crossed the bridge, walked a bit further on his own, all of the above being completely illegal. Well, he got caught, got scared, had to pay up $10,000 USD to be released, didn't really gain much out of it, certainly did not become a celebrity - overall, a waste of time and money. I guess he has a story to tell, but I feel like it was not worth it.

Well, one day later, we arrived in North Korea. On the border, somehow I expected a bunch of evil geniuses going through our luggage and electronic equipment, but the check turned out pretty basic, and it seemed to me that the computer experts that investigate your laptop and camera before you go into the country are not really up to date with our technology. Seemed really rudimentary. Couple of hours later they let us go, having deleted a film on Yugoslavia from my travel companion's computer, and that was it. I really wanted them to check my Kindle, since I had deleted all suspicious content, but they didn't even deign to look at it.

We were told it was illegal to take photos from the train, but with each sneak shot I was feeling more confident. My assumption was, they'll delete my photos, yell a bit, and that will be it. I firmly wanted to believe I would be given at least one warning should they catch me in the act!

Naturally, that was all improvised, but here's the interesting thing. In North Korea, I felt like all my camera skills came together. Discreet photos in a Cairo mosque you're not allowed to photograph? Looking naive and innocent when entering the Lubyanka is Moscow? Quick shots through the window of a fast moving vehicle in low light with bullets being fired all around in Jordan? I'd done all those, I'd made lots of mistakes, I'd analysed and improved, and in North Korea I could use all that expertise to my advantage. I'm no authority, but that's my advice to everyone into photography. Diverse training and getting out of your comfort zone will one day pay off.

Usually, I tried to do a bit of reading prior to the trip, so I trusted Barbara Demick, read the controversial Camp 14, watched some shows. I had a guide book on North Korea, but it had to stay in China, as we were told it would be confiscated upon entry, and I've already lost one book from my library. That's the extent of my preparations.

SARAJEVO / The Sebilj. Copyright (C) by Michał Huniewicz.This is probably Sarajevo's most recognised landmark. The structure on the right, known as the Sebilj, is a pseudo-Moorish style wooden fountain built in 1753, in the centre of Baščaršija, the historic market district with narrow alleyways, being home to countless coppersmiths, stalls with souvenirs, and little coffee shops, as well as a few restaurants. The place is commonly referred to as the pigeon square, and it's easy to see why.

You mentioned confidence, diverse training and getting out of your comfort zone that effected in the alignment of your camera skills. Let's go back the memory lane to when you first started shooting. What were the obstacles you had to go through that made the difference in your skill-set and / or experience? How could you describe Michal back then and today?

Perhaps the most difficult problem most photographers face these days is, in my opinion, that they are on their own. It's very difficult to get honest and constructive criticism, and the better you are, the more it takes to have someone competent enough critique your work. In London, where I live, you actually have to pay money for that to happen. In my early days, I neglected the rules of composition, which is painfully obvious in some of the photos on my website, and I had no clue about processing, which in turn made some of my photos look quite horrendous. I was shooting loads, hoping something comes out okay by chance, rather than take my time and think before pressing the shutter.

Back in the day, you'd supposedly learn your craft working with more experienced photographers, and they'd have editors shaping your taste and processing techniques. Now it's just you and the Internet, so it's more unclear what kind of processing is acceptable for what purpose, what is ethically right and what's ethically wrong, what's honest and what's manipulation. I think I found my answers the hard way, making lots of mistakes, backtracking.

With tools like Photoshop at your disposal, almost anything is possible, and it initially feels like a waste not to use all that potential. So I was merging photos into one, fixing faces, removing rubbish, blurring backgrounds, overdoing everything. Looked good to me then, looks terrible now. Recently, someone wanted to republish my photos and my thoughts on Santorini, so I had a look at the photos, and they were embarrassingly badly processed. I reprocessed them for the new publication, but the original processing is still on my website, as a warning and a reminder. To be fair, those awfully processed photos got some attention and actually sold.

Finally, I committed the sin of technical fetishism, desiring the best lenses and cameras, not realising the full potential of the equipment I did own, and unaware that the biggest limitation was actually me and my abilities.

SPAIN / Mosque–Cathedral of Córdoba, also known as the Mezquita. Copyright (C) by Michał Huniewicz.

Thanks for your honesty Michał. I did notice that you even have a separate gallery titled "noob". As far as honesty is concerned.. Some people would say that you are living a dream - travelling all over the world, your photographs are published in media globally. You were interviewed by television stations such as CNN, TVN (twice), Polsat and more. Earlier, before the trip to North Korea, your were featured on the Telegraph, the Daily Mail, Roads and Kingdoms, The Travel Stories,, and many others. To my mind, that is an impressive achievement. You mentioned the hardship of getting constructive criticism especially when your skill-set is growing. From the above perspective, how to stay humble, honest to yourself and maintain development?

Unfortunately, I'm not always humble! Couple of years back, in Spain, I was in Córdoba with my friend Bianca, to shoot her in her fabulous dress in the amazing Mosque–Cathedral of Córdoba, also known as Mezquita. Nothing was going according to plan. We were kicked out of the place before I even pressed the shutter once. Turns out you need a permit for what they classified as a professional shoot. Fair enough. We came back without the dress, but the guards wouldn't even let me use the camera, and earlier they literally threw my lighting equipment into the street, and I had one of them following me at all times. We left the Mezquita building and shot outside to make the most out of it, as we were running out of time, having to catch our train to Málaga. 

Couple of minutes in, a horde of old people just walk into my frame, they begin to poke Bianca, touch the dress, take pictures of her, ignoring me completely. Fine, I give them a few minutes, but I'm already pissed off. Then I come closer, I say, you've had enough, you've had your fun, we're busy, please go away now, I'm stressed and we're running short on time. And they rudely told me to leave! At that point, I lost it, (laughs)

So, I told them to "F*CK OFF, THIS IS MY SHOOT, I'M THE PHOTOGRAPHER HERE!" Up to that point, Bianca thought I was a nice guy. As if dropping the F-bomb in the Mosque–Cathedral grounds were not bad enough, I brandished my middle finger to further get my message across (laughs). The old people grudgingly left. 

Occasional rant aside, I am my own harshest critic, and only rarely am I satisfied with even a single photo. I have received so much positive feedback these days about my pictures, I'm very grateful for every single message, but when I look at my own photos, I often see missed opportunities, composition mistakes, and poor decisions I made. I can almost never just look at my own work and enjoy it..

PALESTINE / The little gun girl. Copyright (C) by Michał Huniewicz.These soldiers are in the Cave of Patriarchs area. In 1994 the man named Baruch Goldstein, an American-Israeli, killed 29 Muslim worshippers there, and wounded 125. Even though he was denounced as insane by most Israelis (78.8% according to a poll) and condemned by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin ('you are a shame on Zionism and an embarrassment to Judaism'), the attack set off riots and 19 Palestinians were killed by the IDF (Israeli Defense Forces). Jewish extremists in Hebron consider him a martyr now; while the movement with which he was affiliated was declared a terrorist organisation. There were soldiers like those in the picture present that day, but they did not stop Goldstein, assuming he was an officer going to pray to the Jewish section of the Cave. Here, the girl is a soldier working for the border police. The man on the right hand side is her commander. The one on the left is her equal. Her weapon is probably M4. The cables you can see attached to their backpacks are for communication.

(laughs) OK, I see your point. Let's talk about the opportunities created and not missed. Many photographers mention situations, people (including other photographers), cultures or other elements of the surrounding world that inspired them in some way. Were there such elements during your lifetime that somehow made you stop and think?; or influenced the way you looked at the world through the lens?

There are many painters which I consider influential, among them Joseph Wright of Derby (chiaroscuro), John William Waterhouse (the mood), or John Singer Sargent (architecture and portraits). This is not to say I seek to emulate their paintings - I simply think there's so much to learn in terms of conveying a message and composition and light, that it's definitely worth studying their work, as well as that of other painters, be it the Dutch masters or someone like Edward Hopper

It is unclear to me how much I could be influenced by non-Western art, such as Persian or Chinese painting, as to my knowledge those cultures did not develop realistic art to such an extent. For example, a lot of my photos were shot with the assumption you will look at them from left to right. But I do enjoy spending my time in the Middle East, surrounded by minarets, hiding from the sun in cool courtyards, observing the playful ablaq - Islamic architecture is really fun to photograph, it really responds to symmetry, and is quite untamed if you seek another angle. Monumental edifices and iwans of Medieval Cairo almost demand you use a wide angle lens, and so do its busy souqs. 

Similarly, there is certain elegance and simplicity in Japanese decorations, which sends a powerful, uncluttered message, and that is something I like to incorporate in my photos. 

Richard AvedonSteve McCurryAnsel Adams, I find them immensely inspiring. Sebastião Salgado is superb. Those people used to shoot with film cameras as well, which is something I don't even hope to wrap my head around. Joel-Peter Witkin, how wonderfully medieval his photography is! Finally, I owe a lot to my uncle Andrzej, who years ago explained the ISO/aperture/shutter speed relationship to me in a way that could not be any clearer, and could not be forgotten. 

Couple of months ago, I picked up drawing, mostly pen and ink, and I'm looking into learning Chinese painting as well. Although I cannot dedicate my entire life to it, I do believe it will be a valuable experience, and it will pay off.

TANZANIA / Matatu. Copyright (C) Michał Huniewicz.The preferred local means of transport are matatus - once dangerous, now with more strict requirements around safety. The front seat is still called the death seat anyway, and they allow too many people in. The man on the left is the one collecting money for the ride.

Hopefully soon we will be able to see your drawings or paintings somewhere on your blog! You mentioned the influence that painters had on you. As we know the word "photography: has Greek roots and means "drawing with light". More than a decade ago people were still using film in their cameras. To get the proper colour (to "paint a picture" so to say) you needed to use some chemicals to develop your photograph. The process was simple in terms of actions that one had to undertake but complicated if you wanted to achieve a certain effect. The complexity of the process rose when you were shooting in colour rather than only black and white. This changed when the world went digital. I would say it is still not easy, even when we have Photoshop and people can reverse the outcome if needed. How did you learn to properly develop your shots in their digital form?

An optimist hopes I will upload my drawings to my website. A pessimist fears that is true (laughs). 

I'm not sure if there is such a thing as "proper editing", and I am certainly no authority to say one way or the other. Although my photos from North Korea have received a great deal of praise for their look, there was a fair bit of criticism, too. Someone told me that 'Reuters would not accept the processing', and I suspect it's true, even though it's equally true that Reuters did not pay for me to go to Asia and shoot in the first place. 

Certain photo agencies have very specific requirements as to what is allowed and what isn't, as they deem appropriate. Where do we draw the line? Some approve of global editing, while not of local adjustments. Others may tolerate local dodging and burning, but not colour manipulation. Photo temperature affects the colours… Is cropping allowed, and if so, what about changing the ratio? Lens distortion correction? Chromatic aberration correction? 

It seems to me that the pursuit of the "realistic look" is to some extent a fallacy, as what comes out of your camera is already not what you saw. The dynamic range of your eyes (even above 24 f-stops) is more or less double compared to that of your camera (up to 10-11 f-stops); lenses introduce distortion; photos are two dimensional as opposed to the three dimensions that we perceive. My camera has several colour palette options, something called D-lighting to help alleviate the problem of its smaller dynamic range, and then it tries to intelligently guess the light temperature. A different camera will do all of that differently. So what is the realistic look? 

My processing technique has been constantly evolving through trial and error, and the embarrassment of looking at my past photos with horror. I suspect some people will always complain about the way they look, so I have been primarily trying to satisfy myself, and I expect my sense of what looks good to keep evolving. Being an amateur, I have complete freedom of processing choices, no reason to try to please everyone. Having said that, I welcome all feedback, and where I am now is also a result of people pointing out what they did not like about my photos, some of whom I probably insulted in response (sorry!)..

TRANSYLVANIA / Gypsy man. Copyright (C) by Michał Huniewicz.No other country in the world has a larger Gypsy population than Romania. They probably came from India (judging by their language, music, caste system, love for gold, but also... socialising in communal defecation), and were first brought to Romania as slaves when purchased by Vlad Țepeș himself, and they only ceased to be slaves in the 19th century. While the European Abolitionist movement in Europe despised American slavery, no one cared about the Gypsies, as pointed out by the Romanian statesman Mihail Kogălniceanu. The Gypsies have never assimilated, and never wanted to. They are usually poorly educated, depend on state benefits for survival and don't pay taxes. They ignore local laws, and perhaps the best example of this is young Gypsies getting married at the age of 13. Their neighbourhoods are considered unsafe, and Gypsies themselves are thought to be not trustworthy. While the Jews have been persecuted at least equally, they managed to build their own country and become respected citizens (and receive hundreds of Nobel Prizes). Nothing like that has occurred with the Gypsies, although some dream of their own Romanistan (and one Gypsy has received the Nobel Prize). Generally, they seem to disrespect the gadje (non-Gypsies), who usually have little sympathy for them in return. There are, however, countries where the Gypsies did contribute to the culture, and one of them is Spain - see flamenco.

In general, it seems that there is no right or wrong and the thin line is in the eyes of beholder. Michał, you have travelled to distant and less distant places. Ryszard Kapuściński once said that "there exists something like a contagion of travel, and the disease is essentially incurable". How did you get affected by travelling? What value does travel have to you?

At the same time, I would not necessarily say there is no wrong - as an example, one of the British photo magazines used to feature on its final pages an ad for a photography course, accompanied by a shocking HDR photo with glowing colours and halos (even more extreme than my Santorini photos). I say: wrong. 

It's an interesting question - travelling. As a kid, I would read books that revolved around travel - Kozłolek Matołek was one, children's atlas Świat i Człowiek was another. While I suspect those books may not exactly meet current criteria as far as political correctness goes, they did instil the love of travelling in me, alongside video games (Prince of Persia), comic books (Thorgal), journey-related fantasy (the HobbitJules Verne), a bit later anime (Cowboy Bebop), music (Vangelis), and films (The Neverending Story). 

As I'm sure you remember, it used to be difficult to travel when we were children, as Poland was poor; on top of that, my family were poor, and flying back then was astronomically expensive. Often, simply looking at a map or imagining the forests surrounding my village as exotic jungles was the only way to experience that thrill of the unknown, at least to some extent. 

There was a place where I grew up that we called the Island - it wasn't really an island, but a small, conspicuous hill with thick vegetation, surrounded by flat fields. We imagined there used to be a cathedral there, or a monastery (imagination was all we really had), quite aware it was all made up. To my surprise, I discovered fairly recently that "the Island" had been, indeed, a place of worship, and a pre-Christian one at that, so we were not entirely wrong, and I guess the pagans inhabiting those lands a millennium ago were as fascinated by the place as we were as children. It is that innocent and naive thrill I felt as a child that I seek and want to experience again while travelling for real, even though it's so elusive - the Middle East of today is nothing like its portrayal in Prince of Persia or Disney's Aladdin (and arguably it's never been that way in the first place). Aladdin was actually Chinese! 

Finally, the idea of adventure excites me, and I mean Indiana Jones-style adventure, where a mystery and (re)discovery are involved. Sadly, I have not discovered anything. This is not to say nothing is left to be discovered or rediscovered. Following my visit to Egypt, I found out that an American photographer once went to Egypt, and while he was setting up his tripod, he realised that the leg of the tripod sank into the ground. Intrigued, he had a closer look, and it turned out that he accidentally discovered an unspoiled, Ancient Egyptian treasure cove! Turns out tripods can be useful after all, while I've been way too lazy to carry one. It has to be recognised that, as photographers, we usually follow other people's footsteps, and merely try to provide an alternative look at what has already been seen.

MAURITANIA / Sunrise. Almost. Copyright (C) by Michał Huniewicz. Some of these men do the entire route - they travel from M'Haoudat to Nouadhibou, which 704 km long. We only did 460 km, but as the train is really slow, it takes ages - our ride was about 14 hours. In the Sahara, you would address a stranger in the plural - one theory is that you are also addressing the guardian angel.

Among your travels you also went to countries that some would judge as dangerous or unwise to visit. Some of your travels resemble the Indiana Jones-style to which you refer like, for instance, the one to Mauritania. Did you experience any threatening situations in those countries?

Mauritania is partially a red zone country, and I did spend some days in the actual red zone. The country has a bad reputation, and I was advised to never stay for the night in the same place twice, to always be on the move, and keep a low profile. You can't get normal insurance, so I had to get an astronomically expensive policy, which came with a leaflet featuring photos of soldiers and landmines, and they also said "travelling to Mauritania? You may be interested in our kidnapping insurance". Which does cover your negotiators, but not the ransom, I was told. 

That said, Mauritania was safe at all times, although I was forced to bribe soldiers and policemen to get my passport back. 

In Jordan, I ended up somewhat caught in a shooting in the desert, when the Jordanian army (or some other personnel which arrived in numerous APCs) chose to disperse what I believe was a Bedouin demonstration that way. The shooting was very one-way, as far as I can tell, and I think those were warning shots, but it was dark and happening real fast, so my photos are just a blurry mess. In Kenya, I was in the Westgate shopping centre 24 hours prior to the infamous Al-Shabaab attack in 2013, having breakfast. Again, strange feeling when I looked at the photos of people lying dead on the floor of that familiar place... I was in Nairobi again a few weeks later, and I ended up going for breakfast to another shopping mall, and my friend and I both admitted we were planning our escape route should we hear anything suspicious. 

In India, in a slum, I must have done something to upset people, because suddenly they all stopped smiling, and a few rocks were hurled my way, all missed, luckily. In another city, I got bruised and scratched by a bunch of kids who demanded money, which I thought was actually quite unsafe, given my forearms were bleeding from the scratches, and in the slums there's little hygiene - I had to bathe in anti-bacterial soap, almost. 

Finally, in Kenya, also in a slum, I had a man jump on me and put a wet kiss on my lips, (laughs), so I ended up doing a HIV test back at home - pretty intense 60 seconds as you wait for the blue dots to appear, or not. 

But then there's a guy I know, he actually felt a bullet flying past his head. That was in a London club. You can get killed or hurt anywhere, and the feeling of safety or danger is often just in your head, as it's quite hard to gauge the threat, unless actual events begin to unfurl. Obviously, going to war or Somalia is a different story altogether, but it's not something I have ever done. 

For me, the closest I was to losing my life was in the idyllic island of Santorini, where I decided to go climbing just before the sunset, hungry, with no equipment, no knowledge, no skills. I nearly dropped tens of metres onto rocks, pure luck saving me from undoubtedly scoring a Darwin Prize for volunteering to remove my stupidity from the pool of genes, (laughs). 

KENYA / Narok. Copyright (C) by Michał Huniewicz.There are as many as 42 tribes in Kenya. They differ in terms of looks, culture, language, etc. (Swahili is the lingua franca of Kenya). Political support is divided along tribal lines, and since gaining independence, tribalism was actually encouraged by the elites, so that there has been bloody violence between various tribes over land and - after a multi-party system was implemented - election results, as politicians skilfully channelled anger towards them into anger towards other tribes. People from different tribes are sometimes referred to as foreigners! In fact, after Kenya became independent in 1963, many of its residents didn't see themselves as Kenyans at all. Since the number of Kenyans has skyrocketed in the last decades, the land disputes are becoming ever more difficult to reconcile, as the problem was never properly solved in the first place after 1963. All of that despite the motto of Kenya - Harambee, meaning "let's all pull together".

This is the end of the first part of my interview with Michał. Last week, we met in Warsaw and taken a stroll discussing various subjects. This conversation has sprung new questions and answers that I will share in a couple of weeks on the blog. We've dug deeper in some subjects mentioned here as well as embarked on new ones that you certainly won't hear in the media. Second part of the interview will follow (click). Stay tuned. 

You can find more stories and photographs from Michał on his blogFacebook and Flickr profiles as well as Twitter and the sources mentioned in this interview.