Jan Enkelmann: Moments of Calm Contemplation in London’s Chinatown

All images and text by Jan Enkelmann. Used with permission.

I am Jan Enkelmann, a London-based documentary photographer dividing my time between commercial work and personal projects. With my personal work, I often photograph people in public spaces, but struggle with the street photographer label in the classic sense. My street work is usually conceptual and my projects are often long-term. Originally from Stuttgart, Germany, I’ve been based in London, UK since 2000. Today, I work for magazines and publishers such as GEO Saison (Germany) and Phaidon (UK). My travel photography book Happiness has won the ITB book award. My most recent publication is Serious Conviction, a documentary of the people and goings-on at Speakers’ Corner in London’s Hyde Park.

I would like to draw your attention to my new project, 吸烟的厨师 (Smoking Chefs). With this series, I’ve been capturing moments of calm and contemplation in London’s Chinatown. I think this project shows that you can take street photography to another level by having a defined subject or theme. Even though I’m portraying smoking chefs, the series is not really about smoking

Smoking Chefs, Chinatown, London

Smoking Chefs, Chinatown, London

Why did you get into photography?

I got my first camera for my sixth birthday, back in the 1970s. My dad is also a photographer and he was a big influence when I was young. Later on, I did a lot of travelling and really got into travel photography. I still enjoy this and occasionally work for travel publications. Today my focus is on documentary work.

What photographers are your biggest influences?

Here are some of the more obvious ones: McCurry, Sebastião Salgado, Joel Meyerowitz, Don McCullin, Martin Parr, Alec Soth.

How long have you been shooting?

I got my first camera when I was six years old. But I only started working commercially in my early thirties. That’s about 15 years ago.

Smoking Chefs, Chinatown, London

Smoking Chefs, Chinatown, London

Why is photography and shooting so important to you?

I also work as a graphic designer, but photography has become my primary way of channeling my creative vision.

Do you feel that you’re more of a creator or a documenter? Why?

The nature of my work is clearly documentary. But the creation often happens in the editing process when selecting the images of a project.

What’s typically going through your mind when you create images? Tell us about your processes both mentally and mechanically?

Like many photographers, I’ve found it hard to photograph strangers in the street. However, over time, I have overcome this fear and capturing people has become the primary focus of what I shoot and how I work. I’m not what you’d call a “people person,” but with a camera I have no problem getting close to strangers. I have to get into a different state of mind, though, and mentally prepare before I go out shooting in this way. For street photography work, it is essential to know your equipment inside out and set your camera in a way it enables you to react very quickly. Over time, I have developed a way to make myself almost invisible, even though I often shoot with a big camera.

Smoking Chefs, Chinatown, London

Smoking Chefs, Chinatown, London

Want to walk us through your processing techniques?

I initially process my images in Lightroom and then make finer adjustments in Photoshop. But my processing rarely goes beyond recreating what I saw when making the photo.

Tell us about the project that you’re pitching, or your portfolio.

As with most my personal work, Smoking Chefs sits somewhere between street and documentary photography. It documents people in public spaces, capturing a particular expression of emotion or state of mind. One of my other recent projects, Serious Conviction, which is about the people gathering at Speakers’ corner in London’s Hyde Park, is about the display of passion and being extrovert. Smoking Chefs on the other hand is almost a juxtaposition to that, showing human beings in a state of contemplation and quietness, albeit surrounded by the bustle of one London’s busiest areas, the West End.

Smoking Chefs, Chinatown, London

Smoking Chefs, Chinatown, London

What made you want to get into your genre?

It’s been a gradual and organic process, rather than a conscious decision.

Tell us a bit about the gear that you use and how you feel it helps you achieve your creative vision.

I’m shooting mostly digitally. I’ve been using Nikon SLR cameras and lenses since 1993. I’m currently shooting with a Nikon D850 and sometimes with an old Nikon D3. My favourite lenses are 50mm and 85mm primes and a 70-200mm zoom. I have been using SLR-style cameras for a long time before the advent of the digital era. Today, I’m using DSLRs as they are the kind of camera I feel most comfortable with. I’m working very fast and I’m relying on equipment that allows me to react in split-seconds.

Smoking Chefs, Chinatown, London

What motivates you to shoot?

When I’m working on a defined project and know what I want to achieve, I’m driven to constantly improve on what I’ve already shot. My best image might just be around the next corner.

Smoking Chefs is also now a book, which you can grab from Jan Enkelmann’s website.