No. No. Please, no. A moment of terror for every photographer out there. I opened my photo bag, took out my camera to take a picture of the street filled with warm sunset light, and then it happened.
Imagine this moment in slow-motion: while listening to music with my noise-canceling headphones, I raised my camera in order to look through the viewfinder. Surprised by the incredibly bad auto-focus, I realized — with cheery music in my ears — that the lens had suddenly unhooked from the DSLR and was falling down to the ground in the worst way possible. BAM!
Overwhelmed by the moment I slowly looked down while holding the 5D Mark II body in my hands. I looked over to my friend who was making a phone call next to me on the bench with question marks in my eyes. That just didn’t happen. The exclamation marks in her wide-open eyes begged to differ. It did happen. I had just smashed my brand new $1,600 L-lens, which is the only one I own: a Canon EF 24mm f/1.4.
After going through all sorts of psychological troubles over the past few years, all the ups and downs and the rocky way up the scary mountain of self-employment, after only 10 seconds my Dutch “bright side enzyme” kicked in to turn this negativity-ridden moment into something positive.
“Het komt wel goed” (it’s gonna be fine) is what we always say when something bad happens. Challenge accepted!
Hoping for the Best, Preparing for the Worst
Maybe, just maybe, the lens didn’t really break. That could be. I know tons of people who have dropped theirs and no damage has happened. But I wasn’t one of them. I could still mount the lens on the body, but the focus button was off and didn’t work anymore. When I shook the camera, you could hear a “tok tok” sound.
The auto-focus motor was broken and the manual focus didn’t work well either. I could still adjust it slightly, but it was basically trapped in this state you probably know of when you put the lens too close to an object and it can’t focus.
I took a photo of a cyclist passing by and then it hit me. Seeing the cyclist in this blurry, unfocused and slightly trippy style fascinated me right away. It was the exact opposite of my signature look. My style revolves around the human element in an urban world — a rather reduced and minimalist interpretation of street photography. I usually try to shift the focus from the person to the synergy between the person and the scenery.
If I had to describe my photography, I’d say that it’s about giving both the positive and negative space in a moment the same significance. It’s a more abstract interpretation that doesn’t involve faces or mimics. Some people call it “editorial street photography”. Although I felt rather inadequate turning humans into these abstract silhouette figures for a long time, I realize by now that this is the way I feel street photography and that it’s fine.
Falling in Love with Imperfection
I took another photo, and another one, and then I couldn’t stop. I immediately fell in love with this broken piece of gear. Maybe this broken lens felt so familiar because I had felt so broken for most of my life by not being able to express myself or finding my place in this world. I wanted to turn this moment around.
Positive thinking has always led me out of the darkest valleys of my life so I wanted to take this broken lens to the highest mountains. The first thing that came to mind was expressing my own broken soul, the one I had during my severe depression over these past years.
I always want to raise awareness for this horrible disease, so I thought it would be a great idea to create a set that showed how your mind becomes more and more depressed. I thought of showing it to the world through the eyes of a broken soul with a broken lens in black and white, since I’d love to show people who’ve luckily never experienced this disease how it feels like.
Later that night I took my broken gear with me to the city center of Amsterdam. I tried and tried to represent that darkness, but I had a really hard time. I’m in a rather good place right now in my life so maybe the emotional driving force wasn’t there. So I walked around and ended up in the red light district. The place where not only vodka, love and drugs flow, but apparently also my creative juices. It became my zone for the next weeks. It all of a sudden hit me.
Taking a Leap of Faith Into Creative Nirvana
I toyed with the idea of calling my new project “Broken,” and I pondered the idea of it being a set with a broken lens about broken personalities by a former broken soul. That’s it. I felt that. That’s what has always driven my photography: my eye, heart and soul. If they align, everything will be okay.
So I started my first 5-hour photo walk through the red light district, a part of the heart and soul of Amsterdam. The first two hours I had trouble writing in my new signature look. It was all so unorganized, blurry and messy. I tried portraying people like I always do, but that just didn’t work. I needed the human element signature for that. This signature demanded a different approach.
So, instead of capturing silhouettes, I went all in. Since most of the people were high, drunk or in post-sex coma anyways, I just went full, Bruce Gilden-style and took the “In your face I just don’t give a crap” approach. At first it was a little weird to hold my camera in front of people’s faces, but after a few shots I loved it.
I loved it so much that it turned into my beloved flow state (i.e. zone) after a while — a highly focused state of mind where creativity and self-expression rule your mind and heart, and the only thing that counts is taking the photos you love. After a couple of hours of being in the zone and surrounded by cocaine dealers, sex workers and wasted, screaming British tourists I called it a day. What a day!
Getting to Know the Personalities Behind the Windows
The next weeks I spent every night roaming the streets of the red light district. Although this place had never really fascinated me much, I fell in love with it once I got to know it. It’s actually forbidden and frowned upon to take photos in the red light district.
First of all, the sex workers don’t want to end up in a photo, which I absolutely understand and respect. They always spotted me right away, but I signaled that I respected their privacy. However, since I was there every night, most of the sex workers ended up waving at me and even chatting with me.
Most of them where actually really nice and kind. One was a young Ukranian student that went to Amsterdam for a while in order to pay off her tuition fees and open a practice afterwards. You know how much they make in a month? Between $5,000 and $35,000! Well, ehm, why am I selling fine art photography again?
Anyways, they are incredibly cool women that shouldn’t merely be reduced to their profession. In Holland it’s legal. They are all self-employed, enjoy the benefits of excellent medical care and are respected as members of the society just as much as other people. Amsterdam is just different.
Meeting Every Drug Dealer in the Red Light District
There was one group of people that got a little nervous when I took photos: the cocaine dealers. Almost all of them approached me during my creative journey. Was I scared at first? Yes. I tried to let that fear flow into the set as well. It was all part of the experience. Did I have any reason to be scared? No. Because all of them were very nice.
I explained to them that I was not an undercover cop busting them. I’m just a former broken soul on a creative journey through the most exciting part of Amsterdam. I told them my story and they loved it. During the next weeks they all greeted me with a smile, high five or handshake. All of a sudden I was part of this crazy place full of broken souls. I was the “crazy artist” who tried to capture the red light district vibe that they call their home. It felt good.
Yes, many people would question why I would talk to the people who work there there but they are still people who just chose a certain path in life. If you take a leap of faith and lend them your ear, you might even understand why. Besides that, I met an American senator who asked me 6 times whether I had just taken a photo of him. I didn’t, but I could definitely smell the cold sweat from a distance.
Pouring My Heart and Soul Into This New World
I very much enjoyed the weeks I spent in this eccentric place full of life. I became addicted to this new style. I loved it so much. All of a sudden I was able to capture faces without capturing faces. I found my personal signature to interpret street photography in a different way than my regular style. To be honest, I loved it so much that I won’t send my lens to get repaired.
Maybe this allows me to finally pour both sides of my personality and story into photography. I’m keeping this broken lens to continue this anarchic signature on my creative journey around the world next to my “Human Element”. I’d love to continue “Broken” in other places with a similar vibe such as Vegas or Bangkok.
Not only did this negative moment re-invent my photography with another signature look, it also paid for itself already. Soon after finishing the set I offered a selection of this “Broken” red light district set on my International Fine Arts Label NEOPRIME as signed and limited prints. Much to my happiness, I’ve already sold so many prints worldwide that the broken lens is paid off and I can easily afford the next trip to continue my journey in this exciting, new and creative world that just opened up to me.
To Put It in a Broken Nutshell
No matter what situation you are facing right now and no matter how hopeless it may seem, please think that maybe, just maybe, there is a way to give it a positive spin. Believe in yourself, get creative, let your heart guide you and amazing things will happen. Whether it may be a photography rut you are in or a general rough patch in life, maybe this the exact valley that leads to the next mountain. Grab your camera, take a leap of faith, scream positivity into this world, and let’s climb the mountain. Never forget: the more exhausting the uphill struggle, the better the view!
The Project’s Photos
About the set: It’s a trippy and abstract photo set dipped in red about broken characters captured with a broken lens by a former broken soul. It’s a rather visual and graphical story about someone’s night out in the red light district. I’ve explicitly left out photos of the sex workers in order to respect their privacy. Just follow the pictures and let your personal interpretation of the story unfold.
About the author: Marius Vieth is a 21-time award-winning German fine art photographer focused on street photography currently based in Amsterdam and Miami. He travels around the world, manages his own fine art label, NEOPRIME, and writes books about photography. You can join him on his creative journey around the world on his website, YouTube Channel, Facebook, Flickr, 500px, Google Plus and Twitter. This article was also published here.