Katherine Young

WINNER, ARCHITECTURE PHOTOGRAPHER OF THE YEAR (NON-PRO), 2019

Q: What a diverse background you have! Born in Poland, a naturalized South African and you have also lived in Singapore and the Channel Islands too. Tell us how these various places have influenced you?

A: I feel extremely privileged to have lived in so many diverse countries, each of them having offered me insights into their culture and having taught me not only about their own identity but also about me and my own ability to adapt to everchanging circumstances.

My life in Poland revolved around my family, it was a carefree and safe time. I spent a large chunk of my childhood playing outdoors and I have loads of fond memories of helping my Grandma water her plants, strolling in the park with my Grandad, collecting shells, pebbles and amber during our annual family holidays to the coast or building shelters out of tree branches and twigs with my cousins. My Dad and I used to spend our weekends walking through woodlands on the outskirts of the city we lived in, I would pick wild strawberries and blueberries, while my Dad would take photographs and try to explain university level mathematics to me at the same time.

I remember one incident when I was about six-years old, alone in my bedroom, and something told me to draw, just draw whatever came to mind. So, I did. I drew houses, people and horses on my bedroom walls. My parents were livid and soon afterwards my artwork got covered with wallpaper.

I clearly recall those distinct Polish seasons, cold and snowy winters followed by spring and a profusion of flowers, then warm summers and summer school holidays and finally, rainy autumn days. My Mum and I left Poland during one of those days in search of a better life, my Dad having already left for South Africa the year before. Being an only child and uprooting for the first time was not easy for me but, I think children have a lot of resilience and are able to adapt to new circumstances very quickly. It did not take long for me to settle into my new life on the other side of the world.

I feel nostalgic about South Africa, I miss the smells and sounds of the bushveld. I used to love dancing in the rain, running through sprinklers and watching the lightning light up the sky from the safety of my balcony. I still think there is nothing more rejuvenating than an African thunderstorm. I recall family holidays to Cape Town and Durban, driving to Pilanesberg National Park to watch the wildlife, walking around different parts of Pretoria with my Dad and walking my aunt’s dog after school.

My most vivid memory is probably that of flowering Jacaranda trees that lined most of the streets in my area. Every year, in late September, Pretoria would burst into the most beautiful purple blooms. Apparently, there are around 70,000 Jacaranda trees scattered around the city. They are not indigenous to South Africa, but rather have been introduced from South America and the first trees were planted in Pretoria in 1888.

Another memory that sticks in my mind is that of a school Biology Camp at the Golden Gate National Park. We did all sorts of activities, mostly hiking but one particular night, when we could not fall asleep, our guide took us outside and we got to experience the most amazing starry sky one could imagine. We laid there, on the grass in total darkness staring at the sky for, what felt like, hours. It felt as if I was moving through space, I felt very small and insignificant in this vast, all-encompassing universe. It was a truly humbling experience.

I am a chartered accountant by profession, having obtained Bachelor of Commerce and Bachelor of Commerce (Hon) degrees in accountancy from University of Pretoria and having completed a three-year training contract with one of the Big Four auditing firms. Eventually, my work took me out of South Africa to the Channel Islands, where I began a new life from scratch, having arrived there with three suitcases.

Guernsey, the second largest of the Channel Islands, my third home, was the most idyllic place one could imagine. It is a self-governing British Crown Dependency situated roughly 30 miles from the coast of France. The West coast is known for its fantastic beaches and the South Coast for the incredible ragged coastal cliffs. My favourite pastime, was cliff walking, either with friends over the weekend, or alone after a long day at work. I would usually go down to Bathing Pools in St Peter Port and watch the tides come in or go out. I think the island itself is a fantastic place for any nature lover and it offers wonderful walking and bird watching opportunities. The downside of living on the island is getting on and off it, options are limited and the ferry services and flights can be unreliable and highly dependent on weather conditions.

I met my husband in Guernsey, we worked together, and three years later I (we) moved again, this time to Reading in the UK where I continued to work as an external auditor until mid 2008 when we moved to Singapore.

Initially, feeling like an outsider, and with a newly rediscovered love for photography, my camera became a way of feeling the place and finding out more about it. I used to explore many ‘local’ areas, areas where tourists and expats generally do not go to, and I walked for miles! I think many locals thought I was insane, being outdoors in the heat and high humidity, sweating profusely while majority of the population was seeking air-conditioned comfort in the nearest MRT station or shopping mall.

I think Singapore was a turning point for me. For the first time in my life I did not have an all-consuming job and I had a lot of time to myself so I did some voluntary work, learnt how to cook Asian dishes through observation and trial and error, and read loads of books. I guess I was finally mature enough to think things through for myself and draw my own conclusions. I consider my time in Singapore to be highly beneficial for me. It made me question the obvious and seek answers to questions I did not know I had previously, and it reminded me of my interest in photography.

It sounds a bit like a cliché, but Singapore is clean, green, safe and hot 365 days a year, plus it has the most amazing food at incredibly low prices – hawker centers and food courts are definitely the places to go to for anyone who enjoys their food. What I did not like about living in Singapore were the crowds and incessant construction noise.

At the end of 2014, we moved to London to be closer to our respective families. London is a great city, full of great architecture, excitement and well-dressed, energetic and highly motivated people, but to me if feels a little impersonal and artificial. We lived there for just over a year and I used that time to get as many images of the city and its architecture as possible. We currently live in Surrey, 30 minutes on the train from London, quieter and rural, a place where we can enjoy weekend woodland walks with our dog.

If I had to choose a place to live in right now, I would be torn between Singapore or Guernsey for very different reasons. I would choose Singapore for its amazing, cheap and diverse food, fantastic architecture and the ease of travelling to some superb destinations around Asia. And Guernsey for its tranquility, seascape opportunities, nature walks and fresh seafood. Well, clearly food is the common denominator 

 

Q:  What interested you when you were young? What were your hobbies?

A: Horses, especially Arabian horses have always held a very special place in my heart. For centuries those magnificent creatures have been an inspiration for poets, writers and painters around the world. They epitomize strength, beauty, charisma, elegance and pride and there is nothing more majestic than a trotting Arabian horse with its head held high and its tail thrown over its back.

I have been collecting postcards, posters, wall calendars, books and magazines about Arabian horses from a very young age. Most of the photographs in those publications were taken by two famous Polish equine photographers, Zofia Raczkowska and Marian Gadzalski, whose passion and dedication to their craft and subject matter, I truly admire. They are no longer with us, but their photographs documenting four decades of Arabian horse breeding in Poland (mostly), are a real gift for generations of horse lovers and breeders to come. There was something so natural and effortless about the way they took their photographs, almost naïve by today’s standards, but it embedded itself deeply in my psyche.

Unfortunately, I was unable to own a horse or ride one, so my collection of images was all I had to keep me happy. I used to spend hours drawing horses using my favourite postcards as a starting point and, once I have learnt the basics of shapes, light, shadow and proportion, I would draw my own, idealised version of an Arabian. As a child, I dreamt of being able to see them in real life and of photographing them one day. My wish came true later in life.

 

Q:  Your photographic journey started with your father, with whom you took many pictures and also spent a lot of time in the darkroom. How did this fascination turn into a personal career?

A: I think my photographic journey is rather unusual because it was very gradual and not inspired by any particular photographer. My very first encounter with photography came through my Dad, who was an avid amateur photographer and captured countless memories of my childhood on his Zenit camera. I remember spending hours with him in his darkroom, which in reality was our family bathroom converted into a darkroom every so often, and watching him develop his negatives. My Dad owned a number of cameras and was very knowledgeable about his equipment and technical aspects of photography. As much as I enjoyed spending time with him, at that particular time, I was not really interested in photography itself, I just loved observing him in his element.

Many years later, once we were settled in South Africa, I would borrow my Dad’s camera every time I visited my family in Poland. I was more interested in my subjects and in deciding on how to capture them in my own way rather than in the camera settings I should be using. I focused my attention on, what I considered, quintessentially Polish – the red brick textile factory buildings and adjacent residential blocks, tombstones in the Jewish cemetery in Lodz, woodlands and farmlands, century-old wooden houses in small villages, little roadside chapels scattered around the Polish countryside, Russian Orthodox Churches along the eastern frontier and also Arabian horses at Janow State Stud. My first attempts were not successful by any means, I would just point and shoot in the ‘P’ mode not understanding what I was doing, only remembering that I needed ISO400 film for the more overcast days. However, this proved enough to make me want to pursue photography as a hobby later on in life.

I purchased my first (digital) camera in 2006, but due to my work commitments, my photography was limited to holiday snaps (in hindsight, a rather lame excuse). I rekindled my interest in photography after moving to Singapore two years later. I taught myself the basics of aperture, shutter speed and ISO using free resources available online and I began to experiment with travel photography, concentrating on urban landscapes and people, aiming to capture the essence of each of the places I visited. My husband and I travelled extensively around Asia and fell in love with its culture, people and food. Our voyages provided me with plenty of photographic opportunities and even though I loved taking those photos, somehow, I did not feel that this was the type of photography that suited me. Something was missing, so I continued exploring.

At the end of 2012 and after months of researching my needs, I purchased my first full frame digital camera and a wide-angle lens to go with it. During my research period, I came across HDR photography and decided to try it out on Singapore cityscapes. This shift in my interest forced me to explore different parts of the city, to discover my own special locations and vantage points. I remember climbing numerous flights of stairs and riding up and down in the residential tower lifts in order to find the ‘right’ views. I would go as far as to say that, the thrill of finding such places was more appealing to me than the photos I ended up taking from those locations. Nonetheless, I took hundreds of shots in different areas of Singapore and met some interesting individuals along the way.

I was so proud of my newly acquired skills that I started posting my images on photo sharing websites such as 500p and Flickr, and also on Facebook. I guess, at the time I was looking for some kind of validation for what I was doing. Being part of this community exposed my work to scrutiny by other photographers and provided me with first ever feedback on my images, and it was not all positive, in fact I took a beating. I am extremely grateful for all the constructive criticism I received, even though, at the time, it felt a little harsh and demotivating, however it allowed me to improve my photography and processing skills. At the same time, I also started experimenting with black and white architecture photography because colour seemed too overpowering and distracting at times and it also reminded me of the photographs my Dad used to produce in my childhood.

My work is constantly evolving and recently, I find myself being drawn to abstract images where negative space or lack thereof plays an important role in emphasizing texture and form, a game of light and shadow I guess. Some of my images, including my architectural detail series ‘Elements’, have no negative space, no subject as such, just shapes that move the eye from side to side and within the frame. It can be a bit overwhelming and confusing but this is exactly the experience was aiming for. I am also drawn to long exposure (seascapes, cityscapes, architecture) as this technique seems to create a sense of passing time, providing more ethereal and dreamlike feel in the image.

I am a lousy Photoshop user but the fact that my processes and workflow, despite being slow and unsophisticated, were discovered by me through hours of experimentation, gives me a feeling of satisfaction and fulfillment. I am a self-taught photographer, however, through my Facebook connections, I was exposed to two fantastic photographers – Daniel Cheong, a Dubai based photographer known for his digitally blended cityscapes and Julia Anna Gospodarou, a black and white fine art photographer from Greece, whose workshops I attended in 2014 and 2016 respectively. I am glad that I had the honour of meeting them both in person and was introduced to their way of thinking and working, which, in turn has given me more confidence in pursuing my own style.

I am not quite sure where my inspiration comes from, it is most likely a combination of the music I listen to, art galleries I visit, books I read (I love Japanese novels) and what I see around me, in other words, my work reflects my life experience to date and, as I am maturing, my approach to photography and to sharing it with others, is changing. I would say that my images are more self-indulgent than they used to be, they are mostly relevant to me and when I create them, I do not think of a wider audience or whether or not they will be well received by others, but about how I feel in the moment of capturing and later processing them. Despite being around photography for so long, I never learnt the craft by studying the masters, which may be seen as ignorance on my part, but occasionally, I stumble upon certain photographers whose work touches my soul. One such photographer, someone I came across four years ago, and the only photographer whose portfolio book I own, is Roger Ballen. His psychological images challenge my understanding of the world and push me to further explore my own mind, to dig deeper and to continue questioning what I believe to be true.  I think what draws me to his photographs is their complexity, the vast number of elements that have to work together in order to make a complete image, he creates worlds where ‘illusion becomes delusion, fact is fiction and where the conscious merges with the unconscious, dreams become real, the real becomes a dream, the dead is alive, the alive, dead’.

Photography has been a long journey of self-discovery for me, slow and painful at times, riddled with creative ups and downs (creative depression as one of my friends described it), followed by long periods of inactivity. I am not one of those disciplined photographers who create daily or at regular intervals, in fact, I often do not pick up my camera for months. I guess I am a moody photographer and I need to be ‘in the zone’ in order to create.

My understanding of photography has changed significantly over the past few years. I no longer think of it as an honest representation of the world around me (such as my travel / street photography / cityscapes attempts) but as an expressive tool, I make the medium work for me and every time I pick up my camera, I am making a subjective statement. I choose how to frame my photographs and where to point my camera, I choose what is seen and what is hidden from view. I describe myself as a fine art photographer because my images are not a true representation of reality but rather, I create my own reality with my images. I still have a long way to go, loads more to learn and explore but I view photography as a lifelong passion rather than an instant gratification tool. Photography is not my full-time job, I am just an amateur with unlimited freedom of expression.

 

Q: Where are you now in this ongoing journey and where do you think your photography would develop in the future?

A: The deeper I get into photography, the more I realise that it is all about what I am interested in, how I feel about it and what I want to communicate about my subjects but mostly about myself. As I move along my photographic journey, I see myself more as a photographer whose choice of subjects has less to do with their beauty but more to do with what I want to say about them and how they make me feel. I love photographing architecture and by no means I feel that I have mastered the art of capturing it, but I feel the need to move onto something different. My recent visits to my in-laws in Guernsey, made me realise that I would like to experiment with long exposure images of seascapes. I love the sea, I love listening to the waves crashing against the rocks, I love the smell of it. I enjoy the solitude of such moments, experiencing the raw force of nature and pondering the meaning of it all.

So far, I have created two series of seascape images, ‘Ex Nihilo’ and ‘Far from the Madding Crowds’, both taken in Guernsey. I find photographing nature very challenging but at the same time very rewarding, once all the elements involved come together. The biggest obstacle for me is to be able to embrace transience and imperfections, and hopefully one day, as I grow and develop, I will be able to overcome those obstacles.

In addition, I have two fine art / conceptual series of images in mind, both in black and white, one inspired by a book I read recently, and the other is something I have been thinking about for a while, as it turns out it will be a little Ballenesque. They will require a fair bit of planning and finding the right locations but I am hoping that I will have the opportunity to start working on them at the end of this year or early next year.

 

Q: Your winning project at IPA 2019 was “Elements II”, a series of black & white architecture pictures, a play with structures, texture and light. Tell us about it.

A: ‘Elements’ is a special project for me, bringing together my passion for contemporary architecture and black and white photography. The idea behind it, was to showcase the ingenuity and multiplicity of contemporary building facades and choose specific details to focus on, something I find, despite being in plain sight for everyone to see and appreciate, is often overlooked. I was fascinated by the distinctive aesthetics of shapes and textures and the ways various surfaces render light and shadow. Each photograph was composed differently, with some compositions being symmetrical and repetitive, creating a sense of order and tranquility, and some being asymmetrical and more dynamic.

The central theme of the series is lack of any negative space, creating a fully immersive and overwhelming experience. I opted for a square crop because the square is a perfect form, in which every side is of equal importance giving the appearance of balance. I called this series ‘Elements’ because I wished to capture the distinct characteristics of each building and relate them to the Chinese Elements of water, wood, fire, earth and metal, the five-fold conceptual scheme that many traditional Chinese fields use to explain a wide array of phenomena. I looked for details that can fit those elements by carefully studying the design of each structure and using the angles, texture, light and shadow to imitate the feel of water – vacillation and movement, wood – endurance and sturdiness, fire – intensity and light, earth – unity and balance, and metal – strength and power.

I decided to opt for black and white processing for a number of reasons. Firstly, the simplicity of the image, where I aimed to remove all distractions from the frame, focusing on the graphic elements such as the angles, shapes, patterns, lines and textures. This then brings me to my second reason, I wished to highlight the contrast between various elements within the image and provide a sense of depth to each photograph.  Thirdly, black and white images transcend reality and leave something to the imagination, allowing for alternative interpretations, they are more personal and more expressive.

And finally, I introduced lighting to the images, assigning different levels of importance to the elements within the photograph and having full control over parts of the image I want to stand out and parts I want to deemphasize.

 

Q:  Where did you take these pictures and what were the challenges involved?

A: My project has taken me to various locations around the world such as London, Paris, Singapore and Dubai. I think my main challenge with ‘Elements’ was to find the right building facades and then to photograph them during the right time of day and in the right weather conditions, which was obviously difficult given that in most cases, I did not have the luxury of returning to the spot. Sometimes I was just forced to take the shot and on other occasions, I was fortunate enough to be able to return to the location on a different day to get better light.

I like to discover locations of foot, just walking around various cities constantly looking up and finding something extraordinary in the ordinary and the mundane. This process can be very time consuming and there were times that I would return with no images at all, despite being out and about for the whole day.

 

Q: You already won numerous awards for your work. What does the IPA recognition mean to you?

A: I only started participating in various photography competitions since 2017, and they have been a great learning curve, forcing me not only to carefully select my entries but also to look at my series of images from a more critical point of view and to evaluate their cohesiveness. I show some of my images to my husband but, otherwise, I do not share them with those close to me, in fact, I never even shared them with my Dad. I take my time processing them (sometimes years) and eventually post some on my website and sometimes also on Facebook. I have thousands of images that have never been seen by anyone apart from me. As I said before, I used to use Facebook to get initial feedback on my work but the novelty of social media, photo sharing websites and photo communities has worn off for me. I no longer post on 500px and Flickr and I never warmed up to Instagram, so entering my work to selected competitions is the only way to receive, what I consider to be, an honest, unbiased feedback and to find out how others relate to my photography.

I feel incredibly flattered, honoured and humbled to be awarded the title of IPA 2019 Architecture Photographer of the Year. I am absolutely thrilled that my abstract series of building facades has found recognition among the judges of this prestigious competition. It is definitely my biggest achievement to date, and I do not think I will be able to better it. So, to the judges and the organizers of IPA, a big thank you for this incredible opportunity!

 

Q:  What are your hopes for the future?

A: From a personal perspective, I would like to travel more, see more of the world, experience different cultures and explore some awe-inspiring locations. I would like to read more books, both fiction and non-fiction, books that move me and test my understanding of the world.  I am hoping that by expending my own knowledge and growing as a human being, I will be able to create more meaningful photographs regardless of my chosen subject. I also want to see my friends and family succeed in whatever the choose to do.

On a different note, I would like to add to my collection of Japanese maples. I currently own 41 different varieties and I also have a number of one and two-year old home-grown seedlings from my own plants as well as from the ones collected on various walks. They are relatively easy plants to look after, yet can be a bit fussy about their position in the garden, so it does take a lot of patience and trial and error to provide them with the right environment to flourish. Those small trees, along with my Pieris, Rhododendrons, Camellias and a number of other plants, create my little Zen garden, a very peaceful and quiet oasis, a place to recharge and take a break from the chaos of outside world.