Vincent Peters is one of the most prominent names in photography worldwide. Famous for his fashion photoshoots and celebrities’ portraits, his images are artistic, and, as he describes them — sentimental. We had a talk with him about his career and experience with unlicensed image use.
Vincent Peters tried many things before becoming the photographer he is today — traditional school, visual arts and, working as a waiter. He was kicked out of all of them. Everything in his journey led him towards photography. With his mom’s support, a German woman who grew up in Japan, Vincent followed his artistic dreams everywhere — London, Paris, New York. Nowadays, he is a renowned photographer worldwide. Some would say it is destiny, but, for Vincent, it was a mixture of passion, luck, and talent, “I was like the one-trick pony; I can only do one thing but can do it really good.”
The German photographer is currently one of the most active fashion photographers globally. He has shot for big brands like MiuMiu and L’Oreal and has photographed famous artists and models, such as Emma Watson or Adriana Lima. We call him an analog photographer because he is more of an analog guy; he says that shooting with film “is very much like writing a letter, and you’re very involved in it.” But that doesn’t mean that sometimes he shoots with digital cameras, “If I would shoot for Vogue, I would do an analog. If I would do it for advertising, I shoot with digital”. He also says he never deletes pictures, even when photographing with digital cameras.
Vincent is a client of RYDE since 2019. We had a talk with him about his career, insights into photography, and experience with unlicensed image use.
When you moved to New York, you first worked in a restaurant and got kicked out. How did you suddenly start photographing there?
I wanted to be a visual artist; I was not interested in photography as a job. I was only interested in doing good work, even in other kinds of visual arts. I wanted to do something I could show, and that hasn’t really changed until today. At some point between my time in Germany and New York, I lived in Paris, trying to be an artist. I was eventually really broke, literally living off $5 a day.
I figured out that modeling agencies allowed you to shoot very young girls that needed pictures, and they used to pay you 300 francs for it. Eventually, a friend of mine gave me his photographs — they were not even my own — and I went to one of those agencies and showed them his pictures. I just needed then to be as good as my friend to continue the deal.
After that, I was back in New York. Every Wednesday, young photographers could drop off their portfolio at the agent’s offices, and then the next day, pick it up. They never look at it, but it is the only shot you have. I went to this agent called Giovanni Testino, and he was the brother of a very famous photographer, called Mario Testino.
I went there to pick my book, and I put my foot in the door when this girl gave it back to me. I told her, “just give me two minutes. Just tell me something about my work. I am here, I am from Germany,” and she said, “can you take the foot out of the door, please?”. I told her I did not mean to be rude, but I just needed to know something. She told me, then: “Okay, so you know you are very young, and your work is not very commercial. This is a very big agency working for Gucci and Calvin Klein. To be honest, I have not really looked at your work, but I’m sure it’s interesting”.
What happened after that was a true story: while she said that, the door behind her opened from an office, and the owner of the agency, Giovanni, came and asked her if she knew Vincent Peters. Suddenly they offered me coffee and cookies, and half an hour later, I sat in the office with Giovanni and discussed working together. It was an extraordinary, definitely life-changing occasion. I was in the right place and at the right time. It’s like suddenly you are sitting with Steven Spielberg and talking about making a movie, while you don’t even have the money in your pocket to take a taxi home, or to take a subway, or even to buy yourself a coffee to celebrate. It took another five to six months until I ended up being with an agency. Then I started one of my first bigger jobs, shooting for Miu Miu, with a product company. And then I shot for Saint Laurent, and suddenly I was a full-blown in fashion photography, in literally a few weeks.
Your pictures talk a lot — it seems like each of them is part of a story. Even if it’s “just a portrait.” You have already said in interviews that you see the models more as characters than actual models. What techniques would you use to get this character out of the person you are portraying?
Photography defines your relationship with the world — it defines you. Through photography, you understand who you are. I realize more and more; these people are stories in my movie. I gave them that role.
When Emma walks in, I can do a thousand things with her, and I made her do that. I wanted to shoot her like this. I see her like this. I think most photographs from all people come from a certain longing; there’s always something very nostalgic in it since it is part of a past you are looking back. A good description of nostalgia is that you’re missing things you never had.
You could say that what you are shooting in a picture is something that you are missing inside yourself, which makes you create that picture. That could be an exchange of anger or beauty, a longing, a desire, but there’s something in there that is an unfinished conversation. I’m giving those characters to the girls, or the man I’m shooting are part of a world I’m creating.
When we go to the beach, when we take pictures of sunsets — I mean, I’m just picking cliches right now — we want something that we think we don’t have enough. I think that’s the exciting process of self-discovery. So, when I look at the pictures I took of Emma, I’m thinking: “Why do I do this? Why do I shoot her like this? Why do I feel there is no other way of doing this?”. I think in the end, if you feel there is no other way of doing this, it had to be done that way. Then you have a good shot, or you have a good piece of art.
You shoot a lot of famous people. Do you already have a particular idea of which role you want them to play before you photograph them? Or does it happen right when you start?
The interesting thing is, if you shoot famous people, they give you a particular image. Let’s say you shoot Scarlett Johansson, and everybody thinks, “Oh my God, she’s like that. I’ve seen her”. Everything I just told you about photography, I believe, is also true for celebrities. And that’s why I shoot them. These people complete you — the pictures you like, the art and music you like, the person you love.
The celebrities you like are playing a role not only in their life but in your life. They are something that you identify with. There is a longing in there that these people are something that you like to be, that you projected on them. And the main thing a good celebrity or actress does is that she’s credible. You believe her. You think she is this girl that you wish you could be, or that at least you want to a part of you could be.
Going back to your question, when you meet them, they are real, but they are not what you think they are. And you must bring this together. They are surfaces of projections. They are canvases, but they carry this very well. The way you look at a celebrity or anybody has a lot more to do with yourself than with them.
When was the moment that you first realized you were a prominent photographer?
I think this is stupid, but you know what? I realized it when I was in a taxi. I used to be very poor, and then there was this day where I had so many meetings, and I told my agent I wouldn’t be able to make it with the subway. He said to me: “just take a taxi.” For me, that was suddenly absurd. I remember sitting in that taxi, seeing London passing by and thinking of how things had changed. Now I had money to take a taxi. Before, I couldn’t pay for a subway ticket.
For you, to be art, does it have to have beauty?
I’m not afraid of it. And I do think beauty is not visual. It’s not aesthetics. I believe beauty is when you feel something is bigger than you; you are part of something. You see beauty when you’re in nature. It’s like I’m just a small piece of the puzzle, and it gives me a certain peace.
There is now the rejection of beauty, and I think it’s all nonsense. Art right now seems to have to be loud, with a strong sense of being grotesque and provocative. And I miss the sentimentalism of beauty. I love the impressionists. It’s so sensitive, and it’s so authentic. I am missing that a little bit today. I miss this conversation of sentimental feelings, and I try to do it in my pictures. People often say my photographs are melancholic — they are not; they are sentimental. It’s not the same.
Since image search engines became popular, there is a massive spread of photographs in our digital world. What are your thoughts on unlicensed image use?
First, there is the classic case where people copy the style of your work completely, but still, they shoot it themselves. And then there is the moment when they don’t even bother reshooting it; they use your shot. It’s shoplifting, you know. They take what you do. It’s your creative and intellectual property. The bigger problem behind this is that the financial resources to create work are becoming smaller. For example, a considerable amount of my money goes back into my work. I put thousands of euros into creating my own pictures and making that money back with photography.
I think that’s something every photographer right now is struggling with. Now, everybody’s taking everything without paying for it. Music tried to solve this issue with live concerts, but we, photographers, cannot just give concerts for thousands of people. So, the problem with stealing or using somebody’s photographs is not only that you take something that’s not yours. You are depriving or disabling the artist to create work because you’re taking a source of income away.
Did you ever pursue any unlicensed image use you found?
Yeah. Unfortunately, photographers are not protected in this copy and paste culture where anyone can take everything from everybody. I wish there would be a more transparent authorship law, and I know that there is this whole discussion about it in the European community. And I think it’s getting better, but this work you do is so personal. It’s your biography, and people are just taking from it to decorate their own little day. On one side, you might agree that it’s flattering. However, you are still violating my memories by putting them in a different context, in a different sense, to decorate your Instagram page or your Italian restaurant.
Now you are with RYDE. Has the partnership helped you somehow to protect your images and compensate for unlicensed use?
Yeah, because I think the most important is to raise awareness and the consciousness that you cannot walk around and cut other people’s flowers from their gardens just to put them in your living room. These flowers growing for a long time are there because some people made a significant effort to raise their garden, and you cannot go there with a scissor and cut it off because they look good in your living room.
The problem is that people use inbetweeners to block the chain of responsibility, and everybody says that they got it from somebody else. And like I said, it’s not a question of ego or just of money in that sense. It’s a matter of losing the funding of production. It’s a cultural question. If everybody shares the music and nobody goes to the opera anymore, at some point, the production of the opera is going to have to be cut down so much that it will no longer be attractive. My biggest problem today is funding my work, having the capacity to keep producing.
#14Answers with Vincent Peters
Sometimes, Vincent is photographing someone who is still a bit shy; to make them feel more comfortable, he plays an association game with his models. We did the same with him — we asked him to give the thoughts on top of his mind to the 14 words we brought to him. Check out how it went.
4. Perfect Photoshoot
Never seen one
5. A Place
I like to go
6. A Movie
I am in it
7. A song
I am making it
8. A Book
It’s empty still
9. A food
I like to smell it before I eat it.
10. A Motto
Pursuit is necessary.