Carlos Leal, fotografiert von Bastian Peter

A Conversation with Carlos Leal: new exhibition, the creative process & the swissstreetcollective

Bastian PeterInterviews, The Collective Leave a Comment

Carlos Leal, a man of many talents. Known for his success in music and acting, Carlos has also carved out an impressive career in photography. Currently, his work is being exhibited at the prestigious Esther Woerdehoff Galerie, alongside renowned artists like Henri Cartier-Bresson, René Burri, and Elliott Erwitt. His exhibition, titled “Fearless”, is set to open on June 8, 2023, and run until July 29, 2023.

In this conversation, Carlos sheds light on his creative process, his experiences, and his thoughts on navigating the challenging moments in life.

Bastian Peter: Hi Carlos, it’s a pleasure to have you here. Congratulations on your current exhibition at the Esther Woerdehoff Galerie, a truly impressive accomplishment. How does it feel to showcase your work alongside such renowned artists?

Carlos Leal: Hi Bastian, thanks for having me. Well yes, I have to say I’m super excited abouth this one. As you know, I’ve been doing photography for only four years but I tried to stay focus on keeping a personal line. I’m lucky to be able to exhibit in Paris at the EW gallery and I’ll do my best to present a solid work. The gallery has pieces from tremendous photographers like Erwitt, Albarran Cabrera or René Burri so I’d better show the best I can.
More than a year ago, my friend Valéry talked to Esther Woerdehoff about my work.
And a year after, while I was performing a song at the Swiss Press awards organized by the great photographer Michael Von Graffenried, I had the chance to meet Esther Woerdehoff in person and could show her some of my photography work. She showed my work to the rest of the team and they liked it and invited me to exhibit in their Parisian gallery. It’s kind of magic.

“Fearless” is my personal L.A. postcard. No palmtrees or Sunsets here.

Carlos Leal

Bastian Peter: Thats awesome, and that it was Michael Von Graffenried is a wonderful coincidence; he is a swiss photographer with a long history of street photography and street photographers. The Ester Woerdehoff and Von Graffenried Meet-up really sounds kind of magic, I agree. So, can you give us some insight into the works on display at “Fearless”? What themes or ideas were you aiming to explore with this exhibition?

© Carlos Leal

Carlos Leal: I’m always interested in telling a story and as much as possible to connect my work to a social topic. I live in Los Angeles and I work in the Hollywood industry as an actor so I get the chance to experience the fantasy of Hollywood. But as a former rapper, I can’t stop myself observing the contrast between the fantasy we all have about L.A. and the reality in the streets of this gigantic city.
Misery is extremely present here and the American dream seems to have faded away lomg time ago. I feel like America is moving backwards in terms of social evolution and that’s what I can see when I walk through the city.
“Fearless” is my personal L.A. postcard. No palmtrees or Sunsets here.

Bastian Peter: That is very sad to hear, but aligns with what a lof of people are feeling, weather its personal- of career-related. It seems fitting, that you are drawn to express that. Your work is often praised for its raw and evocative power. By the way, as I wrote that I immediately thought of your acting work. Probably no coincidence. How do you navigate the process of capturing such emotional depth in your photography?

Carlos Leal: I guess the most important thing is to be ‘present’ when you’re shooting. It’s the only way to see what the city has to show you. In acting, the more present you are, the more genuine and strong is your work. Same thing for photography. If I decide to just go out for 30 minutes and expect getting a great shot because the light is beautiful, I will come back home with nothing good. But if I dedicate a whole day to it, if I allow myself to get slowly into the zone, a sort of meditative state of mind, my eyes will suddenly see the most curious things, the ones that don’t necessarily have an aesthetic look but they do have a meaning, at least they have a meaning for me and the topic I wanna address.

© Carlos Leal

Bastian Peter: Thats pretty on point. I feel similarly and expressed this also publicy in the past. I think thats a strong sign that points in the “art from inside” category. You cannot force anything. I mean you probably could pretend for a while, while drifting further and further away from your own need to express. One could say then – it becomes a product.
And thats not something that is agreeable with art, right? I can imagine you know this long before you ever imagined becoming a photographer. In your long and successful acting career how, if at all, has your experience in front of the camera influenced your work behind it?

Carlos Leal: I have been interested in photography for many years but I didn’t have the courage to jump seriously into the work.
Nevertheless, everytime I was preparing a role for a movie or a tv series, I liked taking snapshots of the places I was visiting for the project and while I was writing a biography of my character, I would always add a few pictures to the biography to complete it, a sort of ‘journal de bord’ for my acting work. I guess this has helped me training my eye in terms of composition and story telling. And again, ‘presence’ is a key tool in my opinion for both acting and photographing.
4 years ago, I was in Berlin shooting a tv series and for the first time, instead of taking pictures with my iPhone, I asked a friend if I could borrow his Fujifilm 100F. The action of looking at my surroundings through the viewfinder has definitely changed my vision of the world and has convinced me to buy my own Fujifilm camera. Since then, my camera has become one of my best companion.

Bastian Peter: He probably heard, but I really hope if not, you let your friend know what a service he has done with giving you that Fuji camera. And from then on, has your photography influenced your acting in any way?

© Carlos Leal

Carlos Leal: When you start taking pictures of the World around you, you become much more aware of the little details, of the power of light and shadows, of the movement of things, the architectural lines, the colors, the contrasts, etc.. Composition is an automatic behaviour and your eye becomes a human camera. So, I suppose this way of observing my environment is improving my acting as well, or at least my capacity to react to what’s happening in the ‘here’ and the ‘now’, in the scene with the other actors on a film set or a theatre stage.

Bastian Peter: The “here” and the “now”. Is not that the thing we all come to appreciate more as we get older? Interesting how this is so important while working and also when just living. And really, I can imagine the streets as a silver screen, representing that sentiment spot on. So, obviously with that segue I like to touch on your involvement in the swiss street photography collective „swissstreetcollective“. When we talked first about two or three years ago about the collective, it was a very new idea. Since then, well we did not do very much as a collective – of course we support and follow each others work whenever possible.

Do you think that perhaps the times are changing, and that it’s not just Covid-19, but also technology, alternative work and lifestyle choices, and an overall sense of overstimulation that are affecting our ability to connect with each other? In short, we’re all in contact all the time on a global scale, but do you think our personal relationships and, consequently, our ability to work as a team as humans, are on the decline?

Carlos Leal: First of all, I’m proud to be part of the swissstreetcollective and when you approached me offering to join , it gave me confidence and a will to keep working on my photography, so that was very helpful.
Obviously, it’s not easy to have a collective working together when the members live in different cities or different countries. But I think it gives me an extra power to know that some fellow talented photographers keep an eye on my work, it gives me a family feeling. Even if the act of street photography is usually a lonely process, being part of a collective comforts me and adds strength to my perseverance.

It’s important to accept the empty moments in your creativity journey

Carlos Leal

Bastian Peter: I like the angle of the extra power. The swiss photographer and journalist Tobias Kühn called the swissstreetcollective “a base for street photography”. Seems like you two read the same script, because I love both of those descriptions.

I remember when we met in Zurich, you were in the company of the talented and kind Zurich-based photographer, Betty Heart. When I take a dive in her work I feel often times transported in place and sometimes even in time. And most of the images that come to mind are self portraits. Have you ever considered to make a project or a series of self portraiture yourself?

Carlos Leal: I love Betty Heart’s work. It’s consistant, innovative, she’s always trying to find new ways to do her self portraits.
Truth is I’ve been photographed so many times when I was the rapper of Sens Unik and then as an actor. So now, I don’t find interest in photographing myself. I guess I saw my face too many times in the newspapers and I can’t stand it anymore, haha! But I do have a lot of respect for people doing it because it’s not an easy task. Also, as a former rapper or better said a former “urban journalist”, I’m interested in showing my opinion about the World around me.

© Betty Heart

Bastian Peter: Yeah, I guess I totally can understand that. That could become a real problem for creativity as I heard. There are actors that never watch themselves, or even actively trying to avoid it. Creativity is a complex process, and we all have moments where it can be challenging to keep moving forward. And as the world turns and changes, a lot of us including myself are not on the same track anymore. What advice would you give to someone who is struggling to get out and continue creating?

Carlos Leal:
Oh my God, this is so true. I guess it’s important to accept the empty moments in your creativity journey. How many times couldn’t I find the right words for a song or the way to play a scene of a movie? But the worse is to force yourself into being creative.
It’s important to keep trying. Like, I wouldn’t go out without my camera even if at the end of the day, I come back home with an empty memory card.
But I guess, when lack of imagination and creativity is knocking at your door, just accept it and take advantage of this moment to inspire yourself with art and photography exhibitions, books, documentaries about photography, movies, etc… That’s also part of the work.

Bastian Peter: Just jump in the lions den. We can be our worst enemy, I will take your advice to heart and hope to show you the results in the near future. Speaking of the future, do you see as the future of your photography? Do you have any specific goals or projects in mind?

Carlos Leal: For now, I’m very happy to show my work in Paris at Esther Woerdehoff gallery and I hope to find a gallery in Zurich as well.
I do have a project for a photography book and I’m working on it.
The biggest pleasure for me is the process, walking in the streets and discovering beauty and poetry in the most random places is a gigantic pleasure and helps me being alive and mentally healthy.

Bastian Peter: Thats again, very well said, and it motivates me personally even more to really go out there again for more than an hour or two. And also to the dear readership: go out there and just do it.

As we wrap up our conversation, Carlos, I have to say, I really appreciate that your work is both significant and eye-opening. Your forthcoming exhibition “Fearless”, opening this June, is set to spotlight the overlooked communities of Los Angeles, the impoverished, the marginalised, the homeless.

The tension between power and fear within your photographs triggers a deep introspection of societal decay. Your exhibition serves as a potent reminder of realities frequently disregarded in our society. We keenly anticipate its launch.

Thank you for your time, Carlos. And thank you to the readership.

Public preview
08.06 – 29.07.2023
Thursday, June 8 2023, 6 p.m. – 9 p.m., in the presence of the artist
Read or download Press Release here
Press preview Friday, June 9 2023, 11 a.m. – 12 p.m., in the presence of the artist

References & Relevant links

Esther Woerdehoff Galerie

Carlos Leal Photography Website

Carlos Leal on Instagram

Carlos Leal on the swissstreetcollective

Betty Heart Website

Bastian Peter Website


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