NIKO SULEK, PHOTOGRAPHER AND VIDEOGRAPHER
I met Niko at a friend’s wedding. At the time I didn’t know she was an excellent storyteller, but something about the way she connected with people intrigued me. It wasn’t until we started collaborating on a couple of projects, that I really understood the depth of her sensibility when highlighting people’s lives and stories.
Niko has the ability to “see” the stories that unfold all around us, but so many of us miss. The way in which she is able to visually express those invisible connections is what makes her visual style so welcoming. I invite you to see the world through her lens.
Where does your love for video and photography come from?
I started taking pictures and videos of my friends when I was a kid. I remember this one time, I must have been nine years old and I was at my parents' house playing in the living room with my two best friends. We were recording each other making weird faces and performing little dances with my grandparents' Super 8 camera. It was a carefree time. We were just hanging out and being in the moment, fully experiencing the moment without worrying about what was going to happen next.
We were trying to film our own memories, just like I have seen my grandparents’ memories when we watched their own movies on a big projector. I am not sure just how cognizant we were of that, but maybe at some level, we knew those moments meant something, that those memories were worth saving. Although, I don’t remember ever seeing anything we shot ;-)
How did your current business, Motorkast, get started? Where does the name come from?
I moved to Chicago to go to film school, worked in production and post-production for about four years, and then in publicity and promotions for Columbia Pictures for a few years. After 9/11 when the film industry left the city, I decided to stay in Chicago and try a new career path in the IT world.
About four years ago, my husband’s band wanted to do a music video and they asked me to help. Being involved in that project made me realize just how much I enjoyed it and decided to put my new equipment to good use. Around the same time I was hired to create video content for a real estate company, and shortly after, I was approached to produce a series of commercial environmental portraits of artists and makers. Within months of making the decision to go back to photography and videography, I was working for the West Town Chamber of Commerce as their official event photographer. The rest, as they say, is history.
As for Motorkast, the name refers to broadcasting or sharing stories. Essentially visual stories in motion. When I started my company I didn’t want to use my name, because it’s not just me and my equipment making this happen, I wanted a more inclusive name.
When you think about photography, what do you consider important? What makes a good photo?
You can take a very technical approach to photography if you want to, but I personally don’t think that’s necessary to take a photo that tells a story. What makes the picture interesting is when the photographer knows how to find and tell that story.
Search for any famous landmark and you are going to see a million pictures that simply capture the object, but are devoid of meaning. For example, when I look at photos of a famous spiral staircase, there’s always that one that it is not like all the other ones, because it has a story to tell. In that photograph you might see the gentle movement of a hand in a corner, or perhaps a head looking down from the top of the stairs. It may not be the most technically advanced photo, and maybe the light could be better, but if there's a story, then that's the picture!
To me, the word story always implies a human element, because it is in the interaction between human beings and their context that I find meaning. Whether the interaction is with another human being, an object or an event, there is always a give and take. That’s what tells a story, and that's what I aim to capture in my work. I am more interested in the human aspect of photography. Technical knowledge has no meaning without the human element.
After you decided to pick up the camera again, who was your first official cleint?
Around the same time I was producing the music video that got me started again in this business, Mike Hulett asked me to create video content for his real state business, Hulett Real Estate Group. In my previous life I have worked in real estate and it's an industry I truly love.
I have been working with Hulett for four years, and my role has evolved into a content consultant. Now, in addition to creating video content, I also act as a content director and social media consultant. That means I help identify the ideal audience and core competencies of the business, to create a more targeted strategy for the content I am creating. I like to do more than just create content for my clients, because if you don’t step back and take a moment to think about their business, you are just creating content with little meaning and no clear purpose. Ultimately I want to create content that can help my clients, and that requires strategy and planning.
How do you approach commercial environmental photography? What do you enjoy the most about this type of photography?
Commercial environmental photography is a mouthful, but that’s the industry term to describe portrait photography taken in the subject's usual environment, such as in their home or workplace. It usually highlights the subject's life and surroundings, but those surroundings don't have to be their home or workplace, the environment you are trying to highlight can also be an event they are attending.
A great example of that is the work I did as an event photographer for the West Town Chamber of Commerce. That was environmental photography in the context of cultural events. I truly miss that now! I covered a broad range of events for the Chamber, but street festivals are one of my favorites. I love taking portraits at street festivals because people are always happy to be there, so I get to freeze these little happy moments.
Working for the Chamber has also given me the opportunity to shoot live music, which has always been a big part of my life. When I am taking photos at a show I pay attention to how the music is affecting the audience and how they in turn are affecting the musicians. In the way they are looking at each other you can see that exchange, and that’s the story I want to capture. The story is what's happening in the human exchange that takes place during that experience. My job is to capture that visually. The kind of story that you can tell when somebody is in the picture has everything to do with where they are in that moment, not just physically but also emotionally.
What are some of the favorite projects you've been working on lately?
I have been working on the production of a series of interviews with crafters and makers, where I had the opportunity to capture inspiring stories that I truly connect with. I am interested in the connection between the creator and the creation. What I am looking for is an image that conveys the feeling of connection they have to their work.
You can tell when people are in their zone because they’ve forgotten you are there, which is great! I like to find those little moments where you can see how a person is connected to what they're doing and capture that magic. Whether that’s making poetry, cooking, or somebody that’s starting their new business, the key is to simply capture the scene as it unfolds.
You work in very different environments. What's the common thread in your work?
Although I work in different environments and capture people in different contexts, I always strive to capture connections. It is the simplicity of what is happening in a particular moment that I aim to convey in my work. My work is quite different from studio photography, where you have control over your environment, and can make anything as complicated as you want to. My aesthetic is very simple and I avoid manipulating the environment. I don’t want to impose, I want to capture what people are experiencing using my personal style.
I like people to feel comfortable, and I believe the more I impose myself as a photographer, the harder it is for them to relax and be in the moment. That doesn’t mean I don’t direct them, and you certainly have to do more of that with video or you will never get what you need, but I don’t feel like I need to enforce my vision to capture the story. All I want to do is to capture their moments, because that's the most important thing. It's about capturing things you can’t control --that little slice a smile, or a sweet gesture between two lovers. It’s about them, not about me.
Niko Sulek at Motorkast
Photography by Doug Grant at Inqui Research