Paul Hutchinson is a Berlin-based photographer and CSM graduate. B boys, Fly Girls & Horticulture is his latest published project and explores the relationship between plants and Hip Hop through a developing style that is a delicious fusion of poetics and documentary. In this interview, Paul gives us an intimate view of the hip-hop subculture in Berlin and India and what it means to be a Hip Hop kid in the 90s.
Paul went to Berlin’s Universität der Künste to do a design/communication degree that he then followed by an MA in photography at Central Saint Martins, but his education did not end there; spending a year studying in Spain during his bachelors was the tipping point in his photographic career. “This is, mainly, where I started to discover photography more seriously, spending time in the darkroom while my mates went to the beach.” Despite his fruitful education, Paul believes that the courses one has graduated from are not the main learning curves that bring success, stating that for him it is “just a fraction of things” while, for establishing an understanding of his own work, and of the work of others, “ conversations with people I have met equally within and outside of academic institutions” were a great deal more pivotal.
When asked how he got to become a photographer, Paul simply admits that he doesn’t really know. He approaches photography as a way to “make sense of the place that [he’s] in” and distances himself from professional photographers, admitting that they would probably “restrain from calling me their equal”.
Upon asking Hutchinson how he feels about his return to Berlin, he tells me “I just moved back to my hometown, really” — he doesn’t associate himself with the new wave of young creatives emerging in the city, although he agrees that it “would have been interesting” to be a part of that experience. On the plus side, moving back to Berlin rather than staying in London was “definitely different work-wise” due to the affordable studio prices. Having a studio “in London would have been impossible.”
“To be honest, I hope that only very few of my pictures are clear about where they originate from, in which context they were created.”
His initial drive to take pictures emerged from his personal experiences of being a part of the hip hop scene in 90s Berlin. Plus, like the rest of us, Paul is concerned with the struggle of getting “to the gist of this thing called you” in his work. Explaining that he finds it “difficult what one can talk about”, and personally only feels comfortable approaching things that are very close or dear to him. This intimate, natural honesty radiates throughout his work and challenges the difficulties of being true to oneself, seeking these “quite pure sensations” that we may feel when we try to figure out who we are.
These feelings came about when Paul returned to Berlin in 2014 and “met some of the people from back then” which sparked a memory of being a teenager in the time when Hip Hop played a big role in his life. He recalled the clothes, the music, the community, without being nostalgic about it, or, as he puts it: “rather an ‘ah, wow’. I had forgotten how intense it felt back then”. These experiences eventually led to a heightened curiosity, making him wonder if he “could convey this form of sensuality with images”, which started his photographic project.
The result, his book B boys, Fly Girls & Horticulture, is centered around a deep exploration of the Hip Hop scene in both Germany and India: A way of revisiting his past involvement in the subculture as an attentive observer of today’s youth.
The one photograph that really stands out from B boys, Fly Girls & Horticulture simply pictures fried chicken in aluminum foil, and Paul’s analysis of it is even more intriguing. What this close-up photograph reveals to us about Hip Hop subculture might be obscure, but Paul confirms that he prefers it that way – “to be honest, I hope that only very few of my pictures are clear about where they originate from, in which context they were created”. He contextualises it further, describing “the somewhat half-seducing, half-appalling visual opulence of it – while referencing a so-called ‘low-culture’ cliché.” This particular ‘low-culture’ cliché took place during a recording session with a couple of mates, when they were on a break. The story however, has little meaning to the photograph when it’s placed in a different context. Paul says that in a place of its own, the reference to Hip Hop wouldn’t be as immediate. And it is indeed this form of ambiguity and openness that he aims to achieve in his work, leaving the viewer with a flirtatious “it could be X, but it could also be…”
“Each picture carries a unique energy.”
When asked about the relationship between the abstracted close up shots and breakdancing subculture, Paul simply laughs and admits that “actually the level of abstraction in my work really says zero about the culture of breakdancing. I wouldn’t go as far as making this reference.” Instead, he observes that the abstraction in his photographs is more a means of conveying his “gut feeling,” “a haptic impression which works against the borders of what a two-dimensional medium can do”. Spontaneity and play is important in the production of his photographs. He uses this freedom as a way to displease “common Hip Hop imagery”, and to test how far he can get with “this thing called camera”, but does not consider it to be a conceptual translation culture itself.
B boys, Fly Girls & Horticulture is at its core juxtapositions between plants and Hip Hop imagery, a way of “comparing mechanisms of botany to those of a globalized subculture”. The editing of the book and placement of each photograph is not only based on the visual content or the forms created by the break-dancer’s bodies – “each picture carries a unique energy” as well. Still, the assemblages present in the book are fascinating in their own right. The photographs represent conscious decisions and yet “in contrast to the more thought-through, conceptual idea of placing plants next to hip hop imagery, the final juxtapositions are plainly conceived by intuition.” Paul welcomes the spontaneous method of editing: “there’s no ‘ah this flower shape goes there, and his arm here, this will so work’ game plan”. He is more intrigued by seeing what “the pictures do to each other, if they activate one another, open up one another, or close each other down”. As for the blank spaces, which are equally as important to Paul, he asks “what happens there, in between things?” – urging us to reflect on what the blank, white space in between the photographs and their borders does to the page.
Speaking about the contextualization of his book in Berlin, Paul gives us a lot of food for thought: “as westerners we grow up with certain images in mind of places like India, Asia, Africa etc… This almost comfortable belief in their otherness.” He challenges the western view by partnering photographs of Berlin next to the South Indian jungle in a way that plays with our conception of cultures. Judging by the reception of B boys, Fly Girls & Horticulture in his hometown, Paul thinks that “a tiny part of the audience here feels a form of questionable relief á la ‘finally, they’re getting there’ while another part sees exactly this process as highly problematic.” Photographs from a country such as India which show to an extent “how similar we all can be in this globalized world” make some people feel uncomfortable.
While wrapping up the interview, we found out that Paul is working on his next publication, due in the summer, which promises to be “very different to the last book”, something that gets him very excited. His other plans for the foreseeable future include spending some time in Paris, amongst other projects.
To conclude, as there is never enough music, we asked Paul for his Hip Hop recommendations and he came back with his list of classics we should all listen to at least once in our lifetime:
“I can only speak about the things I like, which are definitely the first 2-3 The Streets albums, all of A Tribe Called Quest, J Dilla is there obviously, famous things like B.I.G, Dre, or early Jay-Z I also like, also early Eminem, currently I’m listening a lot to the latest Kendrick Lamar album which is the first U.S. album I’ve enjoyed for a long time, also can’t really stop with Badbadnotgood and Ghostface Killah which I think is an incredible release. But obviously I also listen to lots of other things which are everything but Hip Hop.”
…and then he adds, “Ah, and the other day a friend showed me a Japanese Hip Hop artist called ‘Gebo’ which, to my ears, does pretty crazy things that I really enjoyed.”
Words by Julia Karpova
All photography courtesy of Paul Hutchinson