Playground Culture With Kevin Couliau - Find What You Love And Don’t Let It Kill You
Kevin Couliau is a photographer & cinematographer from France, who spent the last couple of years documenting courts, playgrounds, stories, characters and all the culture around basketball through his lens. His series The Park Is My Church is one of my favourite photo series from the last years and his award winning documentary Doin’ It In The Park is a blueprint for the definition, culture and social impact of New York's basketball scene.
At the same time Kevin is no stranger to the classic advertisement world and managed to earn his money with a lot of projects that live around the place he loves: The basketball court.
Creative agencies are full of creative people and most of them have a side hustle to use their creative energy for things that matter to them. Things that keep them going, things that make a night at a desk worth spending and hours of work enjoyable. Still you won’t find a lot of people being able to spend their work - and not only hour after hour after work - with the things they want to do.
To find out more about Kevin’s work, his life and how he found something he loves but didn’t kill him - but started to pay his bills - I’ve asked him a couple of questions for Biancissimo
Playground Culture With Kevin Couliau - Find What You Love And Don’t Let It Kill you
Hi Kevin, can you please tell Biancissimo a little bit about you, your work and your love for the game?
My name is Kevin Couliau, I'm a French ballplayer, photographer and director. I grew up immersed in US culture through my passion for basketball in the first place and then skateboarding through my big brother, a former pro. One sport taught me the spirit of competition and surpassing yourself and the other taught me to open my eyes on architecture, art, music and most importantly film and photography.
In 2004, I started documenting playground basketball, from my hometown in France to more than 50 cities across the globe. My goal was to highlight the aesthetic and culture surrounding basketball, an endless exploration that brought me to work on multiple projects as a photographer, cinematographer and director.
My first breakout was in 2009 with a piece called Heart & Soul of New York City, an experimental short film about a season of summer streetball in the big apple. A small teaser for a bigger project called Doin' It In The Park, pick-up basketball, NYC, an award-winning documentary I co-directed and shot from 2010 to 2013. This film allowed me to work on bigger commercial stuff and keep my current basketball pilgrimage active, something I try to share through my Instagram and independent magazine Asphalt Chronicles. The long term goal is to produce a book that will reveal the impact of pick-up basketball on people around the world, from NYC's hardcore baller to the 80 years-old local player in Hong Kong, I believe this sport is a religion and can give a path to follow, like it did with me. That's why I love this game :)
Your series “The Park is My Church” is probably one of the most impressive photo series I saw in a while. These pictures are that deep connected with the culture around basketball, that you don’t even have to know that much about the sport itself to feel the passion about it. Can you please tell us a little bit about that series and how it felt working on it?
I believe there's something special with basketball that no other sport has, because it can be played individually or collectively. In big cities, the court is place where everybody meet, interact, play, laugh, cry... no matter the social background, religion or status, it's a cultural and social epicenter in a way. For me, as a ballplayer, the court was my second home, a place of refuge when something is wrong in your life. That's why I entitled this set “The Park is My Church”, because I see the playground as a spiritual place, an open-air confessional with this hoop standing there as a priest, ready to listen to your sorrows. And obviously there's an architectural dimension to a basketball court, I'm quite fascinated by urbanism and how sport fields are integrated within the landscapes. I started this set in 2004 during my first trip to NYC because I was amazed by the variety of designs, textures, colors the courts had and today I'm caught up with this endless pilgrimage around the world, but I realize there's simply too many courts. I won't be able to shoot them all.
Could you imagine doing the same with football or baseball pitches around the world and making it as good as this series was? Or better said, do you think a creative mind is at it’s peak when it combines the things it loves the most?
Over the years, I've seen photographers doing some attempts with soccer mostly, and to be honest, its different. Unless it's shot with a drone, a soccer pitch is less graphic, less textured and without much colors, same for baseball. One difference too is that basketball has internationally known playgrounds, places where the history of the game was shaped and has evolved, it's not only a stadium sport, it's an urban sport, too, that was raised by its environment.
I'm not sure a creative mind needs to be passionate about his subject, one thing I know is that being a basketball player helps me earn a credibility and get access to some stories and relate an authentic vision. That's the most important thing to me. I feel I owe something to the game. I started shooting basketball courts before digital, before Instagram and today I'm happy to see people doing the same thing for their feed but I always push people to bring something new and different.
When I checked your website, I saw that from your professional work as a director and photographer, from branded content and commercials, a lot of things seem to be connected with basketball and urbanity. At the same time your personal work focuses around the same topics. So how exactly did you manage to do the things you love in and outside the office?
It took me almost 10 years to get a name for myself within the basketball world. I wasn't making any money at first but working on bigger projects such as Doin' It In The Park, with a global exposure definitely helped promoting my work. Over the years I developed my own style as a photographer/cinematographer so I guess it had an impact on the jobs I would get, but also it's a question of opportunities. One job for this client helps you get the job for this other client...It's a mad circle sometimes, the more I shoot basketball, the more I get works in basketball. It annoys me sometimes but can't complain right :) haha
All my personal projects are always self-funded, from short films to my independent magazine and photo trips, I enjoy doing my own stuff – it's the best way to free yourself from the client/agency constraints and share your vision, with or without broadcast platform. Creating your own channel of diffusion is something I really believe in.
A lot of people in agencies these days work from 9to5 and then start with their passion-driven work afterwards. What would you advise young creatives to merge both worlds and start earning money with things they love?
It's tough because creatives in agencies already work more than they should, so finding the time to work on a personal project might be a real challenge. When possible, you have to find time to work on your own stuff and slowly develop it and then really commit to it. You can't be a half-time freelancer, it takes a full commitment to build a portfolio and projects, with all the ups & downs that come with it. The good thing with today's youth is that they already master the tools we discovered 3 months ago...
Can you still remember starting your hustle and can you please tell us a little bit about your first years working as a creative?
Freedom, that's the first thing I felt when I quit my job as a commercial & marketing manager for a sport company in France. Photography was a hobby back then but I knew I wanted to become a creative and travel the world. I honestly got lucky because the first project I did as a freelancer, Heart & Soul of New York City got a million views online and helped me get a job as a cinematographer for a documentary series in France. It wasn't a steady job so I had to hustle to get more camera and photography work here and there, but with time your client list gets bigger. Being successful as a freelancer not only depends about your creativity but also depends on your personality, how you behave, your social skills and professionalism.
Was there any big turning point, job or situation where you actually could see you chose the right path sticking with the things you love?
Shooting and directing Heart & Soul of NYC was really a turning point, it was a motivational piece, something that motivated me to keep doing video and documentary. Maybe because it had its small success, but also because I was on my own, in the streets of NYC, to film raw energy and get the best out of it.
What is your set-up when you shoot films and what would you advise amateur photographers starting their story. How can they find their right technique and is there the right gear for it, too?
Oh boy, I started on Canon EOS 5 but quickly bought a medium format camera, a Hasselblad 503CXi. I love shooting film because of the whole process, from shooting the lab, there's something unpredictable that you need to compose with. You feel you are really creating something, too. I also shoot digital for commercial purposes, it's also fun but the drawback is the amount of hours behind the computers needed to work on the photos.
I always advise new photographers to start with film cameras, the basic ones so you learn the technique before going digital where everything is automatic nowadays. I'm not sure the right gear exists, even for me after all these years, I never found the right set up. Sometimes I want to shoot with rangefinder, sometimes a dslr, and other times a medium format...I guess that's every photographer’s problem, equipment is an unsolved mystery.
What is Kevin Couliau without Basketball?
A former skateboarder, video game nerd, traveler... retired photographer :) haha
What’s next for you? Is there another project in the pipeline?
I'm currently working on a book about the impact of basketball around the world, it will be called Sphere of Influence. I already previewed some photos on a big exhibition in Paris last September. I still have some countries/places to explore so while I'm at it, I'm trying to showcase some of my photos on exhibitions here and there. The ultimate goal would be to have some of my photos in art galleries but it's another world ! Early December I will be releasing the new issue of Asphalt Chronicles, my independent magazine about pick-up basketball culture, it will be about Paris and available on my website / www.asphalt-chronicles.com .