Peter Coulson [koukei] – Australian Photographer
Interview: Kate Andrews
Peter Coulson has been the subject of many an interview due to the provocative nature of his work.
He has images with themes of religion, angels, devils, bondage, nightmares, innocence, sexuality and power.
When I meet up with him it is a candid, open person that greets me. This is a man who has lived a bit and come to some conclusions about who he is and what his beliefs are. He has survived three major career changes, a breakdown and a gradual, dark rebirth into the world of fashion and editorial photography.
He has been showered in awards (2011 Canon AIPP Australian Fashion Photographer of the Year, 2010 Canon AIPP Australian Professional Photographer of the Year, 2010 Canon AIPP Australian Commercial Photographer of the Year, 2011 Epson AIPP Victorian Commercial Photographer of the Year, 2010 Epson AIPP Victorian Commercial/Advertising Photographer of the Year, 2010 Epson AIPP Victorian Illustrative Photographer of the year, 2010 Runner-up Epson AIPP Victorian Professional Photographer of the Year) yet maintains these are not what he works towards.
For Peter, as with many photographers, their personal work is the deepest and most accurate reflection of what really drives them.
His images are a breath of fresh and charged air in a world of beige.
If you are interested in the man behind images such as (please excuse me as I describe some in layman’s terms) The ‘KKK Series’, ‘The Meaning of Life’ (a girl naked, in bondage heels with a noose around her neck, one of his personal favourites), The pregnant woman in a burkha carrying an AK47, the angel on a stripper pole, the Gasmasked angel, a Hitler theme with a halo, a male dancer en pointe giving another indeterminate looking female a blowjob, A bound woman with her guts spilling out, read on. Make sure you look beyond your initial response to his work – as he is fan of saying ‘you look at my picture and tell me something about yourself ‘.
How long have you been a photographer?
I started selling photos at 17 but I got into it full time at 40. I’m now 52 so 12 years.
How would you define your photography?
I try and put a twist or sense of humour into it – it doesn’t always work but that’s what I try to do. I have ideas in my head and when I see a shape that’s right I click the button.
I’ve got 2 different types of photography; there’s stuff I love doing. Then there’s beauty.
With beauty I’m trying to capture the essence of a person, I’m trying to capture what’s on the inside.
Whereas my other stuff I’m trying to create something on the outside.
What inspires you to pick up the camera?
Just to create something. I can’t sing I can’t paint…
You have gone by Koukei for a while. What is the origin of this name?
I used to be in a partnership and it came from there.
I worked with a makeup artist and I got really hooked on the fashion industry so I put myself (and her) through makeup school but she said ‘this isn’t for me’ and bailed…Having a name has been a hindrance so I have moved it across to my workshops and studio.
I recommend to anyone if they want be a photographer you should run under your own name. Your name is what people are going to book.
What has been your career highlight thus far?
Winning the awards was amazing, blew me away but they’re not a personal satisfy..creating an image and doing the In My Pants Book is more rewarding. They are my best achievements.
The awards are professional acknowledgement aren’t they?
It sounds silly but I wasn’t entering to win. I entered to get my Masters and get some recognition. But it’s recognition only within the industry. Outside the industry couldn’t give a rats. It gave me confidence not work.
People stealing my work. It’s an ongoing battle.
What do you feel sets you apart from other photographers?
I’ve always been extremely fussy I always look at an image and say what’s wrong with this? What can I fix? I have a vision and I push hard to try and create that. There’s a feel before the first photo is even taken and a fair bit of talking about that. Then there’s what I like; shape, I love a twist, messed up…I couldn’t get over the image I did win an award for – not one of the judges saw the ‘member’ in a topless girls pants. [refers to shot of female model with a dildo down her pants] The story to that is ‘Watch out what comes with your boyfriends undies when you put them on!’ I want to add more than just a pretty girl – the little twists at the end I’m into more. A lot of fashion bores me. A lot of clients play it safe. They’re very emotionally attached to the product because they’ve spent hours designing their range but they’ve forgotten that everybody else in the world will see just another blue dress.
What is your greatest fear as an artist?
Rejection. The fashion industry is a good one for that!
Can I backtrack as you’ve been in the industry for 12 years and are in a different personal and professional space and have reached a certain level of success. When you were just starting out did you have a different fear?
No…My fear’s almost not rejection cos you book me for me or you book someone to click a button.
So many times a client will say ‘we want you’re stuff, go over the top’ and then they’ll say ‘you’ve gone too far’. People are afraid of losing their job. But I’ve had the reverse of that too. Where I’ve thought ‘they’ll never go for this’ and then say ‘the reason we’ve booked you is because we want out there’. Even the people around me have said things that have put me off.
What do you mean? That you’ve dumbed down your work?
No the opposite. Like you’re going to do that?
And that starts to make me think and all my best work is when I’ve not told anybody what I’m about to do and I have a model who is ‘I want to do anything, there’s no such thing as messed up’.
I look at Ellen Von Unwerth, David La Chapelle and Helmut Newton who all have people around them that just let them do what they wanna do.So I’m trying to reconnect with models that know that I’m trying to create amazing images and to tell other people (who hold me back) to go away. That’s one of the reason I don’t have assistants…A painter paints in an empty room don’t they?
Do you ever feel as a bloke you are judged more harshly for the subject matter that you choose?
A hundred times. Just working in the fashion industry. I’ve said to other female photographers ‘you can do that and I can’t’. I’ve been happily married for 28 years and I have no interest in anything other than creating images. A naked body is a naked body. It’s no different to an aboriginie walking in the bush naked. I don’t see anything different.
Has that ever affected your relationship as I know it has for other male photographers?
My wife knows me.
I edit in a room anybody can see.
I don’t have single password.
I don’t have locked files.
She can pick up my home 24/7 there’s not even a pin code.
Have you ever had periods where you are uninspired? How do you deal with this?
Yes but I try not to have them for too long. It’s normally because I haven’t found the person to shoot what I’ve got in my head.
I s’pose it’s like writing a song in the sense that melody may come first or music instead. Do you look at a model and then become inspired or have ideas for a shoot first and then find the right model?
I have all my storyboards and I’ve got books and books of squiggles but then I need the model to match the idea.
What is the hardest thing about being a photographer?
I have a picture I want to create, I have a person standing there and getting them to trust me– especially if I haven’t worked with them before. I have models I have worked with and done everything I can do with them. I need a new set of models. Models like Natascha trust me with anything but she’s not inspiring me because she’s this and I’m moving into that.
What shoot has made a lasting impression on you and why? Has there been anything you have taken home or which has thrown you into question?
There’s a shoot ‘Meaning to Life’ which is a ballerina with the hangman’s noose around her neck. Donna on the ironing board – just that expression on her face. She gave me the exact expression I wanted. The women in uniform series, Gemma, Kiki in the burkha, Evie doing the KKK, all three of them are really strong to me because I was able to get people to start talking but they couldn’t pick my view. There’s nothing that says what my view of those situations were. They just got people talking.
What do you make of the statement that photographer’s fall in love with their subjects in order to get the best out of them?
I’m 150% against that.
To me the best photographer’s in the world are not looking at that person as anything personal.
As soon as you do, goodbye, end of photo.
I have a rule if I got aroused on a shoot I would go home. That’s why I can’t shoot my wife.
I’m a fan of Peter Demarchelier, Peter Lindberg, Helmut Newton as they have such distinct styles cos they are interested emotionally in their subject, not interested sexually. They get this look out of them with the way they talk to them. Photographers and models don’t mix. To me it’s like student-teacher relationship. If it’s going to happen then quit.
How would you describe the relationship with you work? Does your work define you or the other way around?
It does a bit. I’ve got a messed up sense of humour, I’ve got messed up thoughts.
I’m the person that laughs at the joke that comes out 2 seconds after Michael Jackson (died)…Cos even though I’m put off cos he died I’m the one that says oh my god you can’t say that and still laugh! Sometimes humour stops you getting too upset, too emotional, destroying your life because of what happened. I’m having a big problem at the moment cos a lot of my work that I want to do the world has gone disgusting to it and I now feel sickened by the way people think about things. The people that see something wrong in images – there’s something wrong in them if that’s the way their mind feels.
Do you think the pendulum will swing the other way eventually? As you mentioned earlier we’re currently in a state of any kind of nudity is frowned upon and treated like it’s shot by a sexual predator or will be seen as such.
Yeah it’s coming back to Americanisms. Helmut Newton once said ‘you can’t have bosoms or a vagina in America. They’re not allowed.’ He went on a bit about how America has the worst pornography in the world but they’re the ones with the highest censorship laws. It’s a moral double standard. You can’t put the Statue of David on facebook. We measured it – 1cm of butt crack is enough to have a picture taken down!
Are you ever surprised by the end result of your work?
Yeah I did a hair shoot the other day and the first shot I just thought…how did I do that?!
Is everything carefully crafted or instinctive?
Instinctive. The shoots that are the best are the ones that evolve. The more I work the more I really like it. If it’s all planned out it gets stale by the time you shoot it.
What’s the main feeling you have during shooting?
Depends on the shoot and what I’m trying to achieve. It might be strong/powerful, or sense of humour or androgyny I’m going for…and I’ll choose music that will fill the studio with that feeling. Then I’ll talk in a certain way; if it’s an aggressive shoot I’ll talk loudly if it’s a beauty shoot I’ll soften right down.
I want to ask this one again in succession with another. How would you describe your work. How would others describe your work?
Messed up sense of humour with someone who is a fanatic on photography. I like to put my fingerprint into a picture as in ‘this is how I will make you look.’ Then there’s my other work which is my way of saying look at this messed up world.
And what do people say to you about that?
I don’t want to be a shock jock. There’s stories behind what I’m doing. I have a lot of people ask me what is my story – that annoys me.
They ask what is my story behind that picture and I’d rather treat them as a mirror. You look at my picture and tell me something about yourself.
At any point have you felt ‘this is tough’ or needed to go through a process when people have been negative about your work?
No, the reactions that upset me are when people attack the model’s in my photos. If they look skinny it’s cos I made them pose skinny or I might’ve lit them to bring out bones.
You have numerous images with bondage-freedom and angel-devil themes. Does this subject matter come about consciously?
I grew up on horror movies so I love the yin and yang of the world. If there’s black there must be white, if there’s good there must be bad…I actually hate angel wings but they always end up in my pictures!
Finish these sentences:
Life is awesome when…I don’t have to photoshop.
I would like to die…no I wouldn’t! I’m hoping I move on to some other plain…
When the shit hits the fan…duck!
When I’m angry…calm down.
When I’m happy…life’s good.
I am inspired by…inspiring people.
Creativity is…an open mind.
Passion is…a way of life.
Music means…is my life. It sets my heartbeat.
Tell us something quirky about you?
I used to have hair down to my arse and was a goth before goth was invented.
When I first got my Hasselblad it slept between my wife and I in the bed.
Do you have scars or tattoos you can tell us about?
I’ve got a scar on my neck where I got a lump removed! I’ve made up heaps of stories about that one; it was a knife wound…I had a scar on the back of my hand. For my 7th grade birthday I got given a pocket knife and my brother threw it at me. And it stuck into my hand.
Tattoos…I would have loved to have them but I never could think of something I knew I’d want there in 20 years. The one thing I was thinking of doing it was the 4 symbols of the members of Led Zeppelin.
What is the most important subject matter for you to shoot at this stage of your career?
Unfortunately I’ve been doing too much commercial work and not doing enough of my own work. Yeah I’ve got a lot of messages I’d love to tell and scream out…
What is one of the messages you’re keen to express?
Religions. Too many bad things happened because of religion. I hate that people hide within their religion or belief and do bad things to others and using the religion as a shield.
Best piece of advice?
Pay it Forward is a movie and it’s made a huge impact. It’s an American tear jerker that affected me so strongly. It’s about a kid who did a school assignment about one thing that could change the world. And he came up with Pay if Forward.
Everyone has ‘I’ll pay you back’ and you’re obliged. Pay if forward is I’ll freely give it you and you can help someone freely give it to them, not me.
Unconditional giving. That’s my religion.
Where would you like to be in 5 years time?
I just want to be and international photographer, I don’t want to be tied to any one country.
Australia is till my favourite but I’m limited to what I can do here.
The work is so much stronger in Europe. Australia is still a bogan country. I love it but we’re the Frankston of the world! Especially in fashion and art. And the tall poppy syndrome is still big in Australia. Australia like to see people fail…
So I’m starting to get an idea of who you are – there’s a generosity of spirit with the pay it forward stuff…how was it when you were growing up?
I went through different stages. When I was 30 I had a mini breakdown. I thought I was sitting rocking in the office for 5 minutes but I was there for 6 hours. It was a business I had 18 staff, a lot of stress – this was just a making money business – and my fly fishing and photography were hobbies at that point. I was still shooting for magazines then but not full time. It was when I spat the dummy and kicked that away that I was shooting for the magazines more.
So what did you do after that bad period?
I just realised there was more to life..I was very money driven, I had road rage, I was angry at people, would fly off the handle really easily, everything was aggressive. I smoked, drank too much coffee…then would take a week off and spend 20 grand on a holiday because I needed that release to get away from work. Once I had the (breakdown) it was like a weight was lifted. Life’s too short for that.
How do you find peace? Music.
If the world was to end tomorrow what would you do tonight?
Dig out the most expensive bottle of alcohol. Go to my favourite restaurant then get a copy of Django and watch it with my wife.
If you weren’t a photographer what would you be?
In this day and age, probably a DJ.
What advice would you offer emerging fashion photographers?
Having a passion of what you do, understanding the industry for what it is…Watch September Issue and if you don’t get it don’t be a fashion photographer. Because it’s not what you think. You need to look at the context a picture is going to be used in. The industry’s not going to even look at you unless you’ve been there for 10 years.
See more of Peter’s work here.