Q&A with Dutch lensman Iwan Baan

He’s known as the Indiana Jones of architecture photography. Structures dotted with people are intrinsic to his frames, and his aerial images are iconic. In an email interview with Fiona Fernandez, Dutch lensman Iwan Baan speaks of his tryst with the camera, his mantras and why the Kumbh Mela ranks as one of the highpoints of his celebrated career so far

Q. How did your love affair with capturing buildings begin?
A. I started photographing architecture and the built environment after working and studying in the field of documentary photography for several years. It all fell into place accidentally, after I had the opportunity to collaborate with architect Rem Koolhas on a project. I didn’t (and still don’t) know much about architecture, but when I could see how I could combine my interest in people (documentary) and space (architecture) I fell in love.

Iwan Baan captures a morning scene from Allahabad’s Kumbh Mela. PIC COURTESY/IWAN BAAN
Iwan Baan captures a morning scene from Allahabad’s Kumbh Mela. PIC COURTESY/IWAN BAAN

Q. In your images of buildings, you prefer to include people and not view the structure as a standalone. Why?
A. I’m not an architect, so my relationship with buildings is more of an every-man’s understanding. What I think brings life, expression and purpose to architecture and the built environment, is the people that use the spaces. Also, you often see that an architect will have a perfect plan for a building, and once people move in, things function in a different way than he or she could’ve anticipated. I find these appropriations fascinating.

Makoko, Lagos, Nigeria PICS COURTESY/IWAN BAAN,
Makoko, Lagos, Nigeria PICS COURTESY/IWAN BAAN,

Q. Your work varies from stylised contemporary structures to human interest-inspired images; how is your lens able to capture such diversity?
A. I approach these subjects with a similar lens. Whether I am photographing a highly anticipated, Zaha Hadid building in the heart of Hong Kong, or a self-built, vernacular settlement in the rural parts of China or Africa — you find the same aspirations and pride. Sometimes, I capture buildings where an architect spent decades of time and loads of money, on other occasions, my subject is a farmer who had no choice but to reinvent or re-appropriate materials around him to build a home with his bare hands. In both situations, you have a sense of ownership and pride and this is what speaks to all people on a human level.

Kumbh Mela, Allahabad, India
Kumbh Mela, Allahabad, India

Q. What inspires you about aerial frames? Tell us about your iconic shot of Lower Manhattan after Hurricane Sandy, from a helicopter across New York’s skies?
A. Shooting from the sky allows us to see a building, or city within its context. From the air, we get a better understanding and a richer story. When I realised that all of Lower Manhattan was in the dark, I felt that the only way to really capture the dramatic state was to go up in the air. There wasn’t a lot of air traffic on that day, so the pilot had full freedom to go up as high as I wanted. The higher we climbed, the more you could see how vulnerable the city was.

New York City,  New York, USA
New York City,  New York, USA

Q. What is the one aspect of buildings that fascinates you the most?
A. I am most fascinated by the people in the building; how they take over things and make it their own. This is usually a lot more fascinating than a perfect staircase or a technically impossible façade.

Matsushima, Japan
Matsushima, Japan

Q. What is your advice for aspiring photographers?
A. Find a subject you love and become obsessed with it. After you’ve discovered what you love: photograph, photograph, photograph!

Fogo Island, Newfoundland, Canada
Fogo Island, Newfoundland, Canada

Q. Finally, if you weren't a photographer, you would have been a...?
A. They say photographers are lazy painters. So, I guess, I would have been a painter!

The Kumbh and India

I love to be in India, and anytime I can find an excuse to be there, I try to jump at it. A few years ago, I made a book about Chandigarh (Brasilia-Chandigarh: Living With Modernity), but I have been fascinated by Indian vernacular architecture since I made a trip to the Jantar Mantars across India.

A scene from the Kumbh Mela
A scene from the Kumbh Mela

They are incredible instruments as well as buildings. I attended the Kumbh Mela last year, which was this sensory-consuming festival that I will never forget. I was there with a group from Harvard making a book about the elements that make up this temporary mega-city.

We approached the festival from an urban viewpoint — how does one build a temporary mega-city for the hundred million people who attend it once every 12 years?

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