Photographer Tom Cheater discusses the thoughts, processes and techniques behind his sublime Kyrgyzstan photo series
How would you describe your photographic practice in a couple of sentences?
It's a mix of minimalist and topographic photography. I try to capture the identity of a place through its shapes and patterns in the landscape.
What was it about Kyrgyzstan that inspired you to create a photographic series?
I was living in Kyrgyzstan at the time and I took my camera with me wherever I went so these are some of the places I saw during my time there. When I moved, I was intentionally looking for somewhere completely unfamiliar, somewhere I would feel out of my comfort zone. There is something about Central Asia as a region that feels completely unknown; it's in the middle of a lot of places and is often overlooked. That was definitely part of the attraction for me. Having said that, all the images I'd seen of Kyrgyzstan online made it look like the most extraordinary country and I couldn't wait to get out there.
It seemed like Kyrgyzstan already had its own colour palette and I kept seeing a lot of similar features in the landscape. This gave a nice consistency to the photos and although they're all of different places, I like how you can see the same folds in the hills or patterns in the snow melting on the mountains. As a lot of my photos are minimalistic, I'm quite drawn by landscapes that are quite stark, almost bleak. Sometimes, you can pick out one detail to focus on or something which puts everything in proportion. In Kyrgyzstan, these kind of shots were everywhere.
"It seemed like Kyrgyzstan already had its own colour palette and I kept seeing a lot of similar features in the landscape."
Where else do you get your inspiration from? Do you have any key sources such as work from other photographers, films, books, or anything else?
Some obvious big names are Andreas Gursky, Steve McCurry and the New Topographics. I recently went to an exhibition of Sebastiao Salgado's work from the Amazon and it was an absolute masterclass of capturing the identity of a place. I also really like Catherine Hyland, particularly her photos of China and Mongolia and Jess Gough, whose Topographies capture landscapes and geologies in the most beautiful way.
Instagram is obviously a constant source of inspiration and I always find new photographers I like: Andy Smith (andys_eyes), Dan Burn-Forti (burn4t) and Jacob Howard (jacobhoward.work). I've also been told my photos remind them of Wes Anderson films - I can see it but I don't think one guy can own straight lines and symmetry!
What was your general process for getting these shots, did you plan your route/ shoots in advance or was a lot led by opportunity?
You don't have to go very far to see something incredible in Kyrgyzstan. My favourite photos were mostly taken on the way to somewhere else; there was a lot of pulling over in the middle of nowhere. So in that sense, I didn't have much of a plan and I wasn't looking for anything in particular. I would just photograph whatever I saw and I think that made for a more realistic overall picture of the country rather than photographing places that have already been shot so many times before. I came away with my own shots of the Kyrgyzstan that I saw which I think means so much more.
"You don't have to go very far to see something incredible in Kyrgyzstan. My favourite photos were mostly taken on the way to somewhere else; there was a lot of pulling over in the middle of nowhere."
What were the difficulties or obstacles in creating this series?
A lot of these photos were taking during long journeys. Finding places to photograph was easy - I think the hardest thing was accepting I would pass by a lot of incredible shots and just hoped that I would remember the places and sights I didn't stop for. You can't take them all!
In terms of physical obstacles, there are parts of Kyrgyzstan that are harder to access than others; some places can only be reached on horseback, others you have to avoid huge unexpected holes in the road or herds of goats. Some of the photos were taken in an area called the "Chinese Border Zone" which, depending on the mood of the guards at the checkpoint, requires different documentation to what you may have been told...I learnt that you can see the same stretch of road differently the second time round (once you have the papers you need!) and that patience is a virtue!
"Finding places to photograph was easy - I think the hardest thing was accepting I would pass by a lot of incredible shots and just hoped that I would remember the places and sights I didn't stop for. You can't take them all!"
How did you choose which images appeared in the final series and what is your favourite photo?
I think they're all quite simple shots - there's not too much going on but at the same time, they show the variety of Kyrgyzstan. This sounds quite obvious but they're all taken from my viewpoint, exactly as I was looking at them - I'd sort of pivot around until things lined up neatly in the viewfinder rather than experimenting with different angles. I slowly got better at recognising places that I would photograph well or seeing themes that went with shots I'd already taken and that really helped me to develop my own style as a photographer.
I'm not sure I have a favourite but I do really like the photos where there is nothing to suggest the scale of the photo and the viewer is left to imagine and interpret the landscape however they want to.
The minimalist look is very strong throughout the series. What, in your opinion, makes a good minimalist composition?
By definition, there isn't much going on in a minimalist photo so composition is almost everything. There doesn't always have to be a focal point but, if there is one, I think it helps if it's in a comfortable place in the photo. I'm not much of a rule-breaker so the rule of thirds definitely helps but I try to push it as far as I can - some of my photos are mostly sky! I also like to think of a frame as a collection of shapes rather than trying to capture something perfectly. I think it would be quite easy to recreate my photos as Matisse cut-outs!
"I'm not much of a rule-breaker so the rule of thirds definitely helps but I try to push it as far as I can - some of my photos are mostly sky!"
Your images have a beautiful aesthetic running throughout, what did you do in post-production to get the best look for the series?
I tend to boost the exposure by a couple of stops (or at least as far as I can get away with!) but other than that, it's just minor adjustments to make what I saw look its best.
Also, I'd love to rely on my own steady hands but I think a lot of the aesthetic comes from things lining up neatly so I make sure to straighten all my shots and correct any lens distortion. I don't like to do too much, especially when you're trying to show a place as it really is.
Have you any future plans to expand this series (such as books, exhibitions, more images, more trips etc.)
I've been planning to put a book together for a while now; publishing online is great but it's also really nice to have something tangible to show for your work. I'm always looking for the next place to photograph and I have a long, long list of all the places I'd like to go and photograph next, some far away and exotic but quite a few in the UK as well. I'd also really like to try that Matisse idea too!
More of Tom's work:
See more from this series and others in Tom's Picfair Store and on his website.