One day, while browsing the interwebs, I’ve come across something very striking. Something so clean, simple, beautiful and minimalist, yet, heavy and soul-crushing. I instantly followed the account on Instagram and couldn’t help myself but come back to scroll through the images once again. And again. And again… By pure magic of the internet, we’ve made contact. I cannot contain the excitement to introduce you to our very first featured photographer – Sushil Nash and his project “SVLEKL”.
– Gus Petrikas
Introduce yourself in one hundred characters or less.
I love taking photos and have a soft spot for minimalism. My Instagram project SVLEKL combines both.
Do you have any background in photography?
I’ve been taking photographs for pretty much as long as I can remember but only as a hobby – I’ve never formally studied it or anything.
Actually there were a few weeks at uni during which we learned the fundamentals of how to operate an SLR and ‘properly’ light a scene and use the rule of thirds and all that… but I think all it taught me was that, if you try really hard, even photography can have all the joy sapped out of it. It was studio-based the whole time and we were just given all these exercises where we would have to try and nail focus on an empty chair or light a scene with only one light or whatever – and it was taken very seriously. A good friend of mine was on the course with me and, by the end, the teacher visibly despised the pair of us – we were just clowning about the entire time.
To be honest, anything I’ve learned that’s stuck with me has just been from going out and having fun with a camera – muddling through, experimenting and making loads of mistakes. I don’t think there’s anything in photography that can’t be grasped like this. I’m a firm believer in that, to be really good at something, you just have to be shit it for long enough. Fingers crossed anyway.
I totally agree. Photography can’t really be taught. You can learn the theory, but beyond that, it’s all just a feeling.
When was the first time you realised you enjoyed taking pictures?
I remember getting a little Kodak compact camera for what was probably my eighth or ninth birthday and being really excited about it. At the time I was really into nature photography – by which I mean I specialised in hopelessly out-of-focus close ups of my mum’s potted plants. Soon after that, a family friend gave me an old Canon AV-1 with a bunch of lenses and that just opened a up a whole world of fun. I had no idea how to use it but I messed about until I figured stuff out. It taught me that, if you put a bit of thought into it, you can actually proactively create interesting images of all sorts of different things – as opposed to just snapping whatever happens to be growing in the hanging baskets by the front door.
I’ve actually just phoned my mum and asked her if she had any of my first photos lying about. She said “I might do but nothing very good. I think there’s a photo of some plant or something”. Clearly I was a talented young lad.
Ah, the “pretty flowers” phase. We’ve all been there.
When / How / Why did you decide that you want to connect your life with minimalism?
I think I’ve adopted various elements and forms of minimalism at different points in my life – so it’s hard to pinpoint a particular “yeah, I like minimalism” moment.
I’ve enjoyed minimalist aesthetics since I was very young. When I was a kid I dreamed of living in a house with clean lines, empty shelves, rooms with lots of white space and so on. And I think that subconsciously crept into my photography at a very early age too. I recently found my old Flickr account from when I was about 16 and, although there’s a real mish-mash of different subjects and styles, I can now see that a lot of the shots are composed of very few elements and there’s a pretty consistent ‘emptiness’ to a lot of the images that I remember really appealed to me. I’m cringing sharing these but here’s a few examples that I was really happy with at the time:
It’s only really in the last few years that I’ve consciously thought about minimalism as more than just a ‘look’ but as a way of living. In the last year or two, I’ve started trying to think carefully about what aspects of my life I truly value and which things really aren’t actually important to me. I used to think of a ‘minimalist lifestyle’ as simply a mission to own as little ‘stuff’ as possible. However, without getting too philosophical, I’ve come to realise that it’s all about being able to distinguish between the things that deserve my focus and energy and the things that simply act as a distraction – and then having the courage to completely get rid of the latter. I think that can be applied to many aspects of life, whether it’s material possessions, relationships, activities or indeed composing photographs. I guess it probably isn’t a coincidence that it was around a year ago that I started trying to push this a bit further in my photography and began experimenting with images for SVLEKL.
So, what is SVLEKL?
Project SVLEKL is a threesome between photography, minimalism and lots of concrete.
How did you come up with the SVLEKL project?
I’ve always enjoyed really simple composition in my images, so SVLEKL is definitely a progression of that. Before I started the project, I had been looking at some of my photographs and thinking about how stripping them back to only their most essential components would exaggerate certain elements and make the images much more striking and impactful. While there’s always been an certain level of simplicity in the way I compose my shots, it had always been somewhat ‘incidental’ – I’d never really played around with proactively making that a part of the concept.
I’ve also always had a soft spot for modernist and brutalist architecture – I love the bold, confident simplicity of it. I can totally see why a lot of people hate the buildings – they’re bleak and somewhat soulless, but that’s part of what fascinates me about them. I think there’s even something intimidating about their oppressiveness but, at the same time, something very calming and reassuring in their un-fussiness and ‘what you see is what you get’ appearance.
What I was trying to do when I started SVLEKL was to try and capture these buildings in a way that would really draw attention to and emphasise that bleakness – but also be somewhat peaceful to look at. I wanted to make a collection of images that, on one hand, felt really imposing and desolate but also had some kind of quietness and tranquility to them at the same time. I’ve ended up peppering it with occasional shots of other subjects but, on the whole, it’s about the imposing structures that can be found in the city.
Well, you absolutely nailed it.
OK, but what does SVLEKL stand for?
SVLEKL doesn’t stand for anything – it’s actually just an irritatingly hard to pronounce Czech word. People (including me) seem compelled to say it really slowly with a kind of… question mark at the end?
I was trying to find a name for my project that meant something along the lines of ‘stark’ or ‘bare’ or stripped back’. I also wanted it to have a really harsh sound to it when it was pronounced so I was thinking maybe Scandinavian or Slavic. I basically just went on Google Translate and typed in a bunch of words and checked them out in various languages until I found one I liked. ‘Stripped’ came out as ’svlekl’ in Czech so I went with that. I’ve since found out that the actual translation is more like ‘undressed’ – it literally only applies to naked people. Apologies to any Czechs that have come to my page expecting boobies and bums.
As people on the internet say, “Came for the ____, stayed for the art”.
Anyway, why Instagram?
Well, I was active on Instagram anyway, so at first I was just uploading images to my usual account as a bit of an experiment. But then I ended up relying on the Willow filter to get the images I wanted – I had to stick with Instagram anyway when I decided to set up a new page for the project.
I do enjoy the social aspect of Instagram and I find it a really useful way to get inspiration for my images. For example, just before I went on holiday to Lisbon last year, I searched #lisbon to find buildings that I liked the look of and then messaged the photographers asking what the building was. I got some ridiculously helpful messages back, telling me about all the places I should check out and how to get to them. Before we’d even got there, I’d planned a route round the city that would allow me to stop at all these places – it was great.
I never saw Instagram as a friendly environment. I suppose people are nice when you’re good at what you’re doing.
What equipment do you use? Or is it a secret?
I don’t use much equipment at all. I tend to shoot with a Canon 80D, edit the images in Photoshop and then upload to Instagram.
There’s no need for tripods, lighting, fancy software or anything like that. In fact, the first few shots I put on the page were shot on my iPhone and weren’t edited at all outside of Instagram – so at that point I was just using a phone and nothing else.
That’s rather impressive. Taking clean shots on a phone is never an easy task.
I always find myself dipping my toe into different styles of photography. I’m curious, how much patience and discipline do you need to maintain the same motive throughout the photos?
I actually somewhat enjoy having to work within quite strict parameters when I’m shooting for SVLEKL. In some ways it makes it easier to get a shot when I spot one because I already know pretty much exactly how I want the image to end up looking. But I certainly couldn’t only shoot these images – for example I really enjoy street photography so I have a separate Instagram account where I just upload whatever I want.
My obsession with a completely uncluttered composition can be a bit frustrating though. For instance when I think I can get a great shot of a building but there’s a ƒu̵c̷ki͏ng tree branch or something between it and my camera and can’t get it out of the frame. That’s annoying.
Trees, power lines, random lamp-posts… We all love those, don’t we?
What motivates you to keep creating these simply beautiful, minimalist images?
That’s very kind – and it’s also probably the thing that motivates me the most. I’ve always really enjoyed the challenge of capturing typically uninteresting or unattractive subjects and trying to make them into something that’s nice to look at.
If I take a picture of some spectacular sunset and people enjoy the image, it’s kind of like ‘well yeah, but nature made it look good for me – I just happened to be there to capture it’. But if I can shoot some big concrete eyesore of an office block that’s probably only a dozen change.org signatures away from demolition – and then have people describe it as ‘beautiful’… that makes me feel good. That’s the motivation.
The art of photography…
Do you capture photos while you’re on-the-go, or do you go out specifically with the goal to snap an image for the project? Can you briefly describe the process?
In terms of capturing the images, it’s a bit of both really. Every now and again I’ll take my camera out specifically to try and find shots for the page but I live in the city centre so I generally just keeping my eyes peeled when I’m wondering about. And I’ll happily use my iPhone for these pictures if I don’t have my camera with me so, logistically, it’s a pretty easy project.
As for the rest of the process, that’s where most of the effort is. When I started, I was capturing these buildings and uploading them to Instagram in really high contrast black and white to exaggerate the form of the buildings. But the images just looked a bit uninspiring when viewed on their own and felt a bit aggressive when viewing a bunch of them alongside each other. So I deleted them all and tried using the Willow filter which gave a slightly pink tint to the highlights, and made the sky look kind of warm and and serene. I thought this softened them up a bit and made them slightly more peaceful to look at, so I decided to stick with that.
After a while, I decided I wanted to simplify the images further so, instead of just sticking the Instagram filter on to add that colour into the highlights, I chose one specific pink and used it to colour the entire sky in each image. I was way happier with the images after that as it meant that the sky was completely flattened out with no gradient or texture from clouds. Also, it means all the images are consistent from one to the next, even if the lighting conditions are completely different. The only other thing I do is to remove any unnecessary elements from the composition such as nearby buildings or trees or whatever.
If you could give one piece of advice to an aspiring minimalist photographer, what would it be and why?
For me, minimalism is about stripping away anything that distracts from what really matters to you. So, if you want to be a minimalist photographer you need to to be clear on what you’re trying to present in your images and find a way of photographing it that really emphasises it. What makes your images ‘minimalist’ isn’t the amount of white space or you can fit into the frame, it’s how acutely you manage to hone in on your particular subject and how successful you are in eliminating any distractions from it.
Absolutely. After all, minimalism is not about emptiness, it’s about the elements that get emphasised by emptiness.
Besides SVLEKL, are there any other ways people can follow your work?
My other Instagram account is @sushilnash which is where I post any other photos I take.
Thank you very much for this interview and for your time, Sushil. I feel really proud and honoured to have such a great creative on this magazine.
Make sure to follow SVLEKL on Instagram, and don’t forget to show him some love in comments.
All images on this article belong to Sushil and his SVLEKL project.