In September 2018, photographers Clément Chapillon, Ricardo Nagaoka, Francesca Allen and Brant Slomovic spent 10 days travelling across California. Commissioned by British Journal of Photography, in partnership with Visit California, the resulting bodies of work shed light on the lesser known sides of the state.
“I was a photographer long before I was a doctor,” says Brant Slomovic. “My mum was an avid amateur so we had a darkroom in our house – I would often spend weekends loading film onto spools.” When Slomovic enrolled at medical school, aged 18, his life took a different turn. “At the time, my speciality was extremely competitive,” he says. “I worked really hard and got caught up in momentum. Photography just fell out of my life.”
Ten years ago, after several decades as a practising accident and emergency doctor, Slomovic started taking photographs again. “It has made my life richer,” he reflects. “I don’t think I would be as positive, or as good a doctor, if I didn’t take photographs. It gives me a vitality when I return to the hospital.” Slomovic rejects the term ‘balance’ when describing his current set up. “For me, medicine and photography live side by side,” he says. “One requires the other and they inform each other.”
A lifestyle that allows Slomovic to engage in both photography and medicine, without compromise or hierarchy, took several years to perfect. One of the greatest challenges was allowing himself the space to realise the importance of photography in his life, and the courage to pursue it. “There is often a sense that you need to justify what you do,” says Slomovic. “I initially found it challenging to put a stake in the ground and say: ‘This is what I do and this is the most important thing to me.’”
It was partly this realisation that inspired a new project. Photographed in California over 10 days, Wild Flowers explores the importance of nature in realising and connecting with your authentic self. “Often we turn to places of natural beauty for moments of solitude, contemplation and retreat,” writes Slomovic. “The portraits [that form the series] are of people engaging with their passions, being brave and cutting against the grain, committing to something unexpected or unconventional, and – in doing so – living their authentic selves.”
Slomovic came across Rogerio, a rock climber and the owner of an adventure climbing company, on a rugged stretch of coastline in Malibu, southern California. Several years ago, Rogerio began instructing people in his spare time. It quickly snowballed and now, as his full time occupation, Rogerio spends every day scaling cliff faces along the coast. Elsewhere, in San Francisco, Slomovic photographed a group of open water swimmers. Most of the swimmers go into the ocean every day of the year; they find that everyday concerns slip away when they enter the water. “Priorities change when you are in nature,” agrees Slomovic. “You lose yourself in space and time: it is really healthy.”
Slomovic has been visiting California for many years. “It is a place where I can naturally fit in,” he says. “There is something about the West Coast mentality. You are often on the coast or near mountains, and always a step away from something incredibly beautiful.” Needless to say, he did not have to look far to find subjects, the majority of which he stumbled upon by chance. “I was searching for a way to show what I love about California and what inspires me about the place,” he says. “I wanted to connect with people who are living in a way that reflects how I want to live and move through the world.”
For Slomovic, the interactions he has with the people he photographs bear equal importance to the resulting portraits. “If a photograph does not work, I have no regrets because the connection I have with the person is far more important,” he says. Such an engaged approach is borrowed from his profession as a doctor. “Medicine has given me the skill to interact with people in an intimate way,” he says. “It has taught me how to walk into a room, introduce myself with confidence and often just listen.” When taking someone’s portrait, Slomovic employs a similar approach. “I am very comfortable walking up to someone, engaging with them, and often delving into personal subjects very quickly.”
Slomovic has been pursuing photography alongside medicine for some time. The Meet California commission, however, marked a new step in his photographic journey. “For this assignment – to go deeper and find a new level of authenticity – I wanted to allow chance encounters to fully realise themselves,” he says. “I was looking to make less rigid work [in concept] – I allowed myself to let go of preconceived ideas and shot lists.” This is markedly different from his usual approach. “I often want to achieve specific things and take certain pictures, whereas in California I allowed myself to engage with people in a much looser way.”
For Slomovic, Wild Flowers was more than documenting Californians being bold in their surroundings. The project was deeply personal too: in California Slomovic was pursuing his authentic self.
Words: Anya Lawrence
Meet California is a British Journal of Photography commission made in partnership with Visit California. Please click here for more information on sponsored content funding at British Journal of Photography.