“I never begin with a set image in my mind; I just make the best of my environment,” he says.
A recent assignment—a portrait of Belgian musician Stromae—illustrates this mindset: Kokken was given 10 minutes for the shoot.
“I found a background that matched his clothes; I got a bottle of ketchup from the kitchen, and asked him to ‘sign’ the table,” Kokken explains. “Then I had just five minutes left. But I enjoy working that way; it gives me a certain freedom.”
Sometimes Kokken finds an interesting situation and constructs an image.
“I saw this tree’s shadow on the wall and asked my daughter Ginger to stand next to it,” he says. “The result is a graphic, hard-contrast image.”
In another example, Kokken posed Ginger so that sunlight through a window becames a frame. “It’s photography ‘à la minute,’” he says.
Kokken loves black-and-white photography for its “artsy” feel.
“I find it a bit surreal and intriguing, since we see everything in color,” he says.
This style suits his portrait and documentary work. For example, he photographed supermodel Elise Crombez at dusk in Tenerife.
“I like that this image is somewhere between a silhouette and a graphic portrait,” he says.
Another photo features twins that Kokken saw at the Hakone Open Air Museum, Japan.
“I took just three shots,” he says, “and this is still a favorite.”
Another black-and-white favorite depicts his wife, Isabelle, after swimming in a lake in Spain. “Partly, I like it because she’s my wife,” he says, “but also, it’s all so heavenly white.”
Kokken makes in-the-moment decisions about whether an image should be black and white or color, after evaluating the situation and the colors presented at the time.
“The scene will tell you which one you need,” he says. “The two images below, for example, wouldn’t have been as strong in black and white.”
He took the first during a break from an assignment in Lisbon for the European Lottery.
“I stepped outside the studio and saw this woman in the most beautiful light, with that red bucket,” he explains. “The scene screamed for a photo.”
“It’s no secret that the pressure on workers in Japan is among the highest in the world,” Kokken says. “To keep up, people take power naps. I’ve seen people falling asleep in the metro and—like this girl—in the coffeeshop. I love the poetry in this image—the beauty in its sadness.”
Kokken grew up on the streets. “It’s adventure, it’s inspiring,” he says.
But it’s also challenging, because it forces him to stay alert.
A favorite subject is the Aalst Carnival in his hometown of Aalst, Belgium—a yearly festival of what Kokken calls “three days and nights of debauchery and anarchy.”
“To me, it’s Valhalla,” he says. “It’s colorful, surreal, and out of this world—and I’m always impressed with the creativity of the locals—like these ‘Tetris’ figures.”
Another favorite photo was shot in 2018, when North Korea was testing missiles.
“When I saw these two rockets crossing the street, I had to capture the image,” he says.
Kokken uses just one camera—a Canon EOS 5D Mark III that he always has on the manual setting—and uses Adobe Photoshop for post-production. “But I don’t really manipulate images,” he explains. “I just do what I used to do in my darkroom: adding vignette, dodging, burning, and playing with color balance and contrast.”
Ideas and concepts sometimes come to Kokken after he’s taken several photos.
“For example, on a trip to Naples, I took a few photos of Vespa drivers and then thought about developing a series,” he says. “Unfortunately, I had to leave two hours after getting the idea—so that will be for my next visit.”
He’s also working on an ongoing series about clouds—another subject that’s transitory in nature.
“I call myself a ‘cloud-head’; I can watch them for hours,” he says. “It’s a kind of meditation.”
Along with regular client assignments, Kokken is working on a coffee-table book called Clouded—a collaboration with writers, artists, and musicians that he hopes to publish in 2020.
Keep up with Guy Kokken on Instagram to see more of his work.