Born in Peshtigo, Wisconsin, Kurt William Kamka is a sought after documentary photographer who shoots street, non-profit and NGO assignments throughout Southeast Asia. After living his whole life in the US, Kurt relocated to Asia in 2011 and is now based in Manila, Philippines, where he uses his camera to document his unique view of the human condition. Kamka has taught workshops in Manila, Singapore and the United States and his incisive images have been exhibited in Singapore, the Philippines and the US. He is currently in the midst of shooting a multi-year street photography/street portrait project, “Plain Manila” that documents the day-to-day complexities of community life in Manila. Prior to pursuing photography full-time, Kamka racked up over twenty years of experience working in advertising for some of the largest global brands including P&G, US Bank, Firestone, Bayer, McDonalds, Nikon, Samsung, UCB, Delta Airlines and others.
Q: How would you describe your photography?
A: It’s simply a reflection of the people that I meet in the streets and neighborhoods of Manila or any other city I happen to be wandering through at the time. I’ve always been fascinated with documentary photography and street portraits that have a way of helping the viewer get a glimpse into a place through the eyes and expressions of its people. My photography is probably a combination of street portrait, street and documentary photography. I try to make certain that my photography is immersive and that it connects with the subject and the viewer while staying emotive, authentic and fearless.
When I arrived in the Philippines three years ago, I was interested in trying to understand more about the people, the city and the culture. My photography is a photographic journal of the people that I encounter as I wander through the streets of Manila – whether it is through the city’s financial district or the humblest of the barrios.
As I think back on the time I’ve spent here, I continue to be influenced by the young and old people that I meet in the best and the worst of conditions who are unafraid to avoid conformity and false consistency. They follow their own instincts and ideas. I hope that even a small amount of their sweat of self-reliance and faith in a better future is reflected in my photography.

Q: You noted that all the images in your Manila portfolio were shot with the Leica Monochrom. What is it that you find especially compelling about the black-and-white medium for your type of documentary photography?
A: For me, black-and-white photography has always felt like the perfect medium for an artist to express a point of view. Without color as a distraction, a photographer can capture a portrait or a moment that seems so much more quickly accessible to the viewer. Stripped of color, a great B&W photo is all about light and is, as a result, raw, incisive and soulful. In my Manila portfolio, I try to convey a quest for connection with my subjects. The background is secondary.
Q: What features or characteristics of the Monochrom did you find especially useful? Which M lens or lenses did you use for your Manila project?
A: One of the biggest strengths of the Monochrom is a usable ISO level that stretches all the way to 10,000. Combined with fast lenses, it allows me to grab a single lens and shoot whatever and wherever I want without having to worry about carrying a lot of extraneous gear. It provides me with the flexibility to peek down dark alleys, step into the night, and challenges me to continually think about alternative approaches to shots. When I look at the files, the images that the Monochrom produces are striking on the screen and in print.
In addition, I’ve found the raw files that the camera outputs to be extremely malleable in nature. That means that I can manipulate a file after the shot, if needed, to get me close to what I visualized when I took the picture.
My Leica M lens kit includes just three lenses: a 21 mm Super-Elmar, Summilux 35 mm ASPH. and an APO-Summicron 50 mm ASPH. I like lenses that are sharp and provide excellent clarity.

Q: Did you have any formal education in photography, with a mentor, or were you self-taught? Was there a photographer or type of photography that influenced your work or inspired you?
A: Most of my career has been spent in advertising and other creative industries. Photography was an outgrowth of that need to want to document and express what I’m seeing.
Through their creativity and attention to the human condition, there are many photographers who have inspired me and will continue to do so on a daily basis. By viewing their work, they’ve impressed on me the need to walk in the same path as my subjects – to be curious, to keep looking for the why and that the world responds to images with heart.
My biggest influences include William Albert Allard, William Klein, David Alan Harvey, Dorothea Lange, Saul Leiter and Robert Frank.

Q: How did studying the work of the iconic photographers you cited influence your creative process and the type of projects you focus on?
A: Most of the photographers that I mentioned are old-school in that their collection, documentation and interaction with their subject matter lasted for a length of time that provided them with the opportunity achieve lasting, big-picture observations. Someone who drops into a country or to record an event for several weeks can provide some insightful visuals about a story or project. But with a longer-term perspective, I believe that the visuals produced have more depth that is more devoid of cliché. Over the three years that I’ve photographed in the Philippines, I’ve managed to gather an extensive collection of images that could be edited into many types of projects. I’m hopeful that the selectivity that it affords me can only strengthen the final output of the work.
Q: What approach do you take with your photography or what does photography mean to you?
A: I believe that photos highlight our shared experience in a profound way that lingers and resonates in our shared conscious like no other medium (except music). When at their most inspirational or provocative peak, photos can move our emotions, comfort us, help us cross cultural borders and speak without using language.

Q: The image of three young girls “telling secrets” is a classic that immediately makes you smile because of its Norman Rockwell-esque quality of witnessing a universal situation that is instantly identifiable. Do you agree, and can you tell us where and how you shot this charming picture?
A: That’s such a wonderful compliment. The picture is from a squatter or illegal settlement in one of the barrios in metro Manila. Metro Manila is one of the most densely populated cities in the world. The barrio neighborhoods in Manila are so crowded that it is often very difficult for a photographer to get a shot off without a subject being aware of their presence, especially if you stand out as a foreigner with light hair who just happens to be wandering down a narrow, tightly-packed street teeming with life.
Mostly, when I see shots like this that I want to shoot, neighbors, dogs, roosters or small children yelling “Hey Joe” announce my presence and the moment is lost. This morning, however, I know that this particular secret had to be good as I was able to push the shutter before these three girls discovered my presence.
I’m very influenced, as we all are, by the world that we grow up in. Growing up in a small town, the pace of life is slower. As a result you tend to think carefully about small things that unite a community. I really think that finding the universal in an expression, mannerism or point-of-view is important for trying to help the viewer relate to a photograph. The quicker the recognition, the easier it is to help them dig deeper into an image.

Q: The image of two young children happily dousing themselves with water from a pipe conveys the simple joy of childhood but also embodies a strong sense of place, and even the nature of the society in which these kids are growing up. One of the things enhancing the graphic impact of this image is that the splashing water is frozen in mid-air. Can you tell us where you took this shot, what it means to you, and provide the EXIF data for this image?
A: As we move further and further away from just being kids, we realize that our childhood and, often our lives, are reduced to a series of moments that are frozen in time. Those moments somehow end up defining, limiting or conversely inspiring us for the rest of our lives.
This photo is of children who, along with their families, have been moved from a squatter settlement to more permanent housing away from metro Manila. The squatter village from which they moved was unhygienic and was built with discarded materials that made the family’s well-being subject to the ravages of floods and earthquakes. Many of the families in the new housing settlement had previously been working and living on top of an enormous garbage dump.
Although the new housing settlement that many families like this are moved to can be small and crowded, it may be the first time many of these children and their families have had an experience with housing that is safe, permanent and includes luxuries like electricity, proper sanitation and clean, running water. Hopeful, fresh, clean starts like these are certain to live in the memories of these children.
The photo was taken with the Leica Monocrom and the 35 mm Summilux ASPH., f/2, ISO 320, 1/2000.

Q: The picture of a seated young man with his shirt over one shoulder smiling beatifically as he cuts vegetables with a knife embodies a quality of sublime acceptance even though he is evidently sitting in an alcove off a rubble-strewn street performing a menial task. Do you think this is a relevant observation, and what do you think this picture says about life in Manila?
A: In the barrios and the squatter villages, there isn’t a lot of crying, wailing and gnashing of teeth. Filipinos have a reserve of happiness and kindness that is remarkable. Unfortunately, that streak of good humor is often tested on a daily basis by their place in a country where the government often fails to provide basic services and support.
From what I’ve seen, the people live their lives in a way that is filled more with resilience than acceptance. Their sense of humor and connectedness to their families and neighbors propels them forward. Living day-to-day and sometimes meal-to-meal places their consciousness squarely in the now. Mostly, in many of these communities there is a palpable atmosphere of waiting and boredom. Without access to reliable transportation, public services, adequate healthcare or the resources to get anywhere or anything quickly, patience truly is virtuous.

Q: There is certainly a tragic and world-weary quality expressed in your compelling portrait of a middle-aged woman with deep lines in her face posed against a closed metal barrier. There is dignity in her unforgettable face and sad eyes, but, like the door in the background, opportunity seems to be closed to her. Who is this woman, do you know her story, and can you please provide the tech data for this image?
A: I stop and talk with many of the people that I encounter on the street — sometimes before and sometimes after I take a photograph. Many times, however, not a word is exchanged in the attempted connection. Mostly it’s a well-choreographed dance of body language and facial expressions that help me understand whether the subject is OK with me stopping or would prefer that I move on.
I think that we’re all drawn to different types of faces and expressions. Personally, I like to photograph faces where I can feel a connection with the person that is to be photographed. In the end, I think that we all like to feel that we matter. If I can convey that feeling in my body language and facial expressions, I know that I’ll have a greater success in capturing the feeling that I’m seeing on the subject’s face.
In taking this photograph, no words were spoken. I simply approached her, raised an eyebrow to gain an approval for a photo and pushed the shutter release. A subject can quickly lose track of what they were thinking about if a photo attempt with a stranger takes too long. The approach, approval, push of the shutter release, thank you, and walk away was probably less than a 5-second interaction.
The photograph was taken with the Leica Monochrom and the 50 mm Summilux ASPH., 1/125 sec at f/3.4, ISO 1000.
Q: How do you see your photography evolving over, say the next few years and do you plan to explore any genres other than documentaries, street photography, and photojournalism?
A: If you have a passion for photography and try to use the medium to express your vision of how you see the world, I believe that you are always open to a variety of different ways of expressing that passion. I’ve concentrated on a style that borrows from documentary, photojournalism and street photography over the past few years because I believe that these genres have offered me the best vehicles through which to relay what I have experienced, satisfy my curiosity and tell the stories that I wanted to tell.
As my style continues to evolve over the next few years, I hope to continue to work in a way that tries to blend disciplines in unexpected ways. One possibility is trying to find simple universal ways to express complex situations and ever-evolving street scenes. In this respect, painters like Kandinsky fascinate me.
Q: Do you have any new projects on your agenda that you can talk about? And do you plan to publish these images in a print or online book, exhibit them in photo galleries or present them in any other public venues?
A: I’m in the process of organizing a series of these photos into a finished project that I hope to publish shortly in either an online or print book. If others feel that the work is strong enough, I’d certainly welcome the opportunity to exhibit it in a gallery setting as well.
Q: How do you think this experience of shooting this Manila portfolio, and other Manila images not included, will enrich your photographic work going forward?
A: The experience has already had a great impact on my photography. Mostly, it’s a direct result of interacting with Filipinos on a daily basis. The warmth, the smiles and the personalities of the people are what truly set the Philippines apart as a photography destination. As a result, I believe that my photography has become much more immersive, intimate and authentic. In three years, I’ve never encountered a person on the street that has showed the slightest hesitation in allowing me the freedom to walk down their streets, photograph in their neighborhoods or, most importantly, pursue my art as I try to understand their lives.
Thank you for your time, Kurt!
-Leica Internet Team
To see more of Kurt’s work, visit his website or connect with him on Facebook, Tumblr, and Instagram.