Centro Financiero Confinanzas in Venezuela
Iwan Baan Centro Financiero Confinanzas in Venezuela

Photographer Iwan Baan shoots projects for all the big names, from Herzog & de Meuron to Toyo Ito to Zaha Hadid. But he also documents ad-hoc dwellings around the world, in places where communities take development into their own hands—often in close proximity and always in contrast to high-stakes development. As Baan said at last week's TEDCity2.0 conference in New York City, "there really is no kind of normal, and people are able to adapt to any occasion." His photographs find the resiliency in communities such as the unfinished Centro Financiero Confinanzas in Venezuela ("like a 45-story walk-up," he said) and the Makoko community in Nigeria (built entirely on water).

His photos leave me wondering: Maybe we're overthinking affordable housing in America. Maybe we can learn something from these more immediate, small-scale approaches to shelter, rather than large-scale developments and neighborhood gentrification projects. I chatted with Baan after his talk last week.

What's your favorite place that you've shot?

That’s hard to say when you've traveled so much and you've seen so many nice places. I'm literally every two or three days in a place somewhere else, so there are many of these great places and I'm always looking for these very specific ways in how people make something, from the high-end architecture to the super specific ways people design something without any plan or architecture.

It seems like you get sent out to photograph these commissioned pieces and end up spending a lot of time focusing on the people that surround them.

That’s always my fascination, sort of the cities around it, I'm trying always to get further and further away from the architecture, literally going up in helicopters to give it the sort of sense of place and why a project is specifically for that city, that area, what's sort of the relationship with the context.

Makoko Floating School in Lagos, Nigeria.
Credit: Iwan Baan

Makoko Floating School in Lagos, Nigeria.

Makoko community in Lagos, Nigeria.
Credit: Iwan Baan

Makoko community in Lagos, Nigeria.

How did you get into that?

It was strange circumstances that I met Rem Koolhaas about eight years ago. I was more working in documentary photography. I studied at art school [Ed note: the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague], and I didn't know anything about architecture and happened to meet Rem and that sort of clicked, and I started working a lot with him, and from there one to the other thing happens. It sparked my interest in how architects really work with these spaces, and I've been always interested in public space and what people do in these things but never with this focus on architecture.

You are also very active on Instagram, the everyman's tool. What attracts you to it?

Maybe half a year or so, I've been doing it. For a long time I didn't do it, but since I'm always traveling and there's so much happening around my regular shooting and what I'm doing, I sort of tried to capture little moments and things you encounter when you are always traveling. It's not really the project I'm working on which I show on Instagram, but just sort of the life around me in these places.

Do you make a decision like oh, this is better for Instagram or this is better for a higher quality camera?

[For] Instagram, it's just like the moments, the funny things that you just sort of encounter, and then of course there is the real commissioned work which you do with your real camera, though I would like to use my iPhone for that as well, because I like to work as lightweight as possible, so I work completely handheld. I hate tripods, bigger things, it's really capturing moments and things which can happen in a split second. It's very different from the traditional architecture photography which is just waiting, waiting, waiting for the perfect light. It is very intuitively working.

Do you find that some of the subjects you photograph are off-put by a camera more so than they would be with an iPhone?

I'm really not sure. I always stay a bit in the background, so I try to use as small and as lightweight things as possible and work basically on my own. In these communities for instance you stand close, [spend] time just being there even without camera, so you become part of the background noise in a place like that and you slowly start working and people don't really notice you.

Centro Financiero Confinanzas in Venezuela.
Credit: Iwan Baan

Centro Financiero Confinanzas in Venezuela.

You were recently in Baku, photographing some work of Zaha Hadid's?

Yeah, but also for another project I'm working on there, a longer-term project with Harvard University. [Ed. note: Baku: Oil and Urbanism]

Anything stand out?

Baku is fascinating. They are going through their third oil boom, so suddenly everything has to be a flashy, modern, world-class city, like in the middle of this sort of police state. They hire big-name architects to build flashy buildings: HOK who builds big towers there and everything has to be sort of polished up, which is fascinating from a photographic point of view.

Flame Towers by HOK in Baku, Azerbaijan.
Credit: Firuza/Flickr via Creative Commons

Flame Towers by HOK in Baku, Azerbaijan.

Are there places you haven’t been that are on your list?

Always, I haven't seen the whole world yet.

Any place in particular that's on your mind?

No, strangely I still haven't been to Australia or New Zealand, for instance. [They've] been a little bit off my architecture map.

What kind of camera are you working with these days?

I work always with very lightweight, handheld equipment, basically a 35-millimeter digital Canon.

And those are getting better and better, you can make bigger files, higher res files.

It's not so much about how high res—everything now is good enough to use up to almost any size—but especially the sensitivity of these cameras becomes now such an important issue. Those [New York post-Sandy] shots never could have been made two years ago, just because you are shooting with no light and complete darkness from a moving, vibrating helicopter. Suddenly these cameras make such a jump in sensitivity that you can capture in almost complete darkness.

What do you mean by sensitivity?

Before you had like, film roll which went to like 1,600 ISO, sort of the maximum amount of light which they could get, and now these cameras go to 100,000 ISO—suddenly a factor of 50, 100 times more. It can shoot by candlelight still from a handheld camera and not use a tripod.

Here's a basic question, how did you get interested in photography?

[W]hen I was twelve years old, I got for my birthday from my grandmother my first camera.

What were you photographing at twelve?

Just the things around school, the things in school, the things you find on your way. I had to bike to school every day for an hour, so things you would see on the street.

Have you gone back to look at any of those photographs?

I had kind of a very strange accident a year and a half ago, my apartment studio in Amsterdam completely burnt out in a freak accident. My very old archives—which were not digital, I’m shooting now digital already for 12, 14 years almost—so my digital archives [are backed] up in different places, but it was all there, my old teenage work, that is all gone.

I'm sorry to hear that.

Oh, it's kind of liberating at the same time. I was never there, since then I have been completely homeless, I sort of gave up on having a house. It's just my suitcase, that's it. It's interesting to live in this way. You need very little, actually. I just am doing what I was doing already the last seven or eight years but in a much more extreme way.

This interview has been edited.

Photo of Baku towers used with permission via a Creative Commons license with Flickr user Firuza48.