Meeting Nadav Kander

Peter Gabriel photographed by Nadav Kander in London, December 2022.

Israeli-born, South African raised and London-based Nadav Kander is renowned for his portrait and landscape photography. In a career spanning more than 30 years his images have been widely acclaimed and he has exhibited his work in a host of prestigious galleries internationally. Whether photographing the most famous or powerful people in the world or the landscapes of England, Russia or China, Kander is always encouraging the viewer to question what more lies beneath the photograph in front of them. In doing so he has made some of the most striking, engaging and memorable images of his generation.

In mid-December 2022, Peter and Nadav met for a new photo session to support the release of i/o. It was their first session together since 2006 and here Nadav kindly revisits what was to be a memorable day.

When did you first become aware of Peter and his music?
I was too young to be into Genesis when Peter was still in the band. It’s too long ago to place events in order but “Don’t Give Up” had a big effect on me. I still love it. It’s my kind of mood.  Beautiful and difficult. Ethereal in the female counters to Peter’s vocals.

When Peter released Biko in 1980 did that have any special resonance to you as a young man in South Africa?
I expect it was banned in South Africa.  Government control and censorship was the reason apartheid lasted so long.  Very few people of colour had any idea of life outside of the country. I only remember listening to Biko here in England once I arrived in 1982.  It has a special resonance for me as well because Sydney Kentridge QC who defended Biko, was my neighbour in Johannesburg.

1980 was a shit year there in South Africa, I was in darkrooms in the air force because national service was compulsory.  I hadn’t by then decided to leave but I was aware of the unfairness and cruelty that was all around me.

You moved to London in 1982, what were your ambitions in photography at that point in your career?
I left South Africa alone at 21, to leave the aggression behind and become the best photographer I could be. I always wanted to be “expert” at something. All I knew was advertising photography.  Art galleries were not showing photography then, that was later.

When I arrived, I desperately wanted to assist an excellent photographer in this great city, London. I was incredibly shy and found it very difficult but eventually managed to work for Peter Hopkins. By 1986 I was 25 and in my own studio with an agent who believed in me. Thank god he did because it took years before I did. I quite quickly became pretty well known within commercial photography although I never stopped making work on my own outside of the constructs of the assignment.

You first photographed Peter in 2006, for the Q Magazine, for the Q Awards. What do you remember about that first photo shoot?
My way of working is to look at a face beforehand and decide how I might show this person in an interesting unexpected way. I need time to set up and make the atmosphere through light that my sitter then inhabits.  I tell you this because I need quite a bit of stuff at my disposal because I rarely create the same thing twice.

So, I arrived at Peter’s Real World Studios in Wiltshire with a truck load of stuff. The room I needed to work in was not really big enough, but we managed. What I remember is the inclusive vibe there. Everyone relaxed, at some level all equal. The ethos seemed to be that beautiful surroundings, nourishing food and a welcoming atmosphere will produce great recordings.

Photo by Nadav Kander, taken in 2006.

Some sixteen years later, was it a surprise to be asked to photograph Peter again?
Ha ha, yes!  And a huge compliment too.  It showed me that Peter was comfortable with interesting pictures above them being just flattering. Nothing is more boring than simply showing positive, expected images of people and airbrushing away the conditions that make us human. What a deception!

Is there something appealing about revisiting a previous subject, especially after the passing of time?
Yes, absolutely. The world has changed, Peter has and of course I have changed too.  The alchemy will be entirely different.  That’s what is exciting and with concentration the day might unfold in ways no one could ever expect or plan and really good pictures might be produced.

And this time in my studio, which allowed a more relaxed process as I could think and prepare slowly and the day before.

This photo shoot felt a lot less like photographer and subject and more like a collaboration. That must be a creatively exciting place to get to…?
Yes, it is, provided the person you collaborate with is creatively exciting. Peter understands (of course, he would) that a good picture contains more than a likeness. It needs to have the “other”, that makes it special. I say atmosphere or alchemy… both work well as descriptions, and interesting to realise that you cannot see atmosphere but my God you know when it’s present in a picture.  Your subconscious reacts to it.

Peter remained present and over many hours we made these pictures. We communicated but didn’t talk much.

The two of you quite quickly got into exploring different ideas using gauze coverings and light effects, etc… You clearly had strong ideas / objectives in mind, but going with the flow early and following the fun ideas seemed to really pay dividends?
When Peter complimented me by asking me to take pictures of him again, he also unknowingly made me pretty nervous… It would be unthinkable to make mediocre pictures in this situation. I’d lock up my studio and never return.

I had some safe ideas planned and some far more chaotic ideas too, ideas that would take their own direction. Peter loved, as did I, these unexpected pictures, each one not like the last.  It was really quite amazing. Quite unexplainable. I was playing tennis with Peter and both of us were hitting the sweet spot each shot.

However, “fun ideas” I think not!  Shit…. I never think of my pictures as fun.

How important is the atmosphere that’s created in the studio when taking photographs?
I think you’d have to ask Peter this question. I believe my surroundings here are set up to be comfortable and warm.

No doubt Peter’s attitude helped and also that I started with the most risky set up first. Had Peter only given an hour or two or had been grumpy and not generous with himself the pictures would have been very different. However, a pissed off person can help create a picture that is wonderful. A bored person too. Envious, vulnerable, what else? All human conditions are welcome.

Is it more satisfying to get exactly the shot you envisaged before the shoot begins or to capture an image that you love that you didn’t expect?
Streaks ahead in this competition is making an image that you love that you didn’t expect.

I hate the word capture.

How much time do you usually get with a subject? The two or three hours planned for this shoot became a full day, that’s pretty unusual I imagine?
I usually don’t want too much time to be honest. An hour or two is usually enough. My shoots are intense.

Yup, it was unusual to spend most of a day with Peter.  I’ll not forget it. And just how many great pictures were made. Over a hundred. Mad… That’s what I remember, that they were not hard to make. Back to the tennis analogy.

And thankfully Peter didn’t have an engagement he had to get to, because what a loss it would have been to cut that day short.  The universe was on my / our side.

Without giving all your secrets away, how do you prepare for a photo shoot of this nature?
I look at a face not a Wikipedia page. I want to imagine that face in interesting guises that a viewer will react to and recognise something they know in themselves. Lighting plays a huge part in this. So, my preparation is the lighting. Not that it has to be set and unmovable but that I know its potential and can respond to situations with what I have, if that makes sense.

Peter Gabriel photographed by Nadav Kander in London, December 2022.

Peter talks about the “process and not the product” as being a motto for his work, it seems like in tandem the two of you managed both rather well…
That is interesting to hear. I do pay attention to each step of the process of making a picture, being mindful of everything from alcohol consumption the night before, the people who will be helping me, how I might present and how much to include the sitter in my process etc. I imagine Peter would agree that it’s like making a book where every detail is so important to the end result… What cloth, picture on cover or not, typography etc. But if the end result is not good, the process is nothing on its own and must not come into the frame when choosing.

I often have to remind students that hanging onto a picture just because the road to creating it was hard or meaningful or life changing or they nearly died getting it, etc, is not relevant. Only a good picture is. Our process was interesting and very in sync but if the pictures had been bad then bad pictures would be all we had.

Peter has said that these are some of his all-time favourite portraits, that must be a gratifying thing to hear?
Yes, absolutely. I am very proud to hear it. Do you think he means of him? Or of anybody in the whole wide world?  I hope the latter, but I suspect the former.  Ha ha.

What would your abiding memory of the day be?
All of the above and seeing a man walk in who doesn’t look any different to 16 years ago. And maybe that Peter is so down to earth, steady and warm.



This interview was first printed in the i/o tour programme. Portrait photographs by Nadav Kander.

Interview and behind the scenes photography by Matt Osborne (c)Peter Gabriel Ltd.