Written by nature: the work of photographer Kacper Kowalski

Polish photographer Kacper Kowalski recently exhibited his Event Horizon series at Bildhalle Amsterdam gallery. As a 'flying photographer' he captures the world from the air. Forget the drone: by falling into a trance, he sees landscapes before his (mind's) eye that remain inaccessible to other aerial vehicles. “The photography is a representation of my experience across the border of reality, of my dive into the 'black hole'.”
Kacper Kowalski | Side Effects: Depth of Winter #60

How did you become a flying photographer?

“Just after I was accepted at the University of Technology in Gdansk to study architecture at the age of eighteen, I discovered the joy of flying without an engine. But flying is extremely addictive. Whenever I tried to focus on a design during my studies, I was constantly distracted by memories of my most recent flight. I realized that unless I went to rehab, I was going to be an unhappy architect. At that time I started toying with the idea of ​​combining flying, my passion, with photography, a hobby. This way I could bring something back from above that others couldn't see.”

When did you start flying?

“In 1996, an analogue time without Google Maps. Until a few years earlier, Poland was also suffering from communism and special permission was required for aerial photography. The view from above had not yet been discovered and I was one of the first to enter that unexplored territory. I felt like an explorer traveling to the other side of the world to bring back evidence of the existence of other civilizations. Only I only had to go one hundred and fifty meters in the air.”

What did your parents think of the idea of ​​you quitting your studies and becoming a photographer?

“My father, mother and younger brother are all architects. In my head I wanted to become an architect so as not to break with family tradition, but in my heart I wanted something different. As an architect you create a three-dimensional solution for someone else, but you fly for yourself: you feel the wind, the clouds, the height, the emotions. It's a selfish passion, but for a reason: when I fly, I have to be completely in the here and now. Between take-off and landing the magic takes place and my concentration must not waver for a second, the lines of the paraglider become one with my body. Sharing what I see above makes what I do less selfish. My father thought I should follow my heart. Also because previous generations in our family were inventors, travelers and explorers. For example, a great uncle who was a scientist went to Papua New Guinea to research snails. He came back with all kinds of drawings he had made of animals he had discovered. Another uncle undertook an expedition to sail the Northwest Passage from Greenland to Alaska, a distance of more than 4.000 nautical miles. Yet another family member stayed at the North Pole for a study of phytoplankton. In the dark times of communist Poland, when the country was on lockdown, their stories stimulated my imagination about unreachable places.”

Kacper Kowalski | Arché #37 2018 and Arché #53 2018

And what did your mother think of your choice?

“She said, 'Of course you can fly! But use your architectural eye.” As an architect you draw building plans, but when you fly you see from above the 'construction sketches' that nature has developed. And also the footprint of people and nature's response to it. I captured that with my photography with the project Side Effects, which I worked on until 2015. Is the forest beneath me natural or cultivated? Is what I see a nature reserve inhabited by people or an environment that is completely designed for people? What is the nature of nature? I was so curious! After each hill I wanted to know what was behind the next one. I felt endless freedom. As long as there was no airport nearby, I was free to fly wherever I wanted and I could take off and land anywhere with my paraglider or gyrocopter, a kind of flying moped.”

How have you developed as a flying photographer?

“When I started paragliding, I wanted to be better than my friends. I wanted to fly higher, further and longer. Then I took part in competitions with paragliders from other countries. After I quit my Architecture studies, I initially started making aerial photographs for other architects. If I wanted to create my own style, I might have to go to a desert, jungle or glacier to take photos that no one had ever seen. There are some photographers who do that, including the Frenchman Yann Arthus Bertrand and the Swiss Georg Gerster. But then I realized that the essence of my passion is to fly every day, preferably straight from my backyard. It's about it fly! So I decided to focus on my own environment and use photos of my neighborhood to tell a universal story about nature and the role of humanity. For me it is not about beautiful tourist places, but about what awaits us, what we cannot see yet. And I don't have to go to the other side of the world for that: here in the north of Poland, the light is different every week, the situation is constantly changing and the landscape also responds to it. I just have to keep my eyes open.”

Kacper Kowalski | Side Effects Seasons, Autumn #81 2020

No matter how much I open my eyes, when I look at your photos, I don't always know what I see.

“I could have sent my photos to news agencies with an explanation of what it is. But I chose not to explain it, because that way viewers best approximate what I experience in the air and leave it to their interpretation. I worked like this until 2016. I received a lot of appreciation for my work, including the World Press Photo Prize three times, the Picture of the Year International POYi Prize six times and dozens of other awards. But then came the drone revolution. Before that time, you had at most five aerial photographers in Poland. In 2016, about 2,2 million drones were sold worldwide, according to tech website Recode. (According to the Consumer Technology Association, that number is higher and that year 2,4 million drones were sold to consumers in the US alone; ed.) With a drone, people could do photography similar to what I did without having to take off . For a moment I felt desperate: my style is no longer unique, anyone can do what I do! But soon I looked further. If I'm no longer needed to take the photos I used to take, what will set me apart? I realized that I needed to be guided more by my emotions and see the landscape from a different perspective. Is it possible to see the landscape I know so well as the first people who came here 40.000 years ago did? Perhaps they stood at the edge of the glacier that was here until the end of the Ice Age, about 10.000 years ago, looked out over the white plain and dreamed that they could fly like the birds they saw. I have been orbiting that same landscape for twenty-seven years now, living the eternal human dream of being able to fly. Like a bird, I try to use my entire body, just like primitive man used to do when hunting. I let my instincts drive me forward, by the traces written in my DNA. A animal journey, in the here and now."


Curious about the rest of the interview? The summer edition is a fresh cocktail of entrepreneurship and sport. In this edition, several entrepreneurs from the Champions League of business are reviewed. Including Freddy Heineken and hospitality tycoon Richard Caring, whose expanding empire has been called the 'restaurant equivalent of LVMH'. Doing business is top sport, but top sport is also doing business. Take Formula 1: the sport is increasingly developing into an octopus with arms that touch all aspects of our society. Jaap de Groot investigated how millions are converted into billions. Also interviews with gymnast Sanne Wevers, two-star chef Guido Braeken, hotelier Robert-Jan Woltering, designer Maarten Baas and Rico, together with his Naomy. The 'King of Kickboxing' also turns out to be an octopus (with very strong arms): as an entrepreneur he is active in various industries. “When I look back later, I don't want to think 'I wish I had this or that'. I just want to, boom, accelerate, do fun things, enjoy.” Boom, the new MASTERS: enjoy!

Order MASTERS Magazine #54 here