Jan Enkelmann lives and works in London where he spends his time observing people. Many would think that photographers, especially street photographers, go to the street, take countless images and that’s it, job done. I would argue that it takes much more than that — many image-makers would spend more time walking, observing and talking to people before they take a picture. Jeff Wall is a case in point — his large-format lightbox photographs take months to produce, yet he would observe and note gestures, faces, real-life situations constantly to inform the decisions he makes. How else would he know what he is photographing? You can photograph anything, truly anything, but time, effort and understanding of the human psyche is required to gain a real insight of what you’re dealing with.
Enkelmann found “sanctuaries of quietness and contemplation” in the back alleys of Chinatown in London’s West End. He would sometimes have a cigarette with the exhausted chefs early in the morning or late at night when they had been working for hours on end and photograph the moment. Other times they would be completely unaware of his presence, yet he thinks of the smoking chefs as kindred spirits — some of them would barely speak any English and work ungodly hours just to survive.
You don’t have to be a smoker to understand or appreciate the significance of the body of work. Smoking is as much about inhaling nicotine as it is about taking five minutes off to go out and have a breather, detach yourself from your working life, even if only for a moment. The images are absolutely superb — dramatic, bearing cinematic aesthetics, and exquisitely photographed from a technical point of view. The project is a testimony to the demands and stress that modern life imposes on us — these short breaks are vital for staff, who might already be at a breaking point.
One photograph stands out among a pool of many great ones — it’s slightly blurry and we cannot see the man’s face. His back is towards us, engulfed in smoke. We have no idea who this person is and perhaps we don’t need to know.
He’s enjoying his five minutes of peace before he goes back in and starts all over with the madness, preparing and serving food for hungry and demanding Londoners.
— foreword by Zak R. Dimitrov
In the noisy bustle of London’s West End, I have been looking for sanctuaries of quietness and contemplation. I found them in the back alleys and doorways of Chinatown.
At night, when the countless restaurants compete for tourists and theatregoers, throngs of visitors collide with Chinatown’s tight-knit ethnic community. By the time the restaurants open, some of the kitchen staff have already been working since early morning. Many of them are recent immigrants who speak little more than a few words of English. Some will have clocked more than 60 hours when the week is over.
They may not always be aware of my presence, yet I think of Smoking Chefs as kindred souls. I am sharing with them the few minutes it takes to smoke a cigarette, condensing this timespan into a single image.
Just like the chefs have established a ritual of seeking out the same locations, following the same routine to escape the relentless demands of their work, I have created my own, always trailing the same path along the streets and back alleys.