Beyond The City Of Lights

Fashion shoot in the Sahara Desert with model Hafssa Bahajji, winner of “The New Face of Morocco.”

Few places on earth can compete with Paris as a backdrop for haute couture, prêt-à-porter and every type of fashion shoot in between. But in Nahoko Spiess’ world, beauty knows no borders. The Tokyo-born, Paris-based Spiess ventures out of the City of Lights for off-the-beaten-path, mise-en-scène opportunities, from Samarqand and Tashkent to Gafsa and Marrakesh.

Digital Photo Pro: What draws you out of Paris to places in Eastern Europe and North Africa for your fashion shoots?

Nahoko Spiess: I have been living and working in Paris for many years. Of course, I love Paris, the architecture, the history of the city with all of its romantic beauty. It’s also the perfect location for fashion lovers like myself because of its long tradition as the capital of fashion. But these days, outdoor photo shoots in Paris require more permission, especially near monuments, because of security concerns. Sometimes it can take months to receive the permission for professional photographers. But fashion is moving at a pace where photos have to be published quickly, so unless we have a hotel or a private location, it’s sometimes better to work out of the city.

Also, the world of great designers is expanding, or at least the world is more aware of all the great designers around the world. The fashion shoot has to fit the designer’s universe, so the location is extremely important to convey their visual message. We need to be certain that many elements such as climate, mood and timing all come together.

Fashion shoot with designer Bata Spasojevic’s clothing on board the Lezard Rouge locomotive steam train in Gafsa, Tunisia, for FGC magazine’s cinema fashion issue.
Fashion shoot with designer Bata Spasojevic’s clothing on board the Lezard Rouge locomotive steam train in Gafsa, Tunisia, for FGC magazine’s cinema fashion issue.

DPP: Are you trying to tie all these elements together on your own?

NS: I often team up with art director and fashion editor Suna Moya, and we’re constantly traveling together to exotic countries for photo shoots from the deserts of Tunisia and Morocco to Serbia and Uzbekistan. We’re always astonished how the local people love to participate in our productions. An example would be traveling through the desert mountains of Tunisia on a very old vintage locomotive steam train called the Lezard Rouge with the locals.

DPP: How did that shoot come about?

NS: We were invited by the Tunisian Tourist Board with the Miss Serbia team.

The objective was to mix high fashion with tradition, to create an ambiance where different cultures embrace and photo stories were the result. Our model, Miss Serbia 2016 Andjelija Rogic, is also a professional folklore dancer, so we asked her to dance in the middle of the train car. People started clapping and singing spontaneously as they joined in on the celebration. One man had an old radio and started to play oriental music. The result was a totally original shoot which will have those lasting memories. This type of ambiance is very difficult to obtain in a very busy city.

DPP: What’s the idea behind your work in the former war-torn areas of the Balkans?

NS: We have been invited many times to Novi Sad, Serbia. First, Serbia Fashion Week invited Suna to showcase her jewelry collection. She’s also a talented jewelry designer. She then proposed for me to join her for an editorial photo shoot in order to feature the Serbia fashion event in Al-Sharkiah magazine. During SFW, designers from many Balkan countries participate, as do many international designers to showcase their collections, and the international media covers the event. Young Serbian models are very motivated to work for this show.

Fashion shoot with designer Zvonko Markovic’s clothing in an abandoned railway station in Novi Sad, Serbia, for FGC magazine.
Fashion shoot with designer Zvonko Markovic’s clothing in an abandoned railway station in Novi Sad, Serbia, for FGC magazine.

On our second voyage, Suna wanted to shoot a theme in an old abandoned train station, something which for us is quite impossible to find in Paris. By asking around, we were able to discover this amazing location, which was actually designed by engineer Gustave Eiffel, the designer of the Eiffel Tower. It was a fantastic location to shoot the fashion collections of the Balkan designers. We did have to go through the formalities to ask permission, but it was granted very quickly. It was incredible, authentic old trains and rails going nowhere.

DPP: You did work in another location in Serbia that history had pushed to the side.

NS: That was the “IndestruXible” series several seasons later featuring American designer Erik Rosete for the brand Mister TripleX in Novi Sad. His unisex street fashions are strong and sexy. We were location scouting, and when we saw the bombed-out radio station, we knew it was the right place for the Mister TripleX shoot. The concepts of youth survival, ruins for fashion, peace and love, revolution where everything is possible, needed strong images with dramatic makeup and hair. Everything needed to fit into the scenario.

Myself as the photographer, and L.A.-based Rocco Leo Gaglioti as film director, followed Suna’s art direction. I worked with my lights to produce tough, strong impact images with strong contrast and different color gels in order to explain the mood for each image. Red color for a mad demon playing with fire, blue color for soldiers, pink color for a couple who are holding each other. We had nine male and female models. It was a big team! I’m excited with Serbian locations since each time we shoot there we have amazing adventures. It’s so different from our Paris shoots in luxury places—which are great, of course, and I feel fortunate to have them—so it gives good balance in my portfolio.

Photo shoot for FBK couture in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, for Al-Sharkiah magazine.
Photo shoot for FBK couture in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, for Al-Sharkiah magazine.

DPP: How was the experience shooting in Uzbekistan?

NS: The Silk Road is a once-in-a-lifetime journey. We landed in Kazakhstan to cover the Kazakhstan Fashion Week event, then continued to Uzbekistan for fashion editorial shoots. After arriving in Uzbekistan, we traveled by van across the country to see the colorful scenery and dresses and art everywhere and then stopping at wonderful local villages to eat traditional cuisine.

It was fascinating to experience and discover the mix of cultural and religious influences, and having the opportunity to photograph at incredible stunning World Heritage locations such as Samarkand and Tashkent.

DPP: How do you initially develop themes and stories for your photo shoots?

NS: For fashion features, we work on a concept that coincides with the universe of the designer. Each shoot is original, as each designer has his or her theme that they wish to project for their season’s collection. Suna is art director and stylist, so she will choose the designers, the makeup and hair looks, and work with me on the location.

Location is an important factor for the story. Depending on the theme of the collection, we’ll work around the style and storyboard to create the correct atmosphere for the shoot. Everything is like a puzzle and has to fit together—the models, clothing, lighting. Sometimes I’ll use a wind machine or colored smoke to give the feeling of dreams. When we collaborate to make fashion films, it’s important to have a storyboard so that one scene flows into another.

Fashion story "IndestruXible" with streetwear brand Mister TripleX in a bombed-out radio station in Novi Sad, Serbia, for FGC magazine.
Fashion story “IndestruXible” with streetwear brand Mister TripleX in a bombed-out radio station in Novi Sad, Serbia, for FGC magazine.

DPP: How are you lighting on location?

NS: When I travel, I use mainly two Profoto B1 heads, which work on a battery, so that I can shoot any outside location without having an electrical connection. I add a third small flash if I need it. When I travel by plane, it’s impossible to bring a third big one because of its size and weight, so I combine a small Metz flash, which works with the PocketWizard so that it can synchronize with my two Profoto B1s. When I shoot in Paris, I can bring extra Profoto strobes as well as small and big LED light panels.

Depending on the subject and story ambiance, when I shoot luxury couture dresses, for example, lighting can be soft using a softbox, silky umbrella with diffusion, nid d’abeille (honeycomb) grids and reflectors. On the other hand, when I shoot male models, I prefer to increase contrast so that lighting becomes more direct to the subject without using softening material, or I have more directional light from the side rather than from the front.

For outside locations, I add flash to soften too much contrast due to direct sunlight or to add more dramatic effects. For inside locations where there’s no sunlight but there are decorations, room lights give a certain mood, which I try not to destroy. I want to take advantage of that moody ambiance, so I use low-power flash to light up the subject, then catch some weak ambient light during a long exposure with my camera on a tripod.

DPP: What camera and lenses are you working with?

NS: I’m using a Nikon D810 with a NIKKOR 24-70mm f/2.8, NIKKOR 24-120mm f/4, NIKKOR 85mm f/1.8 for full-length fashion images, then the NIKKOR Macro 105mm f/2.8 and the Sigma 50mm f/1.4 for portrait and close-up images. As I’m often traveling to remote destinations, usually by plane, I try to pack most of my expensive and delicate equipment, such as cameras, lenses, laptop and external hard drives for backup, in a carry-on bag, usually a backpack. The strobes, several lenses, additional memory cards and batteries I put in a small roll-on trolley and bring them with me into the cabin. I have a list of the equipment with serial numbers and proof of purchase so that I can avoid having problems with customs.

DPP: How are you doing your model casting for location shoots?

NS: It depends on the country and the situation. In Serbia, we were covering Serbia Fashion Week, so there was a wide selection of models available from the fashion shows. In Morocco, our team has booked models from Paris as well as local models from agencies in Morocco. In Uzbekistan, we had professional models from a local agency and also very young girls who had never modeled before.

Each shoot is different. That’s part of what makes these location shoots original and exciting.

See more of Nahoko Spiess’ work at and on Instagram @nahokospiess.

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