Lyon-born Maxime Ballesteros has dedicated a big part of his life to creating photographs. Exploring the medium of analog film, developing a special technique to capture life's most intense moments has been Ballesteros's passion since an early age. He always knew he had it in him, even when his art school professors told him to give up photography. Maxime Ballesteros spoke to Nora Partl, Head of Content & Communication, about his journey leading him to become the chronist of Berlin's nightlife, creating raw intimacy in his images and the perfect picture in the age of social media.

Resulting from the artist’s sense for the perfect snapshot, his empathy towards his motifs, and a unique visual language consisting of bright colors and the extensive use of flash, Ballesteros creates images full of poetry, personality, and passion. Whether the subjective microcosm of a party night or a pair of high heels on anonymous legs, Maxime Ballesteros’s photographs pulse with intensity and radiate with sexual energy.

Looking at Maxime Ballesteros’s photographs, the viewer can almost sense the privacy in the pictures created by the artist and the sitters responding to him. The intimacy in his images results from Ballesteros’s ability to build an intimate relationship with his subjects, encouraging them to reveal the humanity of their flaws and charms. The sense of this visceral connection between photographer and sitter captivates the observer and arouses the feeling of witnessing something intimate.

Nora Partl: Maxime Ballesteros, how did you first get into photography and how has your style evolved ever since?

Maxime Ballesteros: Pretty randomly. I found my parents' little family camera and started snapping with it. Soon enough, my mum told me not to waste film. When I was 15 at school, we had a photography class. I secretly liked the teacher, so I took the class and ended up staying because I really enjoyed working in the dark room, processing the films I had just shot, and the whole ceremony.

After high school, I went straight to a fine arts school, a pretty academic one in a small city. I spent five years experimenting in the darkroom. When I passed my Master's, the professors asked me to give up photography.

I was very much into the technical aspect of photography. The baryta paper, the light, the chemistry, my own little techniques, the camera with no lightmeter, and so on. However, the work itself, even though it was beautiful prints (my mum said so), was pretty uninteresting and shallow.

Right after university, I moved to Berlin. The papers and chemistry were getting pretty expensive for me. I felt like I was limiting myself a lot with the thought of what I thought photography should be. I wanted to always carry a camera with me, and the SLR was getting too heavy and bulky for that. Something had to change. I started playing around with smaller cameras that I would find for a few euros at the flea market.

I bought my first roll of color film and went to have my films developed for the first time by someone else. This allowed me to have more time to shoot and gave me so much more freedom.

Films were extremely cheap because there was too much stock and almost nobody was shooting film anymore. All the pros had converted to digital, and most analog cameras were considered junk. I was shooting every day, all the time, trying out so many cameras at the same time as I was sharpening my eyes.

Some people in the Berlin scene started to pay me a little bit for photos – lots of portraits, parties, studio visits, little editorials, stories and so on. This allowed me to stay in Berlin, buy more films, and keep on trying out cameras.

At some point, I felt like I may have found my artistic voice. From there, it allowed my style to evolve over the years, start evolving, and hopefully until I’m gone.

Valerie, 2015.

NP: How do you manage to create such intimacy in your work? Viewers feel as if they’re witnessing something very private when observing your pictures.

MB: I’m very interested in reality—if altered or not, if staged or not. I work with small, analog cameras that aren't too frightening, and I trained a lot to get closer and closer to my subjects. I try to take only one shot and to be as fast and precise as possible. I wanted to create a sense of trust, reinforced by the impossibility of showing the picture I had taken. And I've noticed over the years that this aspect allows the camera to almost disappear between the subject and myself, leaving more space for trust and intimacy.

Nadja les jambes croiseés, 2016.
Burning Bridges, 2016.

NP: Has there ever been a moment when you felt like you had gone too far and crossed a line when taking pictures?

MB: Yes and no. It happened very rarely, but it happened a couple of times that someone got upset on the street if they thought I would take a photo of them, but a conversation always cooled down the situation. Once, I was held at gunpoint in the US, taking pictures, until they let me talk and they laughed at my French accent, and realized I was no threat to them. And lastly, on a few occasions, some people, usually friends, asked me to take down certain photos of them because they didn’t like their faces on them or the situation they were depicting.

But I can count all these situations on the tips of the fingers of one hand, out of dozens of thousands of pictures, so it’s extremely rare.

Tracy and fur on the shelf, 2013

NP: What has been your favorite project to work on so far and why?

MB: I think that there are too many. I really love working, interacting, observing, searching for ideas, and so on. Most projects bring you into that state.

Untitles, 2021.

NP: With social media as an integral part of our lives, we're confronted with a flood of pictures. In your opinion, what makes a good picture?

MB: Honesty. Humor sometimes, depth other times, in the sense of a picture that maybe makes you think about reality and perception in a certain way. Maybe it would be a picture that stays stuck in your mind, or that you want to look at a few times.

It’s really difficult because there are absolutely no rules. Some pictures on social media are incredible, and I do love that we have the possibility today to see the most genuine snaps from pretty much all over the world.

Mirrors, 2018.

Maxime Ballesteros was born in Lyon, France. After studying in ERBASE (fine art school of St Etienne), maxime graduated in 2007 with a DNSEP (master diploma of art). His work have been featured in solo and group exhibitions in France, USA, Belgium, Russia, Germany, Great Britain, Slovakia and Danemark. He has been based in Berlin from 2007 till 2020 and is currently in the south of France.

Ballesteros' distinctive works have appeared in international magazines such as 032c, W Magazine, and i-D, he has collaborated with brands such as Acne Studios, Louis Vuitton, and Adidas, and he has participated in solo and group shows throughout Europe and the United States. In 2017, Maxime Ballesteros published his first book, "Les Absents", presented by Sang Bleu Publishing and Hatje Cantz, featuring his most prestigious artworks.