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French photographer Kevin Couliau explores a global game's social impact

On the playgrounds of uptown New York, Paris or Hong Kong, the game of basketball is energized, making significant marks on urban landscapes and communities. Who better to relate this than Kevin Couliau, the French artist focusing in to disclose his subjects' rawness and authenticity.

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When Kevin Couliau – the photographer known for distilling the impact and aesthetics of pick-up basketball – was asked what he hoped to achieve with his photographs of basketball courts on urban landscapes, he simply said, "I'm using photography as a tool to tell stories." 

It's a surprisingly modest ambition coming from somebody whose other ambition as a kid was to play in the NBA, but one that helps to explain the power behind his photos, and his love for the game. "I have always been curious about how basketball can change lives, and now I'm using it as the main medium to express my art," he discloses. 

Devoted to the art of basketball, Couliau picked up his first camera in 2004, stating that the reason why he wanted to start was because "this sport wasn’t really documented in an artistic way." Through his lens, he began highlighting the aesthetics of the game for several international publications, and he would take pictures, mostly of playgrounds around the world, but also their players: "It's all about putting a light on the cities and basketball cultures around the world through the prism of photography," he explains.

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To say that Couliau is a basketball enthusiast is an understatement. The former player and Nantes native articulates the beauty of it through photographs that express the sport's nature, aesthetic, and culture. The architectural perspective, unparalleled compositions, and the omnipresence of urbanism in his work convey a striking force and structure to his photography. "When I see a frame, I see the composition first. And I've always been intrigued by the interplay between architecture and basketball courts maybe it's in my DNA, with my dad being an architect," he says laughingly. 

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The photos that Couliau has been taking and exhibiting for more than 20 years, as well as published in his magazine “Asphalt Chronicles”, explore and document the sport's culture, revealing its global reach and social impact on individuals and their communities. "Asphalt Chronicles is a project that has always been a part of me, and it's about the desire to show remote basketball communities around the world."

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Today, he's taken it one step further by publishing his first book, Blacktop Memento; an independently published book retracing 15 years of photographic archives. Through this series of 76 playground close-ups collected worldwide for over a decade, Kevin Couliau traces an original cartography of asperities, wrinkles, and colour spectra: memories sculpted by the encounters between man and matter. An authentic tribute to the playground basketball, this collection of unpublished photographs takes us back to the true essence of the game, where everything – asphalt and players – is altered by the countless crossovers, elevations, and bounces. 

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"Blacktop Memento is my first book, and it explores the sensorial part of the world of basketball. It's a story about the human presence on the basketball court without really showing any photos of humans. It's like an archaeological excavation," he explains. "You see traces of past life through photos showing erosion, paint fainting away, cracks on the ground, and the results are a collection of super graphic photos. If you're a basketball player, you'll totally understand where I'm going, and you'll say, 'I played on that court.' But the power of these pictures if you’re not from the basketball world, is that you can enjoy them on an artistic and aesthetic level thanks to their shades and the graphic of the compositions," he continues.

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Couliau's attention is unwavering. His photographic method stands out by its authentic social dimension, often seeking stories of emancipation and empowerment: all of them being a result of looking closely and deeply as if each moment that he captures matters. "What fascinates me the most is how a basketball court can be integrated within a city, change the landscape and be a tool for communities to emancipate, interact and grow," he shares.  

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His work isn't merely a record of everyday life on a basketball court. It's about the yearning to connect and the pleasure of how something that simple, can bring joy. "It's super interesting how this simple piece of concrete with two basketball hoops can affect the lives of people." As a photographer, an essential part of his work is to examine these significant impacts of basketball courts on urban landscapes, and Couliau is quick to list Hong Kong as his basketball oasis in terms of photography: "Did you know that Hong Kong has more basketball courts than New York City? Hong Kong is such a dense city, yet they've managed to create spaces that really embrace the challenges imposed by the architecture. They find creative ways to build basketball courts on top of parking lots, on top of malls and in the middle of super dense residential areas," he shares with great enthusiasm. 

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Basketball courts continue to pose for him. And in his camera's eye, even the greyest object becomes candid; Couliau has always been quick to capture the details, colours and structures as genuine frameworks for social ecosystems in constant evolution. His pictures of unpopulated basketball courts and landscapes are captivating and sincere, full of feelings. A style that Couliau applied when shooting basketball courts for the Hennessy and NBA "Around the World" campaign as well. "It was amazing because it was the first time that I collaborated with a brand that fully accepted my vision, embraced it and let me work the way I am used to," he says. "I was able to create exactly what I wanted to create," he continues. 

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Whatever he's experiencing, it’s channelled into his work, and his approach can be described as "determined curiosity", one that has led him down many different paths. "The more I document this world, the more I want to go to places where the game is unexpected, like Tibet, for example. Basketball has such a spiritual dimension there, unmatched in other regions. And believe it or not, basketball is the main sport the Tibetan monks are playing," he discloses. 

Couliau hits the rural spaces like no other, peering into empty courts, sort of investigating but never disturbing; penetrating, absorbing, knowing; with a distinctive, mostly untainted, and largely self-taught approach. More than anything, his images – intensely colourful, mysterious, quasi-Surrealist – are images that seem to shimmer, as if pulsing with their own internal heartbeat. Or maybe it's just Couliau's own heartbeat, revealing his love for the game, that is felt?

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