For German street photographer Thomas Hackenberg, a good street picture must have some thought-provoking notes along with some humorous or quirky details. Thomas's photographs are, in his words, "an unstaged, candid story from the big theatre of life." They are pictures that pose questions rather than provide answers.
Tell us a bit about yourself. How did you become interested in photography?
I was born in 1963, in the German city of Braunschweig. Some of the readers might be familiar with this city as the home of the once famous German camera brands of ROLLEI and VOIGTLÄNDER. I’m married, father to a daughter and a son, in the language business by profession and design, and in street photography with my heart. Originally, I wanted to make photography my profession after school, something that just didn’t materialise for different reasons. And maybe that's a good thing. This way my passion could stay my effortless passion and didn’t have to pay any bills. It was able to stay a matter of the heart rather than a business venture.
I got my first serious camera as a present from my parents for my 18th birthday and bought myself a photo compendium entitled “THE JOY OF PHOTOGRAPHY”, which was published by Kodak, if my memory serves me correctly. I poured over the pages and there it was – I can still feel my amazement when I first discovered this photograph; it is as if it were yesterday: the magical B/W masterpiece by Henri Cartier-Bresson, a photograph that many of you are sure to be familiar with. The black-and-white picture of a small boy, carrying home two huge bottles of wine with an indescribable expression of pride and joy on his face, entitled Rue Mouffetard, Paris, 1954. When I saw this picture, I was thunderstruck: How on earth could a photographer be there, see and catch such an intimate, candid moment? What he called The Decisive Moment. With the equipment available at that time! This was THE picture for me, my personal game changer, that's what I wanted to do, too! Take pictures of people in the street! If I had only known how hard this journey was going to be to make one single good picture, I might have stuck with a different genre, but there was no way out: This was going to be what I wanted to do!
And then there was Thomas Hoepker, my secret teacher of how to see the world. As a teenager, I had a subscription to the German GEO magazine, which featured, among other things, the pictures taken by the fabulous German photojournalist Thomas Hoepker at regular intervals. These pictures also had a major impact on me. Although they were published in a documentary and journalistic context, they showed life on the streets of the world – street photography in the truest sense of the word – whether in East Germany, the German Democratic Republic at that time, New York, or Beijing. I saw one of his exhibitions in Munich in the mid-1980s entitled Ansichten (a pun in German, meaning “views” and “opinions”), and these were pictures that burned themselves into my brain. I have never forgotten them since; they have provided me with a kind of internally memorised guardrail and a compass to give direction to my own photographic passion. Today, I own one of his prints and some photo books, all signed, they mean a great deal to me.
Street photography is the genre I like the most: I’d love to see it evolve more into an art form of its own and find its way into the galleries and museums of the world more and more.
Where or how do you find inspiration?
First and foremost, through the work of other street photographers.
My own intrinsic motivation to go out shooting is always there and has never ceased to exist. I simply love to grab my camera and get into the flow. Normally, the first pictures I take are nothing, but as soon as I start and look around, and am in the right, perceptive mood, things start to get going. I find that very rewarding. I have quite a few constant triggers in my head, things and themes I always look at, in 99% of all cases showing pictures of people. The idea of photographic triggers is something I have taken with me from my talks and Skype sessions with German photographer Siegfried Hansen, whom most of you are sure to know. I have also exchanged thoughts (“Is it acceptable to shoot the homeless?”) via email with Melissa O’Shaughnessy, whose work touches my heart. Otherwise, I have no agenda; I love to let myself be surprised.
Inspiration and my street DNA come from many other artists and photographers, whose work I look at regular intervals – be it on their websites, in YouTube interviews, magazines, exhibitions or from podcasts, which I love listening to.
My biggest source of inspiration comes from photobooks, something I collect.
Do you have any favourite artists/photographers?
Oh yes – there are many! I already mentioned Henri Cartier Bresson and Thomas Hoepker. They shaped my street DNA. What is more, I love the work by the photographers who are part of collectives such as UP, Burn My Eye or Through The Lands.
My favorite photo book which is in a way defining my personal street photography compass is "All That Life Can Afford" by Matt Stuart. This is exactly what I’m aiming at, what I like to try to do, too. Matt and his style have had the greatest influence on me. Only recently, I found Matt Stuart’s new book "Think Like a Street Photographer" very inspiring. This also holds true for the work of Martin Parr.
Two other street photography artists I feel a strong connection to are Melissa O’Shaughnessy from New York and Peter Kool from Belgium. When I look into Melissa’s "Perfect Strangers", I am blown away – this is the kind of street photography and urban storytelling I am drawn to myself!
Outside the world of photography, I also take every opportunity to visit art exhibitions. The German expressionist painters represented in Die Brücke and Der Blaue Reiter are among my favourites and I find them very inspiring. They might be the reason why I shoot color only. And Picasso, of course! Who could not love him?
What do you want to express through your photography? What are some of the elements you always try to include in your photographs?
Very generally speaking, I’m a candid shooter and I want to show little stories of mankind. I also love the idea of serendipity that comes your way when you just work long enough on a scene. Recently, I found out that you as a photographer can make a picture happen if you just stay at the scene and don’t leave it too soon. When you see something, when you think “Oh interesting, I could stay on that subject. This or that could happen.” Foreseeing and predicting the future, so to say. And when these things really happen from time to time – this is something that gives me the greatest joy and which is so rewarding.
Many pictures I 'take' because I see something that is already there and can react quickly enough. Other pictures I 'make', with an idea in my head of what could happen and which elements I could wait for to happen or materialise in my picture. I also like the idea of "making something out of nothing", a quote which comes from NYC photographer Gus Powell, if my memory serves me correctly.
99% of my pictures have to have people in them, must have some kind of significance and meaning to me. For me, a good picture must have a thought-provoking note, some humorous or quirky details, some kind of storyline. I like pictures that pose questions rather than provide answers. 99% of my photos are taken candidly; 0% is staged or digitally manipulated.
I would characterise myself as a classical flaneur – though sometimes more of a long distance runner – with a camera. The camera held unobtrusively in my hand, I try to blend in with the crowd. Ready to take action in an instant, react to any kind of scene that strikes my fancy and unfolds right in front of my camera. And that’s what I love so much about this subject: you don’t need any clumsy gear, you don’t have to travel anywhere, you're always there! That’s why it is so magical for me, many have said this before: it’s positively an obsession! I try to stay as invisible as possible, try to see things that others might not see, find something special in the ordinary that might only exist for a split second and then it’s gone forever! Creating a document of life.
The two old grannies I captured in 1991 in San Gimignano, Italy, one with the Hanimex 110 pocket camera: a time document today. As all the millions of smartphones today will be at some point in the future…
What is more, I feel very drawn to social photography, photojournalism, documentary. I like taking pictures at demonstrations.
Where is your most favourite place to photograph?
Any place where I am at a given time, as long as there are other people around. Any possible place, as long as I have a free mind and can be open to visual clues, any place is good. The place is really not so important, what is important, though, is my openness to visual stories around me. My ability to get into the flow and melt with the moment. I find it hard to find the right words to express this. In general, I like all the places where people gather. I love shooting in Berlin, which is only 90 train minutes from Braunschweig, where I live. And New York is high up in my list of favorite places to go! I hope I can go there soon.
What happens when you go out with your camera? Do people respond positively to you, or do you sometimes get negative reactions? If yes, how do you handle it?
Normally, people don’t respond at all, as they don’t really notice me taking pictures. My gear is rather small and unobtrusive, I shoot with a 100% silent shutter, so people don’t notice any click noise, which is important. Otherwise, I try to hide and blend in with the crowd, as I have already mentioned. If someone asks me what I’m doing or if I have taken a picture of her or him, I keep a very open attitude. I think it is really important to feel confident in what you are doing and not as if you were doing something forbidden. Street photography is an art form that is absolutely legal. I like my fellow humans and I just want to picture the world as I see it. I am doing no harm to anyone.
So, if someone asks me, I am positive, and I am convinced that this positivity is conveyed to that person, too. I smile at people, often explaining that I love something special about them: a piece of clothing, a tattoo, an ornament in their hair. And this is then often enough to satisfy their curiosity. So far, I have received very few negative reactions. I have also given prints of my work to people as a thank-you gift.
Photography has also taught me a lot about myself. What kind of person I am. I used to be more of a silent and introverted guy thirty years ago. Street photography, interaction with the world and the people around me has also helped me to grow as a person. Over the years, I have become more outgoing, communicative and open. In this way, street photography has definitely taught me a lot about myself, so I have shaped my photography, but my photography has also shaped me.
When you take pictures, do you usually have a concept in mind of what you want to shoot, or do you let the images just 'come to you', or is it both?
As I have mentioned before, I am completely open and see what the day brings to me, what the big theater of life has to offer for me on that specific day. I try to be in the moment and 'be there' with all my senses and photographic skills; I guess that I have trained my eye somewhat from the hundreds and thousands of other photographers’ pictures I have looked at so far. I want to get better at finding a good layering of more complex situations, not just shooting some funny or thought-provoking details, but finding a more sophisticated composition for my pictures.
“Make something out of nothing” – that’s my credo, as I have mentioned before.
Does the equipment you use help you in achieving your vision in your photography? (What camera do you use? Do you have a preferred lens/focal length?)
Definitely yes. My vision is 35mm. Which could change to 28mm, should I buy myself the Leica Q or Q2, which I think about every now and then. Years ago, I shot with a Leica X1, which I still have, and I am just blown away by the optical quality of the Elmarit lenses.
So I only shoot with that one single 35mm prime lens from ZEISS. I use a mirrorless Sony A7 Mk III camera with a rather small form factor (OK, the A7 gen1 was way smaller…) and a noiseless shutter, to make sure I stay unobtrusive and don’t expose myself too much just owing to the fact that I use a very conspicuous piece of equipment. I never use a flash.
Being a self-taught photographer, I started with all the basic stuff, all those analog films, all from Ilford, all B/W, color was far too expensive and complicated for me. I learned how to develop the negatives and make my own prints in my parents’ basement. I experienced digital as a blessing, it made everything so much easier, at least for me. I am not a big fan of tech talk, in fact not at all. All you really need is a good camera with a sizable sensor and a good lens in front of it, but gear is not really all that important.
What is important, though, is the eye, the art of perception and openness to all kinds of visual clues. Easier said than done…
What are some of your goals as an artist or photographer? Where do you hope to see yourself in five years?
In about five years I will have ended my early retirement scheme in my company and hopefully have more time to dedicate to my street obsession. In general, I simply want to get better in terms of creating more complex layers, I want to just keep on training my eye and my skills.
Create more and more good pictures, I’d say. Satisfy more of my own curiosity for people. Stay curious about life. Find another great picture around the next corner. Go left? Go right? I’ll play it by ear. See what comes up, I’ll be excited to find out!
Continue connecting with other street photographers around the globe, something I enjoy. That’s one of the good things about Instagram, although IG and its sucking algorithms annoy me more than I like it.
At some point, I’d love to have an exhibition of my photographs, see them hung up as prints on a gallery wall, possibly in combination with my first book. During the past months of the pandemic and empty streets, I have given much more thought to precisely what will be the general idea of that book and what I would like to show.
I find it very challenging to sequence and combine pictures and master the great art of letting two seemingly disparate pictures on two opposite pages speak to each other and create a new idea and a greater whole that goes beyond the mere content shown by the two individual pictures. That’s great art and I am not sure that I’m already there. I have prepared a first maquette with some sample pages that I will start to send out to publishers soon. But that may still take a while and these plans are still in their infancy.
Are there any special projects you are currently working on that you would like to let everyone know about?
As stated above, my first book, which I’d love to release at some point in the future, but it is still far too early to provide any more details about that. I buy a lot of zines and books by other fellow photographers, which I find very inspiring and they help you to better judge the quality of your own material.
“When I am not out photographing, I (like to)…
…listen to music, watch music documentaries, go to concerts, read photobooks 😉, do some gardening. Otherwise, I love just sitting here watching the wheels go round and round, as John Lennon put it. The Beatles and most of all, John Lennon, have had a key influence on my younger years and on the way I grew up.
Thank you Thomas!
Thank you for giving me the opportunity to present me and my work to your audience! And a big thank you to all readers who are taking the time to read this interview.