vonFridey Mickel 28.11.2017

Context is Half the Work

Seeing comes before words, and culture can be defined at any given moment.

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I especially enjoyed taking the time to come up with the questions for the following interview, because I feel like I had to push much harder than usual to find what was sitting just beneath the surface of these photos. The elephant portraits seem at first rather straight forward, but the more I spent looking at his images the clearer to me it became just how great his photos were—simple, yet breathtakingly accomplished and…just utter genius.

Back in its beginning up until really quite recently, Photography was always kept consciously separate from other forms of Art; the argument was that the mechanism of photography did the artistic work of the creator, and therefore wasn’t as much a creative thing. While there are tons of good examples of photography proving this philosophy untrue, for me–especially in terms of photographic portraiture– Joachim Schmeisser is at the top of my list. Schmeisser does more than merely capture his subject’s likeness: he truely somehow does capture their soul.

Joachim Schmeisser started with commercial photography in the mid-1980s. As his profession developed, so did his more personal interests in what he wanted to capture in his photographic work. He won the Hasselblad Meister Award in 2012 (among other prizes) and is best known for three major photographic series he has done East and Central Africa—with the Virunga Mountain Gorillas in Congo, the lost Hadzabe Tribe in Tanzania, and his portraiture of the Elephants at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in Kenya.

Coinciding with his recently-opened show ‘Elephants in Heaven’  at the Immagis Gallery in Munich and the launch of the like-titled book from teNeues, I got the chance to talk to Joachim Schmeisser about what his work is all about…..


Dust III, Kenya 2010, copyright Joachim Schmeisser


I was looking for an introduction into discussing your photography, a way to formulate what I see in your Elephant images. On your website, I found the series you did on the Hadzabe people and the Virunga Mountain Gorillas. Your biography always mentions that you come from this field of commercial photography (which seems like the polar opposite of what I saw there). What’s your draw to these remote areas and such ‘quiet’ imagery? (I know it’s actually not so ‘quiet’, but I’ll get to that in a bit.) Also, what’s it like working in these two extremely different universes and how does everything come together for you?


This is of course a legitimate question– and in fact, it lays close to this–that these two fields can hardly be reconciled. Especially since I worked mainly in the field of Still Lifes. As a photographer, one has a special visual relationship with the world– regardless of the subject matter or whether it’s commercial or not. The exotic and mysterious already fascinated me as a child.

I have a natural curiosity about it—I now call it my ‘parallel universe’—as much with the content as with the visual. The longer I work commercially, the stronger I yearn for this contrasting ‘free form of photography, and it actually took quite a long time until the weight finally shifted—up until 2009, to be exact.


Elephant Bull looking at Bird, Kenya 2017, copyright Joachim Schmeisser


There’s this saying in English: “If a tree falls in the forest, and nobody’s there to hear it, does it make a sound?” I feel like when I first see your images, it kind of addresses this question straight on. I kept calling it ‚silently mind-blowing‘ in my head (Smiles)—this silence of experiencing something alone, or maybe  like a birds-eye view… For instance, these photos you made of the Hadzabe people– this tribe that was cut off from the rest of the world for hundreds of years—cut off, yet still totally thriving. I feel like your images are really personal…(I don’t know, maybe that statement comes from my view): what’s YOUR personal connection to this work?


It’s this immersion in a strange world, the attempt of approaching or coming into contact with people or a certain scenery: to include this particular connection and make something that’s buried under the surface visible. Sometimes it happens immediately, sometimes it takes longer and sometimes something totally unexpected happens. I am always looking for this thing that’s not exactly definable; it probably resonates in some way also with the search for myself in it…

I’m more convinced that the majority of pictures captured by a passionate, empathetic photographer are – in the broadest sense – self-portraits, and our ow n mood has a lot of influence on the result. The Hadzabe, the Mountain Gorillas, and more than any the Elephants have moved me deeply. It doesn’t matter to me, either, whether I portray a human or an animal. It is this one (often silent) moment that makes the difference – between a photo; and a photo that touches you.




With the Elephants, the viewer sees what feel like frozen moments; but after watching the video about it, I could see how ALIVE your working environment is. How do you feel when you’re in this working environment? How do you connect with all this ‘action’ to channel such magically frozen moments? What do you think about? Do you ever think about what it’s like, being there, or are you too in the zone to notice?


Yes, it’s actually so that at this moment I’m on another planet. You have to really concentrate – for one, you have to look at the whole scenery…on the other, I focus on the individual and try to make contact.

It’s like in street photography – You absolutely can‘t stage it, and you must react spontaneously to the situations you see. This is all the more difficult, since I work with a medium format camera, which is much slower and more cumbersome to handle than a normal picture camera. So there is much anticipation and a sense of the situation in the game; however, certain desired images develop in the mind, which then often actually lead intuitively into a real image.


Couple I, Kenya 2010, copyright Joachim Schmeisser


I read a Focus article about the ivory trade and the mishandling of elephants, and they used some of your photos for it. I mean, of course I am familiar with this topic, but for some reason I think I was connecting with your images in a more ‘artistic’ way before I saw this. It gave your photos even more meaning for me—sort of presented them in a new light. Politics. Is there a political element in your photographing elephants?I know that the series is called ‘Orphan Elephants‘, and your connection to the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, but could you tell me more about this element in your work?


It saddens me deeply and also makes me furious when I see how people slaughter these wonderful creatures out of pure greed—just to carve useless stuff out of their ivory. Above all, the political volition has had the power to curb this drift. Unfortunately, though, this is often a far too long and laborious process, which can only be accelerated by correspondingly large public pressure and attention. In his preface to my book, Matthias Harder speaks about ‘species protection with the camera’; I’m very pleased because it shows what photography can do in a socio-political aspect.

To sensitize as many people as possible for the beauty and the soul of these fascinating animals is component of my work. If my pictures can help to perceive these majestic giants in a new context, and to understand how much we’re connected with them and our entire environment, I have achieved something.


Orphaned elephant with his keeper, Kenya 2013, copyright Joachim Schmeisser


I think the Elephant images would be something especially great to have hanging someplace, like, for instance, in a home. At first glance, they seem so ‘straight-forward’ — especially with the sepia tone (I don’t wish to say ‘simple’ because they aren’t at all, I just mean they are very clear.) I feel like when the viewer has the opportunity to spend some actual time with them, experiencing them, or—even better—a chance to really coexist with them, the images start to open up more and more and a lot of different things start to happen. (It’s like what they say about ‘silent waters run deep’—this motto about stilles Wasser…. They say that in some of the tribal cultures, they are scared of having their photo taken, because they say the photo steals the soul. In a way, I feel like your images—of the elephants—do this, they seem ‘simple’ but in fact they are capturing a soul that will open up to the viewer if the viewer wants it. How are you able to capture this essence, this magic so accurately?


Thank you very much – that’s exactly what I mean with the invisible beneath the surface.

To make this visible, you’ll only succeed if you are part of the whole. In the end, I probably meet my protagonists on a kind of soulmate-level – I am always looking for this invisible ‘more’, and in some way – and I can also leave a trace in the picture. That’s it.


Portrait of Joachim Schmeisser.


Before, I was asking you about the connection between your Commercial Photography and this Wildlife Photography. I’ve had a lot of talks about iconography, and it seems like these talks almost always include some sort of discussion of either ‘working with the icon’ or ‘creating the icon’. Its fascinating for me to look at your images, because I can clearly see this element of the icon at play in them. (this is really difficult for me to describe). It’s like you are turning the elephant into an icon (kind of like how other photographers might turn a young, no-named actress into an icon)—but it’s also only half the story. I feel like this work—for me—is an unprecedented example of the perfect balance between creating an icon, and working with an icon. (I also think it’s funny because—full circle—these elephants still remain totally anonymous to the viewer at the end of the day.) How does iconography play out in your work? Is it a conscious thing? Have you ever thought about this balance that you’ve so expertly achieved?


There are two types of iconic images for me: Images that show, for example, certain political, social scenarios or actions, which are communicators and representative – and there are pictures that are independent of social or political content, which still touch the viewer. Pictures you fall into and that hit that one particular chord in your inner-soul. This means these pictures are charged with something, where you can find yourself again. That’s why there are also so many different reactions to such images.

I encounter the elephant with great respect and portray them just as I portray people, and see them all as individual personalities – that which they also are. In this respect, this entire photographic process is, in large part, a completely intuitive process that’s purely based on personality and charisma.

SHOW CLOSES 27. January 2018.


Joachim Schmeisser — Elephants in Heaven

IMMAGIS Fine Art Photography / Blütenstrasse 1 / 80799 Munich / Tu – Fr 14 – 18 / Sa 11 – 14 + by appt

About the book “Elephants in Heaven”:

Published by teNeues; 27.5 x 34 cm / 176 pages / forward by Matthias Harder (Curator of the Helmut Newton Fdn) and Dame Daphne Sheldrick (Founder of the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust) / hardcover with dust jacket / ca. 15 color and 93 black-and-white photographs / text in English, German + French / price: €59.90 / ISBN: 978-3-96171-047-8



Images: © + courtesy Joachim Schmeisser





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