Chances are, if you’ve ever owned a CD or paid attention to cover art from the mid-1990s until now, you have seen an album cover shot by Olaf Heine. Also a good amount of the portraiture of our music inamorata—be it Iggy Pop or Radiohead, U2 or Rammstein, were taken by him. His signature is predominantly the immortalizing black on white, and he has this uncanny ability to put his celebrity object onto a pedestal of light, while also capturing moments of really uncanny intimacy.
I like Olaf Heine’s images because when I look at them, I suddenly realize that I am forgetting a camera is there, and then I smile. I gaze into the images—some of famous people I realize I recognize (because, at first, they look so at home), and then I switch to another one– one with those totally anonymous guys longboarding on the River Spree; there isn’t such a stark contrast– somehow I can really relate to each scenario. You get totally into the image. Then, suddenly you are part of this image. It turns into this kind of communal memory of the event— you’re part of it. You’re in the room.
I recently stumbled onto some of his other photography, I guess you could call it ‘Travel Photography’, but calling it just that does it zero justice (I keep saying it out loud here and it sounds really strange).
I see fairy tales in these pictures: like it was a hundred years ago and they were my first glimpse of exotic lands. They capture infinite moments that expand into magical stories that you wouldn’t believe if he didn’t have the photos to prove it. Herr Heine captures the imagery, but also the spice, the smell; the place’s ‘soul’ and it’s vibrations.
Berlin Photo Week opens officially Thursday, with the opening of Heine’s show Saudade at Chaussee 36 in Mitte, a massive Project he undertook, showcasing a series of images taken around Brazil. The moments he captured are both intimate and wild, ranging from nudes to epic landscape and architectural shots taken while hanging out of helicopters. Randomly, through our interview, I found out that another series he did, Rwandan Daughters, focusing on portraiture he collected while traveling through the Rwandan countryside with Ora Kinderhilfe, will not only selectively be on view this week at Kraftwerk Berlin, but can also be seen at Museum Frieder Burda’s Berlin Salon until 22. February of next year .
Really enjoyed this exchange with him, here’s how it went…..
You are most often (I feel) connected to musical photography and portraiture of celebrity musicians, but it feels like music plays a much greater underlining role somehow in all your work. I was curious about what it exactly is that affects you: I understand that you came from this background being around bands since you were a teenager, but how has this continued into now? Have aspects changed? What stays the same?
Music has always played a major role in my work. I grew up in a small town outside of Hannover and there was not much going on that truly interested me. Listening to music was a way to channel my feelings, reading the lyrics was a way to learn about poetry and album covers were a medium to dream myself away and discover the world. So, in a metaphorical sense, music gave wings to my imagination. It was a way to escape from the tristesse.
I started taking pictures when I was a teenager and was too insecure and shy to connect with my peers. The camera gave me confidence. Soon it was clear to me that I wanted to photograph everything what was going on around me musically. I took my camera to concerts of local bands and tried to capture the energy and the connection between artist and audience. It was also my key to approach and connect with musicians. I felt attracted to that world and wanted to be a part of it. I wanted to belong somewhere. Now some twenty-five years later, I still feel inspired by the wondrous beauty of Bon Iver choruses, the sheer energy of guitar riffs or the repetitive beats of certain electronic artists. The music business might have changed and there are hardly any record covers these days that make waves or cause media frenzy. But to me, it is still magical having a group of lads in a room who create a melody that might change the lives of so many. Music makes me be present and live the moment like no other sense can. It affects the brain; it energizes the life and encourages social exchanges. It offers a transcending experience.
How do you create this intimacy, especially when the location or the subject matter is not so well known to you? Can you turn it on and off? Is it some kind of lens that you put on your brain to affect how you see something? How does it work?….I saw an interview where you said, “it’s not the technique, it’s the head.” What did you mean?
The Intimacy you mention is not something that can be forced or pulled out of a hat. It implies a lot of time, work, research and talks. It seems to come through the letting go of resistance between the subject matter and myself, through befriending and opening to each other. Now, that is not something I always achieve – sometimes I just don’t get that chemistry or connection with my opponent; but it is definitely something I always aim for.
Intimacy could mean ‘in-to-me-see’, to look into someone’s soul and hidden places. And that requires finding a comfortable place, finding out who my subject is in this particular moment, and if is open to letting me get close; and also if it is willing to share these hidden places. Technically, I’d say the way I work might be of significance as well – often alone or in a small team, preferably using natural light situations and rather simple camera techniques that do not distract, nor takes too much attention from the subject. I might add that I am also more on the quiet side, and I’d prefer to restrain my ego during a shoot and rather offer room for my subject’s psyche to unfold.
So, my own emotional state seems marginally relevant too. I like melancholia and poetry. I like quiet and peace. And I like daydreams and hypnagogia, the borderland between sleep and wakefulness. There’s this Portuguese word ‘Saudade’, that the Brazilians have made their own with all their history, anguish, yearning, solitude and sadness. It’s a beautiful sentiment that inspires me.
I agree. Bob Marley once said, “The good times of today are the sad thoughts of tomorrow”– I always liked the tactility of that; I like this feeling about this threshold between past and present… I also like this word you use—Sentiment—because it’s also very emotional, like Saudade, also kind of a leitmotif in your work somehow.
When I was watching this other interview you did right after you finished the series on Rwanda and the genocides. This really impressed something on me regarding the aesthetic level of your work, because I think seeing what you saw there and capturing it, somehow affected your proficiency to capture things the way you do even more since then. It’s like the ugliness or imperfection conditions you to always expect an ugliness, so your photographic eye just lets it be. It’s like people are scared to have this element of ugliness, and you aren’t– so it makes the image even better.
Sorry if that sounds random, but I think it somehow alludes to what really makes your work unique, this emotional engagement, this mastery of oh so slight imperfection, and a lack of ego or self-claim to an image being your own….How do you think you got to this point? Is it really just about growing up with a camera in your hand? Is it about being on the road so much, instead of in a studio?
I guess it is a mixture of all of that. The whole project means a lot to me. Photography-wise I tried new ways here. Normally, I like Black and White for its timelessness and the reduction to the essential. But in this case, I came to know Rwanda as a very prospering, beautiful and colorful country, so I decided to realize the project in color. I also decided to not lead and direct the women too much; instead, I wanted to see how mother and daughter would move and behave in front of the camera and thus reveal a little bit about their relationship to us. And I hope, if you look closely you can see how deep or troubled their relationships are.
Was it easy to cross over the threshold to their side and make a connection to them?
When the aid organization Ora Kinderhilfe, which supports victims of the Rwandan Genocide, approached me in 2016, I hesitated for quite a while and wasn’t certain that I should get involved as a (white) German. You get criticized quite a bit for it. But I read about how Rwandan social and ethnic structures were influenced by German colonialists before the first world war and I was really surprised what an impact that had on the ethnic conflict in the post-independence era. A conflict that was orchestrated in an unbelievably brutal and horrendous way and happened under all our eyes. Still, the world was turning its back to the catastrophe. We all know the outcome. Nearly a million people died during the Genocide, hundreds of thousands died in the refugee camps in the neighboring countries and up to 250.000 women were systematically raped.
Fast forward to today, Rwanda is a blooming country that promotes its economic welfare, its gender equality and its status as a role model for the rest of Africa. But unfortunately, the victims of the genocide and rape can’t participate in the economic boom. The hype from the capital Kigali ceases at the outskirts of the city. Most of these women are mentally and physically devastated, no longer able to work and have little income. Many women in rural areas are single mothers bringing up their children in difficult circumstances and deprivation, and the chances of a future outside the poverty cycle are much lower for these children than for those of the urban middle class.
While moving through Rwanda and photographing these women, we met most of them at the local Solace Ministry community houses where they would gather, speak, pray and sing together. On one of our trips, our guides where mentioning a woman that couldn’t come to the communities because she was handicapped. So, we went to her house in the countryside. A little shack with few furniture items. The woman was in her early forties and sat in a wheelchair. She was raped in 1994, infected with HIV and later diagnosed with leukemia. She couldn’t move, nor could she make a living for her and her daughter. And due to the Genocide, there was no other family member.
So, it was on the daughter to provide a living for her and her mom, which she would do by working on the fields. The daughter was pretty smart, and said she wished she had the opportunity to study, so that she can get a better job and earn more money for her and her mother. But she was so busy providing and didn’t have the means to finance her education. It costs 30 Dollars for her per month to study. She said she applied for a sponsorship but was not very optimistic about it. Instead, she said that her God-given purpose and mission in life is to be there for her mother.
I wanted to support these children. I am deeply convinced that with a bit more empathy, respect, tolerance, with some work, guidance and a bit of generosity, the world will become a better place. This might seem a bit old fashioned, but I truly believe that populism, egoism, cynicism and aggression don’t change things in favor of the society. We are so privileged in our western society that to share with each other isn’t such a big deal, is it? If we can make the lives of a few of those mothers and daughters a bit better, then I feel that we have accomplished something. “I don’t want my future be determined by our past” is what the daughters said to me; that is a powerful statement in my opinion, and it asks us to help and support them. Providing health care and education for the underprivileged is the way to improve our societies, isn’t it?
Preach! (smiles). So, we spoke about the meaning of Saudade, but how did the series from Brazil actually come to be? What took you there in the first place?
My initial spark was ‚Mas que nada‘ the wonderful song by Sergio Mendes that a Berlin radio station had as their kind of theme song. The modernist culture of the swinging 60ies in Brazil has always inspired me: the Bossa Nova music of Joao Gilberto, Tom Jobim or Gilberto Gil, the architecture of Oscar Niemeyer, Mendes de la Rocha or Lina Bo Bardi and of course its great football team with Pele and Garrincha. All of that seemed so light and loose. The first time I actually went to Brazil (to document a rock festival in the late nineties), I did not find that lightness– actually, it appeared rather tough and harsh to me. But in the early 2000s it seemed that a new cultural era started in Brazil with great new architecture, new artists, new music, movies, literature and the blooming economy. After my book (‚I Love You But I’ve Chosen Rock‘) was published, I started tracking down the traces of the late architect Oscar Niemeyer. I flew to Brasilia and fell in love with the curves and lines of his buildings. I moved on to Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro and got hooked. When I returned a few months later, I met Niemeyer and photographed him. He was 103 years old back then. This encounter had a lasting effect on me.
He told me how he was inspired by the forms of the landscape and the curves of the women in his country. He was very nonchalant about it. He and his staff helped me getting around in Brazil a lot. And all I knew back then was that I didn’t want to shoot the same things over, and over again.
So instead of working linear and conceptional, I started to drift and roam around. I didn’t know what happened next and what I would see or who I would meet. But I was curious enough to soak in all that inspiration that Brazil lay out in front of me. I just looked around and followed all that attracted and interested me. I am not an architecture photographer, so I started photographing people that I met. I am not sure whether my photographs are truly realistic because I always try to include my sentiments or perception; so, I would not dare say that the book is a truthful representation of the country. Instead, I was just learning and along the way trying to document encounters. Mariana Lima, a theatre actress I photographed, said that when looking at my pictures she could sense the Brazil I tried to capture. It is not real, but it could be one day, because it is in the people and the souls. It might be my romantic vision of the country.
That’s why I love that word Saudade. You can’t really translate it. It describes a deep emotional state: A touch of melancholy. A turning towards the past or towards the future. A yearning for happiness that has passed, or perhaps never even existed. I have tried to show that place of longing, that a generation of Brazilian modernists in architecture, literature and music have designed in the middle of the 20th century as an expression of a positively changing, social, political and urban society, which—allegedly– considering recent developments in Brazil – seems like wishful thinking or a utopian dream that many Brazilians might gaze back at with Saudade……
Saudade opens 10. October 2019 at 19h.
Look for the selection of the series Rwandan Daughters on view at Kraftwerk during Berlin Photo Week.
Olaf Heine— Saudade
In cooperation with Berlin Photo Week
Chausee 36 / Chauseestr. 36 / 10115 Berlin
11. October – 10. November 2019 / Thursday – Sunday, 13 – 18h
Olaf Heine – Rwandan Daughters
Museum Frieder Burda – Salon Berlin
Auguststr. 11 – 13 / 10117 Berlin
07. September 2019 – 22. February 2020 / Thursday – Saturday, 12 – 18h
Images: © + courtesy (and with gratitude towards) Olaf Heine