Photos without Fear – An Interview with Tamina-Florentine Zuch
We meet up with Tamina-Florentine Zuch in the Dornröschen colony of allotment gardens in Hannover, where she has a little cottage, a refuge, a place where she can retreat and be inspired. She has just returned from a reporting assignment in Iraq. She landed in Hamburg this morning.
WHO IS TAMINA-FLORENTINE ZUCH
Since finishing her degree in photojournalism and documentary photography at Hannover University of Applied Sciences and Arts and winning the ZEISS Photography Award in 2016 as well as the STERN Junge Fotografie 2017 award, her life has been that of a nomad. She loves it – and yet she is also searching for some peace and quiet. She is intrepid and fearless – and she travels around the whole world to assuage the fear that surrounds many when it comes to dealing with the unknown, and to show them the beauty of the world that exists even in the most desperate of situations. For one photo story, she traveled to India and lived for days in a train that over 20 million people depend on every day. She observed, talked to the people, dove into the stories of her fellow travelers, and snapped pictures along the way. The result was intense, touching, and impressive images. Over the recent years, Tamina-Florentine Zuch has intensively documented things that underscore her determined belief in the good of humankind. She goes places that others wouldn’t dare set foot in. She rides the train across the United States with young hobos, vagabonds, and migrant workers and accompanies them while they work. She makes friends with Cecilia (8), Wwuga (6), and Juni (3), who live in Santroko Bume in the Volta region of Ghana, and she records their childhood, which is really not a childhood at all. Here her expert eye is able to show wonderful pictures that show happiness without hiding the suffering that stands in the forefront.
“That’s life, a part of us,” says Tamina and talks about how, even here in Dornröschen, everything isn’t perfect. There are constant break-ins. She gets woken up by burglars and things always go missing while she’s away on vacation or on assignment. She explains all this without resentment or anger. “I invite them to have a cup of tea and I talk to them about their situation.” When you meet Tamina-Florentine Zuch, talk to her, and listen to her stories, and then lay her pictures down next to her, there are some common threads: honesty, sensitivity, authenticity – a great photographer.
Who gave you your first camera?
My mom. I had been using my dad’s old film camera for a long time. I took pictures of all types of situations. For a while we lived out in the country, with animals, forests, and a creek. I ran around in my free time and documented and commented on everything that made its way in front of my lens. When I was 15, I asked for a camera and my mom scraped together her last pennies and gave me a Canon for Christmas. I still remember how I fell asleep those first few nights with my camera next to my pillow.
Do you remember what model it was?
A Canon 500D.
When and how did you develop your passion, your desire to become a professional photographer?
I was never really aware that you could make photography your career, aside from photographing weddings or having a studio for taking passport pictures – neither of which ever interested me. We only got the Leipziger Volkszeitung; I only learned about magazines like GEO or National Geographic much later. I was a real laggard for a long time when it came to professional documentary photography. After finishing high school, I went to Ghana for a year. When I came back, I started working and traveled occasionally, for example to India or around the Balkan Peninsula – always with my camera. I started studying communication design in Brunswick with a focus on photography, but I quickly realized that something wasn’t right. It seemed so unimportant to me. Then my professor told me about a degree program in Hannover and thought it might be something for me. I realized even just looking at the website for the university that this was exactly what I was looking for.
You studied photojournalism and documentary photography. What can you tell us about your studies?
My time at college was just the right thing for me. The admissions process was difficult and drawn out. They really make sure that only people get accepted who really want it badly. It’s not about understanding the technology or already having professional experience; instead, you have to have a passion for telling stories. I was one of the youngest in my class and I benefited greatly from the experience of the others. The first two years were really intense. You get sent out and have to photograph a story every two weeks. Nothing earth-shattering, just everyday stories, to learn the basics. Later, everyone focuses on the areas that he or she is interested in. Our professors give us lots of freedom and support you where they can – if you want them to. But this is probably where most would-be photographers fail: you have to get your ass going on your own and just do it. Find stories, research, take photos, fail, try again. It’s not always easy, but the support network is huge – professors, fellow students, photo editors, and other photographers. So far I have had almost exclusively positive experiences with the photography community.
Are you a “child” of dialog photography, or did you spend hours in the darkroom of your school’s photography club or your parents’ basement?
Unfortunately my school didn’t have a photography club. At home I had set up a laboratory in the old barn, but my time there was really more dedicated to the development of stink bombs than photography. (Dead bees are perfect for that!) I’m not, nor was I ever, a techie nerd. My favorite part of photography is actually taking the pictures along with the encounters with other people associated with it.
You have already won several awards – including the ZEISS Photography Award 2016 and the STERN Junge Fotografie 2017 scholarship. How important were these awards for you as a young photographer?
These days it’s not easy to make the decision to be a professional photographer. There are hardly any magazines that hire photographers on a permanent basis. Freelancing is not for everyone; it can be extremely frustrating especially at the beginning of your career. My parents had both been freelancers for a time, so I had experienced the constant struggle and I swore to myself that I would never do that to myself. What can I say? Times have changed; you hear that enough from the older generation of photographers. Magazines are spending significantly less on productions and the market is overflowing with good freelance photographers. A majority of them have to have a secondary focus to get by. Some opt for weddings or advertisements, fields of photography that are still paid relatively well. Not infrequently then, however, your own projects suffer because you don’t have the requisite time for them. Competitions and scholarships are definitely necessary to finance your own large projects. But they are also necessary for notoriety. It’s hard enough for freelance photographers to convince a magazine that a story is good enough to then secure the financing. Every production represents a risk for the magazine, so they naturally feel safer if they know that you are good at what you do.
So what was the result for you?
I definitely became better known after receiving the ZEISS Award. I was interviewed a lot and had a nice exhibition in London. Even now – two years later – ZEISS is supporting me in my projects. I just started the STERN fellowship, but I have already traveled for a few stories, including in Iraq. Being permanently employed at such a magazine is a really great experience. You get to know the structures and learn what happens behind the scenes at this type of publication. But primarily I am given the opportunity to work on various stories with writers both at home and abroad. I am somewhere else every week, meet new people and exciting stories, and develop a routine in my photography. A great opportunity for which I am very thankful.
How does the “business” work? Do you approach media outlets with topics, or do they book you as a photographer to work in a team with a journalist for a story?
Both. Early on, the case is probably always that you have to research stories yourself and do them at your own expense. It’s pretty rare to be booked by a magazine or newspaper without doing any advance work. For me, I had to do all the work on my first three big stories. I researched, organized, and financed everything on my own. Then I got lucky and was able to sell the stories, which enabled me to finance my next story. After a time building up an impressive portfolio, after introducing yourself over and over to editors, and with a little luck, then you might also get booked in advance for stories. Or you develop a story together with a writer. That’s also an option. But it is important not to despair. I was sent away without success countless times. Sometimes they say, “That sounds interesting. Go ahead and do that and then show us the pictures when you get back. Maybe we can arrange something then.” Then you have to factor in that it very well may result in nothing in the end. That can get very frustrating over time.
How do you find and develop topics, motifs, and series?
I travel a lot; I come across most of my stories by chance. I also read a lot, both books and magazines. I also get lots of ideas through conversations. If a topic piques my interest, then I take some notes and look at them the next day to see whether the interest is still there. If so, then the research really gets going as well as the thinking about how best to do this particular story. Then the ball gets rolling and you gradually get to a result.
Which “pictures” are at the top of your to-do list?
Moments that both show and arouse emotions.
Photography has never been as fast-moving and random as it is in the age of dissemination through media like WhatsApp, Instagram, and other messaging services. Is this a curse or an opportunity?
Probably both. The Internet is an exciting thing. Platforms like Facebook and Instagram in particular make it possible to catch an eerily private glimpse of various people’s lives. But I think it’s important for every individual that they don’t lose touch with the real world. The real world is, after all, the most beautiful.
The subject of copyrights and personal rights was once again a controversial topic last year. How important are image rights, and how can you protect yourself from image rights and get any subjects in front of your lens?
We have to communicate more and above all more honestly. So far, I have always been lucky enough to not have had any difficulties getting the permission of my protagonists to photograph them. Everyone has the right to decide if they want to be photographed or not. I’m not a fan of secrecy or sneakily taking pictures. And this has never been a problem to this point. When it comes to copyrights, I would once again come back to honesty. You can only be proud of your own work. If that isn’t enough for you, then you have to be honest with yourself and know how to deal with it. Presenting someone else’s work as your own is just downright sad. If you aren’t satisfied with your results, then you just have to work harder.
I recently came across a fascinating story about British photographer Jonathan Turner from Leeds, who is out and about with a simple plate camera for his “Street Studio,” where he only takes one picture for each motif. Which photographic age would you like to return to?
I am pretty happy with today.
Where is your professional journey taking you? What are your dreams?
I think I chose the perfect career to face all possible fears. Fear is a dangerous animal that can drive people to do the most unthinkable things. The world is full of fears and the flames are constantly being stoked. When I dream, then I dream of the possibility of assuaging the fears of others. The fear of other people and cultures above all.
What would Tamina-Florentine Zuch have done if she wasn’t such an excellent photographer?
I probably would have been a botanist.
THE INTERVIEW WAS CONDUCTED BY KAI GEIGER
Published in GABRIELE arttourist.cm 2/2017, www.arttourist.com