Magnum Masterclass with Jonas Bendiksen
Reading the news about this workshop happening in my newly adopted hometown I am pretty stoked. And actually equally disappointed receiving the bad news that I was too late to get in. As you might imagine already the story has a happy twist.
It’s the week before the workshop and I’m asked by the organizers if I am still interested. You bet! Jonas’ book Satellites is among my all time favorites, I am constantly puzzled and amazed by the Offside Brazil Still Films he did during the soccer world cup. Listening to the little details he tells and being able to ask questions about things I wondered about for so long alone is pretty amazing already.
Entrance Stephan Erfurt, basically our host as the CEO of C/O Berlin. His enthusiasm for this space is overwhelming. He pays us the compliment of a short guided tour through the art space and even Jonas was truly impressed by both the history of the organization and the amount of photo enthusiasts visiting the Magnum Contact Sheets exhibition that day.
Jonas energy and openness make it very easy to enjoy the workshop, paying attention to the calmer characters and extroverts alike. I am still a bit nervous since I screwed up the last photo workshop I attended by trying to impress the teaching photographer. I hope I learned my lesson. Just to make sure I selected photographs I’m quite contempt with and my problem child: unpublished documentary fragments that I am not too proud of. I want Jonas to assist me getting the hang of this genre that I highly admire, yet see myself unable to cope with.
Reviewing the group’s portfolios Jonas insists that his opinion is not a fundamental truth. “It’s just my opinion and I can be totally wrong about it.”. I sense a slight notion of sympathetic understatement in these words – and totally enjoy the fact that he asks for the attendees’ opinions, too. I am pretty inspired by the portfolios that are shown and the stories that get told. Jonas challenges every attendee gently with a matching assignment for the next day.
Showing Jonas my street work but asking him to focus on my ‘problem child’, he asks “Are you really sure about it? You wouldn’t prefer to talk about your other pictures and get my honest opinion?”. I am serious about it. And he gets serious, too. I receive a zen slap feedback. “You are confusing the topic and a story. You document the topic but there is no story in these pictures”. Bulls eye, I can totally see what he means. “And they are not very interesting graphically either”. That hurt – but that’s the thing about the truth, isn’t it? His advice: “Take stranger pictures!”, and “Try to either tell a really interesting story or concentrate on taking graphically compelling pictures.”. This is what I keep in mind while visiting the painter Sven Balenthin the next day – Jonas’ feedback accompanied by Bieke Depoorter’s words: “I try to not hope for a picture… I am there as a person first, and a photographer second.”. When I enter Sven’s flat and he shows me around, we just have a conversation and I snap some shots along it. The borders between photographing and being photographed blur when Sven gets hold of one of my cameras.
I realize the main point is getting to know him and it becomes pretty clear to me that the initial story I had in mind – him living in an suburban prefabricated building painting international supermodels – is far less interesting than all the little details I’m discovering. I try to build visual connections between the facts and what I see. A quote comes to my mind: “Maybe stories are just data with a soul”. Turns out there are far more stories than I am able to express in pictures, and we agree on seeing this as a first session and the start of a long term project. Returning to my flat I grab a quick bite and start editing. There seem to be quite some pictures that connect to a story, sometimes it is hard to tell which picture to choose when a situation’s edit resulted in two equally interesting photographs. One of these situations makes me laugh – we tried to remake Cartier Bressons famous Picasso portrait, just with christmas cookies instead of bread. I decide to put one of them into the B-edit just for the laughs. The A-edit consists of 8 pictures and I realize – whether these are great pictures or not doesn’t matter much, that session and the fun we had alone were worth it. Which doesn’t mean I’m not totally curious and a little tense when I think about getting Jonas’ feedback the next day.
After having an insightful one on one session in the morning with talking about my street stuff, editing in general and his special approach, I enjoy the discussion of the other participants assignment results before presenting mine. The master of documentary photography’s voice giving me the assignment echoes in my head: “Take stranger pictures! Try to either tell a really interesting story or take graphically compelling photographs.” I’m quite relieved to get positive feedback on both the visual quality of the images and the stories I tried to tell. I see Jonas moving some scenes from the B-edit to A that I wasn’t sure about if they were too ‘clinically fact driven’ documenting the topic of being a painter or just not ‘strange enough’ to meet my teacher’s request. Feels pretty good! The Picasso-HCB remake actually almost makes it to the A-edit, but I consult against it: “I tried to redo a certain iconic image here, but selected a moment between the moments since I didn’t manage to get a good remake done.”. Jonas asking “So you think Cartier Bresson’s version is better than yours?” in a totally deadpan manner results in a hilarious burst of laughs, including me. He can’t resist to grin a little, either. Delivering some final remarks, we continue on reviewing the remaining assignment results. After delivering a final group presentation to a selection of the C/O Berlin staff, the group actually has a hard time to part. This sympathetic notion and our workshop happening in Germany on a pretty cold winter weekend inevitably ended in some of us having mulled wein outside the art space, standing in the cold, talking about our experiences this weekend.
I want to thank Jonas for being an amazing teacher and C/O Berlin for organizing the Magnum Masterclass in the first place. Special shout-out to my fellow workshop participant Gregor Zielke for a nice editing session resulting in the set of pictures shown here. Be sure to keep up to date with him, he is up to something amazing with the project he started that weekend. If you wonder about the documentary on Sven Balenthin – I decided not to publish it until it’s finished, I enjoy the assignment results pretty much already but feel there’s still more details to add, more connections to carve out and perhaps putting some more soul to put in the data that photographs ultimately are. I am happy to show the current work in progress to everyone interested, just ping me and we can talk about it. As a bottom line, I have to state that I am still inspired by the workshop, the zen slap that worked so well and Jonas approach to photography. Thanks so much once more!