In Pursuit of Images and When Photos Find You

Photograph/Kai-Olaf Hesse

Photograph/Kai-Olaf Hesse

This article was originally published in May 2012.

"I end up looking at the beauty of the photographed subject matter as it is—its details, its contingencies and its strange but thought-provoking melancholy."—Kai-Olaf Hesse

“I end up looking at the beauty of the photographed subject matter as it is—its details, its contingencies and its strange but thought-provoking melancholy.”—Kai-Olaf Hesse

After finishing school, I did not know what to do with myself, except for a pressing urge to become a photographer. So, I explored many types of photography. I was an apprentice in a large photo studio, doing advertising and learning the technical stuff. I even tried sports photography to prepare myself for becoming a photojournalist. Eventually, I decided to study photography at a university, and got completely lost for a while.

Then came the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the massive changes within European societies that followed. In the wake of seeing the all-too apparent fault lines throughout western worlds along with the collapse of its eastern neighbors, I did find out what it was that I had to photograph, and how. In the photography world, it was the impact of Paul Graham and Allan Sekula, among others, who then influenced my own voice and my own visual language.

So for about twenty years now, I have been working within the framework of projects. Find out what interests you most, come up with a theoretical concept, do some research and go hit the street and shoot. Once I had my idea straightened out, it became relatively easy to see the images I needed. As the process went along, it was also simple to define the right ones on the contact sheets, to edit them and then produce a sequence, a book, an exhibition. Don’t get me wrong… this was a very exciting time! And I wouldn’t have missed any of the experiences that I was lucky enough to have in the process. The thing is in the long run, it became predictable. After a while, I began to get the sense that I could apply this method to almost any topic that I could come up with.

For the past six years—within which our two children were born—I have not spent as much time on projects as I did before. I started to photograph stuff on the go, little things on the fringes of perception. Creating images with no definite direction, or preconceived ‘home’, aka a project framework.

I had almost never done this while working on projects. Earlier, almost all my images were dedicated to my project themes, whatever they were. So, the way I look for images has, in many ways, turned upside down.

Since I now spend a lot of time at home, taking care of the kids, I end up taking the detour of looking through my own archive, and thus, rediscover the process of finding photographs. In the process, I often find images that were not meant for some bigger concept. Now, carrying that idea with me as I wander the streets, those images seem to be finding me, as opposed to me looking for them. I can tell you that this is such a liberating and exciting experience. It is so much fun! The only frightening thing is that until I am well into the process, I cannot tell you (or myself) what it is that I am doing. It only shows over time, and takes a much more elaborate editing process.

There is one other problem that comes with this change. I end up with many images that are much more beautiful than before. This has not been easy. After all, I have spent most of my career in a photographic environment ,where beauty was always a bit suspicious, meaning that it is a distraction from your topic, or to be even more rude—it may be decorative (!) or simply, photo design. Moreover, I believe that my interest in the world, and my interest in photographing it, is still deeply rooted in the notions of commenting on society, on the built environment, on us, on politics, on the conditio humana.

But on the other side of the same token, I have found a new dimension to the joy of looking… not looking at the problems, clashes, or cultural adversities of the world caught in a ‘great’ image that suits a project purpose (but not really wanting to put it up next to the couch or the bedside). But therefore, I end up looking at the beauty of the photographed subject matter as it is—its details, its contingencies and its strange but thought-provoking melancholy.

Don’t be mislead. I am not talking about diluted, glossy and self-referential illustration or representation here. I am still talking about establishing context and creating associative, possibly complicated texts, that consist of images circling in on something. But sometimes, it is nice to just look at an image, one at a time. And of course, for a photographer, it might be rewarding to put up his own photograph on the wall.

About Kai-Olaf Hesse : Kai is a photographer and book designer based in Germany. For twenty years, he has produced independent projects, engaging in documentary social landscape photography. In the past six years though, things have started to shift: his availability of time, his attitude, the technology, and also his visual language.

Tags: Allan Sekula, better photography, finding the beauty in a photograph, how a photographer works, Kai-Olaf Hesse, May 2012, Paul Graham, the joy of looking at an image, Visual Musings