Sometimes you click on a link in an email and what you see you see is what you were looking for without even knowing. It happens very rarely. But looking at Fabienne Karmann’s website felt like that. Her photography is the perfect mix of art, style, travel and documentary. And surfing.
interview by Britta Burger
Where are you based?
I m currently based in Berlin.
When did you start taking pictures and why?
I started taking pictures at the age of 14, on a riding holiday, with a snapshot camera. I only went for one week but quickly managed to shoot four rolls of film. At the same time my uncle was studying photography in Berlin, and I realised that it’s actually possible to work as a photographer. So I decided then that this is what I wanted to do. I always wanted to travel and work in a creative way with people.
Do you shoot on film or digitally?
For my personal projects I mostly shoot on film. For instance, my last trip to Morocco was shot completely on film. I love it because it focuses your mind on just seeking out great moments, rather than looking at an LCD all the time, which can happen when you’re using a digital camera. You don’t have instant access to what you captured, so you have to trust your feelings. I just love seeing the moments again, like a surprise, at a time after the event!
Who are your heroes?
My “heroes” in photography are Tim Walker because he’s able to create dream-worlds out of reality, Stefan Milev because he experiments with light and is really sensitive in creating atmosphere, Marton Perlaki because being Hungarian he is able to find alternative views, Fergus Padel because her portraits touch you, they’re totally close to life and unstaged, Viviane Sassen because she’s able to talk about society by using fashion and people, producing a fresh take on life and tension.
What do you want to achieve with your work?
I want my pictures to be authentic. They should ask questions and start a discussion about the way I work, my experiences, photography in general… and yes, fashion. If someone gets a new insight, just by looking at my work, I’m pleased. Clothes and fashion are never superficial to me. There’s always a connection to society and its people. My aim is the opposite of what we know from advertising, I try to integrate fashion into society, it doesn’t matter which social level I’m working in. Fashion opens a space for experiments, playing and enhancing creativity.
Your photography is a mix of style,art,travel and documentary, do you like any of these genres more than others?
I can’ t decide if I prefer one genre or another. Actually, I really like it that my work is continually changing. Often, my documentary pictures become dreamy, fashion becomes documentary and surfing photography becomes quite atmospheric. It’s this mixture that fascinates me.
Can art be cool and stylish or do you think something is lost when you try and make an image look attractive?
We just recently had this discussion about beauty at the kitchen table… if it is a bad thing documenting society by using aesthetic imagery. I think style and beauty can instantly have a negative connotation because we connect it with the media in all its superficiality. But since we’re human beings we love to have nice things around us. We need them to feel good. So yesterday we decided beauty can attract people to art and then there is always the possibility to get deeper messages across after.
A lot of your recent photos were taken in South Africa. When did you travel there?
In March and April this year.
Was it like you expected it to be?
A friend of mine decided to travel to South Africa and asked me to join her. She said “Fabi, should I bring my 6,6 Surfboard for you?” and I said “Yes!!!”. But then, unfortunately she was unable to travel, but I decided to go on my own. I didn’t do any research beforehand because I wanted to experience all the impressions without any expectation. In the end, it was one of the most intense experiences I’ve ever had. I was able to live the dream of just taking photographs and surfing for one month.
The expectations I did have from talking to people before the trip were varied. It was a mixture of a big fascination with Capetown, its nature, surroundings, beaches and the many stories about crime and sharks. The first day I was really scared walking around the streets and I expected crime at every corner. But at the end of my stay, after a lot of contact with locals, during the daylight hours I felt totally comfortable and felt I could enjoy this beautiful city. Still, it’s important to know where you can go. Do not go into the townships without a local who is familiar with them, and do don’t go out alone at night. I traveled around by car, which was fine. I had the feeling behind every corner, if you look, you’re going to be suprised by the beauty that is on offer.
What surprised you?
I was surprised by the people, the nature and the social situation. I never saw so many interesting, beautiful, magical faces. I was unbelievably attracted to the people there. At the same time I was suprised about how black and white people interact and how the system works and how big the gap is in terms of employment. Cleaners and security men were black, photography agency bookers and owners of hostels white. It may sound naive, but it was shocking to see how separated everything still is.
Did you go there specifically to work on a photographic project?
As soon as I had made the decision to travel, I started to come up with ideas. I contacted fashion designers in Berlin to put together outfits I wanted to shoot. At the same time I knew I definitely wanted to take surfing pictures. I thought about social projects, too. For many years I’d wanted to photograph surfing as part of a social project. And then I met the head of Muizenberg Beachclub, a really nice guy, drinking his morning coffee. At that point I didn’t know who he was and I asked him what he did in life. He told me he organised surfing classes for kids from the townships. With sparkling eyes I asked him if I could take pictures of this and he was really enthusiastic.
Was there anything specific you tried to capture?
The first days I followed a routine of walking the streets, trying to understand Capetown and South Africa. I listened a lot to African street music. I had never seen so many stylish and colourful people in any other culture. I took pictures of very different people: a girl selling peanuts, my makeup artist, women living in the townships, a model from an agency. All the people are really proud, proud of themselves and their lives, even though some of them are really poor and not in easy situations. It seems they carry their strength everywhere they go and of course, their clothing is a big part of that. Mixing European fashion with African people, from every social class, was another important aspect of my project. White people never appear in my series, but there is still a link because of the clothes I brought. And of course, a young white woman taking pictures of them and asking for their trust can also be sensed in theses images.
Photographing the surfing kids from the townships also meant a lot to me. I wanted to show what surfing gives to the people. The happiness, vitality, strength and power they get from crashing through the waves. It’s amazing what these kids learn for their lifetime.
What caught your interest most visually?
I was quite surprised because I’m not a landscape photographer at all, but in this country I captured so many mountains, the wilderness and an enormous number of water surfaces. The wide country and its changing of light just enchanted me.