Suffering and Beauty – on the Ethics of Photography

I often think about the ethics of photography, about the lines that should not be crossed (or if, in rebellion against your own feeling of shame, they should be crossed) and about the dignity of your subject.

My own photographs cannot be said to be very striking or insightful, I think. They are in part superficial, momentary, sometimes beautiful and I hope that I manage to portray the dignity of the people I choose to photograph, and their sense of themselves as well as their joy. I do not photograph intellectually and I do not seek out suffering. If there is anything I choose to photograph, then it is the joy and wonder of travelling, of seeing the world, rather than of thinking about it.

  Photography, respectable photography, seems to be concerned with suffering. How a person goes through agony, madness, disease and ultimately death or how they take on the cruelty of the world, which does not care about them. Because these, or so the images would suggest, are the cornerstones, the irrefutable realities of our existence against which all other things pale and wither.

  Respectable photography, like respectable philosophy, has long dealt with ideas of despair and emptiness, a world devoid of god. It is a strange dogma, this stubborn existentialism, the idea of the purity of hopelessness. I do think that our time demands a more diverse approach, a more open and flexible philosophy, an eye for not only the connectedness of all things but also the contradictory nature of everything.

  Suffering is only a part of the truth, if I may use this heavy word.  The world, in my experience, is never clear. There are hundreds of contradictory emotions and impressions floating around at every moment and if one has clarity it is only the clarity of one’s own emotion. Speaking as a photographer, that certainly makes for effective images but they are rarely truthful.

    There are no pure, undiluted moments. Not even in despair. You have to look for them and keep all the other moments out, because they might change the mood. I am still looking for the photographer who aims to show glimmers of hope in desperate situations or moments of strange, unsuitable, contradictory emotions.  A photograph freezes the moment and makes it eternal. The man in agony is not in momentary but eternal agony. This, I think, is why I would like to see more contradiction. Because it increases the awareness that moments flow and change.

  Having travelled extensively in Asia, I have seen instances of disease, famine, despicable living conditions, depression, gruesome accidents and death. But I would not decide to photograph such moments, unless I would aim to show the human dignity that must be there underneath.

  To me it seems as if there is an accepted image of suffering, a representation of it that will reflect upon the photographer and bring him some sort of twisted glory. Prize winning photographs depict unspeakable horrors because unspeakable horrors, especially if presented artistically and resonantly, sell and find an audience.

  I find there is a danger in this. It creates expectations and desensitizes the audience as well as the image maker – the next reportage must be more shocking. The photographer becomes a seeker of gruesome images, no longer because they are a reflection of the truth, but because they have become the world in which he is successful. It also strips the subject of the image of dignity. The subject becomes an object of pity and a canvas on which one can project many things, one’s own fear of the primitive side of man first among them all.

  But is a beautiful image more truthful? Is beauty truth, as the old adage held? No, of course not, but it is antidote to an ethic and aesthetic of suffering.

  If you want to have a truthful image of Asia or of Africa, look at images taken by Asian and African photographers and try to see through their eyes. Look for photographers who have managed to get rid of their own cultural lenses or have understood them insofar as to make them unimportant.

  Many of the greatest photographers have taken time to develop an understanding of the person or the situation they want to photograph, along with all the contraditions and complexities. It is as simple as that. My own photographs do not even begin to measure up to such a standard, but I think it is a direction worth taking.

Thoughts on Photography

When I think about photography, I think about wanting to make an image seep with emotion or with a particular sense.

It’s not so much about mood, although that plays a part as well, but mood is a surface emotion, something that can be easily manipulated by moving a prop or changing a colour. I’m looking for something that is integral of a person, a landscape or a moment.

A sense is more of an undefined element. The fleeting, ephemeral notions in your or the other person’s head.

It’s not about visual elements – they are a stylistic and therefore very random element, although sometimes they are helpful in order to convey a particular emotion.

It’s strange, perhaps, but I do not think about photography in purely visual terms. It is very much a sensual experience for me.

Clean, clearly defined and well-lit images have their lure, of course, but they are also sterile and lifeless. An artificial emotion pasted onto a face because the photographer wants to convey the image directly from his own head rather than allow it to happen.

A photograph, the kind I’m looking for, is shaped by the world and not by me. It may be frustrating for models, but there is no right image for me. Sometimes an image appears, or an emotion appears that I might find appealing and attractive. That’s what I’m looking for and it’s a question of being attuned rather than being keenly, visually aware.

Of course it is entirely subjective, that is, dependent on my own ideas and perhaps mistakes, but objective photography is advertisement, surface value.

It’s not just beautiful emotions that I want to convey, but rather the enigmatic ones. Moments that have layers and make you want to puzzle them out. To simply say “Smile” means you are not aware what the other person is feeling but only what you are seeing. In order to give meaningful direction you need to be able to understand what sort of image another person holds in their heads as well as the emotion they are bringing to the table. Constant communication is a great help here. Or silence.

There is no wrong expression, no wrong emotion. This goes too much into philosophy, but I’m looking for something that is naturally arising. What this is, that’s as much of a surprise for me as for anyone.

You ought to feel something when looking at an image. This may be the beginning of a thought or the hint of an emotion, a sense of place or a sense of a person. That’s what I’m looking for.



Fotokurse “Portrait und Szene” in Pitten



Studiokurse “Portrait und Szene” in Pitten

Fotografie für Kreative und Probierfreudige

In einem vollausgerüsteten Studio können wir uns übers Wochenende in einer 5-stündigen Session der Realisierung ambitionierter Portraits widmen.

Der erste Teil beschäftigt sich mit dem Kennenlernen des Equipments. Wie richte ich den Hintergrund her, wie verwende ich Soft-Boxen, Spotlights und dergleichen, wie gehe ich mit dem Belichtungsmesser um.

Im zweiten Teil konzentrieren wir uns auf Portrait und Szene, d.h. die Inszenierung einer Idee mit Model – wir werden hier von Modellen unterstützt, die professionell mitarbeiten, die Vorstellungen der Teilnehmer zu verwirklichen.

Es geht vor allem darum, die Einstellungen und das Einrichten und Benutzen von Licht kennenzulernen. Vor allem die Zweischneidigkeit von Kunstlicht – man kann es einrichten, wie man möchte, braucht aber großes Feingefühl um es annähernd natürlich und wirkungsvoll aussehen zu lassen – wird hier behandelt.

Auch ein Crashkurs für die Nachberarbeitung über Lightroom ist inkludiert. Ausgewählte Bilder werden nach dem Shooting Schritt für Schritt und leicht nachvollziehbar am Computer, der digitalen Dunkelkammer, bearbeitet.

Preis: 120 € pro Person

Mindestteilnehmerzahl: 5 Personen

Zeitraum: 23.3.2014

Ort: Atelier Buchner, Prof. Sepp Buchner Strasse 528, 2823 Pitten, Zeit 13– 18 Uhr

Kontakt: Sebastian Buchner – – 0660 35 22 597


Image Selection – Blue, Red, Green, Yellow

An attempt to create a photograph that looks like an Orientalist painting. The mountains, receding into light or the sky. | Ein Versuch, eine Fotografie wie ein orientalistisches Gemälde aussehen zu lassen. Die Berge verschwinden im Licht oder im Himmel selbst.

A sternly meditating Buddha with a red shape passing by in the background.  | Ein Buddha, versunken in strenger Meditation, dahinter ein roter Schemen.

The mountains never seem as verdant and lush as around a village. Everything else is desert. | Nur in der Umgebung eines Dorfes wirken die Berge so grün und lebendig. Der Rest ist Wüste.

A utensil used by monks in a monastery. I don’t know what it is, but the shadow fascinated me. | Ein unbekanntes Utensil in einem Kloster…der Schatten hat mich fasziniert.

Image Selection – Himachal Pradesh by Sylvain Durand

Another selection of images from a colleague and friend of mine – Sylvain Durand, educated painter and self taught photographer from Dijon.

Food is a communal affair in this small village, near Manali. Women, Men and Children sitting together, eating together – they do not possess much, but the rice bowl is one of their treasured posessions. | Gegessen wird in diesem kleinen Dorf in der Nähe von Manali gemeinsam. Frauen, Männer und Kinder sitzen beisammen. Die Menschen hier besitzen nicht viel, aber die Reisschale zählt zu ihren wertvollsten Besitztümern.

The style of houses is unique to the areas around Sarahan and Reckong Peo, where amazingly detailed woodworks like no other in India can be found (although it certainly is not the topic of conversation of those two ladies). | Diesen Baustil findet man nur in dem Gebiet um Sarahan und Reckong Peo – er charakterisiert sich vor allem durch wunderbar detaillierte, in Indien beispiellose Holzarbeiten (den Frauen, versunken in ihrem Gespräch, ist das natürlich gleich…).

The strong Tibetan influence makes some regions in the Western Himalayas almost “more Tibet than Tibet”. | Der starke tibetische Einfluss im westlichen Himalaya macht manche Regionen “tibetischer als das heutige Tibet”.

Kungri Monastery held one of the biggest festivals, gathering almost two thousand people from the outlying villages. The surroundings are, as you can see, utterly stunning. | Die unglaubliche, aber menschenleere Landschaft rund um Kungri macht es umso erstaunlicher, dass sich zu diesem Festival knapp zweitausend Menschen zusammengefunden haben.