BY THOMAS VON WITTICH
In our day and age, where people tend to communicate and document their lives via social media first and foremost, basically everything exists to end up in a photograph. It’s a weird kind of seal of approval to be alive, even though it paradoxically implies that all the things and people you capture during that fleeting moment are a frozen testimony to the fact that (luckily) sooner than later everything goes the way of all flesh. Hence all these countless comments and images no one gives a shit about are primarily memento mori. And it’s rather interesting that photographers of all people are the ones that just love to buck this trend as they prefer to be very cautious about the material they make public. And Berlin-based photographer Thomas Von Wittich does exactly that - maybe even because the subjects he predominantly documents would add a new dimension to aforementioned memento mori theory. Von Wittich loves to shoot in black and white, elaborate compositions that basically captured the most prominent protagonists of Berlin’s notorious urban art and graffiti scene since he arrived in Germany’s capital around 2008. One of hist most prominent projects came to end just recently: “Adrenaline“, for which he followed the notorious Berlin Kidz crew through their risky operations for two years straight - which once again proves that the camera can be an instrument of real intuition when in the hands of a top-notcher, indeed. Lodown hooked up with the hailed photographer in August.
“I think differently to most graffiti writers, who just want to see their name in the streets, the Berlin Kidz idea was founded as a project for social insubordination and expressing freedom.“
Thomas, you moved to Berlin around 2008... was the vibrant (street) art scene and music community the town offered back then the crucial motive for this decision?
It was more about the music than the street art scene back then. When I was still living in my hometown working as a photographer, I was predominantly shooting portraits of musicians. Which means: you write shitloads of emails to people organizing concerts, to tour managers and musicians to then travel to another city and wait for hours at the venue while everybody else working there gives you the feeling that you’re disturbing the vibe and stealing their time. Usually, you have an appointment before the concert, with a 90% chance that it will get delayed to after the show, so you wait another three hours just to shoot for an absolute max of five minutes in a dirty low light corner of the venue. I thought that I could have it easier in Berlin, you know, without the traveling and endless waiting - maybe even get to know some people organizing concerts, who will just let me do my job without acting like a princess. Long story short, it happened exactly like this... and it bored me to death. Before I moved to Berlin, I had no interest in street art at all - for me this was failed graffiti writers producing stuff that is easy to appreciate by common people. This might sound ignorant but you have to see my background in being a young graffiti writer myself coming from a small city. After I arrived in Berlin, I met Alias and some other artists who showed me that there was way more behind it and from that point on, I was shooting musicians less and less but rather spending my nights on the streets working with urban artists.
The subjects and artists you portray allow you to have a very different and unique look on how the vibe and actual scenery of the city changed over the years - how did your personal perception of Berlin reflect on that since you came here?
When I was in the process of moving to Berlin, I was expecting everything and nothing at the same time. I only knew the city from a few short trips I took with some friends of mine, and I came without any kind of preparation as I just felt an urgent need to leave my hometown. When I arrived though, I was surprised by what’s actually possible over here. Coming from a small city in West Germany, for the first year I felt like I was on a huge playground for grown-ups without too many nursery teachers. If you were listening to German rap music at that time, you had the impression that the whole city was one huge ghetto, resembling the Banlieus from Paris - but instead Berlin presented itself as a very peaceful place filled with huge public parks, these funny places called “Spätkaufs“ where you can buy a cold beer for 60 cents at two in the morning, and people dancing in the streets. In the past eight years the city changed a lot, which I find to be quiet a natural thing, especially with the political history of the city. I don't see myself arguing about gentrification over here, simply because I bring to the table what the very majority of critics are complaining about: coming from another city, living in the "hip" East of Berlin, owning a Macbook, enjoying a good coffee and doing "something with media". Most of those people just complain because they can't find a cheap apartment or atelier anymore... without realizing that they might be a part of the problem. You don't like how the city is evolving? Fine, I’m gonna start a conversation on that with you once you do something to oppose it.
I am not sure if it changed a lot in the past years or if I am just discovering this a lot more these days, but what really keeps surprising me is how much artists are willing to sell their souls for cheap. They reach a certain level of popularity in the streets, then they have one or two shows in a gallery and think it’s clever at that point to just produce to sell. Don't get me wrong, I don't have a problem with artists showing and selling their work, but I think in most of the cases their art just loses all the context when being presented in a closed room. People completely stop to paint in the streets, best case they might still go out one night some weeks before their next vernissage to then sell painted canvases, underwear, tees and a fanzine - or even worse: paint a huge mural for a big housing company.
“I don't see myself arguing about gentrification over here, simply because I bring to the table what the very majority of critics are complaining about: coming from another city, living in the "hip" East of Berlin, owning a Macbook, enjoying a good coffee and doing "something with media". Most of those people just complain because they can't find a cheap apartment or atelier anymore... without realizing that they might be a part of the problem.“
Unlike other photographers who simply shoot the living shit out of everything they cross paths with, you attach a lot of importance to your output in terms of subject and quantity. I guess, it’s a conscious decision of yours as well to shoot in b/w only, right?
I see myself as well as a curator of my very own portfolio. I only shoot artists whose work I really like, or where I believe that their work will have a huge impact on the urban art scene in the next few years. And I’m definitely not defining myself via social media. I am not willing to upload at least one photo every second day on Facebook just because the algorithm of this platform demands it. The decision to shoot in b/w was only made when I was getting into photography. I started as an intern and later assistant to a b/w photographer. This was before digital cameras, and I spent the first few years in the darkroom developing film and printing my photos. I’m shooting digital now, but never felt the need to work in color so far.
One of the most outstanding series you did over the last few years was putting the notorious Berlin Kidz in the spotlight. How did you actually team up with them? And what was the most hair-raising thing that happened to you while joining them through the night?
I always have a list of artists I would love to work with on my mind. They were on this list. I asked some other artists and friends, and one of them knew them and introduced me. We immediately met for some action, and afterwards I left my phone number with one of them, saying I would appreciate if they’d call. One year later they actually did, and from that point on I was following them with my camera for two years. During these two years I went through countless crazy situations but the most stressful one for me actually happened not too long ago. They wanted to paint a building façade next to the S-Bahn tracks. I was hiding with my equipment, sitting on a very huge flat roof directly next to the spot. There was just the train tracks between us, so let’s say there was a fifteen meter distance, and my roof was about five meters lower than the one they were on. I had a dead angle towards the street because of a bridge but while they were preparing, I could see them nervously looking down below, as if there was something going on when suddenly one of them dropped their keys, which then fell down the pointy roof and landed with a super loud noise on the ground. He just jumped down to grab them, and at this very moment the street got filled with blue lights and people shouting. They just instantly ran away as there was like six houses connected and the police were already on the roof following them. The police would have noticed me if I would have ran away as well but my way down was a tricky one. So I decided to stay. I was completely dressed in black, and I tried to press myself as firmly to the ground as possible. There was more and more police showing up on the other roof, and they were pointing their torchlights on all the other roofs looking for them. I could hear every single word from their conversation (“Dude! Those were graffiti artists, look at the the spray cans”…”There are some ropes, it’s those Berlin Kidz... should we go down with the rope as well? That would be funny”), and I was expecting them to discover me at any given moment. Sugar on top: I promised a friend I’d lend him my camera - which I was already picturing being confiscated - the next day for a huge shooting, and I had to pee really really badly. They were pointing their torchlights everywhere, except the roof I was laying on as they were not expecting them to jump that fifteen meter distance. I waited for one endless hour till they left, and then another hour just to be sure before I finally went home. Right now, it makes for quite an entertaining story, but it felt like hell in that moment.
The very majority of people just know them for their daredevil antics and unique type of graff, but they actually have a huge social conscious and message to spread as well, don’t you think?
I think differently to most graffiti writers, who just want to see their names in the streets; the Berlin Kidz idea was founded as a project for social insubordination and expressing freedom. Like the name already implicates, the project is very connected to the city itself. They fight with the possibilities against gentrification, surveillance, and obedience. Once you take the time to actually read what they write, you will get an idea about their state of mind quite fast. It’s an alternative draft to a lifestyle full of work, clubs, drugs, television, and prescriptions.
The nature of street art and graffiti won’t allow you to elaborately prepare a shoot... your photos on the other hand almost flirt with a kind of monumental approach and highly artistic execution. What’s the secret here?
Even if the context doesn't allow too much, I still try to prepare myself as much as possible. I will always bring the least possible equipment, but when I know that I will shoot from the top of a pointy roof, I will for sure bring a tripod. Usually the artists I shoot are not randomly tagging a wall, so there is always a little time for preparation... like checking for spots where I could position myself. I work quite fast and I don't use a lens cap or a camera bag or anything else, which could steal my time. I see my equipment as a tool, and I prefer to maybe get a scratch on a lens one day instead of miss an opportunity for a shot because I was not ready to take a picture.
So now that this project is coming to an end, do you already know what’s next for you?
I’m gonna move to Paris. Right now I’m really looking forward to having one or two weeks off... but knowing myself and seeing myself in Paris by the end of the year I know that I won't sit still for more than a few days. On my list of people I want to work with are four French artists already, and I have two series I was working on before I started the “Berlin Kidz“ project - which are pretty far removed from what I did so far. So I might just focus on that for the next couple months. I don't want to plan too much - when I was in the process of moving to Berlin I had a totally different idea of what I wanted to do compared to what I ultimately ended up doing here, so I’ll just go and see what happens.
“Before I moved to Berlin, I had no interest in street art at all - for me this was failed graffiti writers producing stuff that is easy to appreciate by common people.“