Paul Sullivan chats to Berlin street photographer Guido Steenkamp…
Where were you born and what sparked your interest in photography?
I grew up in a small town in West Germany, close to the Dutch border. I moved to Berlin about twelve years ago to start my first job. I began to take pictures more or less by accident when a friend gave a camera to me. Right from the beginning the darkroom was a kind of magical place for me: the moment you see the first contours of a picture on what was a piece of white paper seconds before—fantastic.
What kinds of photos did you start shooting initially?
When I moved to Berlin I started to take pictures of abandoned military bases. A vast amount of these facilities can be found around Berlin, given up by the Red Army a long time ago. After two or three years of doing this, I got bored of photographing ‘dead’ stuff. Instead I focused on street photography which is all about life in its various forms.
Did you study photography?
I didn’t study photography. I studied business management. I am head of a consulting department at a Berlin-based software company.
What got you into street photography?
I like walking in the streets and I like to watch people. The most exciting aspect of street photography is that there is very little that you have to prepare for, and almost nothing you can plan. All you have to do is to step out on the street and have your camera ready to record the small details of daily lives. I would prefer to call this ‘voyeuristic documentation’ rather than street photography. For me the basic idea of this kind of photography is to document life in its candid moments.
What makes Berlin a good place for this kind of photography?
Well, Berlin is where I live and therefore I take most of my pictures here. I wouldn’t say Berlin is the best place in the world for street photography (that would be New York City), but it’s relatively easy in Berlin. The two things that are obviously required for street photography are people and interesting environments. Berlin has got a large number of (very different) districts. What I really like about the city is the fact that I can always decide what type of street photography I want to do, simply by leaving the subway at a different station.
You mentioned in your blog you don’t like going ‘East’—why is that?
When I’m on the streets, I am always in search of interesting subjects. I usually find these types of subjects in West Berlin districts. When I wrote that I don’t like going ‘East’, I was referring to districts like Prenzlauer Berg or Friedrichshain. I am well aware of the popularity of these areas by young people, but this is also what makes them boring in a certain way. If you spend some time there, you will notice that people all look alike; they wear the same type of clothes and they are mostly between twenty and forty years old; elderly people are virtually non-existent. Personally, I prefer to shoot in classic West Berlin districts like Charlottenburg, Kreuzberg or Neukölln as I believe they are far more balanced in terms of their population.
What equipment do you use? Do you have your own darkroom or developing suite?
Most of the time I use a small camera, a twenty-five year-old Leica that no one takes seriously. I do the black and white development by myself, followed by scanning and some post processing using Adobe Lightroom/Photoshop. I started to use a digital camera recently, now that the Leica M9, a decent digital camera, is finally available. I still have to work on my digital workflow though in order to get the same level of quality from digital that I get from film based cameras.
What local equipment or developing shops would you recommend?
The best developing service I found in Berlin is Phototechnik Fehling in Berlin Schöneberg. It’s a rather small shop but the people working there really know their stuff. For new equipment the Leica Store in Fasanenstrasse (close to Ku’damm) is my first point of call. Their products and customer service are outstanding but a little on the pricey side.
Which Berlin (or German) photographers do you most admire and why?
There are three German photographers I’d like to name. Harald Hauswald—for documenting the daily life in the former GDR and for founding Berlin’s famous Ostkreuz photo agency. Thomas Höpker—a well known MAGNUM photographer who has been documenting history for more than five decades. And Andy Spyra—a young photographer I only discovered recently when I saw his work at the C/O gallery in Berlin.
Name five of your favourite ‘slow’ places or activities in Berlin…
Buchhandlung Walther König at the Museumsinsel—when it comes to books about photography or art in general, Walther König is the best arranged bookstore in town; Camera Work gallery in Kantstrasse—there are always interesting photo exhibitions at Camera Work, either by well known photo icons or by young and up-coming artists. Admission is free. Then there’s KaDeWe in Tauentzienstraße. You will for sure find Berlin’s premium department store in every travel guide. Nevertheless, the KaDeWe is always worth a visit, not only for tourists but also for people living in Berlin; Turkish market on Maybachufer—twice a week you can buy everything there from fruit and vegetables to meat and dairy products and clothing; Familienrestaurant KiiWii in Güntzelstraße—a great place for having a relaxed Latte Machiatto or a fine dinner while watching the kids playing in the indoor play room.
See Guido’s website here.