Urban Ballads: Q&A with photographer Jürgen Bürgin

Paul Sullivan chats to Berlin-based photographer Jürgen Bürgin about his debut exhibition, Urban Ballads…

Photo by Jürgen Bürgin
Photo by Jürgen Bürgin

Jürgen Bürgin was born in Lörrach, a small town in Southern Germany, in 1971. He studied German literature, linguistics and economy in Freiburg and began to work for the movie business in Berlin in 1999, initially as a public relations manager for a film PR agency. As a creative counterpart to his daily job he started to dive into street photography, shooting wherever he found himself for shoots: Berlin, Barcelona, Paris, London, San Francisco, Chicago, Tokyo, Shanghai and New York so far. In 2011 he was shortlisted for a Sony World Photography Award in the category “After Dark”.

Photo by Jürgen Bürgin
Photo by Jürgen Bürgin

Q: Could you tell us a little bit about your upcoming exhibition? 

A: It’s a collection of street photographs that I made during the last three years – which is, by the way, my complete career as a photographer. I started to take photos seriously only three or four years ago. With my photos I try to evoke emotions, to convey moods, and to somehow tell stories.

I’m convinced that accident, fortune and random encounters characterize my work. There’s an idea about photography, there’s an idea about aesthetics, there’s an idea about the ‘stories’ I like to tell – but there’s not a plan, as there’s not a plan in life. I don’t want to produce a homogenous series of work, I find that too boring – not boring in terms of looking at it, but boring in terms of producing it. And that’s the only thing I care about.

Q: What was the inspiration for the title “Urban Ballads”?

I want to have fun, or I want to feel good, or I want to tell something about the life or arts or the world, about my world, about my life. I used the music term “ballad” as many of my photographs have a melancholic, serious mood, and they are in a way narrative, they possibly evoke stories. So I was looking for a word that expresses both narrativity and melancholy and I thought that ‘ballad’ matches that most.

Q: What interesting overlaps and differences have you felt (and captured) between these different cities.

A: Well so far I chose cities that somehow have something in common with the world and the city I’m living in. I did not yet visit third world cities with slums and lots of very poor people. So far I prefer to take photos of people who are somehow at “my level”, who somehow have similiar urban experiences like I have, people who do not have problems like: What do I have to eat today? or Where am I gonna sleep tonight?

I think the people in my pictures more have problems like: Is that new restaurant downtown worth a try? Or: Who’s coming with me to see that new movie? And I think what brings all those cities together is an absurd contradiction: There’s an immense number of people who are lonely, who do not have many good friends, who do not have people to talk with, who do not have someone that loves them, or misses them.

All those cities look like huge anthills, lots of things are happening, lots of events, people are meeting and working and talking – but this all only hides the fact that all those big cities are hatcheries of solitude, of egoism, of a lack of love. It’s difficult for many people to establish or to find something like a village well, places where you can just meet other people and have natural and meaningful social contact. I find it absurd that the bigger a city is, the more solitude you find in it. And I think some of my pictures are about this urban state of solitude.

Q: When did you get started in photography?

A: Well I started only a few years ago, when I was about 38 – most of my photographer colleagues tell me that they started when they were 14 or so. Now I’m having my experimental phase at 42, and I love it. I’m happy that I didn’t start in a phase when it could have happened that photography would have become my profession. I’m happy that I do not have to live from photography. I only do what I like with it, nothing else.

Q: Who were/are your main inspirations and how has that evolved to the present day?

Photo by Jürgen Bürgin
Photo by Jürgen Bürgin

A: I had to do a lot with arts in my life, but I never was creative, I never produced art. I occupied myself with literature, with theatre, with art, with movies, and all this has influenced me and is still inspiring me. I’ve never been interested too much in photography history, this also started only a few years ago.

So I’m discovering great photographers let’s say every week. Sure I love the work of some of the classic street photographers, like Henri Cartier-Bresson, or Winogrand, or Joel Meyerowitz. I admire the work of Saul Leiter and I’m somehow feeling a closeness to what Gregory Crewdson is doing – although his approach is completely opposite to what I’m doing: While he’s planning everything and producing his photos with a huge team and an immense technical effort, I’m somehow trying to tell something similiar with the simplest effort possible.

But still I think that I’m more influenced by arts, I think I’m deeply inspired by Edward Hopper. Standing in front of his “Nighthawks” in Chicago was really an intense moment. And on the other hand I’m even more influenced by the movies, the work of Hitchcock and Truffaut, just to name two directors. And I think many of my shots could be filmstills. Ideally my pictures are able to evoke stories in the mind of the beholder. Sometimes I’m suggesting to my facebook followers that they add a story to some of my photos, and this has brought some amazing results. There were such beautiful stories from that experiment.

Q: What sort of equipment do you use? Digital or film? 

A: One day I started to refuse to answer the question about my equipment. There are so many people who talk for hours and hours about their equipment.

And even photographers that I admire sometimes seem to think, that a great, expensive camera can improve their photography. But it doesn’t. It’s the photographer who takes the photo, it’s he or she whose ideas, whose creativity produce a great photo. No one would ever think about talking what kind of paintbrush Edward Hopper used to paint ‘Nighthawks’. It’s absurd to think that ‘Nighthawks’ is a great painting because Hopper used a paintbrush of a certain brand. So I wish everyone would stop to talk about gear, and to start to talk about arts, life, ideas, light, darkness etc.

Photo by Jürgen Bürgin

Q: How has Berlin specifically influenced your work? You live in the Graefekiez, right? 

A: I’ve been living in Berlin for 14 years, so it’s difficult to say how Berlin has influenced my photography, as there’s no pre-Berlin photographic work. I’ve mentioned that there are lots of lonely people in the big cities and that they have to find some equivalents to the village wells, where they can meet other people, find friends, find someone to talk to etc.

And I’m very lucky to have such a spot here in Graefekiez; it’s a Späti, a kiosk where I always meet someone to talk with, where everyone here has the possibility to have social contacts. I’m very sure that this spot has kept many people from being lonely here in the Kiez.

There’s a big variety of people meeting here: the 76-year-old pensioner with his motorbike, an electrical engineer, a translator, a stonemason, some people who get Hartz IV – and there’s the young Turkish shopkeeper who’s somehow in the center of it. But as the rents here are exploding due to gentrification some of the people are in danger of having to move away as they can’t afford their rents any more. And then those people are in danger of losing their social contacts. So this solitude thing that some of my photos are about is somehow a reflection of the things I’m seeing and experiencing here in my Kiez every day.

Q: Can you talk a little bit about your Berlin Marathon series…what inspired you to shoot this subject matter and how did you go about it?

A: I live close to the Marathon course in Berlin Kreuzberg, so it was obvious to go shooting there one day. I had the idea of showing the pain, the suffering, but also the fun and the sense of community the runners are experiencing. But this didn’t really work: it was quite boring just to take portraits of running people. Then I discovered a place, where the fire brigade has installed a fire hose. The runners could run through the shower of the hose to cool themselves. So I tried to combine some elements, the water, the light, the shadows, the bodies and muscles of the runners, and to bring together all those elements to create some kind of abstract reminiscence to a sports photo.

For me those photos don’t really show sport scenes, but more something like an artificial, alienated collage of visual sport elements. And I think those photos show that the idea of a Marathon and the idea of photography are somehow contradictory: a Marathon is about movement; photography is about a standstill. A Marathon is about power, force, pain; photography is simply about superficial aesthetics. A Marathon is about time and endurance; photography is about a split second. The pictures show those frozen moments – but our experience, our perception is expecting the movement to continue, we’re expecting the feet to touch the ground in the next split second, we’re expecting the water drops to fall down. So the pictures are kicking off our fantasy, we’re continuing the movements of the runners in our thoughts.

Q: Some of the work on your website seems very minimal, particularly the scenes involving industrial scaffolding…why did you choose this subject matter? What does all of the recent construction in Berlin mean to you/how have you seen the city evolve in your lifetime?

Photo by Jürgen Bürgin

The only idea was to give the impression to the passers that there was a house, and a complete place, and not an ugly fallow. And when they removed those banners you could see this monstrous construction. I stood there for hours and photographed the structures and the lines of the scaffolding to create a complete abstract image. And when I came back some days later some workers were dismantling the scaffolding. And this really looked like a huge spiderweb with real people in it.

Q: What are your future plans with your work?

A: Well, from the photographic point of view I’m having some ideas, maybe I’m doing some kind of sports event series or so, to develop my Marathon idea and continue it. And I’d love to do something with certain subcultures. I photographed some Rockabillies in Tokyo for example, that was quite fun.

But I still do not plan to produce some narrow, monothematic series. I want to have fun with my photography, I don’t want to restrict myself for such a series. And what I definitely want to is do more exhibitions. I would love to have exhibitions in some of those cities that I’ve photographed, New York would be great, Tokyo too.

And I would love to make some books. I’ve just made one with Blurb, with a limited edition of one single copy. I’m loving it. Maybe one day I’ll have the opportunity to print such a book with a higher circulation.

See Jürgen’s website here