Julia Vogelweith On Finding Poetry In Photography
I first chatted with Julia in a small cafe in Oaxaca, Mexico on our first day of a week-long workshop with Maggie Steber. I told her that this was my first workshop, and I was looking forward to seeing what I could gain from it. The conversation went something like this:
Julia: Your first workshop?!?
Bryn : Yeah, how many have you done?
Julia: Lots! I love them!
Looking at Julia’s photography her skillset is evident. As she talks about below, she has a way to connect with whom she’s photographing to get to the poetry of the image. And not only does she love photography workshops, she’s also very generous with sharing where anyone can gain the education she has gotten.
Bryn: Do you want to start by telling me how you got into photography?
Julia: I had a conversation with a woman called Monica. She told me, “what do you love doing?” I told her that I love to look at images, and that I love stories. That I very much enjoy meeting people and traveling. So she suggested that I buy a camera, which I did. I looked for photography courses in Luxembourg. We have a really great place called National Center of Audiovisual (CNA). In 2010 they organized a workshop with Antoine d'Agata, a French photographer who is famous for his existential pictures. I applied for this course, and did my first photo workshop with Antoine at the CNA. This really changed a lot of things. I think he was the best photographer to start with. He is an amazing person. So, I started with a workshop with him, and also I met a lot of other people who have high expectations on images, who look for complexity and who have a very strong interest for content. People who want to produce and see photos which express opinion, mystery, beauty but which are also meaningful. The other participants told me about places where I could go and learn more, such as Arles in France. We exchanged information about places where you can look at photos and where you can learn from photo masters. So, slowly I started to know people who love photography.
Bryn: I think it’s such a smart thing that Monica recommended that you just buy a camera and go with it. Because, I think that people who I talk to who want to get into photography, they keep thinking about photography and what camera to buy, and how to get started. What was recommend to you was to just buy a camera and start, which I think is great advice!
Julia: When I did the course with Antoine, I had a really small point and shoot camera, and he told me something like, “Julia, I don’t care about technique at all. It’s something I’m not interested in.” He was really interested in pure emotion, and what your interests are. He wanted to know what I loved, where I wanted to go, what my photographic playground was. He wanted to know about dreams and fears of all of his students. With him, it’s all about emotions, not about technique. After the workshop I saved money to buy a camera, the Canon 5D. But, nowadays, I think cameras are really good in general, you just need to find one you feel good with and you want to work with.
Bryn: That’s an awesome way to put it. So, what would you say has inspired you to stay with photography?
Julia: I think it’s fascinating to meet people I would never meet in my day to day life, to go to places I would never go otherwise. I see it as a tool to learn about myself, to learn about others, to discover places, to connect with people, to express my emotions. I have learned so much. I mean, just about everything, about life!
Bryn: What would you say you’ve learned about life through photography
Julia: That people are a lot more open than what you think. When you have a camera, people will tell you their life stories, they will open their home, they will take off their clothes. They give you so much and they are really open to share with you. You have a good excuse to exchange, share, and connect with people.
Bryn: That’s really interesting that you say that. So, you are saying that photography has given you a good excuse to connect with people. What would you say characterizes your style of photography?
Julia: When I did the workshop with Mary Ellen Mark in Mexico, an American legend photographer, she told me that I have a way to make reality look surreal. I’ve been told my photography is contemporary. And some people say it is poetic, that I have a poetic way to look at things, at life. I also try to find beauty everywhere, not only the classic beauty, but I can see beauty in all sort of things. And this is what I try to show all the time.
Bryn: And when you shoot something, do you tend to shoot something that’s naturally occurring, or do you pose a scene?
Julia: It depends. Sometimes I see something and I take a photo, and sometimes I go to people and I ask them, “Can I take a portrait, and can you go over there because I like the background?” So, it really depends.
Bryn: I like asking this next question. What kinds of opportunities has photography allowed you? So, in this question, I’m thinking of the people that you’ve been able to meet who have really enriched your experiences in life, or where have you been able to go because of photography?
Julia: I’ve met some very interesting people, and I went to some very special places. I went to a place called Slab City. It’s in the desert close to L.A., and it’s where marginal people live. They are people who have a very different lifestyle. They live by themselves in the desert. They live outside society. For some of them it is a choice, for some others it’s for economical reasons.
Also, I went to orphanages in Mexico, and that was a very intense experience to meet these children. I was asking myself how you can grow up without the love of your parents, without guidance and how you build your personality when you have such a childhood. What sort of person do you become when you grow up this way? Love is such an important element of human happiness, so how do you survive without it, especially as a kid?
In Luxembourg I went to photograph people with mental disabilities. I went to their home, and to their workplace. I also went to a center for mentally disabled children. It is a center where they play, socialize, learn new things, and do activities. I photographed two children with autism for example and for me it was really fascinating to see their obsessions, what sort of things they do, and what they love. Through photographing them, I wanted to discover their personalities and their world.
Bryn: When you are photographing, say the children with autism, or the children in the orphanage, what kinds of sensitivities do you feel like you had to keep in mind when you were photographing them?
Julia: For me, what was really striking was their intensity. The way they look at you, the intensity in their gaze. It’s very difficult for me to explain it with words. But, I felt that they carry a lot of things within. When you look into their eyes, it’s really something special. You can feel a lot of things when you look at people’s eyes. So for me it was crazy to see how intense they were at such a young age. All the stories they carry within.
Bryn: You’ve talked about going to different places and photographing different groups of people. But what would you say your favorite thing to photograph is?
Julia: For me, it’s people. What is very interesting to me is extraordinary people. People who are different, who live in a different world, who see things in a different way. Or people who are very sensitive or broken, who went through a lot of things. And I like these people who carry something very deep or heavy inside. If you speak with these people, you can speak hours about what they went through in life, and it’s very intimate conversation with these people. They are not just like everybody, get a normal job, get a normal life. They’ve gone through very difficult moments.
Bryn: And what advice would you give to younger photographers? Somebody that is starting out and who wants to know how they should best go about learning how to be a better photographer?
Julia: I would go to good websites, where they can look at work of other photographers such as American Suburb X. And after I would advise them, if they can, to do a course with the photographers they like. This is what I did, for example, with Mary Ellen Mark. I really love her work. Another photographer, Andy Kania, German photographer, showed me a book of hers. Afterwards I went online and I surfed for a course with her, and I met her. I think this is the best way to learn. When you really like the work of a photographer, you can even send an email to this person. I sent an email to Darcy Padilla, an American photographer and she was so kind. She replied to me straight away and 2 years after I did a course with her at the CNA in Luxembourg.
Also, there are some very nice places, for example, there is a book shop in Milan in Italy called MiCamera. They have a bookshop, a gallery, and they organize a lot of courses. They organize workshops with Italian photographers and with international photographers. At MiCamera I did courses with Lucas Foglia, Dana Lixenberg, Gregory Halpern, and with Mark Steinmetz. With the MiCamera workshops, generally the guest photographer speaks about their work, then you have a portfolio review, and sometimes you have assignments. They also give you a lot of personalized advice: what work to look at, what competition to enter, what has to be improved, and how to edit your work.
There are also the Vu workshops in Paris. They organize really unique courses and have online mentorship. You can Skype with a very good photographer, like I did with Lorenzo Castore. You can work by yourself in your country, and after you have a Skype meeting with the photographer who gives you feedback. It is a way to be sort of independent. I think this is really good, because you cannot always travel to another country. This allows you to produce work where you live, and still get the guidance of a professional photographer.
And also, there is a great school called Shift School for contemporary photography. It’s based in Dresden, in Germany. The owner, Kristin Dittrich, travels quite a lot and offers workshops wherever there is a a strong photography scene like in Paris, Hamburg, Copenhagen, Prague, or Tel Aviv. I participated in one of her workshops about curating photography in Winterthur, in Switzerland. The course took place in a photo museum where, at the same time, Plat(t)form was taking place, a major international meeting of new photographers.
And with Kristin, you can also do a program with one on one mentoring for your personal needs. Topics can include creating your artistic identity, turning your ideas and rough images into a clear photo essay, or preparing an exhibition with a strong message to the public. Another unique point is that the Shift School owns more than 1,000 books of the famous publisher Steidl. All content is available online, and Kristin teaches their content.
So, for me the advice would be to go to bookshops, and look at work. If you really like the work of someone, contact this person, take a course with them, go to their lectures, listen to what they have to say, listen to their story. Some photographers have some really great advice!
Bryn: That’s all excellent advice! And I’m so excited to look up all of the places that you’re talking about and see what their websites look like to see what I can share with other people, and what I can take for myself too. Thank you so much for sharing all of that information!
Julia: Oh, and another one I’m thinking about! Donna Ferrato, she does the Erotic Eye Workshop. She really forces you to push your boundaries. The first days for me were very difficult, because she pushed so hard, and she forced me out of my comfort zone. She would tell us, “Go outside, and get close to a stranger.” It was new for me. Before her encouragement, I thought that was impossible. But now I know how open people can be.
Bryn: You’re telling me so many great stories you have through photography. And what’s so interesting are the human connections that you’ve been able to get through your photography, who you say you meet, and the conversations that you say you can have because of your photography.
After the interview, Julia and I chatted a bit more about learning resources. She was so giving of information to share with anyone who wanted to be a better photographer. She then made me so very happy when she emailed me a list of resources. Many of the resources offer online education and are available from anywhere, so please be sure what is listed below:
Photographers To Check Out
Follow Julia’s work on Instagram.