Written by Marta Fernández
Photography by Donata Wenders
Invisible and silent, Donata Wenders sneaks into the most intimate and reflexive moments with her portraits which mean to show what is left of us when we are alone. But Donata is also the wife of the genius filmmaker Wim Wenders, collaborating with him as Camera Assistant in the movie FarAway, so Close! and as Still Photographer in The End of Violence, Million Dollar Hotel, The Buena Vista Social Club, Land of Plenty, Don’t Come Knocking and Palermo Shooting.
The artist, born and bred Berliner, but tireless traveler, admits the forever divided city is a constant source of inspiration; but it can also turn out to be hard to approach by the foreigner, and even a bit rude: “We Berliner, spread sometimes.” Shortly premiering her new documentary in 3D Pina, dedicated to the legendary German dancer and choreographer Pina Bausch, Donata confesses her predilection for traditional photography. “We have now the opportunity to produce quickly with digital cameras, saving analogical photography for artistic purposes. It is a brilliant combination, every medium has its own strengths and potential.” By taking the challenge of silently wandering though our internal deserts with her camera, she manages to explore and conquer forgotten corners of the individual. Donata invited us into her studio to share with us the result of her expedition to the most hidden and private visions of human nature.
Marta Fernández — Your work experience has always been connected to visual arts, when and why did you decide yourself for photography?
Donata Wenders — My artistic experiences are very influenced by visual, but also sculptural, arts. For a long time I thought about becoming a sculptress because my grandfather and father had both worked in that field. Nevertheless, as is painting, sculpture is a very solitary discipline, and I believe I have a gift with people. It’s within the exchange produced between the subjects of my photographs and me where I generate the work of art I really want to transmit; there- fore, eventually, it made more sense to develop mi career in visual arts. Then again I’m a very on-hands person, who adores working with materials, as much as people. I realized film only exists while it’s being projected and I yearned for the chemical element and the different papers and medium formats photography offers. The work that takes place in the dark room is essential for me.
MF — You have worked as Director of Photography (DP) and as Still Photographer in several movies, what is in your opinion the relationship between film and photography?
DW — As DP, my intention is to create a visual language that transmits the plot that sustains the film, as well as revealing the lights, movements, colors and angles through which the argument is best understood. On the other hand when I work as a photographer the purpose is the same, find the way to express the whole film through only one image. What I pursue is the essence of a person or situation concentrating on a small detail, expression or gesture that gives out the entire character: a pair of red shoes, a look, a hand or a step. I have no doubts about the intimate relationship between film and photography; it is only the temporary element that has to be treated in a different way.
MF — What are the differences be- tween a DP project and a personal photo shoot?
DW — When you work as DP your role isn’t to take pictures from your own point of view but from the one of the director, who has a rich panoramic visual idea of the complete story. Being a set photographer is a very specific job: you have to try to move exactly on the same circuits the film camera does.
MF — How has Wim Wender’s vision influenced your work?
DW — Wim conducts himself with such a kind, compassionate and caring attitude towards the world around him, whether people or places. The attitude towards his filmmaking has influenced me enormously and he has always been a role model for me.
MF — We understand you hardly ever make still lifes or landscapes, what is so fascinating about portraits?
DW — So far, most of the time I have worked with people. For me, a photo shoot is equivalent of a conversation; I intend an exchange between the photographer and the person in front of the camera. The subject must be able to do something that involves him to the point where it transmits a message. It doesn’t mean doing anything special or bizarre, the person doesn’t need to pose or show me anything concrete. What I am searching for are moments of authenticity, and those are seldom when there is a camera on scene. What I intend is to create situations in which the model can offer something genuine and unique, without faking or interpret- ing. Granted, I only capture a small fragment of the subject. Therefore I consider my work to be more than a portrait, a sketch or a study, but never a full image of the character; that is a different job. I’m especially interested in small details that flourish when the person is feeling himself, in solitude. What I do is ask the model what he would be doing if there wasn’t anyone watching him and if he/she is ready to share that with me. Some people really open up, others just to a certain point, it really depends on the relationship that is established, on how the conversation flows.
MF — Often you work with renowned models and artists, do you prefer them to anonymous people?
DW — What I like is working with people with a great deal of authenticity. I do not care if they are well known or not, in both cases it can mean a challenge. Nevertheless when I take pictures on the street, people must maintain their anonymity; it is essential for me to respect their privacy. In Varsovia for example, I found a small corner with a beautiful light and I stayed and waited. I almost couldn’t believe it when a man disappeared just in front of me behind his newspaper, completely lost in his reading. I look for people who are not conscious of themselves, engrossed in something else. With famous people the common challenge is to bring about a real and genuine situation without the need of exploiting them.
MF — What are you working on right now?
DW — I have a number of projects going on right now. I’m finishing a snow-series, deciding on how to print them and the size each shoot should have. Currently I’m specially interested in the different elements that take up the space between the subject, the cam- era and me. Besides, this Spring we are presenting the documentary tribute to Pina Bausch, directed by Wim and where I have worked as photographer.
MF — How did the idea for the documentary about Pina Bausch come up?
DW — Wim and Pina have known each other for over twenty years and from the beginning had wished to work together. But it wasn’t until few years ago when Wim visualized in which way he could capture an artistic discipline with such a delicate relationship to space, on a cinematographic medium limited by film for- mat. Every time he would witness one of Pina’s performances he would wonder how he could translate the magic of the movement into a two dimensional context. Then in Cannes we both saw an U2 concert in 3D, and still inside the theatre, Wim called up Pina and said: “I think I know how can we possibly do it.”
We started shooting in October 2009, four months after her death. She knew the project; participated intensely in the pre-production process and selected the pieces to be performed. Just when we were about to begin shooting, she passed away and the project was cancelled. Some weeks later, it was the dancers themselves who insisted we should all go on together. Wim agreed and instead of making a film with her on it, it became a film for her, a tribute. It was an amazing experience for all of us to keep on work- ing while mourning her and trying to assume her unexpected loss. Her sickness developed so quickly, we had barely time to process.
MF — What were the challenges the project entailed?
DW — The best virtue of this idea is that it is an excellent example of the mixture between the cinematographic instant and the work that I do. It didn’t make much sense to run around with the camera pursuing what was already being captured in three dimensions and so I was able to concentrate on other more unexplored aspects. In the backstage I found a completely different material to the one being filmed by the cameras, a much more personal universe, where dancers find concentration before going on stage; and I really enjoyed it.
MF — You have worked with Yohji Yamamoto and collaborated on fashion photo shoots. To what extent do you think clothing influences the subjects in front of your camera?
DW — I believe clothing is not important from the point of view of fashion and trends, but what you do with it, the effect it has on your daily movements and activities. A mother, for in- stance, couldn’t interact equally with her children wearing a tight miniskirt or a pair of jeans. This is the sense in which I find the impact of cloth- ing on photos interesting. In my pictures I don’t intend to photograph the model as an individual, but his transcendent private persona, what people can identify themselves with. In this aspect I do care about clothing: how it fits, how it conditions movement, the way it makes the model feel. I believe fashion is overvalued, whilst the effect it has on our daily routine is very undervalued. In Yohji Yamamoto’s backstage I became really aware of this reality.
The same instant the models put on Yohji’s designs they moved like dancers, with elegance and grace, they even spoke differently. I was impressed by the sudden change, and ever since I’m more conscious of the importance of clothes in my pictures, because what I really pursue is the communication though gestures, posture and movement the human body is capable of.
MF — We have observed your pictures contain an important amount of melancholy, is it a conscious choice?
DW — This is because I work with people who have been asked to share their loneliness, and when one does so, often the tendency is a contemplative activity. I also believe melancholy flourishes especially when we take a break from the frenetic activity we are normally surrounded by, and reflects about how exceptional it is to be alone in a calm attitude. I started looking for these moments because there I often see a longing for love that I find beautiful and moving.
MF — It is obvious that you are a very spiritual person, how is this reflected in your work?
DW — My photographs don’t reflect all the many laugh-attacks I have throughout a day, but my longing to hear the tender and silent voice that some people simply call the conscience, and I would call the voice of a loving God. I hear this voice mostly when I am open and vulnerable. Taking pictures is like a prayer for me. Some people write poems or psalms, others sing and shout, others dance, and I take pictures.
By Marta Fernández