Christian Werner, born in 1987, is a freelance photographer based in Nordstemmen, Germany. As a teenager he developed his interest in photography while traveling to foreign countries. In 2009, he began studying photojournalism at the University of Applied Sciences in Hanover. Christian’s award-winning work has been featured in exhibitions throughout Germany and in Spain for the FOODPHOTO FESTIVAL and Cambodia’s Angkor Photo Festival. Recently, we spoke with him about his trip to Bali for his reportage on the mentally disabled there. “Minds in Chains” can be found in the latest issue of LFI.
Q: When did photography first interest you? When did you know you wanted to become a full-time photographer and how did you get your start?
A: As a child I traveled a lot with my parents. From an early age I saw different countries, cultures and ways of life. The spirit of discovery had been kindled. My younger sister got a digital camera as a birthday gift, but unfortunately she had little opportunity to use it. On every occasion that I could, I borrowed her camera and took pictures.
One holiday we traveled through Egypt. We visited a large bazaar, far from the tourist areas. A long alley of houses was crowded with people who haggled and traded. Suddenly, a rush went through the crowd, people screamed and grabbed their small booths. A dozen police men, all dressed in white with a truck, drove into the lane and confiscated the booths of traders who had not managed to escape in time. One booth after another was stacked on the police truck.
At that very moment, I realized that such a booth with goods represented the livelihood of these traders. There I made my first photos with my sister’s digicam that could be described as photojournalism. That experience was probably the basis for my decision to be a photojournalist.
During and after school I photographed a lot. With these images, I applied to work at various photo studios intending to make my hobby into a profession. One of them was led by a former photojournalist, who told me that I should rather work at a newspaper. So then I worked for seven months at the Hanoverian newspaper Neue Presse. I heard about the photojournalism program at the University of Hanover, applied and now I am a student there.
Q: Was there a photographer or type of photography that influenced your work or inspired you?
A: Even as a teenager, I was very impressed by the work of James Nachtwey. At the age of 17, I found the book “Inferno”, that probably left permanent damage. Nachtwey is one of the greatest photojournalists for me. As well as the works of Sebastiao Salgado, Yuri Kozyrev, the imagery of Steve McCurry and Alex Webb fascinate me particularly.
Q: What about the genre of photojournalism makes it a passion for you?
A: I want the viewer to look precisely at the image and absorb it. This works best for me personally with the style of photojournalism. In order to provide authentic insights into other cultures, lifestyles and needs, you have to gain the trust of the protagonist, so you can approach and get close to him. This grants you a deeper insight into his life. That excites me every time.
Q: What attracts you to the issues that you cover in your photography such as social diversity, global political issues and, as your website states, the Arabic world and culture?
A: So far my thematic focus is on social criticism. I would like to draw attention to grievances with my photography and spark public discourse about little known issues. At best, the stories should stimulate thought or even research.
The Arab world has particularly impressed me. The fascinating culture, the long history and traditions. In our present media landscape, it is still unfortunately generalized. An image was created, that there would hardly be an Arab who is not an Islamist or extremist. But this is fundamentally wrong. I have had almost entirely the opposite experience: openness, interest and hospitality.
Q: Can you provide a brief summary of what this reportage in Bali is about? Describe what “pasung” is to our readers.
A: Bali is a tropical vacation paradise, but there is a dark side few tourists get to see. People with mental illnesses are chained, caged or tied up by their families, often in shocking living conditions. Around 20 million people in Indonesia have a mental illness. Only few get help. Because mental illnesses are still associated with demons and possession, they got chained in the forest or locked in cages.
Out of the four million inhabitants of Bali, only a handful of psychiatrists are available to the 7,000 estimated sufferers. Overall, less than 5% of the mentally ill are treated in Indonesia.
Traditionally, many Indonesians believe that the evil spirits can be exorcised by a healer. They have no money to treat their relatives professionally and often they see no other possibility. Out of helplessness and shame, families put their sick relatives in the forest. They chain them to trees, put their bonds through a wooden board or imprison them in cages. In Balinese it is called “pasung”. There are people who endure decades or die.
Q: Can you elaborate on the two different sides of Bali that you experienced?
A: Bali is a green island. An island of rich flora and fauna, long sandy beaches and the gracious hospitality of the Balinese people, it can seem like a paradise. But when one looks behind the tourist facade, it opens up the other, dark side. The people who do not benefit from tourism, mostly rice farmers, living on the poverty line. It’s hard to feed their families, they are traumatized by hard work and corruption. It appears to the families as a final step to chain or lock away the possessed because there is no outside help for them.
If you are traveling as a tourist to poorer countries, you should be aware of the living conditions of the population. One should not ignore the negative.
Q: What was the inspiration behind the idea to do this series? Was there a certain idea or reason behind it?
A: Katrin Kuntz and I researched this topic for submission to the Gabriel Grüner scholarship. Until then it was also new to us, that this phenomenon exists in the holiday paradise of Bali. We knew these practices only from civil war-torn regions in Africa. After completion of the exposé, we offered the story to the magazine Der Spiegel, which immediately booked our flights.
Q: Did you want the reader to have a specific reaction to these photos? Or did you want to elicit a certain emotion from the viewer?
A: A good photo reportage should consist of many levels as possible. You have to get the feeling while seeing the picture, that one is actually there, that you can empathize with the protagonists. A good reportage photo needs to be close to the story, close to the protagonists. You need a relationship with the people, you have to gain their trust, be accepted and be overlooked in the course of reportage like a fly on the wall. Then you have the opportunity to give an authentic insight and be able to transmit the emotions.
I think every photographer wants to trigger reactions and emotions with his pictures. That is the job of a good image. Which reaction whatsoever, is in the eye of the beholder.
Q: What were some of the challenges you faced shooting this series?
A: This story went off almost without problems. Katrin had already built all our contacts in advance and arranged meetings. The trip was well-organized and we had plenty of time. You can not deny the luck that we had with Professor Suryani, her institute and her family. The Suryani Institute for Mental Health helps the mentally ill in Bali. She could take us to the patients, translate the conversations and ensured the best conditions for this reportage.
You can’t underestimate the sun and heat in Bali. At 43° C in the midday sun, with close to 100% humidity, you quickly start to sweat. Mosquitoes came out in the evening, but they were tolerable. Terrifying were the living conditions of those affected. They were not washed and laid in their own filth. It was very hard to see.
Q: What cameras and lenses did you use to shoot this series?
A: For this story, I used the Leica M9 with Summilux 35 mm f/1.4 and 50 mm f/1.4 Summilux. Regularly, the 35 mm is my main lens.
Q: What characteristics or qualities of this camera and lens made it especially conducive to this work?
A: We entered the country without journalist visas. The size and appearance of the camera wouldn’t suggest that I was a photojournalist, so I could move undetected. The patients also seemed less overwhelmed with the small camera. The slower, and therefore, more concentrated work with the manual focus of the M9 fit the tranquil theme.
I wasn’t very familiar with the Leica M9 and it took some time to get used to it. Long story short: The initial skepticism changed and it’s fast becoming a passion.
Q: Any other upcoming projects you’d like to share?
A: My next bigger stories are already planned. In the summer, I’ll go to Russia probably. There I plan to do my bachelor’s thesis in photojournalism, which includes a picture series and a multimedia special. The theme is of course still top secret!
Q: How do you see your photography evolving over, say, the next three to five years?
A: It is difficult to predict. First, I plan on graduating from the University of Hannover.
Then I’ll see what the job situation and finances are like to fund my next projects. I will still be pursuing reportage photography, and, of course, trying to develop myself further. I want to continue investigative work, try to raise questions and highlight social injustice.
In my opinion, it is very important in today’s changing media landscape as a photojournalist to also master film making and producing multimedia stories. Telling a story through multimedia allows the modern reader to have an even deeper, more authentic insight through the use of original sound, videos, interviews and photos in combination. In this area, I still have a lot to learn.
Thank you for your time, Christian!
– Leica Internet Team
Please find Christian’s full reportage in LFI 5/2013. Also available for the iPad. Find a reading sample here. To connect with Christian, visit his website.