Philipp Spalek, born in 1984, grew up in East Berlin and Damascus. He learned to speak fluent Arabic while working as a press photographer for the Egyptian daily newspaper Al-Shorouk in Cairo. After obtaining a Master of Arts in Modern History and Middle Eastern Studies, he became a full-time photographer and editor. Between 2011 and 2013, he devoted his time to his first long-term project about the situation of Egyptian Copts after the revolution, which was awarded a first prize in the Reportage Category at Kolga Photo Festival in Georgia. From October 2013 to September 2014 he worked as a photographer for Stern Magazine. He is now based in Berlin and works as a freelance photographer. His clients are Stern, National Geographic Germany, Zenith, SZ-Magazin, various NGOs and others. His reportage on the Maldives appears in the latest issue of LFI, which is on sale now.
Q: We last interviewed you about your Cairo reportage. Did you ever take that short break you mentioned? What have you been up to professionally since then?
A: I took a short summer break last year with only a couple of assignments in Germany. I then started a job as a staff photographer for Stern Magazine. The job finished a couple of weeks ago. It was an intensive year. I traveled a lot, mostly in Germany and Europe. The most interesting part was my integration into the daily work of a publishing house. I learned a lot about making a magazine. Usually a freelance photographer doesn’t know what happens with his pictures after dropping them off at the picture desk. I used to be surprised by how the final print looked. Usually I did not understand the decisions and choices of the editors. I often still don’t. But after the last months I have a better feeling about what a magazine needs. That’s not always an advantage. I sometimes caught myself thinking more about what the magazine wants, than what I want to express as a photographer and journalist.
Q: Can you provide some background information on your LFI reportage? Overall, what is it about?
A: I was pretty lucky to get the job. One of the editors offered me the assignment when I was working at Stern Magazine. I had no idea about the Maldives. And that was exactly the point. People only know the big ads with pictures of beautiful white beaches, palm trees and blue water. Nobody knows about the story behind the wealthy tourism industry – exploitation of cheap immigrant workers, a garbage crisis, an authoritarian state. On the other hand the Maldives are an interesting mixture of a society with a tradition of conservative Islam and an economy that goes beyond the religious borders and grants foreigners all the rights to do things that are usually considered as “haram” (forbidden). I was lucky, that they granted us around a week for the assignment. Nowadays that’s a luxury for a photographer. I was able to get a glimpse of how things work. It’s a huge challenge to manage the economy, infrastructure and logistics for more than 200 inhabited islands – some of them hundreds of kilometers apart. From this point of view, despite all failures and problems, I would say the Maldives are doing a pretty good job.
Q: Did you do any research before actually embarking on this project, and did you have any kind of a plan, even a loose one, about where you would go and what you would include, or did you pretty much wing it and go with the flow?
A: I at least have to know where I’m heading and in which social, political and economical context I’m working. Research is essential. Putting the actual story together is a different thing. In the end, a lot of details and experiences matter. I then pretty much go with the flow. A lot of coincidences happen on the way. I meet a lot of people, talk and discuss a lot. I feel something. Things suddenly seem more complex than they look like at first sight. Mix all of it together and you have the final result, which is a reflection of a personal diary. But knowledge helps you to ask focused questions, to find the right places, use the right metaphors and in the end to put together a coherent documentary.
Q: What camera and equipment did you shoot your reportage on the Maldives with?
A: Leica M9, 35 mm f/1.4 ASPH.
Q: What made this equipment suitable for this work? What technical qualities or characteristics do you enjoy?
A: The camera slows me down. I take more time and thought before I press the shutter. Another big advantage is the possibility to blend in. I don’t need enormous interchangeable lenses, but a discrete camera that allows me to be part of whatever is going on.
Q: Many Leica M shooters have commented on the fact the M camera made them “slow down and think” before pressing the shutter release, resulting in the creation of better, more meaningful images. Obviously with an M9 you have to focus manually which is fast, but slower than autofocus. However, do you think there is anything else about the camera or its unique range/viewfinder system that encourages a more thoughtful and deliberative approach?
A: Another advantage of the camera is the possibility to blend in, especially in places where you don’t want to be recognized as a professional photographer. I’ve had the experience that people are afraid of big cameras. The size and the old looks of the Leica make you look like just another nerdy tourist taking pictures. This usually let’s you get closer to your image.
Q: What, if any, were some of the challenges you faced shooting this series?
A: It was surprisingly easy to shoot on the Maldives. I was used to more obstacles and confrontations. The biggest challenge was the distance between the islands. The ocean is the highway. You need a speedboat or plane to get to the far away islands. That’s expensive and it takes time. The seven days we were there weren’t enough to show the whole picture.
Q: What do you hope the viewer learns or can take away from these images?
A: The documentary is not as focused on one aspect as others. It’s sometimes interesting to explain a society or country with photography, even on a greater level. The Maldives is a country that most people haven’t visited yet, but most have heard of it. Something about beaches, sun, a beautiful ocean. That’s all right. But beauty and the wealth of a few come at a cost. It’s not all bling bling. Keep that in mind when you relax.
Q: Perhaps the most spectacular image in this portfolio shows an extended crowd of people at the seashore under an expanse of sky that’s full of bubbles! It’s certainly an arresting image that appears to be either a reflection or a double exposure of some kind. Can you tell us where you took the shot, what’s actually going on, and how you achieved this remarkable effect?
A: People gather at the seaside for a speech of Mohamed Nasheed, the presidency candidate from the MDP. He is considered as the first democratic president of the Maldives and in November 2013 was the only challenger of the old elite. Amidst the rally was a car spraying soap bubbles everywhere. I lingered next to the car and took hundreds of bubble shots.
Q: The image of three Muslim women in black traditional garb is strong, graphic, and enigmatic. The woman in the center conveys the air of being in authority, but what is actually going on here and how does this image work in the context of your Maldives portfolio?
A: I consider the Maldives as pretty moderate in contrast to the Middle Eastern countries I have seen. But it was interesting to see the seriousness with which religion is being taught and practiced. On the one hand you have a lot of tourists with all kinds of religions coming to the country, drinking alcohol and eating pork in the resorts. On the other hand the same things are a criminal offense for Maldivians and the only recognized religion is Sunni Islam.
Q: Like most of your Maldives portfolio, this image seems to cut two ways. On the one hand, it’s a beautiful sunset tableau with the rolling sea in the foreground. On the other hand, dense back smoke billowing from some source in the center of the island, suggests that all is not well in paradise. Were you aware of these divergent elements when you took the shot, and what do you think this image expresses?
A: It wasn’t the shot I had to look at over and over again like some others. The picture found its way into the portfolio after I returned. A beautiful sunset and a burning island – it can’t be more basic. At first sight, a little boring. I didn’t give it too much attention. Only after seeing the first layout I suddenly realized, that it’s a picture capturing the whole atmosphere in one shot. It could easily be used to introduce the story. I usually try to keep away from clichés. Here the cliché suddenly became part of the construction before it deconstructs itself. The simplicity was striking and taught me an important lesson about storytelling.
Q: How do you see your photography evolving over, say, the next three years, and do you have any documentary or other projects now in the works that you can talk about?
A: That’s a tough question. I have a lot of ideas. I experienced my photography evolve over the last two years. I never thought it would look like this these days. A lot of coincidences happened on the way and brought me to places and into situations where I had to make certain decisions. This shapes a vision. So the future is somewhere between conscious decisions and coincidences. I want to make more projects about the absurdity of daily life. Currently I’m working on a story about transgender individuals in Berlin. The world has so many interesting and curious things to offer that we are often blind to. Let’s see which coincidences happen when I decide to open up my eyes more.
Thank you for your time, Philipp!
– Leica Internet Team
See more of Philipp’s work on his website. View the full reportage in LFI. Also available for the iPad and Android.