A compassionate photographer documents the grim but hopeful aftermath of the Great European Floods of 2013.
Q: We last interviewed you in March 2014 for your work “OBSESSION FOR FREEDOM.” What have you been up to photographically and professionally since then?
A: Oh, a lot has happened in the meantime: some productions in fashion and a cover production for music. In addition to reportage, in connection with a film production, I was on a road trip through the United States from Los Angeles to New York by car. We’ve done a lot of PR for the Book “OBSESSION FOR FREEDOM” that will result in an exhibition in 2015. Currently we’re in the middle of planning with a charity organization for children for a huge production in the Philippines in January 2015. This should result in a new limited edition photo book as well as an exhibition. For both of these projects all of the money generated from sales will be donated to charity. Also I will assume all the costs of traveling and printing to further support the charity. Every single euro we will create is for the children of the Philippines.
Q: These images show a city flooded. Can you provide us specifics? Where and when did it occur?
A: The flood came over many areas of Europe, especially southern Germany and Austria, between May and June 2013. In Passau, Bavaria, it was the highest flood since the year 1501. In this city three rivers come together, so flooding hits it really hard. I was there from June 2nd until the 4th of 2013.
Q: What were you trying to achieve in documenting the flood?
A: Documenting the flood was not the first thought that came to my mind. The city of Passau is very close to the town where I grew up and on June 2nd I happened to be on an autobahn near Munich, about 150 kilometers away from Passau. While listening to the radio I heard reports about the huge disaster unfolding there. That’s what motivated me to go there and help, because it was my home area.
But, of course, the camera is always with me and as I arrived in Passau I knew from the first second that this was no ordinary flood, like those that happen every couple of years. I knew that this was going to be a huge thing, a huge natural disaster, and I knew that someone needed to capture these moments for the future of Passau and for other people around the world. A flood like this could show us that the force of nature itself is always greater than that of humans, and an event like this could definitely teach people in many different ways. Of course, it was not easy for me. On the one hand, you’re trying to help the people struggling with it: you carry sandbags, you pull cars out of the area after the flood, you shovel the mud away, etc. On the other hand, you need to focus on what happened around you and not forget to capture it with your camera.
Q: Preserving moments in history is a worthy end in itself, but what do you think people can learn from your images that will be useful in helping them understand and deal with the forces of nature going forward?
A: I think, or rather I wish, that it will help us to be more thankful and not to take our circumstances for granted. The forces of nature are able to take everything, all material things, away from us within a couple hours or even minutes … and all this without warning! For example, as you could imagine in studying the photograph with all the destroyed books in front of the book store – the people have had to leave as fast as possible and they were not able to take their stuff with them. That’s horrible and irreparable. The books are gone, forever!
Q: What camera and lenses did you use to take these photos?
A: I took all of these photographs with my Leica Monochrom with the Leica Summicron-M 50 mm f/2 and the Leica Elmarit-M 28 mm f/2.8.
Q: Why did you choose this equipment? What made it the right choice?
A: Leica is always the right choice. Joking aside, the Leica camera, especially the M-System is quite understated in design, especially the Monochrom without the red Leica Logo. So in such bad and sensitive situations, you’re able to work from the background without looking like a paparazzo. It’s the perfect gear for such a situation!
Q: Aside from “not looking like a paparazzo” and being able to work discreetly in the background, what are some of the features and characteristics of the Monochrom that you found especially valuable in covering this assignment?
A: The Monochrom, and the M-System in general, handles very well. The camera and lenses are small and are not an impediment if you have to carry sandbags for example. And you can transport your whole kit in a small bag so it’s perfect for traveling around a whole city.
But of course the point of “not looking like a paparazzo” or otherwise not looking like a professional at all, is one of its best aspects for reportage photography. You’re able to work absolutely freely and no one takes notice.
Q: What are some of the things that draw you to the black-and-white medium, and why do you think it is especially effective for this type of documentation? Which of the two lenses you selected did you use most often, and how did you decide which focal length worked best for a particular subject? Do you believe, as many have stated, that Leica lenses have a special identifiable way of rendering the subject—the so-called “Leica look”—and is that important to you?
A: My complete world is simply black-and-white, ok, of course with some grey tones. I don’t like color at all, even in clothing or anything else, so I didn’t really have to make a decision on this point. Black-and-white is fixed for me as my medium of expression.
For this reportage I used the 50 mm most of the time. It worked best and, because of the stressful situations I confronted and all the mud everywhere around and on me, I simply couldn’t change lenses all the time.
The “Leica Look” is an interesting point; we talked a little about it last time. Many years ago I used different camera types like Nikon D3X or Mamiya medium format for example, but when I started to use the Leica, I saw the big difference in the look of the Leica lenses. As I mentioned in the Obsession for Freedom interview, you can see it, but I can’t find words to explain it. It’s a bit of a pity, but since I’ve been using the Leica, I’ve never held my Nikon in my hands again.
Q: What was your strategy for keeping your equipment dry and functional while you were sloshing around in the muck carrying sandbags, helping to pull cars out of the area and, of course, focusing on taking pictures? After all, while the Monochrom is certainly rugged, reliable, and reasonably weather resistant, it’s not waterproof!
A: There was no strategy, and this was weird, I had bought the Monochrom just two weeks previously, and after the first day on this project, the camera looked like a wreck, painted in brown because of all the mud. I couldn’t think about it at that time, but back at home, I felt really bad for the Monochrom. But, after some work with damp cleaning rags, the gear looks like new again, and of course it worked perfectly on the next day.

Q: Here is a touching picture of a man reassuring his disconsolate wife or girlfriend when both are faced with the seemingly insurmountable task of cleaning up after the disaster. It’s a simple but poignant picture that tells a story. Do you agree, and where did you take this picture and what does it mean to you?
A: I’m in total agreement with you. This shot was taken on the first day after the flood when the people started to clean up the streets. The already dried mud on the ground was like concrete and took all the strength of the people involved to clean it up. As we looked along the street, it undoubtedly felt like a hopeless situation and that is conveyed in this image. But still, everyone fights forward and giving up was not an option. All the people of the city and the additional helpers from outside were in heartfelt solidarity and therefore on an emotional roller coaster between sadness about the situation and joy about the social cohesion. In the middle between all of this I was able to take a photograph that captures both sides of these emotions. This photograph and those emotions are now a part of my life and I’m really thankful for that.

Q: Here is an overview, evidently of Passau, taken at the height of the flood with water running through the streets of this lovely ancient city. It cuts two ways because it’s beautiful but also very sad. From what vantage point did you capture this striking image and what do you think it conveys to the viewer?
A: I took the photograph from the vantage point of an old castle built in the year 1219. Normally it is a museum, but on the day of the flood, it was the hot spot for curious people. It was also my first stop to get an impression how desperate the situation really was.
It was a surreal sight — like a frame from a disaster movie — to see half the city under water. I think there is a lot to discover within this photograph. On first sight, you realize what it is about: a flood. But on the second view, you could see that the water in the foreground had already reached the first floor. Then you think about it, at least for a moment, you think about the locals. Where to go? When you realize there’s no way out it’s a scary thought!

Q: This image almost has a surreal feeling that combines the ordinary — two people walking in the rain holding umbrellas — and the extraordinary — the streets inundated with water. This masterfully composed image is almost a metaphor for the futility of human agency when confronted with the power of nature. Do you agree, and what were you thinking when you pressed the shutter release?
A: To be honest, I was speechless when I saw them. The streets before and the streets after, everyone was in the middle of the disaster, helping each other, wet from tiptoes to hair-ends, helping the technical emergency service, helping older people to get out of their houses, carrying sandbags, pulling cars away, etc. and then, two people with umbrellas watching the water coming closer. It was unbelievable!

Q: The image of the back part of a bicycle caked with mud leaning against a building is an eloquent statement of the unseen situation that the residents of Passau must deal with. In other words, this implies much more than just a muddy bicycle. Do you agree, and what was your intention in capturing it and including it in this portfolio?
A: It was exactly this thought that made me decide to include it in the story. Simple things, like taking your bicycle to do some shopping, were no longer possible anymore, at least not in the easy way they were before. The whole life for the people of Passau changed during the flood.

Q: This image is powerful statement about the ephemeral nature of possessions and even memories. It is especially great because it puts the rubble in context, and the guy smoking the cigarette suggests a kind of resignation and acceptance. Am I reading too much into this, and how do you feel about this image?
A: The worst thing is that this pile of rubble consists largely of books from an old bookstore. How sad is this? A bookstore in 21st century that survived the Internet, is now destroyed by nature. I guess you’re right, there was a kind of acceptance, but also so much disaster all over the city that no one could, at the time, have a deeper realization of something like this at that moment. But I’m sure, or rather I hope, that some people will see this and will say, “Oh my god, I remember that place…”

Q: I really like this image because it captures the spirit of common effort with everybody, regardless of age, gender or social status, pitching in to help restore the city after a devastating event. The chaos in the foreground is balanced by the ordered communal work in the background and that makes a powerful statement about perseverance and dedication. Do you agree, and how have people reacted to this image?
A: That’s interesting, because I didn’t see it like that before, but you’re right about it being a powerful statement. The reason I chose to include this photograph was just a gut feeling, but I couldn’t explain it efficiently in words. I haven’t shown the photographs to very many people yet. The exhibition will be sometime this year when the galleries and city halls will be renovated. The story hasn’t been posted on my website or diary before. So I guess, this is an exclusive preview here on the Leica Blog.
Q: How do you see your photography evolving over, say, the next three years and do you plan on covering any other documentary projects going forward, or exploring other genres such as street photography, art abstract, portraiture, etc.?
A: When I look back to the development of my photography over the last three years or even the last decade, I can see that the most important, the main thing, was always about doing something that came from my heart, something I loved to do. So over the next few years, that should as well be the master plan, to do photography where I’m able to combine my heart, brain and gut feeling. To fix this on genres is not possible because, so far as I could tell, in my case, multiple genres are always combined within one photograph.
But I can tell you for 2015 that there will be two big reportage projects with charity organizations. One is at the Philippines and for the children, and the other will be in Nepal and Bangladesh for women’s rights. Both stories will be shown in exhibitions and limited edition photo books. I’ll keep you updated on this!
Q: Do you have any plans (such as books, exhibitions, etc.) for this portfolio?
A: In cooperation with the city of Passau, we are in the middle of planning an exhibition at an art hall there.
Thank you for your time, Alexander!
-Leica Internet Team
Learn more about Alexander’s work here.