The Olaf Willoughby Interview for The Leica Blog / Jan Hartmann, ‘The Stories of Berlin’

This month’s Olaf Willoughby interview is with Jan Hartmann, a photographer based in Germany, with an intriguing take on street shooting where he adds the personal stories of his subjects to complete the narrative.

To start can you give me an overview of your project, its title & what is its main theme?

The title of my project is “Berlin, City of Diversity & Contrasts“. Berlin has attracted me for a long time. As someone from the countryside I see life in a different way to those native to the city. It is a melting pot of different cultures and ethnicities. My aim is to discover and record the diversity of its people. I want to show the contrasts in social life between the poor and persons of influence. Plus the variety of individual stories, some overlaid by hope and success. Others unfortunately by emptiness and disillusion.

And can you give some examples of how that theme develops as a story?

The narrative comes from happenings on the street when people tell me their backstory. At first I just captured street scenes showing the environment and the atmosphere. But shooting in this way means keeping a certain distance away from the lives being recorded and I felt the project lacked human interest.

So I decided to make closer contact. My first encounter was with a musician. As he hurried down the street with his Cello case I stopped him and asked for a portrait. Although he seemed stressed, he agreed. After a short conversation I learned that he didn’t have much time as he was on his way to a rehearsal. But even in this pressured situation he was friendly and courteous. I fired off three or four shots before he had to go.

He was the perfect entry into the project, embodying a typical Berlin lifestyle. He seemed like a relaxed artist in his 50’s but after talking with him I discovered he has a rushed and stressful life. An ideal symbol for modern times. Perhaps in our rush to be faster and do more we forget the physical and mental limits placed on us by nature.

On Friedrichstraße, one of the biggest shopping streets, I met Mrs. Lorenz. From the first moment she was very open and enjoyed our conversation. She told me that she had lived in Berlin for fifty years and loves the city. The sparkle in her eyes impressed me. This eighty five year old woman seemed like an inquisitive young twenty year old girl wandering the streets and exploring the city.

Mrs. Lorenz explained her view that you don’t need be born in Berlin to become an ‘Original’. It’s enough that you live there and enjoy the life of the city. Over the course of its changing history Berlin always had a high number of immigrants who brought their own passions and interests. I could feel her love for Berlin and her joy at being out on the streets feeling the pulse of life. My meeting with Mrs. Lorenz made a lasting impression and helped me develop the project.

Another typcial and more tragic story of an immigrant is that of Corin. Years ago Corin came from Romania to Berlin. He was a young talented musician and dreamed of playing in a big orchestra. When he arrived he was full of hope and thought he would find work as a professional musician. But it didn’t take long before he realised that he had little chance of fullfilling his dream.

None of the orchestras showed interest in his talent. He was shocked and started to give up hope. As he told me this his voice trailed off in a sad pitch. His savings were running low and the only way was to beg for money by playing as a street musician. He described how he fell into a deep depression, knowing that he would never become a professional musician. Sadly this was still the situation the last time we met. Like all of us, these people have dreams but also need to overcome the significant problems of their daily life. As the project developed I could see that following life lines by combining images and narrative created a constantly moving global story of the vitality of life in Berlin.

Is the project purely for yourself or do you have a commercial or cause related end in mind?

Curently this project is just for myself. Perhaps later it could be part of a book including the photo stories and of course an exhibition in Berlin would be a nice goal for this project.

What photographic choices have you made; colour palette, composition, use of flash….etc.

I just work with natural light and never use flash. I also worked in black&white to achieve a timeless look and focus on the essential aspect – the personality of the people. With my kind of composition I wanted to give the pictures an emotional presence and depth. I am a wide open shooter by heart and did that most of the time especially with the Noctilux which gives the pictures a distinctive signature perfect for storytelling.

What is your vision for the project and how will you judge if you’ve been successful?

As this is a long term project I will always continue to work on it whenever I return to Berlin. My interest in this city is deep rooted. As I get to know more new people and add their pictures to my collection the project will grow in depth.

Did any particular person or body of work influence or inspire you?

There a lot of photographers that inspire me. Especially the work of Henri-Cartier Bresson, Robert Douisneau and Vivian Maier have been a big influence. But also pictures by contemporary photographers like Rui Palha, Pedro Matos, Eva Depoorter and Thorsten Overgaard.

Not all projects are smooth sailing. Have you had any setbacks and what were your learnings?

There are some areas in Berlin which are dangerous. For example Görlitzer Park in the Berlin-Kreuzberg district is an inner city area with a high crime rate. There I got into some trouble with the African drug dealers who stopped me on the street. When they started following me I decided to leave quickly!

What Leica equipment do you use and how is it particularly suited to the needs of this project?

For this project I used two Leica M9 Monochrom Cameras. One Monochrom with the Leica Noctilux 50mm f/0.95 and one with the Leica 50mm APO Summicron f/2.0. You ask why I use two 50mm? Because they are totally different. The Noctilux I love for its unique and dreamy rendering and I use it to create and capture a certain atmosphere. The 50mm APO I use more for the ‘real world’ scenes. I love 50mm focal length because its natural view fits how I perceive the world.

About Jan Hartmann and the Leica Meet:

I’m Jan Hartmann, a photographer based in Germany doing wedding, portrait, street and documentary photography. I got my first Leica in 2015 when I also discovered the Leica Meet Group. I love the high level of photographic quality in this group. It is a great place for passionate photographers from around the world.

To know more about Jan Hartmann, please visit this website and follow him on Facebook.

About Olaf Willoughby:

Olaf Willoughby is a photographer, writer and researcher. He is co-founder of The Leica Meet, a Facebook page and website growing at warp speed to over 10,000 members. Olaf co-teaches workshops with Eileen McCarney Muldoon at Maine Media College, Leica New York and London plus Brooklyn.

If you have an intriguing project or body of work that we might feature, completed or in progress, contact Olaf at: or