Photojournalist Christian Werner
“I'm just a facilitator of the stories of my protagonists”
Interview: Nezih Tavlas / December 29, 2021
(Credit: Christoph Reuter)
Photojournalism News: What drew you to photojournalism?
Christian Werner: 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.
Photojournalism News: What equipment do you use? Do you have a favourite lens/camera?
Christian Werner: My first DSLR was a Canon, so till then I use Canon cameras. I travel with the EOS 5D MKIII, a 24mm f1.4, 35mm f.1.4, 70-200mm f.2.8 and a Petzval art lens.
Photojournalism News: What social media platforms do you use?
Photojournalism News: How do you prepare yourself before any assignment? What would you put in your camera bag for a typical task?
Christian Werner: The preparations are related to the assignments. I often get an assignment to travel to country XY as quickly as possible, which leaves little time for preparation. In such cases I read as much as I can on the subject at the airport or on the plane. It is of course different with personal projects, especially if they are investigative topics. A few years ago I researched the use and effects of uranium ammunition in Iraq, Kosovo, Bosnia and Serbia. Before the first trip, I spent over 2 years doing preliminary research.
My bag contains the standard equipment: 2 Camera bodies, flash cards, lenses, first aid kit, enough batteries, passports and earplugs in case of outgoing fire.
Photojournalism News: How would you best describe your style of work? What are you trying to say with your photography?
Christian Werner: Stylistically, my photography is exclusively photojournalistic, documentary. I only use natural, available light and always try to be as close as possible to the protagonist.
You can't generalize the question of what I'm trying to say with photography. That always varies from story to story, of course. But by and large, I'm just a facilitator of the stories of my protagonists.
Photojournalism News: How many photos do you take for one story?
Christian Werner: There is no general answer to this question either, it depends on the duration and topic of the assignment. When I'm in the field, of course, I try to take photos as much as possible. On the last trip to Afghanistan, for example, 5000 pictures for two stories were created in 3 weeks. The final selection, which then went to the editorial team, consisted of 140 images each. In each issue 4 pictures were printed, for the online edition additional photo galleries with 15 pictures.
Photojournalism News: What is the last trip you made?
Christian Werner: A couple of weeks ago I went to Afghanistan for Der Spiegel. We covered the eastern Provinces Kunar, Nangahar and Laghman and reported about the territorial gains and the progress of the Taliban and their deals that ran in the background. Afterwards we covered the withdrawal of the German troops in Mazar-e-Sharif and the local staff who were left behind with crude contracts and who now fear for their lives because they collaborated with the foreign troops, as the Taliban advances,.
Photojournalism News: What projects will you be working on next?
Christian Werner: Unfortunately, I can't say anything about this yet.
Photojournalism News: Which of your photographs would you describe as your favourite? What makes them so special to you?
Christian Werner: I have some, but I think I would choose the “cat boy from Aleppo” In 2017, with the fall of Aleppo, the regime of Bashar Assad once again controls the country's second- largest city. The city was retaken from Islamic terrorist groups only days ago after years of terror and sharia law. The inhabitants suffered greatly under the terrorist control. They witnessed beheadings and other absurd penalties on a daily bases. Violence ruled their lives. One night we went out for some interviews and i saw the boy, grabbing the stray cat in a cruel way. It was very symbolic for me, explaining the situation in Syria. In the years of conflict children were the most vulnerable group, living in an environment of violence. To maintain the feeling of control and power the boy misused the cat, the less powerful creature for that reason.
Photojournalism News: What message do you want your photos to convey?
Christian Werner: See above.
(All images © Courtesy of Christian Werner)
Photojournalism News: What does a photo need to be a great in your eyes?
Christian Werner: That depends on various factors. The photo must have a thematic and historical relevance, it must convey emotions and trigger emotions in the viewer. It has to be accessible, one has to be able to identify with it and be able to get immersed in the person depicted.
Photojournalism News: In the digital age people consume billions of photos every single day, under the circumstances what could make a photo memorable?
Christian Werner: Professional photojournalistic photos are of course drastically different from the billions of selfies, food photos and trivial images that flood social media. This makes it much more difficult to produce iconic images, if that's still possible. Due to the oversaturation and, above all, the fast pace of the media, even iconic photographs have a short half-time. I think these days it is no longer possible to create icons like Nick Ut's photo from the Vietnam War of Phan Thị Kim Phúc, the girl who fled a napalm attack, or the Tank Man from Tiananmen Square. A few months later, many people can no longer remember the modern icons, for example the photo of the dead boy Alan Kurdi on the Turkish Mediterranean coast.
Photojournalism News: What motivates you to continue taking pictures and what do you do to keep motivated?
Christian Werner: My feeling of the utter injustice in this world is my motivation to change things to a better. And the media, even if some are corrupted are the tools of the trade in my opinion, where individuals can bring important stories to the public to make a change. With publications all around the globe, people can gain new hope, it can inspire youngsters in their choice of career, instead of taking arms and fighting for nonsense reasons they may start developing interest in in science, in reaching goals, research and solving issues that were thought to be impossible.
Photojournalism News: What was the biggest professional risk you have taken and what was the outcome?
Christian Werner: This question can also be interpreted on different layers. On the one hand, for example, the financial layer: at the beginning of my career, I saved up private money in order to realize the first 2-3 stories without an assignment, my heart and soul projects, in order to have a basis of reports for a portfolio in order to approach editors. In the end, I was able to sell all the stories, which at least brought back the travel expenses. But if this hadn't worked it would have been a bitter financial loss.
On the other hand, there is the “existential level”: Every research is fraught with risks.
In 2014 i was covering the rise of the Islamic state in Iraq frequently. It was the beginning of December when we decided to take the risk and visit the 10000 Yazidis, a minority that was massacred by Daesh extensively, which were trapped and surrounded by Daesh on mount Sinjar for month. The only way to get access to mount Sinjar was via the air bridge by the Iraqi army. The air bridge was also the only way to bring food and medicine to the trapped Yazidi families.
After a week of waiting in Dohuk we got a call from the army pilot: the sky is clear, get ready, we can fly today. And so we went. Many of those helicopters we sat in on the way to the mountain were shot down by the terrorists. The situation we found on the mountain was more than disastrous. Each and every day a small Yazidi militia which was defeating the mountain and its inhabitants were attacked by the Daesh terrorists with rockets, mortar shells and suicide vehicles. It wasn’t clear how long they could withstand the attacks. We intended to stay three days, in the end it was three weeks. You get used to the attacks on the daily bases, but what wears you down is the uncertainty when and if there is another way to escape from this mountain.
Photojournalism News: What would be your dream assignment?
Christian Werner: I mostly work for the news magazine Der Spiegel. In principle, each of these assignments is a “dream assignment”, even if the conditions have become more difficult in recent years. In principle, however, we have the freedom to research openly with a moderate amount of time pressure.
Photojournalism News: What are the essential skills/ qualities a photojournalist should have?
Christian Werner: Understand your craft, know the human psyche, recognize visual perception, retain your empathy, practice your behavior in risky situations, remain idealistic.
Photojournalism News: What do you think about the digital manipulation of images?
Christian Werner: That sucks, of course. When you are at the point where you have to manipulate your images in order to gain validity or to secure your place in the industry, you should better quit.
Photojournalism News: What does it mean to be an ethical photojournalist?
Christian Werner: Be honest, don't misuse your photos from your protagonists in a different context, don't tell lies or keep the hopes high to gain access or promise something you can't deliver. Stick to your agreements, for example if a protagonist doesn't want his face to be shown. Accept a no. And never ever risk a life of someone else who maybe doesn't know better by publishing his identity to the public.
Photojournalism News: How do you see the role of photojournalism evolving in the world? Do you think photojournalism is losing its importance?
Christian Werner: See above.
Photojournalism News: Do you have any advice for aspiring photojournalists?
Christian Werner: Photojournalism is a highly competitive business. There may be highs, but there are also many lows. If you are not one hundred percent sure, you should leave it. If you decide to do it: risk it!
Christian Werner is a freelance multimedia/photojournalist based in Boitzum, Germany. Chris, born in 1987, studied from 2009 to 2014 photojournalism and documentary photography at the University of Hanover. He works as a freelance photojournalist and published his photos and stories, among others, in Der Spiegel, Die Zeit, TIME Magazine, The Washington Post and many more. His photographic focus is the processing of social injustice, conflicts and geopolitical issues. His work has been awarded several times and frequently exhibited internationally