Born in Bielefeld (West Germany), Dirk Schumacher has been employed since 1992 as a technical officer with the MOD for British Forces in Germany. He resides in Rheda-Wiedenbrück, in the country of North Rhine-Westphalia, with his family.
Dirk Schumacher took all the pictures in this heartfelt portfolio for a project entitled “The Future of Remembrance”, which he created to support the work of the local hospice, and to “help bring the subject of death or dying and the tremendous job the people these kinds of institutions are doing to the attention of the public”. In order to achieve this noble end he faced the unimaginable emotional challenge of accompanying the last 14 days of his father’s life in hospice with his camera until he passed away. In the first part of our interview, Dirk shares how he got into photography.
Q: When did you first become interested in photography?
A: I’ve always been interested in photography, but after experimenting with different equipment, things got more serious around 2011-2012 and I had my first exhibition at the end of January this year to raise public interest and money for the local hospice.
Q: You entitled the documentary portfolio you created to support the local hospice, “The Future of Remembrance”. Why did you choose that provocative title for what is essentially a visual exploration of the process of dying that inevitably ends in death? In a sense, death is the very antithesis of remembrance from the perspective of the person going through it.
A: I chose the title because the way the guests, their relatives and friends are treated is absolutely amazing. The atmosphere in the hospice is very cozy; of course for the guests it’s the very last station in life. As a relative you’re aware of that fact as well. But the hospice personnel provide a kind of home for each individual and you really feel this. Therefore you want to be there and visit your beloved ones in their last days or weeks. To underline, the work they do and the environment they prepare even beyond death, makes this place something special. It is of course the last residence for the ones who die but for the ones left behind, in their sorrow and grief, this is a place that opens a new door, to remembrance. There certainly is a difference in remembering that someone, in this case my father, has died in this kind of environment rather than in the cold atmosphere of a hospital treatment room with tiles on the floor and walls that gives you the impression of a slaughterhouse connected to an array of machinery with bleeping noises. Indeed, it was my father’s desire that I accompany him with my camera during his last days and to exhibit the pictures to bring this theme to the attention of society. In German society it is still a taboo to think and talk about death. But death is part of living and it should be possible to provide locations for a dignified death. Another aspect of the title is that with a photo you preserve a certain moment in life before time drags it away and this gives that specific moment a future — literally the future of remembrance.
Q: Did you have any formal education in photography? Do you have any mentors or photographic influences?
A: Not really. Back in 2009, I joined a local evening course for photography that lasted until fall 2011. I didn’t feel challenged since the lessons were repeated, but I met Jim Rakete at an exhibition in my local area, had long conversation with him and learned a lot. I also took part in workshops with Martin Rosswog (a student of Prof. Becher, a well-known lecturer of arts and photography at German universities) and worked with him on two occasions. Furthermore, I met Andy Spyrer during the opening of his exhibition at “Spürsinn” (a supplier of analog photo equipment). During these conversations discussing pictures I picked up a lot of useful information.
Apart from this, I’m basically self-taught. However, another mentor is Annik Traumann, a newcomer in German arts photography I occasionally work with. And of course I am fascinated and inspired by the pictures of great photographer like James Nachtwey, Capa, HCB, Doisneau, Ronis, Feininger and Ragnar Axelsson, a photographer from Iceland.
Q: What are some of the things you learned by your association and conversations with these photographers and how have they influenced your work going forward? Also, how do you think studying the works of masters have inspired your mission or shaped your approach?
A: How to interpret light and work with it, to use light as a powerful tool. Light gives the images character and impression. Light is an incredible language. I have learned to work with simplicity, which is mind opening and provides creative freedom, and also patience and the constant attention needed when working with people. In studying the images and the way of these masters, I can seek answers and inspiration from their pictures, which helps me to develop my own style. I must admit, there is a danger of stealing or copying so I must be honest with my photography. I know as long as I do photography I am involved in a learning process. And I know, without these sources I wouldn’t have been able to present this portfolio, and wouldn’t even be able to say that these pictures represent my current photography.
Q: How would you describe your photography?
A: It’s hard to categorize but 99% of my pictures are black-and-white, and I do very little post-processing. It is a kind of documentary style with elements of street, landscape or architecture and, of course, portrait. Or maybe one could call it urban or real life photography. I always try to express a message or feelings and emotions with my pictures. I think a picture must talk, or tell a story. This is not always the case, but I like to think I’m improving in that respect. I do have certain pictures/scenes in my mind, but most of the time it’s spontaneous. And obviously it depends on what I want to photograph and how I feel. Sometimes I go out and I don’t see anything; other times there’s a lot the camera lets me see.
Q: You mentioned that you enjoy photojournalism and street photography in the largest sense. Do you take pretty much the same approach with these subjects as you did with this portfolio for hospice, or do you vary your technique depending on the subject?
A: Basically I think my approach is much the same on any subject; I need some time to see or to feel the atmosphere of the environment. I need this time to get involved, to be able to embrace my emotions and feelings and put them into the picture. This is especially the case with people because I try to capture the soul, character, and everything the person or subject stands for into my picture. I think, this is all what is described as the decisive moment. In short, I need to be involved as a human being, otherwise I cannot convey a message.
Q: How did you first become interested in Leica?
A: Back in 2010, I had the chance to visit the Leica factory in Solms and it was absolutely amazing. During this time I had some experience in using rangefinder cameras such an old Russian FED-1 and I found it conducive to the way I work. I began leaving my DSLR in the case in favor of using a rangefinder. This has especially been the case after I inherited a Leica CL including a set of lenses (Summicron-C 40 mm f/2 and Elmar-C 90 mm f/4). It was the first time I felt I could really see and the results were just amazing. That was it. No way back. It had to be Leica for all my photography going forward.
In 2010/11 I bought a Leica D-Lux 5, and I was amazed that it delivered better results than my mid-level DSLR. I intended to use the D-Lux for everything but that changed. I constructed an apparatus to mount on the D-Lux to digitize my negatives from the Leica CL and I later modified the apparatus using the zoom lens of the D-Lux to achieve “full frame/screen” files from negatives ranging from APS size up to 6×7 and process them as RAW/DNG files in Lightroom. I found the results better than using a scanner
In 2012 followed up by acquiring an X1, plus an additional handgrip, viewfinder, an a lens-adapter tube to accommodate filters and to serve as lens protector, plus a little Manfrotto micro tripod that can be folded and stay attached to the camera. All this is easily storable. A short while ago I bought an M8, which is also great for black-and-white photography.
Q: What approach do you take with your photography or what does photography mean to you?
A: I usually try to pre-visualize. I have certain pictures, scenes or ideas in mind and, when the occasion arises, I implement these into my pictures. Also I prefer to use wide-angle lenses for my work not only for a certain look or that one gets more into the picture. Wide-angle lenses open up the image to the viewer and give the impression that you are not merely close to a scene, but invited into the picture. One is not observing something from the distance; the viewer really becomes part of it. In my opinion that’s why pictures taken with wide-angle lenses leave a stronger impression.
It’s similar with black-and-white. I think, black-and-white images leave a stronger impression than color photographs, because our eyes are used to seeing the world in color. If you see a color picture it’s nothing unusual, move right along to the next image. But if you look at a black-and-white image, your brain automatically tries to imagine what kind of colors would be present or associates with certain graphic elements on the picture. At that moment you look closer and deeper and spend longer time looking at the picture to satisfy your mind seeking answers. Then you find more details in the picture and you get even more interested in what you see. Your mind is busy and that’s why it creates a more indelible expression.
Photography means to me that I have the opportunity to communicate a story with a picture, to produce images that talk and possess heart and soul. It gives me the ability to combine my inspiration with a tool and the end product is something that exposes my thoughts, sentiments and imagination.
Thank you for your time, Dirk!
– Leica Internet Team