Sebastian Beck: Zen And The Art Of Photojournalism

Born in Munich, Germany Sebastian Beck earns his living as an editor and reporter for the acclaimed Süddeutsche Zeitung, Munich’s largest and best-known newspaper that enjoys nationwide distribution and an international reputation. On his own time he is a passionate and talented photographer who, until recently, has been very private about his photographic work, and still modestly describes himself as an enthusiast in the process of honing his skills. “For me taking pictures is a form of contemplation,” he observes. “I like to stroll trough foreign cities and landscapes spending my day observing people and nature. Pushing the release button of the camera is just like making a bookmark.”

Fascinated with photography from his teens, Beck’s epiphany came when he acquired a Leica X1 and subsequently graduated to his beloved Leica M9, which he uses with impressive skill to create compelling “journalistic” images whenever he can take the time to travel. Here is the heartwarming story of his creative adventures, including a face-to-face meeting in Paris with his inspirational hero, the great photojournalist Sebastiao Salgado, and his amazingly authentic and heartfelt documentation of life in Myanmar (aka Burma) on the cusp of its transition to democracy.

Q: What camera and equipment do you use?

A: I use a Leica M9 with a formidable 75mm f/2.5 Summarit an excellent 50mm f/2 Zeiss, a quite fair 35mm f/2 Zeiss, and an awful 50mm f/1.1 Voigtländer Nokton, the poor man’s Noctilux.

Q: Are you a full-time photographer or would you describe yourself as a serious enthusiast?

A: I am working as a newspaper editor in Munich, who loves photography, but has not made the complete transition yet, because he has to feed a family with two boys, several iPods, PlayStations, two cars and so on…

Q: When did you first become interested in photography as a mode of expression, an art form, or as a profession?

A: I had my first contact with Leica in 1972 at 8 years of age when my uncle allowed me to touch his black Leicaflex and presented me some old issues of the Leica LFI magazine. It took ‘only’ another 18 years until I could finally afford a used R4 and an 28mm f/2.8 Elmarit and a 90mm f/2 Summicron-R. I used this equipment until 2004, when the digital era in my life began and I sold my Leica R4 on eBay to someone in Taiwan.

Q: Did you have any formal education in photography, with a mentor, or were you self-taught? Was there a photographer or type of photography that influenced your work or inspired you?

A: I discovered photography as a form of expression when I was 14 years old and developed the first Ilford film in my friend’s cellar storeroom. After this magical experience, some years of experiments followed. For several years I worked as a reporter for local newspapers, where I also took photos. The contact with photographers helped me to improve my technical skills, but the documentation of club meetings was not really a step forward on my way to becoming an artist. I rediscovered photography for myself at the end of the ‘90s, after I decided to take one or two weeks off from work and family every year just to travel with my camera. Another turning point was the X1, which I bought in 2010. It brought me back to Leica. From a financial perspective this was the road to hell—the X1 was soon followed by a disappointing M8.2, and finally by an M9 and various lenses. I am very happy with this camera and swear not to read any reviews of the new M.

Q: In what genre would you place your photos? (e.g. fine art, photojournalism, portrait, street photography, etc.)

A: Since I am working as a journalist, my approach to photography is journalistic. I like to document what I see, though this may sound a bit simplistic. I don’t like postcard photos, but I also find it difficult to understand the new mobile phone trash photography fashion. Maybe I am too old for that.

Q: What approach do you take with your photography or what kind of photography do you aspire to?

A: I really do admire the work of Sebastiao Salgado and his view on the world. It is classic black-and-white of an almost epic style, and he tries very hard to get the best out of the sensor and the lenses. His approach to photography is full of respect for mankind. Three years ago I had the great opportunity to visit him in his Paris office and to write a story about his Genesis project. I met a happy man, who has an invaluable privilege: He can do whatever he wants to do, he follows his own values, and he can spend months or years on just one project. I have to admit that I am a little bit jealous, but it was an extremely inspiring und unforgettable encounter for me. One day I hope I can take a year off and execute my own project about the situation of indigenous tribes in Brazil.

Q: You were fortunate indeed actually to visit the great photojournalist and artist Sebastiao Salgado. What was that encounter like and what did your learn from your conversation that gave you a deeper understanding of his approach to photography? And why do you consider it worthy of emulation?

A: I wrote an article about his Genesis project, for which he travelled to the most hidden places on the planet to document the untouched side of earth. When we met in his office. I took along his book about Africa and asked him to describe some of the scenes shown in the pictures. It was amazing that he could remember even the names of all the people he photographed. Salgado has often been criticized, for turning human suffering into mainstream kitsch, because his photos of the victims of starvation are so well composed and all his images are captured with consummate professionalism. But I learned, that in fact his intention is to dignify what he sees. This may sound very idealistic, but I prefer his approach to that of the hardcore cynical war photographers that just point the camera at something. And I was quite surprised that Sebastiao Salgado, after three decades of covering conflicts, still believes in human progress. He is an optimist and says: I am a happy man, because I can do what I really wish to do. It is this, quite apart from the classic composition of his photos, that I consider worthy of emulation.

Q: All your Myanmar images are output in black-and-white through presumably you shot them with a Leica M9. What is it about the black-and-white medium that you find so attractive and compelling, and do you also shoot in color?

A: I shoot all my pictures with the M9 and lots of them are in color, but as I mentioned before, I like the classic black-and-white style. But I am no ideologue: It depends on the scene whether I use color or black and white. The freedom to decide is what I like about digital photography.

Q: You have a masterfully composed picture of a young boy or girl on crutches walking past a huge spreading tree in a light fog has a wistful yet hopeful quality—sad because of the affliction, yet showing determination in the body language and attire. Do you see this image as emblematic of Myanmar itself as it moves forward from its repressive past?

A: Myanmar is on the path to democracy, but I’m afraid that not even an elected government can fulfill all the expectations of the people. The country is divided into many rival ethnic groups. When I was there, the Rakhine State was closed to visitors after pogroms against Muslim minorities occurred. As a tourist you usually don‘t see this side of the country. The boy on crutches was on his way home after school. For me this picture is emblematic of the precarious state of medical care in the
country.

Q: The two charming close-up portraits of Burmese women, one smiling broadly despite her bad teeth, the other smoking a pipe, have an iconic quality reminiscent of National Geographic images of the 30s and 40s. Both are great subjects, but why did you decide to shoot them in this very traditional way as character studies?

A: The black teeth of the lady are just perfect! I met her in a remote village close to the Chinese border. The people there can neither read nor write and they are still animists, who believe in the spirits that live in the forest. The women smear the black paste of a jungle plant on their teeth as a sign of beauty. According to my local translator this is to emphasize the difference between human beings and animals: The animals of the jungle have white teeth. I love Myanmar, but this one habit I cannot recommend to my wife! The lady with the pipe is almost blind. She was sitting on her veranda with her dog and her grandson, and seemed to be very relaxed. I don‘t think she cares much about health warnings on cigarette packs. When I shot these pictures, I followed this simple rule: Once your pictures are bad, you’ve gone too far. For a portrait, you have to ask kindly for permission—and get really close.

Q: Your schoolroom picture conveys an experience of being there quite effectively, but what do you think they say about Myanmar, its educational system, and the state of Burmese society in general?

A: I was told that the government spends four percent of the national income for education and over 30 percent for the army. But the people in Myanmar are so hungry for knowledge! They were separated from the world for decades and now they are just eager to learn. After years of fatalism and desperation, the political comeback of Aung San Suu Kyi raised the hopes of the whole nation. They just call her “The Lady” and worship her almost like a saint.

Q: Both pictures of Buddhist monks in your Myanmar portfolio have a serene quality. The first monk has a meditative expression as he contemplates a strand of beads in a temple dominated by large statues; the other has a studious expression and is in a prone position poring over a book with a pen poised over the pages. Where did you shoot these remarkable pictures and what do they mean to you?

A: I shot them both in Rangoon. The man in the prone position on the floor is the abbot of a monastery reading a religious Buddhist book. I hesitated to take this picture, because the situation was very intimate and I felt like an intruder, interrupting the silence with the shutter. But I just could not hold off any longer—the light was too compelling—and I took the shot. Fortunately the abbot totally ignored me. The other monk is meditating in the famous Shwedagon pagoda and, I guess, he’s used to being watched. I am fascinated by the gentleness of Buddhists. And the M9 is a bit like a Zen camera for me: slow, simple, and focused on the essentials.

Q: You mentioned that you have 4 lenses for your Leica M9 including a “formidable” 75mm f/2.5 Summarit, and “excellent” 50mm f/2 and 35mm f/2 Zeiss lenses. Which ones did you favor for the images in your Myanmar portfolio, and in general, what are your criteria for selecting a focal length to use for a particular shot or subject?

A: To be honest, I find the 50mm focal length quite boring and I don‘t use it much, though the quality of the 50mm Zeiss Planar, and the Summicron M, is really superb. The 35mm is my everyday lens. It is a bit soft in the corners, but very versatile. The 75mm Summarit was quite a surprise for me: a 75mm f/2.5 doesn’t sound as exciting as a 90mm f/2 Summicron or a 75mm f/2, but it’s affordable, easy to focus and sharp even wide open. As it turned out I took most of my favorite pictures with the Summarit, both portraits and landscapes.

Q: What do you intend to do with your photography other than share it here with the Leica community? Do you intend to publish your work in magazines, on other websites, as a book? And how do you see your photography evolving over, say, the next 3 years?

A: Until recently I only presented my pictures to my family and myself. The Internet is a good possibility to get more exposure and feedback. Of course it would be great to publish these photos in a magazine, but to be honest I am still very unsure with respect of their quality. Since I am self-taught, I’m constantly trying to improve my technical abilities. The digital workflow, especially color management, is sometimes still mysterious. My intention for the next three years is very simple: I want to frame as much of the world with my camera as I can. I have a full time job as a newspaper editor: This limits the time for my passion, but a gives me the financial freedom to do what I want.

Q: You noted that acquiring a Leica X1 in 2010 was a turning point in your emergence as a serious photographer. What was it about the X1 that led you down to what you ironically describe as “the financial road to hell” in acquiring a Leica M9 system? And since you’re such a fan of black-and-white, have you considered biting the bullet and getting a Leica Monochrom?

A: The X1 was simple and challenging at the same time. When you take a picture with the X1 you have to concentrate on what you’re doing. It is small, so you can put it in your jacket. This is in keeping with my Rule No. 2: The best camera is always the camera you carry with you. The quality of the files was also much better than those of my bulky DSLR and zoom lenses. So I decided to sell my DSLR equipment and to start from the beginning again. This was a step I never regretted. Unfortunately the X1 is very slow and you cannot change the lenses. Okay, the story ended with my acquiring the M9. I’m totally happy with this camera and don‘t have any plans to sell it. The Monochrom is quite compelling, but too expensive for me: For the price of the body I could buy a new wide-gamut monitor, the 28mm f/2 Summicron M I am longing for—and a ticket to Bhutan, a country that me and my M9 are always dreaming of.

Q: Aside from your dream of taking one year off to document the situation of indigenous tribes in Brazil do you have any less intensive and time-consuming projects on your radar screen?

A: This year, I want to travel to Iceland, to take landscape pictures and spend a week in Genua, a harbor city with a morbid charm—the latter definitely in black-and- white. Sao Paulo is also on the agenda: I have been there ten times or more and I would like to do a photographic essay on this frightening mega city.

Thank you for your time, Sebastian!

- Leica Internet Team