Thomas Bönig: Following Up with the “Thomas does NYC” Project

After a few glasses of wine and an animated discussion with his friends in a bistro, Thomas Bönig, an audacious young professional photographer from Germany, embarked upon a unique photographic project: capturing “decisive moments” in New York City with his Leica M9. This idea was based on specific suggestions made by respondents on Facebook and selected by the tabulated vote of the participants. After viewing and contemplating the results of this whirlwind experiment in instant photojournalism, Thomas, longtime writer, street shooter and Leica aficionado Jason Schneider, and Leica blogmeister extraordinaire Helen Todd,  had a conversation about what had transpired, what it all meant, what had been achieved, and how it might evolve. Here is a transcription of their fascinating interchange.

J: How do you feel about the success of the project? Have you gotten any good feedback on it?

T: We got so much good feedback. In fact, I keep getting mail. Today there were three messages asking for a follow up. I also got e-mails from people saying that checking the blog is the first thing they do in the morning while sitting in their kitchen with their coffee. It’s great. I couldn’t have dreamed it would go so well. There were so many people participating – even in the background. Not everyone that was on the site left a comment there, but you can tell by e-mails and the way people reacted to it that they really like it. And that was what we were hoping for — to get people to like the idea and to get creative. We wanted to reach an audience and that is exactly what we did.

J: What was your experience in shooting with the M9? I assume you were using your 35mm f/2 Summicron ASPH old style lens, right?

T: Of course, and it was great. At a few points, the Leica opened doors for me. On two separate occasions, people told me, “You had me as soon as you mentioned the word Leica”. Additionally, it’s still the best camera for approaching people, since you don’t have much distance between you and your subject because of its size. Since I was doing so much stuff where people were involved — in telling their stories and having their portraits taken — I’ve found that having a smaller camera is less intimidating. When working with a Leica, you tend to look more sophisticated (and maybe a little bit nerdy) but, not necessarily like a “professional photographer.”

J: So you find it’s more discreet?

T: Yes.

J: How about the lens itself? Did you find it a good focal length for your project?

T: As I said before, it’s perfect for capturing a whole range of pictures you want to take: portraits, architecture, street scenes and landscapes. Its allows you to get close to people if you want to, but you can easily step back and take a picture of the whole person as well. I found that the 35mm was the perfect lens for this project. You can see this in the detail shot of the starter cap on the flagpole as well the break-dancer in the moment of movement. That’s the same lens and it’s quite flexible.

J: It’s still the most preferred focal length for the Leica among photojournalists. Some people shoot with a 28mm or 24mm, others with a 50mm, but the 35 mm is the most popular. Again, I noticed that you output everything in black and white. If you look at the firehouse picture, it has a very nice tonal gradation. I certainly have no objection. I think it looks very good in black and white, but what were your thoughts? Why do you output everything in black and white?

T: I think if you have a color picture, the color acts as information in the picture. Colors can be distracting when you want to show emotions. In any case, that’s the way I feel about it. If I take a portrait, I find that reducing it to black and white, you get to know the person in the picture better. You don’t have all those bright colors in the background. In the firehouse picture, the right-hand one with all the jackets, the floor was red and the stripes on the jackets were yellow. The flag on top was red, white, and blue. At some point, the photo is so overloaded with color that you don’t actually get the information the photographer wanted to convey to the viewer. This is especially true in the picture with the jackets. It would have been totally overloaded if I would have left it in color.

J: In other words, you think that by eliminating the color, you push forward the emotional content of the message or the image?

T: Yes, that sums it up. I don’t  just shoot in black and white exclusively. That’s what I said in the first interview. I was thinking of buying a camera to shoot black and white and the next step was to find a digital camera that could take nice black and white shots. So, I ended up with the M9. But, I like color pictures and I wouldn’t call myself a black and white photographer.

J: Turning to the images themselves, you decided to present “The Decisive Moment” as pairs of images, or diptychs.  For example, your gritty urban portrait of the young guy standing under the elevated subway tracks in the image on the right was the same guy that was doing the break-dance in the image on the left? Is that right?

T: Yes.

J: Wouldn’t the left-hand image, alone, have been sufficient in being a “decisive moment?”

T: It probably would have, but I approached this entire project differently. It was really about getting in contact with people rather than capturing an instant. I never rushed into a situation. Instead, I talked to people and let them tell their stories. I found it absolutely stunning to see how people actually tell their stories and transform into a different personality the moment you learn about them.

J: That is a very good point about illustrating the essential nature of personal identity. The guy on the right-hand side is simply being himself, standing in his neighborhood, while on the other side, he’s revealing himself in a dramatic moment doing his art. I like that. I didn’t think about that, but that’s a good point.

T: Yes, at a certain point I got away from just capturing the situation and more into telling the person’s story. They all contributed to the project. They could have said, “No, I don’t want to be in your picture.” I was dead honest with everyone and I told them what we were about to do. I collected every address that I could get. I think everyone who followed the project on Facebook liked the idea of learning about people’s stories through the photographs.

J: I don’t mean to be condescending, but I do think that you have a lot of talent. The way you interpreted this assignment is your own unique vision, which of course is the point when it comes to the art of photography. On the other hand, you seem to have this refined European sensibility.  To me, as a street photographer, if you’re standing in a public place you are “fair game” and if you don’t like it, that’s not my problem. And really, you’re beautiful, so that’s why I’m taking your picture anyway. I’m not trying to hurt people. That’s my attitude. So, in a way, I am more like Weegee who poked his camera in people’s faces, shot first, and asked questions later.

Don’t get me wrong, I ask permission when I can, especially when the subject is someone in unfortunate circumstances. I might ask to take a homeless man’s picture and he might ask for a dollar. I’ve done that many times. But, I like the way you interpret “the decisive moment” as an opportunity to relate to people and find out their whole story. I think that is the essence of the photojournalistic intention. Of course, the genius of Henri Cartier-Bresson and the other great journalists of the 1930s – 1950s, is that they managed to tell the story in a single image. It’s all there: the beginning, middle, and end. The entire story is captured in one image. Nevertheless, I think you made the right decision presenting two images as one. You decided this was the way you were going to do it and you created a cohesive artistic unity. What do you think about that?

T: That’s true, because I’m a friend of staying on one path. If you set your foot on it you should do everything you can to pull it off. When the first idea popped out with the rich and poor, it specifically set up a contrast. That was the first moment I took two pictures. They ended up looking like one picture, but the contrast was supposed to be a little greater. I think the split screen is good for two reasons: on the one side you can always show the person and his story, but you can reduce it to the personality or the character of the person in the other one. I think people differ in what they really are and what they do.  They change their character and they look different. If you talk to a ballet dancer and then take her picture, she is one person, but as soon as she starts dancing, she is a completely different person. She is in her medium and doing what she loves. I think that’s the kind of thing we showed here and it was the perfect way to do it. It’s actually harder to do it this way because you have to get two pictures. You made it sound like it would be harder to get everything with one picture, but I would have taken only half the pictures that I did if I had done it that way, and it would have been less work!

J: I have no argument with what you’ve done or the way that you executed it. It’s just that the traditional concept of the “decisive moment” is capturing a single image that is an instant in time and also an instant in eternity. That’s really what Henri Cartier-Bresson was talking about. We could argue the point forever, but I think it can be really great either way, as one image or as two. I wouldn’t want to get into which way is more difficult.

I’ll admit that I was very skeptical of your approach. When I saw the first one, I thought, “Oh no, that’s not a decisive moment.” But, now I see that it really is. I commend you in doing them all in the same way. I agree that the transformation that occurs when somebody is doing their art compared to just living life is compelling. I think it turned out to be very engaging story and you could accomplish that more easily with two images in one. Can you tell me something about the picture in the cemetery?

T:  I went there at the suggestion of a young woman. She saw the cemetery from a train when she lived in Boston for a while, but she never got the chance to visit it. Basically, she asked me to do a picture full of emotions. The Greenwood Cemetery is very old and there are about half a million people buried there.  There are so many that, at a certain point, you don’t look at gravestones as representing people who are buried there. They might be old or beautiful but they are still just gravestones. So I had a hard time finding an emotional moment.

I walked through the cemetery for three hours. I climbed up a little grassy hill and stood in front of the grave that’s shown in this picture. It differed from all the other graves in that it had three flags on it. A few graves had flags but this one had three. Plus, it had those personal items, as you can see in the picture. There is a starter cap that is hanging from one of the flagpoles and there is a Gatorade bottle next to the gravestone. At first,  I thought someone had just dumped his bottle out there, but something about its position suggested that it might have been the guy’s favorite drink. After reading the engravings in the stone, I knew that he died at the age of sixteen. There were condolences of the mother and, I think, a brother. It was the only grave that I saw, in the three hours, that had personal items left there. That moment might have not been the most emotional for me, but if you imagine losing your child or your brother and then leaving items there that belonged to him – just to stay with him after death, must have been very emotional. And that is what I wanted to show in the picture.

J: I’m not surprised you got favorable commentary and requests to continue the project. How do you see the project continuing? Obviously, you could do more of the same – chapter two of the exact same thing. Do you see it evolving in any particular way?

T: It will definitely evolve. I’m not a fan of repeating myself. We are already talking about what we can do for the next round. There are a few ideas floating around at the moment, but I don’t want to get too specific right now. We’ll just see what comes next. The calendar we are producing could have 365 months because I would like to go on right now.

J: Obviously, the topics or the moments will be different, but do you think that you might continue shooting in the same vein? Do you think the basic process is going to be quite similar?

T: The basic process might be similar. It will still be driven by the people who leave their ideas on Facebook. That is something I would definitely like to repeat, since we drew so much input, motivation and ideas from it. And I would like to give the great Henri Cartier-Bresson a rest from turning in his grave, and not call it a street photography project next time.

J: Well, excuse me for disagreeing, but it is a street photography project as presented here and there is nothing wrong with that. If you want to define “The Decisive Moment” as something different from the traditional concept, there is nothing wrong with that. But, it certainly is street photography in my opinion. Indeed, it is in the great street photojournalist tradition. Whether it is a Henri Cartier-Bresson type of decisive moment, really doesn’t matter. In a way, what you have created is in the classic Leica tradition.

T: Then we might leave “The Decisive Moment” out, at least in the way Bresson would have talked about it. Still, I believe that every photographer approaches photography differently. What I’ve learned from this project about myself and about photography, is that the people matter a lot to me and that I like to tell their stories in my pictures. It was specifically people’s stories that I focused on in this project. There is a decisive moment in every picture — maybe not in the way that Bresson pictured it, but in some way.

J: Well, we wouldn’t want you to simply imitate Bresson. Even if you could imitate his method and results, it woudn’t be Thomas Bönig – it would be somebody else.

T: I wouldn’t even compare myself to him. He is so much more of a street photographer. I don’t think his name should be mentioned in comparison to what we’ve been doing here.

J: Art is a funny thing. In a way, Richard Wagner is not much like Johann Sebastian Bach. But, maybe Richard Wagner was inspired by Johann Sebastion Bach to create something equally grand but quite different. I think that even though these pictures that you’ve created don’t look exactly like some of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s famous pictures, I think they are a contemporary manifestation of the great tradition. That’s a fair statement. We cannot be the people of the past. We have to be ourselves.

H: Who would you say is an inspiration or role model for you in photography?

T: In the sense of photojournalism, I would say Alex Majoli. What he does is completely different. His pictures have a certain message that is very appealing to me: a certain beauty and deftness. He might not be my role-model exactly, but I would definitely like to meet him and talk with him about his pictures.

J: I think of other photographers when I look at this project. Believe it or not, Sebastiao Salgado comes to mind. Maybe it’s the storytelling aspect of these photographs. You have a multi-dimensional story that you are conveying. The quality of the black and white images reminds me of him as well. But, of course, his style is completely different.

T: I didn’t try to copy anyone. I just did what I do: I took photos. People told their stories and I found that moment – talking to them and allowing them to open up – so much more important that the actual act of taking the pictures. A few of the people I talked to for about an hour and the picture was taken in under five minutes. I have six or seven portraits of the firefighter.

J: There is one thing that is very profound in what you say: in the case of these pictures, very often, “the decisive moment” occurs before you press the shutter. That is a mighty interesting idea.

T: Yes, I think that is what I did. You can give a homeless guy some money to buy food for the night and in return, ask to take his picture. You will see in his expression that he is just waiting for the money and that he planned to leave as soon as possible to get food. But, in the facial expression of the homeless I guy I photographed, the expression is completely different. He told his story for about forty-five minutes. I gave him a window to look out of and someone to talk to about what happened to him. Of course, I gave him some money, but not because I wanted to take his picture. It was because I felt like his story mattered and I wanted to support him.

J: That’s a very beautiful statement and I like it very much. There is something to be said for a gentle approach to human beings — one of empathy and consideration. The problem is that you’re a nice German guy and I’m a nasty New Yorker.

T: I think we get along pretty well, though, despite that fact.

J: And we all love Leica, so we definitely have something in common. Anyway, congratulations. I’m sure it was a lot of hard work.

T: It was, but it was totally worth it. I would continue right now, tomorrow. Give me another challenge and I’ll try to handle that. But, at the moment, it’s time to recall what happened. All the stories that were told to me mattered. It was so much fun.

J: Thank you for being so compassionate and articulate and for creating quite a beautiful document.

T: You’re welcome. Just keep in mind the time frame in which we had to pull this off. Getting those pictures done in 24 hours made all the organizing quite challenging. I think that we got the best end result that we could wish for.

H: Now Jason are you going to log into Facebook and vote on your favorite photo to be the calendar cover?

J: Frankly, if I didn’t work seven days a week I would be deeply involved in Facebook and Twitter. I’m a member of all those social networking things but I never log on because I can’t take an hour out of my day to peruse all this stuff and post meaningful commentary. It’s not that I don’t like modern technology – I think Facebook and YouTube and LinkedIn are wonderful things. I just don’t have the time to participate. But, I can certainly go on this one time and vote or make a suggestion.

H: We are Facebook friends so I know you’re on Facebook. He is asking the fans to vote on their favorite to be the cover of the calendar.

J: That’s an interesting challenge.

T: Yes, feel free to leave your ideas. Just leave out some keywords like Bresson, puddle, parking ticket, and decisive!

J: Okay I can leave out those keywords. As a diptych I think that the four that are the most successful are the first ones: the homeless man and the guy with the money, spidey wife, the break-dancer and the fireman. Those four work better for me than the other three. I would be pleased to see any of those as the cover. I think the most effective cover, just for sheer compelling emotion, would be the fireman. (UPDATE: The dancer in the studio photo won the “Shot of the Week” and will be the cover image for the calendar)

T: To me it would be the rich/poor photograph. But, that’s where the opinions divide.

J: As I said, those four pairs of images are all very strong. When I think of the cover, it’s supposed to say “open me!” So, if you think about it, I think that the two strongest images would be the rich/poor photograph and the fireman. I think either one of them would be effective.

Thank you, Thomas!

-Leica Internet Team

If you’d like to learn more about Thomas’s interactive street photography project, visit his Facebook page. To read our previous interview with Thomas about his project, “Thomas does NYC,” click here. If you would like to view more of his work, visit his website