Street Art: Interview with photographer Jürgen Bürgin

///Street Art: Interview with photographer Jürgen Bürgin

Street Art: Interview with photographer Jürgen Bürgin

Jürgen Bürgin

For Berlin-based urban photographer Jürgen Bürgin, the path to finding his creative outlet was not a short one. He first studied literature, linguistics and economics, and then began working for the movie business in Germany. It wasn’t until a few years ago that he also took up photography, initially focusing on nature and landscapes.

After moving to Berlin, Jürgen switched his attention to street photography. “I realized that there are great things to photograph in a big city, so I started to walk through Berlin and take photos,” he recalls.

Since then, he has been shooting internationally, including London, Paris, Barcelona, San Francisco, New York and Chicago. In 2011, his work was shortlisted for the Sony World Photography Awards.

When talking to Jetting Around, Jürgen shared thoughts on capturing urban life, his storytelling approach to photography, and technical aspects of the art.

What makes cities a good subject for you?

It’s the diversity of urban life, of urban architecture, of urban culture. Ideally, architecture works as a backdrop in front of the stage of life. And cities are ideal for diving into an anonymous crowd and taking photos.

The Umbrella, New York 2011

Your photography is about storytelling. What do you try to capture?

There are some topics that return often in my photos. One is solitude in our cities. It’s one of the tragic things in big cities of our world that there are more lonesome people than anywhere else. There are more singles, more failed relationships, more lonely, old people than in rural areas. Some other photos are about secrets, amazement, and about hidden, unexplained mysteries.

You disagree with the notion that “photography is writing with light,” and your work plays off of darkness and shadows. In what ways does this approach help you tell stories?

I try to involve the beholder of my photos in the process of perception. I use the effort of the viewer to solve riddles, to fill in voids, to find answers to the questions that my photos pose, and I have a set of tricks to create such voids.

One way is to suggest that there are unknown things outside the frame; another is to hide things in darkness, in shadows, in blurring. The viewer tries to fill in those voids in their fantasy and thoughts. Individual stories are evoked in the beholder – totally different stories in each viewer. Sometimes I try to encourage viewers to tell me those individual stories on my Facebook page. And it’s fantastic what a big variety of stories I read then!

What have you learned about cities by photographing them?

Well, I might have a different view on cities as a photographer and be interested in different things compared to a regular visitor. I usually try to leave the tourist track and simply walk through ordinary streets, or enter any random bus and go to a terminal stop.

I think you learn a lot about cities by walking through all their different neighborhoods. For example, it’s interesting that Berlin is one of the “greenest” cities that I know. It has a park that is bigger than Central Park, the fantastic former airport Tempelhof. I could show you places that look like – and in fact are – small villages here. We have about 30 conservation areas inside the city. So this is a fantastic and an interesting part of Berlin’s urbanity that visitors often do not see (and neither do many people that live here), those contrasts between the busy streets and total solitude and silence in those areas.

The Girl and the Tree, Berlin 2010

And what I experience all the time is that people create their own small villages and “village squares” inside a big city. Here in Berlin it’s called Kiezmentalität, which is “neighborhood mentality.” It means that many people live in their small area, go shopping in this area, have their friends there, use the cultural possibilities there, and so on. And they try to avoid leaving this neighborhood. I think it’s vital for everyone in a big city to get involved in a local net of relations.

Can you describe one such “urban village?”

Here in Berlin I live in the district of Kreuzberg. In our house there’s a small shop, in fact it’s a bakery, but you get nearly everything there. It is open 7 days a week until about midnight every day, and it’s such a typical “village square.” It’s where people who live here meet, drink coffee or a beer, talk about what happened during the day, talk about their problems and hopes, about politics, sports, life, and about their past and future. The owner of the shop is the center of all this, he’s the “heart” of the village, and he’s doesn’t only sell you a beer or cigarettes, he’s somehow a social worker too.

This shop plays a major role in how people build relationships in our neighborhood. It brings together a nearly unbelievable variety of people. There’s this 75-year-old pensioner who comes here every day on his motorbike and tells about his life. There’s this wonderful and funny woman who moved to Berlin only a few years ago and found her friends in this little shop. There’s a maintenance man with his dog, which is the slowest and funniest dog, strolling up the street at an unbelievably low speed. There’s the owner of the record shop on the other side of the street and people of all ages: men and women, jobless or not. It’s a real microcosm.

Which part of Berlin is more fun for you to photograph – East or West?

My first visit to Berlin was in 1991, I moved there in 1999, so I do not really think in those old East and West categories. It’s more the character of each district in Berlin that has an influence on how to photograph there.

Tell us about your work routine.

I have my DSLR camera and two prime lenses with me, nothing more. My favorite time to shoot is early in the morning around sunrise – it’s the best light, ideally with a morning fog. The problem is that I hate getting up early! And I also love taking photos at night.

In 2011, your work was shortlisted for the Sony World Photography Award in the “After Dark” category. What was the experience like?

It was the first time that I had had seen my work exhibited in a public place. The photo was called “Taking the bus home” and it was taken at night in Berlin, in a dark, deserted street.

There was an old woman waiting at a bus stop. A street lamp illuminated the scene. Then the bus came and for a short moment the woman hesitated to enter it. I presume she asked the bus driver if it’s the right bus to bring her home. There’s something melancholic, something sad about this photo that I like very much. And it’s great for thinking who this woman is, what her situation is, where she’s coming from, where she’s going to. I love the storytelling element in this photo.

Taking the bus home, Berlin

Look up, New York 2012








In your opinion, how important is equipment vs. having a good eye?

My recommendation to young photographers is: stop talking about cameras and equipment. That’s not what photography is about. Photography is about ideas, about perception, life, light, shadows, and colors. The brand of the camera does not play any role.

I often get asked about what camera I use and some time ago I started to refuse to answer that. It’s like asking a painter about the brand of his paintbrush. It doesn’t matter. It’s just a technical device, nothing more.

Manhattan, New York 2011

Is there something you would not photograph?

I’m not too much interested in street musicians and beggars. I think their portraits are often too much of a stereotype.

Which city is your favorite to shoot?

New York. I love its big diversity, architecture, and above all the light in Manhattan. It’s great how it is reflected by windows of the skyscrapers down to the streets, and shadows of the skyscrapers create a fantastic, unreal light.

What other places would you like to explore?

Oh, there are lots of cities in the world I would like to visit: Honkong, Shanghai, Istanbul, Moscow, Beijing, and many more. And I’d like to revisit Buenos Aires – I was there before I started doing photography.

Jürgen online: Website | Facebook | Twitter 

Photographs provided by Jürgen Bürgin. All rights reserved. 

By | 2017-03-04T18:25:49+00:00 June 7th, 2012|Interviews, STORIES|18 Comments

About the Author:

Pola Henderson is a travel writer, city explorer, expat, and event host. Traveling has been a part of her life since she was three. Pola grew up in Krakow, lived in Chicago for many years and is currently based in Paris, where she teaches Business English.


  1. avatar
    Traveling Ted June 9, 2012 at 9:58 am

    Great interview. I love what he said about cities and exploring the off beaten paths. Chicago is of course the same way, but any awesome city has more than meets the tourist eye.
    Traveling Ted recently posted..Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore Scenic DriveMy Profile

    • avatar
      Jetting Around June 9, 2012 at 12:17 pm

      Definitely! I like taking public transportation when I travel or walk around residential areas, just to see what the ‘everyday life’ looks like. You may not see landmarks there, but maybe you’ll stumble upon a cozy neighborhood pub or witness an interesting street scene. I loved Jürgen’s story about the bakery in his building. :)

  2. avatar
    Leah Travels June 9, 2012 at 9:20 pm

    Yet another wonderful interview, Pola. Photography, specifically street photography, is my favorite art form. His photos are beautiful. I really appreciate the answer about equipment vs good eye. That gives me some hope. :-)
    Leah Travels recently posted..Patience is not my VirtueMy Profile

    • avatar
      Jetting Around June 10, 2012 at 10:47 am

      I’m glad you enjoyed the interview. Yes, that insight about photography was great! After all, there are people who can take amazing photos with a point-and-shoot…

  3. avatar
    Raul (ilivetotravel in Twitter) June 10, 2012 at 9:54 am

    I like taking pictures of scenes as well. For example, of people admiring a statue, or posing in Trocadero in front of the Eiffel Tower. It is neat to capture their exploring. Jurgen’s probing cities and the loneliness of being in a crowd is fascinating – the picture of the lady with the umbrella speaks volumes to me about the loneliness she may be experiencing in a big city. Thanks for bringing his work to light in your blog!
    Raul (ilivetotravel in Twitter) recently posted..Photo of the Week – A Beer Goes to RomeMy Profile

    • avatar
      Jetting Around June 10, 2012 at 11:35 am

      Thanks, Raul – this interview was a great pleasure! I like how Jürgen’s images make you stop for a minute and think, and how he uses shadows and darkness to help convey the message of loneliness.

  4. avatar
    @mrsoaroundworld June 10, 2012 at 3:16 pm

    What an interesting interview – and the seems wonderful! Berlin is a place I havent been to.. yet.. another one for the list!
    @mrsoaroundworld recently posted..My favourite places in Palm Desert, Palm Springs and other California desert citiesMy Profile

    • avatar
      Jetting Around June 10, 2012 at 3:30 pm

      Berlin is on my list too. And when I do go there, Kreuzberg will be one of the first areas to explore. :)

  5. avatar
    Francesca June 11, 2012 at 12:06 am

    Thoroughly enjoyed the interview & the photos! I totally agree with what Jürgen said about the importance of building and maintaining relationships within your own neighborhood. I witnessed such relationships growing up in Chicago, but sadly, some of our neighborhoods have been dismantled. It really takes away from the character of a city.
    Francesca recently posted..Where to go for the Big 4-0?My Profile

    • avatar
      Jetting Around June 11, 2012 at 9:35 am

      Chicago being “the city of neighborhoods,” I have definitely noticed that too! I like the sense of anonymity that big cities offer, but at the same time, it’s good to have someone to say “hi” to on the street, be a regular somewhere (bakery, corner pub etc.) and those “little villages” provide that. :)

  6. avatar
    D.J. - The World of Deej June 12, 2012 at 6:23 am

    Great interview! I would love to learn more about the art of photography. For now, I’ll just enjoy the gift that others share:)
    D.J. – The World of Deej recently posted..The Reunion Golf Resort and Club – OrlandoMy Profile

    • avatar
      Jetting Around June 12, 2012 at 8:14 am

      That’s a great attitude! :) But you never know, photography can be addictive…

  7. avatar
    the lazy travelers June 12, 2012 at 9:28 am

    gorgeous photos. i love reading about what photographers take with them when traveling. sometimes i feel like my dslr is so cumbersome, and i only take one lens with me! xo the romantic
    the lazy travelers recently posted..laws to travel by – #15My Profile

    • avatar
      Jetting Around June 12, 2012 at 9:39 am

      Thanks for reading! Carrying a big camera around can give you some neck pain, but it’s worth it in the end. :)

  8. avatar
    sahara June 12, 2012 at 12:54 pm

    zdjecia przejmujace i piekne zarazem. Gratuluje wywiadu, pozdrawiam

    • avatar
      Jetting Around June 12, 2012 at 1:14 pm

      Dziekuje! Przejmujace – swietne okreslenie, doskonale oddaje charakter zdjec.

  9. avatar
    Miret January 9, 2013 at 7:02 pm

    Cool interview, Pola!

    And I love what he says about camera equipment. Photography is both art and fun, and not about purchasing the most expensive equipment. It’s about capturing the moment.

    I personally only use my iPhone. How could I enjoy my long hours of flânerie with a heavy camera?? ;-)
    Miret recently posted..Gorgonzola & red chicory risotto, with absinthe pearsMy Profile

    • avatar
      Jetting Around January 9, 2013 at 7:17 pm

      Thanks, Miret! :) I do haul my camera around, but I too like what Jürgen said about photography. There are people who can do pretty amazing things with a point-and-shoot. And see, I didn’t even know your pictures were iPhone-only!

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