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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Photographs provided by Jürgen Bürgin. All rights reserved.