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It is a grey autumn afternoon at Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate, but despite the weather there’s a happy, chattering, throng of tourists. They may be of many different nationalities, but there is one language they have in common – a visual one. All are taking photographs: selfies or group shots with the gate in the background, thousands of pictures, all basically the same.
Thanks largely to mobile phones, more than 1.8bn photos like these are being uploaded to the internet every day. I’m standing here watching some of that “content” being created with Knut Skjaerven, a 67-year-old Norwegian. He, too, has a camera around his neck, but his interest in the scene is different to theirs. For him it is the configurations of the visitors, and their interactions with the location, that cause him to reach for his Leica.
We watch as couples and groups blaze away. “All of this photography,” says Skjaerven, “it is all disposable. It’s all for Snapchat and Facebook, and in a couple of months it will all be forgotten. Maybe less than zero-point-one of a per cent has got any kind of artistic intent. Even less than that would even get printed out. Basically, a photograph is too easy – and that has turned it into something that is easily thrown away.”
This former advertising executive is trying to change that by running The Edge, an online forum devoted to observational photography, as well as leading courses like the one I’m sampling, in various European cities. He wants to encourage people to think more deeply about their images: “to stand on the edge of society and look in”.
Skjaerven spots an opportunity outside the Bundestag, where two parallel queues are waiting to get in. One is a line of oriental executives in suits; the other a group of European teenagers in jeans. The teenagers are looking across at the suits, while the suits are studiously trying to look the other way. There’s a balance to the image, but also a tension. “There should be more to a picture than what is there to look at,” says Skjaerven.
I spot a quirky-looking tramp outside the Hauptbahnhof, but my mentor clearly thinks that this would be a cheap shot. “You don’t know what his background is, why he came to be like that,” says Skjaerven. His policy is to be unobtrusive and opportunist, in the style of Henri Cartier-Bresson, and not to force things to happen. Images should come to him, which means that patience, and luck, play a very big part.
When we’ve had enough of what we can see on the street, we turn our attention to the sort of photography that has survived the modern digital onslaught, and still sits up on a pedestal marked “art”. Berlin is currently hosting EMOP – European Month of Photography – a rolling bandwagon of photographic shows and events which runs until November 16, before moving on to Bratislava, Vienna and Budapest.
Inside EMOP’s Memory Lab exhibition there’s a lot of cutting-edge stuff, but after what we’ve been trying to capture on the street it seems contrived. This is photography for exhibition purposes, elaborately staged and heavy with artistic intent.
The following day, we set out into the streets again. At the Sony Centre in Berlin’s ultra-modern Potsdamer Platz, an opportunity arises when an old-fashioned elderly couple, hand in hand, stands in front of me, gazing up in awe at the cantilevered sails that make up the roof. But by the time I’ve got my camera ready, they’ve moved on.
That afternoon, outside the disused Tempelhof airport, I spot a couple whose toddler is just starting to walk, tottering and then falling again, while his parents stoop over him like a couple of king penguins. It makes a touchingly human scene silhouetted against the harsh, dehumanising background of the Nazi-era airport terminal.
The resulting picture doesn’t quite work for technical reasons – framing, sharpness – but the vision is right. I feel I have tasted life on the edge.
The European Month of Photography (mdf-berlin.de/en) runs in Berlin until November 16. Andrew Eames was a guest of British Airways (ba.com/Berlin), which offers flights from London to Berlin from £113 return. Knut Skjaerven’s courses cost €500 for four days; for details of the next ones, see newstreetagenda.wordpress.com
Photograph: Knut Skjærven