Frequently asked questions about the ImPORTRAIT project
+ What inspired you to begin this project?
I am a commercial portrait photographer and former student and (former) associate photographer of New York based star photographer based in Basel, Switzerland. My studio is right next to a building where refugees live and everyday when I go to work I see them and how they live.
Basel has 3 global players from the pharma industry (Roche, Novartis, Syngenta) and I shoot the heads-of on a daily basis. For some reason I always found it weird to be working everyday with people who owe more than most of the people and on the other hand I see the refugees who owe mostly nothing. This contrast was quite interesting but also very sad.
I am touched by the refugee crisis and thought about how I could do something to help the refugees. I strongly believe that photos are more powerfull than words so it was logical for me to do something with portraits.
There are millions of images and portraits of refugees but usually very dramatic ones..with dirty clothes in a refugee camp or so and mostly one doens't know who this person is. For sure its important to show the world how they have to live in the camps or how they travel for documentary reason but sometimes I feel the photographers "catch" them in their most horrible moment..exhausted, scared, naked and so on and they don't have a chance to say if they want their image shown to the world.
I wanted to take a different approach and show them with pride and without any dramatics. In order to feel with someone you have to know a little bit about him and I wanted to make people feel with them.
When the picture of the 3 year old, dead baby Aylan went viral the world was shocked. But this wasn't the first or last child who died on their escape so why was it so shocking? I say it was so shocking since people could read who he is. His name, how old he is, where he was from and who his family was. No matter how you think about refugees in generall this made people sad because this little boy could have been everyone's little brother or child. Without the information who he was it would have been just another dead refugee.
It is also easier to feel with someone if you have a common thread. Thats where the idea with their most important item came from. Once you see my portraits your next thought is most probably "what would I take with me if I have to leave my home and my country?". For a fraction of a moment you are in exact the same situation as the "refugee" was. Sure you are not in danger but that doesn't matter. Besides the dangers of an escape..how hard must it be to leave everything behind that you ever possesed?
Basel is right at the border to Germany and we have a few camps here. When I decided to start this project I have contacted every organisation working with refugees but everyone turned me down. I am not a person who gives up so I went to a local camp and talked to the head of the camp. She finally gave me permission to be at their promisses and talk to the refugees.
It was very hard since most of them don't talk any language I understand. Also many of them were scared that being a part of this project could be harmfull for their asylum application. Others didn't want to speak about their escape since it was a very bad experience. Most of them have other problems than a photographer and last but not least being portrayed and ending up in an exhibition has a lot to do with trust.
It took me more than a year to take 10 portraits. The people came to my studio and told me their stories. I left out everything which could be taken negatively in any way..thats why I never write why someone had to flee or which countries he/she passed while coming to Switzerland. It just about their persona and nothing more.
+ Your portraits are dramatically lit, and the subjects face the camera head-on. Why did you make these aesthetic choices?
If you look at my portfolio most of my work has a certain look and feel to it. I love desaturated colour tones and a painterly look. My biggest influence (photography wise) is Annie Leibovitz. Her most famous look (her typical shots with the Oliphant backdrops) is always very classy but with strong poses and expression. For some years now I have been working with Annie Leibovitz' backdrop painter Sarah Oliphant from New York. She paints the most beautiful backdrops in the world and in 9 out of 10 images I take I'll include an Oliphant backdrop since its very timeless and mostly doesn't have to much of an own personality that it would distract the onlooker from the subject. In old Renaissance portraits one often can see backgrounds with a similar texture and look and feel. Therefore it was clear to my that I will use an Oliphant backdrop with a subtle texture (also "Annie backdrop" called) for this project. As said one of my inspiration and idol is Annie, the other inspiration are old Baroque and Renaissance portraits. When it comes to my lighting I am inspired by Caravaggio and Rembrandt.
As already mentioned above...there are millions of pictures from refugees out there..I wanted to do something different. The portraits have their own message that they carry even without their stories..but I wanted them also to be aesthetic and that they have a certain look as if they were old Baroque/Renaissance portraits.
Color wise they look like the old masters but then the clothes don't fit that old style at all. This is what makes them again portraits of our time and not from the Renaissance.
When they came to their portrait sitting I sat them on the table and placed my self on the other side of the table. They told me their story and from time to time I took a picture when I thought I had the right moment. One of the first decisions concept wise was that I wanted to have them sitting at a table and print the portraits in life size so the onlooker gets the feeling he/she's sitting at a table with this person listening to their story.
Even though I had some very powerful images where they didn't look into the camera it was clear to me that they have to look in the camera. One of my goals in this project was, that I want to make people feel with them. Eye contact is very important to make contact with someone. So thats why they are all looking into the camera head-on.
If you look at the portraits you will notice that the subjects arms or pose always leads to their faces in some way. Some more obvious some less. This "leading the eye" of the onlooker is nothing new...Rembrandt did it all the time..I just told them how to place their arms and the rest was their own body movement. The body language tells a lot. Shireen is feeling very uncomfortable and hardly can look into my eyes (or the camera). He is still very traumatised. Migmar on the other hand has a very calm aura. He fled 56 years ago when he was a child..so he barely has any connection with this part of his life.
I always shot the subjects with the same setup. I did this to subtle underline the repetitive nature of their stories. You can change their names and faces but the stories are mostly the same..also the items they took with them.
+ It’s interesting that some of the objects are practical, while others are sentimental. What did you want to communicate with the variation of objects?
I guess it depends how fast one had to leave his or her home and country..if you have to leave from one moment to another while your life is threatened then one most probably won't think very far ahead. Also I think it depends where you came from and in what situation you were living before you had to leave. I talked to a woman who fled 60 years ago from Russia and she told me the first things her mother took with them was a fur coat and 4 bags of tea. The first thing I though..why a fur coat and tea bags? She then told me..if you are fleeing in mid winter in Russia then a fur coat is THE thing that keeps you warm..and it was a very cheap coat. With the tea bags her mother was able to bribe someone at the train station so they could hide in a freight train. So this woman thought very far ahead and at a first glance one would thing her items were illogical..but they weren't.
Taghi on the other hand took 3 images from his childhood with him. I remember someone posted on facebook something like "..he took 3 images with him....of himself..!"..no one could say..he's being very narcissistic...but he told me he took them with him since it reminded him of his childhood when everything still was ok.
What I want to communicate with it? Well on one hand that at the end of the day its the small things that matter..you often see images from refugees at the beach..just landed safely..with their cell phone in their hands...sometimes I've heard from people here "first thing they do is take a selfie"...I wanted to show those people that they are not taking a selfie but letting their families know that they survived the boat trip..so a cell phone can be something very important if its the only way to communicate with your beloved ones.
+ What mood or theme do you hope viewers will experience when they see your work?
Well firstly I didn't want to make people feel sad when they see my portraits. They are serious but without any artificial dramatics.
I wanted to show the people who is coming here and without going into politics or so. I guess best case would be if someone says...sure..maybe his or her reason wasn't that important to come here than others but still...it takes a lot to leave everything you ever owned and your beloved ones behind to go somewhere where nothing is certain. I think no one does this just for fun.
+ Was there a specific "ah ha" moment that inspired you?
ImPORTRAITS is not just pictures. It is a concept. My "ah ha" moment was when I had my concept together. The concept is..the portraits should show "us" who those people are, coming here and looking for shelter... mostly we only see images of a big group of refugees in the media and the individual person gets lost in the anonymity of the masses...but its hard to feel with someone if you don't know anything about him..the second part of the concept is "put people in the same situation" to make them feel with someone. When looking at my portraits you think about what you would take with you...you're in the same situation..
Third thing is..I want to publish a photo book and donate the money..so I am actually also doing something actively for the refugees.
The fourth part was..ask people to share their most important item on social media with the hashtag importraitsproject…so everyone can be part of this project. Unfortunately people never shared their important things on social media so I kicked this part out of the project again.
+ Because the project is 100% non-profit, I read on your website that all proceeds will be "donated to the refugees." Do you mean the specific participants in your portrait project or a charity that benefits refugees or something else?
While I tried to get in contact with every organization here in Basel whos working with refugees the only organization who helps me is oesa.ch. OESA is an NGO financed by a few Swiss churches and donations. OESA has a small premise right next to the german border where they provide food and clothes to the refugees without asking why they are here or if their reason is legitimate or not. They also help them with translating documents, legal help, pay school fees and so on. The main thought behind OESA is „we are all equal“ and they help without asking. In my project I also never ask people why they had to flee or why they have chosen Switzerland…it simply doesn’t matter. They are here and I want to show who they are.
All money raised from this project, which includes also every penny I make with my Press Agency (Rex Press Agency) or any other publication (vice.com for example donated money to the project too) will be donated to OESA. They help the local refugees in many ways and they do an amazing job so thats why I decided to give the money to them.
+ how do you finance the photo book?
Mostly on my own but I started a crowdfunding campaign on 100-days.net. It would be great if you refer to it in your article. Here's the link http://www.100-days.net/en/projekt/importraits