In Conversation: Willem Wernsen

Cynthia Haynes

For over 38 years, Willem Wernsen has been hitting the streets all over the world, and since then, he has created widely recognized and award-winning work in a genre that seems like it should be easy (there are people everywhere; just point and shoot!), but indeed takes a special skill to do well. The power and depth of his photographs make us smile, and sometimes cry; it’s evident that he’s invested in his subjects and the stories they tell on their faces and with their body language. Willem’s eBook, On Street Photography: Making Extraordinary Photographs of Ordinary Life, has been purchased and discussed worldwide!

How did you begin your career in street photography? What was it about that genre that drew you in over any other?

It was my interest in human beings and social documentary photography that drove me to the streets 38 years ago with my 6x6 camera. At 13, I bought second-hand photo books, mostly of French photographers who made street portraits. Inspired, I wanted a camera of my own to make that sort of photography. I had no intention of copying those photographers, but by studying their intention, I learned to watch life around me carefully and capture the moments that struck my eye and my heart. But it didn’t work from the start; it was a learning process. But after some time and a lot of trial and error, I saw my work evolve in a particular manner. I found my way of expressing the connection with my subject. To me, my photography has become a way of communication with my subject and also with the viewer.

I enjoy many forms of photography, but I will always concentrate on social documentary work. In my view, street photography is a big part of that social documentary spectrum. By choosing other subjects, I was afraid of losing my inner focus and creativity with regard to the subject that enchants me most of all: human in their habitats.

Tell us about a typical on-the-street portrait session. Do you coach the people you photograph, or do you just let the impromptu session develop?

My photography comes from 60% direct spontaneous encounters with people and 40% from snapshots of moments I see happen or sense are coming; I take my time and let the shutter go when the time comes. There has recently been a slight shift in my work and I see that capturing the moment is becoming more prevalent in my photographs. I notice that my awareness on the street is increasingly sharp, particularly regarding the content of the image.

When addressing people on the street I take off my hat, give them a hand. Or I put my hand on my heart and make a friendly nod (depending on the habits and culture). When travelling abroad, I can communicate in English most of the time, but language is never a barrier; good intentions and friendliness open many doors. My encounters are brief most of the time: I introduce myself and explain what I want to do.

I don’t really coach people. When people consent to being photographed, I ask them to just look at me. This might seem a bit too simple, but from experience, I know when moving the person, or by asking to look in a certain way or to smile it can make people uncomfortable. You can read it from their pose and in their eyes. Mostly I just let them stand or sit as I found them since I have already studied the light and framed my shot. The location mostly determines the composition, and that can be checked quickly on the LCD screen. To avoid certain elements in the composition, I prefer to move around my subject instead of moving him or her around.

Coaching people often destroys a certain open-mindedness in your subject as it leaves little room for spontaneity. I know from experience that their natural pose or a certain gaze in their eyes that made me choose can quickly vanish. If I want to catch that first impression, I have to act quickly.

My method is to let people stand or sit as you found them, and don´t disturb. I almost always take the photo first even if I also want to engage in a conversation, so I sometimes take some time for a chat. A unique life story often adds an extra dimension to the experience, and eventually, I get another opportunity to take more pictures.

People are at the very heart of every town, village, and city and everyone relates to being infinitely human. How do you think street photography influences communication across cultures?

Humans are inquisitive by nature, curious to know about the behaviour of others living in cities, villages, and towns all over the globe, and photography answers questions about people in all corners of the world. Where the drawings of the old explorers who painted a picture of the newly discovered worlds still seemed a fantasy, the first “street” photographers brought a fraction of an unknown reality to our eye. By means of the magic black box, this curiosity about other cultures was awakened. For many decades, photographers have displayed their images of unfamiliar cultures in expositions, lectures, and in newspapers and magazines. Today thousands of images per minute fill the internet. I find it a positive development that photography and consequently, movies, have broadened our view of the world. This disclosure of cultures by means of photography started a process of connecting people on a mental level. Photographs of the past and present also inspire people.

Nothing human is alien to us, so we’re able to recognize the emotions of others. This recognition can be strong in pictures because they are considered as a representation of reality. For example, humour in a photograph is a universal language; a humorous situation is clearly recognizable. Mutual respect comes from recognition, and recognition and respect is an opening to communication.

Besides the registration and communication of facts through images, a street photographer brings his or her own experience to the viewer. I try to convey my empathy for my favourite subjects: men, women, and children. Empathy with the subject appeals to the empathic skills of the viewer and fosters communication between cultures. And the photographer certainly plays a role in this.

How have the people you’ve met and photographed helped you grow as a photographer?

By constantly focusing on people and their actions, you discover an immense spectrum of emotions: a great challenge for a people photographer. The continual trust people I’ve been given by people I’ve photographed has encouraged me tremendously.

Subjects who confide in me make communication possible, which is crucial to achieving a good result. By experiencing this trust from people, I’ve become more self-confident in realizing that I am on the right track to my goal. But I also realize that I should not betray this trust; this awareness makes me humble and respectful. Because people are open and vulnerable with me, they give me a chance to make the images that I want to make, and I am very grateful for that. Trust gives me the chance to keep on digging into what I want to do: photographing all aspects of humankind. Trust is the driving force. The confidence that I get is a beautiful gift that encourages me not only as a photographer but also makes me richer as a human being.

If someone finds that their street images don’t convey an emotion, what would you tell them to improve?

It’s important to cultivate empathy and be aware of your own emotions and motivations so that you can also recognize them in another person or a situation. If this is difficult for you, I urge you to seek peace instead of panicking or shooting at random. Use this rest and peace to immerse yourself into the work of others and analyze the contents of their work, not just the form. Pore over books to see how those you admire make their photos by learning to look at the essence of the image. Try to find out how a photographer has captured emotions; learn to recognize the eye and heart of the photographer. Visit lectures and watch documentaries in which photographers explain their vision, and draw inspiration by listening to their testimony. It can be enlightening; the ear can often catch more than meets the eye. But don’t lose yourself in just imitating form or composition; concentrate on your own intentions and what you want to convey and keep practicing.

What do you think the photographic world needs more of right now?

Today’s hectic flow of images makes me miss peace and calmness. Quiet and ease is necessary for me to understand a topic, and that takes time and focus. I see too many effects being used in photography only for the purpose of drawing attention. The tendency is that if one doesn’t score immediately with a subject or method, they jump onto another topic, some other process, or to another camera. If you’re not expanding into something and exploring possibilities, you can’t grow. It might sound contradictory considering this medium captures slices of reality into split seconds, but photographers should take the time to cultivate calmness to work within that same medium.

But many aim too high too quickly, expecting too much in the short term, only to end up disappointed and frustrated. The camera that was purchased with such enthusiasm ends up sitting idle on a shelf when it becomes clear that contents, depth, emotion, and storytelling aspects complete an image. The development into a passionate and committed photographer is usually a lengthy process; patience and determination are necessary to keep the passion alive.

The massive response to photos on social media is also dangerous. Too many photos are assumed to be good if they get a lot of likes or comments; it often becomes an exchange of compliments for the sake of friendship. I recommend you show your work not only on social media, but also visit portfolio discussions and contact photographers who inspire you. Most of them are pretty open to their fans. This is my experience over the years and I still do it.

Willem Wernsen’s keen interest in people led him into photography 38 years ago. Since then, he has come to know that humankind responds to humankind and that communication is key to making honest photographs—a belief that is evident in his work. Willem searches through cities, villages, streets, alleys, markets and pubs in an ongoing quest for engaging stories to tell with his camera.  

Close Window