How did you start in street photography?
Too late I’d say… Joking aside, the first time I seriously picked up a camera was around five years ago. I have always been into photography, grew up with the Düsseldorf school etc. But I have been consuming only. A few years ago I took on a job in Frankfurt while my family stayed in Zurich, with me commuting every week. Not a particularly great set-up but a set-up that gave me a lot of time with myself. Well, one night I was reading some stuff by Eric Kim and his praise of the Ricoh GR II. So I gave it a shot.
How did things evolve from there?
At first, it was a real pain. I didn’t know anything about the technical side of photography and had to learn everything from scratch. I remember well me unboxing the GR II and being surprised that it had a fixed focal length. The compact cameras I knew always had a zoom… It is, however, relatively easy to take this hurdle – at least to a level that is okay to shot good pictures. There are probably many things I still need to learn. But once I got over this technical hump, I started dedicating my energy on what really drives me: creating a great photo where subject, light, composition, all the various artistic elements work together. This is a tough journey, especially when you shoot something – really the best you can do – and it looks good to you but, at the same time, you know it is not great, if you’re really honest with yourself. And when you go back to some older work, particularly from your formative years, it is amazing how crappy it looks. At the same time, it is so gratifying to see how I have developed since then. It is not so different now: my photography looks okay to me but I am certainly not at a point where I am creating something unique. Still, I am trying to add a bit every day and am much more deliberate about how I learn, for example I spent much more time reading photography books than I did initially. As long as Matt Stuart keeps presenting great books on Instagram I’ll keep cracking on with this.
You mentioned that you live in Frankfurt and Zurich. How does this influence your work?
Frankfurt and Zurich actually have a lot of things in common: they are affluent cities, financial services are strong, both have a very long merchant tradition and manufacturing used to be big but has significantly declined, both have a sizable migrant population etc. But to me the big difference is that Frankfurt was mostly destroyed in the war and rebuilt afterwards.This still shapes how the city looks today. It is a big mix – and you’re free to call it mess – of architectural styles, shapes, material that is being used. Plus, the city and the people living there have something pretentious – and, to be clear, I mean this purely descriptive. As I mentioned before, it was in Frankfurt where I picked up photography. So, that was my home turf and I learnt to work with this very heterogenous mix. Which is actually quite fun as it gives you so many opportunities to explore new avenues. What is painful, though, is that Frankfurt is built around cars, again a legacy of the war. There are so many big roads where you see no people or have no room to shoot. And cars are parking everywhere. They are mostly background clutter you don’t want in street and need to work around.
And what about Zurich?
Since the pandemic hit, I have been working from home and have spent most of my time in Zurich with my family. This was really the first time I spent a lot of time shooting in the streets of Zurich. I have been living here for twenty years and know the city inside out. But looking at is as a photographer is something different. The inner city is a very uniform and consistent urban area. Unlike Frankfurt, it has been a few centuries that the last military conflict or a big fire hit the city and destroyed it. This was a real struggle for me as everything started to look the same. Over the summer, I experimented a lot with negative space and basically blacked out my issue. What I am doing now is systematically exploring all parts of the city. I got myself an architecture guide that features 1,000 plus buildings and I trying to visit all of them this year. This is tremendously helpful, when you go close to the buildings, you automatically discover things, people, scenes that are there for you to shoot and which you don’t discover when you always go to the same places. Last weekend, I was in Altstetten, crossing over the A3. Boy, there is so much to see and shoot there, I wouldn’t have imagined in my wildest dreams.
You mention the pandemic which creates challenges for all of us at many different levels. How has the pandemic affect you personally?
The first lockdown in spring was very tough indeed as I completely hit the pause button on photography. But ever since things have been fine. In Zurich, restaurants are closed right now but shops are still open so that there are enough people around to work with. I can imaging things are different when you’re going close and faces are an important part of what you do. I look at shapes rather than individual face and it doesn’t really matter if somebody wears a mask or not.Personally, I feel relatively safe working in the street – as long as I stay away from the Bahnhofsstrasse on a pre-Christmas Saturday afternoon. I was a bit crazy how crowded it was.
If you were to give advice to somebody just starting out in street photography, what would you say to her?
Go out, practice a lot, and shoot as diversely as you possibly can. What I do from time to time is to go out and focus on one theme and one theme only, ignoring everything else. This can be anything and it doesn’t really matter what it is: photographs from above, shopping bags people carry, people through shop windows etc. It helps me to sharpen my senses and teaches me a lot about photography. When you shoot from above, for example, you need to find an “above” to start with. If it turns out that the place is crappy, which is not very unusual, work with it and try to make sense out of it so that you come home with a good shot.
The other thing I would say is that in my view it pays off big time to build a small library of photo books, spend a lot of time with them, analyze why a photograph you like works and think about how you could create something similar next time your out in the street. I mentioned Matt Stuart before. He is a great place to start. It will take no more than a few days to look at one of Matt’s books and say to yourself: “This is brilliant, I need to have it!” Let’s talk about street photography in Switzerland specifically. Where do you see street photography in Switzerland compared to other countries?
We’re probably punching below our weight today. Switzerland has a very long and strong history of street photography and adjacent documentary photography. There are the two stellar figures, Robert Frank and René Burri, of course. Next to them, however, there are some photographers who have produced great work, such as Gotthard Schuh or Werner Bischof. In addition, Winterthur is home to the Fotostiftung Schweiz and the Fotomuseum, two important photography collections and museums that are visible not only in Switzerland.In contemporary street photography, there are obviously some well known names like Jens Krauer and quite a few people who create great work but have less reach. I might be wrong but the scene seems to me to be relatively fragmented though. From what I can see there are some pockets of collaboration but it is by far not as close and deep as the collaboration you see in Germany for example. In addition, Swiss street photography is not particularly visible internationally.Against this backdrop, getting the swissstreetcollective off the ground is such an important step to move things forward. I am fully on board when you call street photography “an art form preferably executed in solitude.” Beyond that, however, I believe there is a great potential in connecting us photographers more closely. At the end of the day, many of us are amateurs who have a day job and are self-taught photographers. Talking to others, learning from others is so important.
… getting the swissstreetcollective off the ground is such an important step to move things forward. I am fully on board when you call street photography “an artform preferably executed in solitude.” Beyond that, however, I believe there is a great potential in connecting us photographers more closely.
We as photographers love gear, and probably overemphasize it a little too much at times. But one area that always interest me is the following: what focal length do you use (in full frame format terms)? Well, you may have noticed that gear and the technical side of photography is not what gets me excited. My camera needs to be versatile and strong in every aspect, not a one-trick pony. Right now, I only use my Fuji X100V and I love it. So, to answer your question: it’s the classical 35mm and that works for me. My recent work has been at the crossroads of people, light and architecture. You don’t need to get overly close for this, 35 mm works just fine.
Do you have any travel plans (once the pandemic is under control)?
Well, it is not a plan yet. One thing, I guess, a lot of us learnt during the pandemic is that we can do our day job from any place in the world. I would like to occasionally work from abroad, in sense that you spend a week in city, work from there and are out in the streets shooting in the early morning, in the evening or at night. There are so many great towns in Italy, France and Germany which are just a few hours train ride from Zurich. I could imagine that this is something that works well for me as I am not somebody who merges into a new place quickly. I need some time to feel the rhythm of a place, understand what people do in the public space, find promising locations etc. I like having the opportunity to come back the next day.
Thanks for taking the time to speak with me, Sascha!
Thanks so much for having me, Daniel, it has been a pleasure talking to you.
Sascha Zeitz on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/streets.and.stories/
Interview conducted by Daniel Sigg