Benjamin Pfau’s unorthodox journey towards discovering photography led to his unique style of bold portraits and the pitch-black poetry of the world he builds. His latest work, Isthmus, sprang from his nebulous drifting through Thailand, where he encountered a cast of fascinating faces and captured uncanny moments that linger. We chatted with him about life in Bangkok, his literary influences and his next ambitious project.
How did you first get into photography?
I took a few detours on my way there, which is a bit of a common thing amongst photographers I noticed. In my early twenties, I moved to Berlin to coach basketball full-time and I thought that was going to be my career. I was obsessed! I remember the only vacation I took in that period was a five-day-trip to Prague (Czech Republic) to watch a tournament there. At some point, however, I lost the love for it. Maybe that’s not true, but you begin to see you have to commit to a certain way of life and I knew it was not for me.
After basketball, I wrote poetry for a year. I bought a bike in Nice (France) and cycled to Barcelona (Spain), I went to Mexico to visit friends. I went to the United States – I was just writing all the time. I was still reading a lot of Beat literature, I discovered Raymond Carver and Shirley Jackson. The idea was to move on to writing short stories. That faded out somehow and when I came back to Berlin, lots of my friends were all of a sudden in film; some people started going to school, others were working on actual sets.
So you got into film as well?
I got the odd film job here and there, mostly working as a production assistant, which meant buying blueberries in the middle of the night and carrying heavy things all the time. I don't know how to put it, but working on a big production feels like building the pyramids, while being on a small production feels like visiting the pyramids, which is probably why I started bringing my camera to set when I was working on student films. That's when I got really excited about taking photos.
Was there a particular image that made you think you wanted to do more of this?
Anna Roznowska, who was studying at the DFFB back then, was making Baby Bitchka, a film about out-of-luck misfits, a young girl and a past-his-prime alcoholic eloping. Romina Kueper, the lead actress, was wearing a bridal dress and she was jumping into a hotel swimming pool. I took a photo where her feet were just about to touch the water, so it looked as if she were walking on the surface. I remember looking at the image later – I remember where I was standing, the smell of the pool… everything! And I had the vague thought that there was something in the process of making pictures that I wanted to explore.
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How did this exploration start?
I started working at Motto Books in Kreuzberg, where I had the chance to look at art and photography publications of all types, from fashion magazines to whacky-bound zines, books ranging from architecture to poetry to heavy art theory. It was all niche, niche, niche names I had never heard of, concepts I never thought of, lots of pretentious crap, but also some real gems. I got excited about the Provoke photographers from Japan – Daido Moriyama, Eikoh Hosoe and so on.
Around that time, I also started getting photo jobs, so I was able to build a theoretical and practical foundation. I wanted to make a book and went to Greece to shoot a project, and I thought I could do something that was based on photojournalism but could push the boundaries a bit. Little did I know, that I had no clue whatsoever. I was taking photos of protests and spent a lot of time in cemeteries. It felt odd and I realized it was not what I wanted to do.
What did you do then?
I took all of my savings and went to Bangkok. That was in early 2017. I wanted to just dedicate myself to doing one thing and discover the themes I actually care about and develop a work practice that suited me. I felt like if I stayed in Berlin, I would always just be working in order to get by because money is always a problem. I knew it was necessary to engage with my surroundings on a deeper level, change my habits and so on. Everything I did to that point was a little half-assed, and that is a waste of time for everyone involved.
How much of the trip was planned and how much was floating?
It was planned floating. I decided to go to a place that I knew very little about. I tried to intentionally go somewhere where I had no definite purpose, no preconceptions and just start shooting – and through shooting lots, find the directions and the themes that drive me. I'm from a small town, and if you are from a small town, you either feel like you always belonged there or that you should have never been there in the first place. When you belong to the latter, you wonder about the conflicting realities of your social surroundings and you will feel alienated from an early age.
At the same time, alienation creates a strong desire for belonging and intimacy. These are the driving conflicts of adolescence and young adulthood, and it seems that I have to cope with them longer than other people. It probably also explains why I am drawn to the early works of many writers, books that are slightly solipsistic, a first-person narrator who has to grasp the reality of their surroundings. I am attracted to their voices, they test your empathy and they become part of you. I think photography can be done in a similar way; in the end, it’s an essay, a poem, and the main benefit from seeing a certain body of work is to absorb the voice, the eyes of that particular photographer.
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You could have travelled anywhere, the world is big. What was it about Bangkok that attracted you?
It was the unknown but it was not exotic. The appeal of the exotic is transitory. The strange eventually becomes normal and mundane as you try to make sense of your surroundings. What I wanted was tabula rasa – just seeing the world with fresh eyes again.
So how did that experience become a book?
It becomes a book once you start editing. You look at thousands of images and you try to stack them together; you build little houses of cards, but they all fall apart. You dig through the debris and you make little footpaths, little trails of interests, and if you are lucky, you will eventually have a book in your hands.
Photography is an exercise in guided attention. It’s my attention in the process of shooting, salvaging and sequencing and, eventually, the viewer's attention once the viewer is confronted with the images. When I started out, I only had vague ideas on why I did the work. Retrospectively, I convinced myself that I projected my hopes and desires into a specific place and made a body of work from that. Hence, the book starts with a quote by Henry Miller about his sentiments on Paris. His Paris was an invention, but it was a world that was very dear to him.
Isthmus features a lot of portraits of trans people. How did you meet them and navigated through this Thai subculture? It can be thin ice as a white, Western, male photographer, and your motives can be misconstrued.
First of all, I think that if you are born a man, you obviously think what would it be like to live the life of a woman/trans/non-binary person at one point or another. I think that if you choose that life, it’s very brave, it’s a very definite decision and I have a lot of respect for that. To know oneself and to do what is best for oneself is not always easy, and they have done it and I think you can see that in the pictures.
When you navigate through a culture that you are unfamiliar with, you try to observe and listen, be polite and, at some point, people come towards you. During that time, I was glued to my camera and pretty soon everyone around you refers to you as ‘the photographer’. I think most of us think photographers are slightly kooky and people tend to be very kind towards kooks.
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Still, some people can misconstruct your motives.
I think motives can be misconstrued when the purpose of your work is questionable. I have no financial and very little political interest in my work – I only care about empathy and poetic force. John Szarkowski used to say that there are two types of photographers: there are ‘window photographers’, and there are ‘mirror photographers’. Some people try to observe the world from behind a window and pretend to objectively document the world that they see in front of their eyes.
Others always end up looking at themselves; they see themselves in their pictures and they know that they see very little. Now, look at someone like Diane Arbus. If you think she’s a window photographer, she’s a horrible person. Why is she showing us these people? Why does she exploit her subjects? If you believe she's a mirror photographer, then it is another thing entirely. Then it is an exercise in empathy.
How long did you end up staying in Bangkok?
Five months the first time, and then another three months the year after.
I imagine the experiences were different. What changed the second time?
You get there and you feel like you know your way around. Both times I stayed in the same place. The house was rented by an American couple. The girl, Abigail, had run a squat in Pittsburgh before. They rented the house from a Thai couple who used to run a restaurant there before. The house was built by the father of one of them and he was a Thai artist focused on Christian art, sculptures and mosaics. It was very bizarre, we had a Mother Mary crowning on the terrace.
We were a group of outcasts sitting there at night, looking at the virgin, the skyscraper silhouettes, passing time drinking and hoping for something to happen. It became a home away from home. But that was something that needed time. So both experiences were quite different even though they happened in very similar environments. Now, when I look back at the photos chronologically, I can sense a shift in there both emotionally and in regard to my interests.
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To go back to Henry Miller briefly, within that quote that you use and generally in his work is this idea of the Lost Generation, people who are incapable of sliding into slots in their own society and so they take root elsewhere. I see a lot of this in your work.
I think many people can relate to the Lost Generation nowadays, even though few of us had to go through similar hardships. We do, however, watch societies being unable to cope with the problems of our time. We choose or are forced to leave the places where we come from and we build communities elsewhere. It is the social reality that I am most familiar with, hence, it finds its way into the photographs.
You’re close to finishing Isthmus, what’s the next project for you?
The most advanced project I have lined-up is based on a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke. It is called Die Insel (The Island) and it’s about island life, destiny, choices, how closed communities cannot foresee what lays ahead of them.
How does that resonate on a personal level for you?
As a child, I spent a lot of time on an island in the North Sea, on the West Coast of Germany. For me, those were happy days, playing on the beach, learning how to swim and ride a bicycle. But I also have some family history there. Things I only learnt about much later in life.
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Any example you can tell us?
One of my aunts was sent there by my grandparents to finish school. She was a bit of a problem child and my grandparents didn’t really know what to do with her. After finishing school, she got pregnant there. She was still a teenager and my grandparents decided it would be best if she married the father of the child. From there, things just spiralled out of control and this interview might not be the right place to go too much into the specifics of it.
That being said, I find it bizarre that we spent our vacations there. My aunt moved back to our hometown and my parents still decided to spend their vacation on that particular island. That place may be the root of my aunt's demise, and here we are strolling along the beach. So what I want to do is to work on my family history, look at family albums and talk to family members and make sense of it all, while also looking at the lives of the people on the island now and use the poem as a vehicle to bring all these elements together. We’ll see if it all works out.
That sounds like a stark contrast to your previous work, which was more of a curious traveller exploring something new to him, trying to make sense of it. This project is more about turning the camera inwards to do some internal investigation. Do you feel like it gets more complicated when dealing with personal family stories?
I think there are some similarities. Both projects centre around a particular place and both deal with our internal projections and hopes. Dealing with family history is a very delicate and tasking exercise, and I want to make sure to handle it with as much care as possible.
What inspires you at the moment?
Last year, I started reading Herta Müller and it left a lasting impression. My great-grandmother is also from a German village in Romania and it is a world that I often tried to imagine but never experienced. She is an astute observer who writes with piercing clarity about the social mechanisms in post-war Romania, about the dictatorship, but also about growing up in this parallel culture of German communities in Romania. It is a world very distant from anything I ever knew, but somehow, it also evokes memories from my own childhood. It makes me think about how we acted as groups in school, what my parents and neighbours wanted from life and the secrets everyone tried to protect.
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