Interview with GoSee
NEW BERND OTT , PORTRAIT, EDITORIAL & BEAUTY PHOTOGRAPHER, BASED IN BERLIN, PRESENTS HIS GENDER PROJECT 'ALL THE PEOPLE' IN AN ILLUSTRATED BOOK FROM KERBER, AT AN EXHIBITION IN BERLIN AND IN AN INTERVIEW ON GOSEE
We are happy to welcome Bernd Ott as a new GoSee member. The photographer has worked in the areas of editorial, people, music and beauty for years. Along with his commercial photography for clients such as MADELEINE or SCHWAN COSMETICS, Bernd and his partner Emily Besa have also worked for more than two years on 'All the people', a project about our understanding of gender. For which a book has now been published at Kerber Publishing. It presents portraits of people from Amsterdam, Berlin, London, Los Angeles and New York, who define and live gender in their very own way. They understand themselves as "transgender", "gender queer", drag performers, or they feel they don’t fit any of the commonly known definitions.
The publication collects their stories and shows portraits, which correspond with their self-perception. This collection of sensitive and intimate portraits in pictures and words is also the first joint publication of the photographer Bernd Ott and the US author Emily Besa.
Born in 1970, the photographer lived in London since 1998 and now lives in Berlin. After his studies of photography and film design in Dortmund, he worked as assistant in Germany, New York and London, before he began his freelance work in the British capital in the area of music and portrait photography. He photographed for newspapers such as NME, Time Out, as well as Sunday Times Culture and has worked with artists including Monica Bellucci, Michael Fassbender or Moby. Nowadays, the focus of his work is on the areas of fashion and beauty photography.
Together with Emily Besa, you have visited, photographed and interviewed people all over the world. They all share a very personal, individual understanding of gender. What made you choose that subject and how did you find the people you portray?
I really wanted a long-term project, ideally to make a book with people, about people with moving stories and who need a platform. The initial idea for the special subject came from Emily, who, based on personal experiences and friendships had a strong interest in the subject of gender identity. As it turned out, we both have friends who in their lives and creative work are also touched by the issue. So it didn't take long for us to agree and get started with the project. We already had our first participants.
Since participation in this very personal project requires a lot of trust, it was of course very natural that we initially worked with friends. After that, we continued with personal recommendations and people we were introduced to.
After a while, we were able to show some of our photographic material and interviews, which made making contacts much easier. That made it possible to work together with organizations like Mermaids in Great Britain or TransAmsterdam in the Netherlands. Both are great organizations that really supported us.
Was it easy to start a conversation, after all, not all trans-genders are extroverted when it comes to their sexuality, or how did you experience it?
The main issue is not sexuality, but I think it is much more personal and intimate, it is identity, in this case gender identity. Because of the fact that we started with friends, we already had a bond of trust, which was absolutely necessesary.
The experiences cannot be generalized, but we were quite naturally seen critically as a hetero couple. There were several people who had already had negative experiences with the media, books and magazines, and who in the past had felt used and exhibited.
We often had to earn trust first. To do so, it was necessary to have long discussions and to get personally acquainted. During this process, several long-term friendships developed.
One of our participants, Ashily, explained very nicely why she participated. What she liked was, that this book “concentrates on the 99% that we have in common, and not on the one percen that is different and separates us”.
Is there one common element when you think of the 30 people portrayed, some connecting element or something that you remember most?
There are 39 people that are so different, as different as 39 individuals aged 5 to 69 from all over the world can be. I have heard stories that touched and moved me, stories that made me angry, but on the whole a feeling of lust for life remains, something that the participants shared with us and told about, all of them great people, clever and inspiring. The combining element is really the same as with all people. We all have the same needs, worries and dreams, we all want to love and be loved, everyone wants to live their life the way they feel it should be. Without restrictions. The people in this book sometimes had to fight much harder to achieve that goal.”
Normally, a portrait photographer meets his protagonists as a lone wolf. During your project, you worked together with your partner, who also did the interviews. What was the special aspect during the cooperation besides the fact that you could exchange ideas in the evening about the day’s work?
It actually works like a fire accelerant. No, seriously. We had not known each other for very long when we started the project. But you get to know one another very quickly and very well when you spend so many weeks together, 24 hours a day.
We balance each other out well. It helps me to have someone around who can contrast my, let’s say, little character shortcomings. I also think that the atmosphere of trust was good for the photos and discussions, which was naturally also transmitted to third parties.
Did you have stereotyped thinking in your head before you began with the project?
I’m not sure if I'd call them stereotypes, there was more of a naïve ignorance. Having grown up in a small village in Rhineland-Palatinate, I was surely more affected by it than Emily. Even though I had lived in cities like New York and London for many years, and I had many friends who can be said to belong to the LGBTQ community, there is always a bit of a small town boy left.
If we had a somewhat clear-cut goal for this book, it was to break with conventions and categories, to show that stereotype thinking is not sufficient to describe people, or to explain that our lives exist in an indescribable number of shades and characteristics. For me personally, that is the profound lesson I get from this work.
We read that the 'All The People Project' illustrated book was only made possible through the use of social networks?
I would not exactly put it that way. We had a crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter, which however had nothing to do with the travels, accomodation, equipment cost, etc., and most certainly not with our time; it solely served the purpose of absorbing to some extent the costs for the basic book production, for which nowadays the author and artist himself pays. The project as such is completely self-financed.
We are especially grateful to some very generous individuals and also many people who, out of principle, were willing to purchase an unseen, even nonexistent book because they believed in the project. Besides that, Kickstarter was a fantastic medium to make the project available to the public, and for that, the social networks were very helpful. We also used social networks do to research and to communicate like everyone else does.
The two of us are not professionals in social networking and have certainly had to learn the hard way.
On 15 July, Neue Galerie Berlin presents an exhibition about your project. Will all 39 portraits be on display there?
In the book, there are basically several photographs for each story and person, more than 140 all together. We had to adapt to the local circumstances and significantly limit ourselves. Not all participants will be seen in the exhibition. Plus – we want people to buy the book from us ;-).
Further information on the project, including interviews is available under ALLTHEPEOPLE; you can meet Bernd Ott and Emily in person at the Opening on July 15, in Berlin – a signed copy of the book is available that evening or directly via Kerber Verlag.