All You Need is Intimacy

Rafael Lafarguez, member and director of the traditional cuban son-band Jubilados Cubaneros (Retired Cubans) fixes his instrument, the traditional “tres” (similar to a guitar) in his house in Santiago de Cuba outskirts. To the right his blind mother. © Sven Creutzmann

Some time ago, my colleague and friend, Sven Creutzmann, wrote an email to a photographer. The photographer had asked about advice on how to approach a project in which the person was photographing people. I thought Sven’s answer was not only good, but gets to the core of what is essential when photographing people when you want to create captivating images. I asked if I could published his advice, and this is it, just slightly adjusted to make it coherent when out of context.

If you want to capture strong and compelling images, you need to have some kind of interest in the subject you are photographing. What I too often see in photos from many photographers is that they miss intimacy. That intimacy you won’t capture without being interested in whom you photograph. So first, invest yourself in the subject. Next step then is to approach the people. That is mandatory, to get close.

While the importance of equipment is usually overestimated, choosing a wrong lens can be harmful to a photographer. Here we are talking people photography and that usually means short lenses. I often see photographers approaching people they want to photograph with a long lens. It makes you feel safe some 10 meters away from people; therefore, you might use a longer lens.

However, for that intimacy, I would leave the long lens at home to begin with. And even though the 24-105 zoom is a nice lens, it has a little disadvantage of having a slight tele, which may tempt you to not get that close in the end.

Much over 90 percent of the photographic process (when talking about photographing people) is not actually taking photos, but to get close to the subject. I once did a story in northern Canada with a guy who was hunting bears with bow & arrows. While you can be some 150 meters away from a bear when shooting with a rifle, you need to be minimum 10 meters close to the bear if you want to hit it well with an arrow. However, that means, that the hunter needs to know exactly the habits of the bear, how it moves, what it was attracted by, what would call its attention. The hunter also needs to be aware of the overall conditions: what about the wind, is it changing, will the bear take my lead? Only if you are a true master in understanding and following all these rules and conditions, you will be able to get close enough, to get the decisive shot.

That is exactly what you have to do with human beings. You will have to spend many hours researching about the work of for instance the train workers, if that is your subject. Approach them by surprising them with you knowledge about their work. That will be your door opener. Spend time with them, watch. And then, take the silly look-into-the-camera-and-smile pictures, that is what they expect of us as photographers. Take pictures of all of them, let them explain their work to you, show interest in details, ask questions, keep taking pictures, optical notes at the beginning.

Then come back and again (maybe bring them some prints), you will see that they will start loosing interest in your camera, you will start blending in, they get used to your camera. That is when you will be making good pictures as you are close to them and as they are not posing for the camera anymore, because they got used to you already.

That is the approach I recommend if you want to capture strong and compelling photos of people. Spend time in this way. It’s about practice. Once you have a positive experience, you will take that to your next photographic mission. It will help you to approach people with the same recipe.

Sven Creutzmann is an award winning, German reportage and documentary photographer based in Cuba. His has been published all over the world in major magazines and publications. Let me add that Sven and I run photo workshops together. This year we plan to organize a photo tour in Nicaragua in the autumn—if corona will let us. Check out his work: Sven Creutzmann.

Vanessa da Silva Nascimento (2nd from L), samba dancer with the Rocinha Samba School, is getting dressed for a rehearsal, with the help of her mother, Silvana da Silva Melo, in the Rocinha favela, on September 11, 2001, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Every year in February, Rio’s samba schools send thousands of dancers and musicians into the Sambadrome to celebrate the annual world famous carnival of Rio de Janeiro. Rocinha is Brazil’s biggest shanty town with a population of an estimated 150,000. © Sven Creutzmann

In the Heart of Cuba

Last autumn the photographer Sven Creutzmann—my good friend and colleague—launched his beautiful book about Havana. It’s a collaboration between him and the writer Bert Hoffmann. Across 320 pages, the two of them share a personal encounter and deep understanding of the Cuban capital, this fascinating city that is beauty and the beast, incarnated.

The book is published in German. It’s called Havanna – Im Herzen Kubas, which translates into Havana—in the Heart of Cuba. The German text may be a disadvantage for most readers of this blog. Nevertheless, Sven’s photos would still make it a book at which anyone interested in Cuba—and photos in general—would want to at least have a look.

Havana is an extraordinary metropolis through which Sven and Bert lead us. Especially Sven’s photos bring us behind the clichés, the façades and the ordinary tourist look of the city, those images we have all too often seen. He takes us into the backyards, into the small streets, into people’s homes. The book also tells us the story of Cuba through Fidel and those who still run the Cuban revolution. Some of the images of the former commander in chief are simply astonishing.

Sven has photographed his adopted home over the last 30 years. His images show an authentic approach beset with passion, of Caribbea, of people and of pure emotions. You can tell Sven is in love with this island. After having finished the book, you understand why he chose Havana as a new home back in the 90’s.

One of my favourite parts of the book is a dialogue between Sven and the Cuban novelist and journalist Leonardo Padura. His is probably one of Cuba’s best-known writers internationally. In this section, Padura comments a handful of Sven’s images. For instance, as he says about one of the photos picturing the balseros, those who fled to the States in 1994: “This photo is the reality. The drama. The gesture and the look of the woman. And this farewell in the picture—that’s the magic of artist, the photographer. What a farewell.”

Every so often Sven comments some of the photos himself. Those testimonies give an insight into the story behind the photographs as well as how Sven thinks as a photographer. There is an immediacy and awareness in his way of seeing and photographing. It shines through in the images, but so too, in every one of those rather brief comments.

My German is not good enough to try to review the writing of Bert Hoofmann. I will only say I have enjoyed it very much. However, I can say with hand on my heart, that Sven’s photos are exceptional. Of course, not every single one to same extent, but generally they show the traces of an inventive, dedicated and extremely proficient photographer. You will not see anything like his photos from Cuba; I am pretty sure about that.

If there is one thing I do not fully approve of in the book, is the use of too many and too small photos. The majority of images are double pages, something that is necessary to grant them full justice. However, when for instance four photos are crammed together on one page, they render small and harder to enjoy. I would have rather edited with a tougher hand so only those images that really shine could be displayed as they deserve. A handful of less strong photos diminish the overall impression. Absolutely unnecessarily.

All the same, Havanna – Im Herzen Kubas is a book I truly recommend even if you are not German speaking. When doing so, I owe it to the readers of the blog to tell that Sven is a good friend of mine. We teach photo workshops together, regularly in Cuba but also in other countries such as Nicaragua later this year.

Unfortunately, Havanna – Im Herzen Kubas is only available from the German branch of Amazon. Nevertheless, click here if you want to go there.

All photos © Sven Creutzmann

Photo Workshop in amazing Cuba

En godt vedlikeholdt amerikaner med sin stolte eier foran fortet El Morro

De trange og pitoreske smugene gjennom gamlebyen

I hjemmet til en gutt og hans hund

Livet går sin langsomme gang i den gamle bydelen

Cuba is a place all photographers fall in love with. I did it myself from the very first time I visit the Caribbean island in 1991. Now, here is a chance to discover this colourful country and its people guided by two photographers who both have vast experience teaching photo workshops and know Cuba in and out. I and my colleague – and friend – Sven Creutzmann, who made Cuba his home since more than 20 years ago, have the pleasure to invite anyone who would love to see and photograph Cuban daily life and experience the country’s rich culture and decaying beauty for an eight days photo workshop in October. We will spend time in the pulsating capital, Havana, and then head out to the beautiful colonial city, Trinidad on the southern shore of the island. The workshop goes from October 7th till October 14th 2013. I can promise you this will be an amazing experience, combining photography with one of the most photogenic places in the world. For more information please have a look at the web site of Blue Hour Photo Workshops.

If Cuba or the time doesn’t fit with your plans, maybe a photo workshop in Bolivia is the thing? I would just like to remind you of this photo workshop which I have mentioned in a previous post, and is also taught by Sven and me. It runs from October 21st to 28th 2013. For more information about this workshop, please have a look here.

Carnival in Rio


Carnival in Rio de Janerio is a feast in colours, culture, passion, music and dance. It’s a lifetime experience for anyone who goes to Rio in February. Particularly for photographers this is an event which will set off the trigger finger and surely result in some amazing picture. Would you want to go? My good friend and colleague Sven Creutzmann is teaching a photo workshop during Carnival in Rio next year. If you are interested in photo workshops, I highly recommend this one. It will run from February 8th to 12th 2013.

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The carnival is the most famous holiday celebration in Rio and there is no better way to learn photography and enjoy the local «Carioca» lifestyle as when the city is embraced by visitors from all over the world, Samba music can be heard from everywhere and crowds of people gather to dance and celebrate Carnival all day and night. The workshop will include sightseeing to Rio’s famous landmarks such as Corcovado, Christ the Redeemer, Sugar Loaf and the well-known beaches such as Copacabana and Ipanema.

For more information, visit Fotomiles website, the organizer of workshop.