Francesco Sembolini and Siegfried Hansen are both well-known for their precise and graphical style of street photography. For the second year in a row they’re leading a workshop together, this time in Milan. We discuss the commonalities in their work, their approach to teaching as a duo, the pitfalls of balancing street with personal relationships, and the importance of festivals.
Favourite painting / painter: Le Chirico
Favourite photo book: books by Franco Fontana and Sau Leiter
Favourite photo by Siegfried:
Favourite painting / painter: Lyonel Feininger
Favourite photo book: Colour Correction by Ernst Haas
Favourite photo by Francesco:
1. Hi Siegfried and Francesco, welcome and thank you for agreeing on this double interview. For the introduction, could you tell us something about yourselves and your daily life?
Francesco: I am an Italian professional photographer and I work as street photographer almost full time. I tried to give my contribution to the street photography area, founding one of the street collective, Italian Street Eyes and, later, having the idea to create the first international street photography festival in Italy, the Italian Street Photo Festival. I hope to continue to give my contribution with my photography and I hope it will continue to be appreciated by the public.
Siegfried: I’m a German street photographer based in Hamburg and I’ve been shooting Street Photography for more than 16 years. Being a street photographer is an attitude. It’s about living the moment and taking special photos you like in your environment. My photography has been exhibited in several museums and galleries such as the Photohaus Deichtorhallen in Hamburg and Museo di Roma in Trastevere. Since 2017 I’m the co founder and in the board of editors at the German Street Photography website. I am a teacher, speaker and juror at photo festivals around the world.
2. What was your first image that you liked in a serious way?
Francesco: Probably one of the first taken. Going forward, each of my developments has been characterised by images that I liked in a serious way and each one has had a definitive relevance to arrive at my contemporary photography.
Siegfried: That was a picture in 2002, I just started with street photography. At first, I tried to play with different layers. There was this special situation. I was standing on a bridge and I saw this dragonfly and how it landed on the wire right under the bridge, maybe 2-3 meters away. Back then I photographed on negative film. So I focussed on the dragonfly and saw the line (wire) which disappeared in the background. Then I waited for someone to walk in the scene. It took maybe 30 seconds and then the dragonfly flew away. I personally like this picture because it was the first one, which I felt that I saw the complete finished picture in my head before I took the photo, and that I felt the scene was like a stage. It was all there and I only had to wait for somebody to move in.
3. There are multiple similarities between the work of you two, can you tell us why you decided to do a workshop together?
Francesco: I think there is more than a few similarities in our interpretation of the space around us. Obviously, even if many times some results are similar, the approach, some modalities, equipment and our personal experiences change. For this reason it seemed an excellent idea to offer a workshop to get very graphic and aesthetic results, but also show different paths to get there. We also believe that it is right to offer specific workshops, that deal with the individual genre or style of the authors. Beyond this, our workshops and the photography that characterises them also speaks to users not only interested in street photography.
Siegfried: It is like Francesco said, there are some graphic similarities but the approach equipment and experiences are different. That is at the end a big advantage for the participants of the workshop.
4. What do you regard as the main difference between your photographic approach and style?
Francesco: To simply answer this question, I will better explain the previous one. Probably what makes us similar is trying to make an image using elements that are not naturally related to each other. In doing that we try to obtain a result that has aesthetics and harmony, most of the times rigid and linear. Once the composition is imprinted in the frame, all the elements of the image seem to be put in their perfect place, as if everything were naturally created to be framed by that right centimeter, at that right moment. So, I call that “my world”; nobody can see that world until it is in the frame. The strength of the image and the interest it creates also depends on how banal and unusual the elements used are. For example, in the workshops we make students understand that every single element is a great opportunity for an excellent photo. Once this is said, the differences consist in the different imagination for the use of the similar elements. The result can be always graphic and aesthetic, but the meaning depends on the books we read, the painters we study, the jobs we have done and so on. The variations of photographing two neighbouring walls of different colours are endless, and depend on personal experiences and cultures. The image used in the previous answer is the proof, for Siegfried it is the inspiration after studying an artist (Piet Mondrian), for me it is the research to harmonise the chaos. So, a similar result but with an approach completely different. The different photographic techniques can be other differences, such as the use of blurred as an aesthetic element and meaning. Also the focal lengths we use are usually different and the equipment too.
Siegfried: Like Francesco said, we have a different approach and different gears. I developed a special system in the first 5 years in the street and in the last 15 years I practice this system. I call it pilot: places, influence, layers, objects and themes. It is about special graphic places I am looking for, influence from other artists, layers as the play with fore- and background, and collecting special objects and themes. With this system I got 95% of my top shots. About the gear, I shot in the last 4 years with a Leica Q -28 mm fixed lens.
5. What do you think about the amount of juxtapositions and use of graphical compositions in street photography nowadays, in relation to your own work? Do you try to be one step ahead?
Siegfried: For me is it no problem, it’s one of my main points in my workflow. When I see some interesting pictures, I remember them. After some time I start to play with this new element. But it is not good to look on the internet too much. Very often photographers don’t take photos anymore, because they think it’s been done before and they don’t find new ideas.
Francesco: There are so many graphic photographs nowadays and I look at them with much pleasure because I love looking at photographs. I don’t try to be one step ahead as a competition, I like to take a step forward compared to my previous works. Obviously this is a consequence of my evolution process and self-discovery.
Left: Francesco – Right: Siegfried
6. To what extent does your photographic style resonate with your personal characters?
Siegfried: Interesting question, I don’t think that the character has a big influence on my style. It takes a lot of training to change your perception, which enables you to develop your own style. To understand and play with the composition is also very important.
7. What are you like when you don’t have the camera in your hands, on the streets, with friends or family?
Francesco: You really want to get to know us all the way! Haha. My life has changed a lot over the time and photography has taken different percentages. There were times that photography accompanied me for 30%, 50% of my life and I did different disciplines, studies and sports (some helped me even for photography itself such as archery). For several years things have been different and photography is taking most of my life. I can say that (metaphorically) I always have a camera in my hands or in my eyes. It does not mean that I do not dedicate myself to my wonderful family (I love them and I am very scrupulous for their evolution) or that I do not frequent friends, but even a simple vacation is also chosen based on photography, for example. However, there are other kinds of studies and interests that have been always with me, such as some esoteric philosophies that, over the years, give me keys to interpreting all about my life and my evolution. Anyway, if you want to know my character and my approach to my entire life I can say like in photography: details and little things are very important to improve and to grow up.
Siegfried: Difficult question for a photographer.. sometimes it is strange because the most of the time I am chasing the next motif / picture. If you are trained to scan your environment permanently, it is difficult to come down. You must have an understanding partner. I have the most relaxation when I watch a good movie.
8. How do your partners cope with you when you’re constantly chasing your next picture or basing your vacations on photography? Did your work also influence the way they see the world?
Siegfried: Of course you need a partner who accepts your passion for street photography. During vacations, I always try to find some time slot to take some photos, but at the end, I am always prepared to take a photo. My wife is not interested in taking photos but she helps me a lot to give me the time and space for my photography.
Francesco: As I said, every situation is an opportunity for me to make photographs. In many events I have talked about the sacrifice that my family made (with satisfaction) to get me to make some pictures. In my well-known photo of the road sign (falling rocks) my partner stopped the traffic; in my photo of the truck we were canceling an appointment. For many of my photos they stayed parked on the roadside for quite a while and, often, we had to re-plan the daily schedule because of my photography. I feel lucky in this sense because it allows me to always be able to make pictures. Does my work influence the way they see the world? Certainly, above all of my son. He very often tells me: “Daddy, look at a street photo!”
9. What has been your greatest challenge so far?
Francesco: Honestly, there have been a lot of challenges in my life so far. I cannot measure the importance because they all contribute to my personal growth, perhaps those with less resonance are those that mark the most important growth steps. I did different sports and disciplines so I did so many real challenges, in almost all I had to challenge my character first. Also in photography I challenge my character first of all, trying to find the balance between dreams and rationality, the balance between my photographic evolution and the time I need for it. The Italian Street Photo Festival was a challenge, for example, and it still is. I am working on other projects that, I hope, will materialise soon and these too are a great challenge for me.
Siegfried: There are some highlights in my photographic life. The first: when I realised the big success of the book Street photography Now. To be part of the project in 2010 was amazing, and a milestone for me. The second was to be featured this year in the book Street photography the history in 100 Iconic photos and the the third is to be co founder of the German Street Photography Festival in Hamburg. In private life I am happy that I do now my hobby as profession. That I can offer workshops and coach the students.
10. To wrap it up, you both organised a street photography festival. How did you approach the event and why do you think it’s important?
Siegfried: The first German street festival 2019 is about meeting, talking and connecting. To focus this on one place. There are about almost 10 collectives in Germany, the most of them show up there in Hamburg and a lot of photographers meet each other a first time after they know each other in social media since years. It is important, specially in Germany, to say: look there is a scene of German street photographer artists. The first edition was a great success because the three founders Marco Larousse, Martin U. Waltz and I worked perfectly on the stage and at the background together.
Francesco: Two years ago I thought it was time for Italy to have its own international street photography festival. Lots of passionate Italian street photographers visited and followed festivals abroad (with great enthusiasm) and it was right to have some of the influential contemporary street photographers here too. On the other hand there was a huge audience, equally passionate about street, who didn’t know the contemporary international SP area. I think it was a good idea for everyone. The funny thing is that Siegfried was the first guest contacted for our Italian festival. The 2019 was the second edition in which I, Stefano Mirabella and Alex Liverani transformed Rome into a capital of street photography.
All roads lead to Rome 🙂 Thank you again Francesco and Siegfried!
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