Norbert Becke is a documentary photographer whose work show a great respect for the people he is photographing. Through his outstanding photos we can meet different cultures and enviroments from all over the world. Thanks to Yvette Depaepe for conducting the interview.
Briefly tell us about yourself, your hobbies and other jobs, Norbert.
First of all I would like to thank you for inviting me to share my thoughts and images here with you! I live near Heidelberg, Germany. I was born born there and I studied there. One might say I have not gone far, but it's nice to have a place where you feel at home when you travel as much as I do. After studying graphic design and holding a teaching position at a design school I worked as a freelance designer.
Since many years I am the art director and managing partner of an advertising agency, which I founded. But photography was always an essential part of my work as a designer. Ever since my first trip to Africa in 2001, it has become ever more important. Journeys to many African and Asian countries as well as Papua New Guinea followed quickly. Documentary and portrait photography is a passion and I am inspired again and again from my contact with the natives. My photo documentary work was published in various exhibitions and publications. Visual arts, design, photography… I can't image doing other things with my time and I'm really grateful to work in this field.
How has your history and life experiences affected your photography?
I grew up in a pretty humble background. My childhood and youth were shaped by deprivation. Nevertheless I have had a great deal of luck in my life so far. I have a wonderful wife, a fulfilling job and I had the opportunity to travel and meet people from a variety of different cultures. From that perspective, I have experienced many facets of life – good and bad, joy and sadness.
These experiences can help to “read” situations and to deal with difficulties - they are very helpful when working with people. A friendly and respectful behaviour towards strangers is the first duty as well as the acceptance of cultural and religious characteristics. If one behaves accordingly, it will be easier to win the confidence of people.
What first attracted you to photography?
Photography has been an essential part of my graphic design study. At that time I was very often out in the streets with my old analogue Minolta to take pictures of everyday life scenes. I spent many hours in the darkroom to develop the photographs and to get the most from the copies. Street photography and the contact with people had always been fascinating to me and are defining and influencing my work until today.
Can you describe your overall photographic vision.
My images should touch the soul. This is my goal and my photographic vision. You can't reach that with technical skills only. There are no special techniques and no clearly defined steps to be taken to develop this vision, even if I would say, that I developed my photographic technique step by step. The most important point to turn this vision to reality is to respect the feelings of the people, their cultural and religious background. I never see people as a motif only, I see them as human beings.
Why are you so drawn by documentary photography?
As a documentary photographer you continually break new ground. Every country, every person and every situation represents a new challenge. That makes it so fascinating and exciting. To approach and attract people will not work without a healthy dose of self-confidence. But sometimes inhibitions are quite normal, which is a good thing, especially in new and strange environments.
Acting in a fair and respectful manner is essential – in every situation. And every single situation has its most significant moment and that is the moment you should not miss. It is the moment you are looking for all the time and the moment you want to freeze. There's no second chance for this one shot.
What is more important to you, the story behind an image or the technical perfection?Perfection in an image is worth nothing when there's no emotion in it. This sentence is a guide for me and my work.
What generally is your relationship to your subject matter beyond being an observer?
I think as a documentary photographer you have to be far more than just an observer. You don’t see things from a distance, you have to be part of a scene to get an authentic image.
Of course this applies even more in portrait photography. A good portrait is an image of the character of a person – you can’t get that image from an observer perspective, but through direct communication. Eye contact is essential – of course not necessarily on the portrait itself – but in any case prior to the capture.
Some years ago I met a young man in northern Vietnam who complained, that many photographers come to his country and take pictures of him and his compatriots – secretly. In his opinion these portraits are “stolen portraits” and taken without the knowledge and the permission of the people. A sentence that gives me a lot to think about.
What is your most important advice to a beginner in documentary photography and how do you get started?
Of course even a novice has to know about technique and composition, about colours and light. These are the basics and every beginner has to start with this. But probably the most important skill in documentary photography you can’t learn in a photo school or a university: the capability to communicate with other people. So my advice to a potential beginner would be: If this isn’t really your thing – forget it. But if it is, always treat other people with respect and as I already said, don't see them as a motif only, see them as human beings. A smile can open hearts.
Who are your favorite photographers and more importantly, how has your appreciation of their work affected how you approach your own photography?
There are a lot: I absolutely love and admire the work of Steve McCurry and the work of Sebastiao Salgado. Totally different but not less fascinating for me is the work of Eric Lafforgue. In his intense documentary photographs and aesthetic portraits, partially from “exotic” countries like North Korea, he shows his great skills and his artistic virtuosity.
They all are inspiring and major role models for me, but I’m far from comparing myself with their artistic genius.
At 1X I especially appreciate the work of Andre du Plessis and Robert a lot, to name just two of the many talented documentary photographers here..
Is there is any specific photo taken by another photographer that has inspired you a big deal and why?
There are so many excellent photographs and so many excellent photographers. It’s impossible for me to highlight just one of them. But I would like to emphasize the work of Sebastiao Salgado. When my wife gave me his book “Africa”, I was spellbound by these incredibly intense black and white photos. They relentlessly reveal all the facets of life on the dark continent. They show desperation and the cruelty of war. They show the joy for life and hope. Not every capture is a technically perfect one, but they awaken deep emotions – and that is the only thing that matters.
Are there any specific directions that you would like to take your photography in the future or any specific goals that you wish to achieve?
Photography has the power to reach the people and make them more conscious about living conditions in other countries and other cultures. Sometimes it’s not even necessary to use words to tell a whole story - a single look in the face of a child or an elderly person can be enough. My biggest aim is to capture these views with my camera - they can tell so much about life. This is what is so fascinating about documentary or portrait photography and this is exactly what is fascinating me. My specific goal always was to touch people and inspire them to reflect - what more could you expect? And my specific goal in the future is nothing more than that. But I’m still a long way off beeing satisfied with my work. I try to improve every day and to view the excellent work of other photographers here at 1x.com helps me lot to achieve this goal.
Describe your favorite photograph taken by you and why it is special to you?
To be honest, I don’t have one single favorite photograph. Behind every image there’s a story and many of them mean a lot to me. But I would like to particularly emphasize one I captured in 2011, when I traveled to Papua New Guinea to join a big ethnic meeting. Tribal members from all over the country came together to celebrate and sing and dance. These people are deeply rooted in their millennium-old-culture and to portray them was an absolutely exciting experience. I joined them from sunrise to sunset and even spent the nights on the fairground. In these days I took some of my favorite photographs. The portrait of the maybe 14 years old little skeleton warrior is one of them.
Is there anything else you wish to add and what do you think about 1X as a home base for your work?
I joined this platform about one year ago and I never thought, that it could be that helpful for my work. Not only does 1X represent so many excellent photographers, it also provides really useful tips, hints and feedbacks. 1X makes the difference!
Thank you Yvette for inviting me to this interview, it’s been a real pleasure for me.