Donata Wenders

Interview & Photography by: Mart Engelen

Donata Wenders, Berlin 2018

Donata Wenders, Berlin 2018


An in-depth conversation with Donata Wenders, renowned Berlin-based photographer, about life, inspiration, the extraordinary poetry in her work and her husband, Wim, that reveals how the approach and works of these two gifted artists complement each other as shown in this special issue of #59 Magazine.

Mart Engelen: You studied film and theatre in Berlin and Stuttgart and after that you worked on film productions as a camera assistant and as cinematographer but in 1995 you changed to photography. Why was that?
Donata Wenders: Well, when I worked as a young and passionate cinematographer, I was of course eager to find the most emotional light and the most beautiful frame for every scene. But I wasn’t happy with the amount of compromises I had to make on the film sets and suffered under the time pressure. I was rarely ever finished with the lighting I wanted to find, and I realised this stressful situation was not going to become any better; on the contrary, I always had to be faster and faster with the preparations for the next setup. Another aspect was that at the time I got to know a few other camerawomen, and I realised they had to give up part of their feminine spirit or have relationships with gaffers or other crew members in order to be able to work as Director of Photography. I wasn’t prepared to do that. After each movie I realised that with cinematography I had chosen a craft that was kind of impalpable as something you had been working on for weeks. It was not even existent unless you screened the movie. At the end of the day, I had nothing in my hands at the time except a crummy video cassette or a can with a roll of film in it. We needed equipment, machines and appointments to be able to see anything…
Anyhow, film was fugitive; hard to get a grip on. Like any other art of storytelling, it evokes something inside every viewer’s mind and soul, but it hardly existed in the real world. Even though I still loved cinema for many of its aspects, I realised I loved to work with materials that stay, that have a reality and that I can touch.
For those different reasons I took a chance and picked up a camera in 1995. And to find my own time and my own rhythm on a film set as still photographer was heaven! Also the work afterwards in the darkroom with the chemical processes, printing methods and different papers felt so good. I had just started a new life as a married woman and it all came together wonderfully. I was able to travel with Wim and take pictures wherever we were.
ME: I notice an extraordinary poetry in your pictures. How do you manage to achieve this?
DW: Thank you. (Smiles) Over the years, I became more and more interested in looking behind the surface of what was in front of me, to discover the invisible within the visible. It was increasingly an emotion, an “attitude”, a state of being or an atmosphere that gave me the impulse to lift the camera. Maybe that’s what you perceive as poetry? After all, every poem tries to describe the indescribable. For example, when I photograph someone moving through snow, I try to find the feeling of it more than the reality of that person being cold, or having trouble walking in the deep snow. All of a sudden, the snow becomes a space in which one can express something like nowhere else. And then there’s a mixture of a thought process and an inspiration happening that helps me decide, for example, where I put the focus and where I want to see a clear shape. I often do not know, during a shoot, ifIcaughtagoodimageornot.Igoonandonandon…most of the time thinking I haven’t got it yet. (Sighs) Only when I realise I don’t want to produce anything special anymore, but am ready to receive an image, as a gift, can I count on finding an image that I like afterwards. Every image that I select in the end feels like a gift to me. I mean it. I know I can only find a new image by letting go of all the ideas that I had before, all the concepts or preconceptions. As the image is always right in front of my eyes, I just have to receive it at the right moment and “frame” it. In fact, by allowing the situation, the place and the person to share whatever they want with me, I can listen with my lens and heart in sheer respect, even in adoration. ME: Apart from Wim, what artists have inspired you?
DW: If we talk about photographers, I am most inspired by those masters of the beginning of the last century: Edward Steichen and Alfred Stieglitz. I think I learned the most by studying their works. But my great master is Alberto Giacometti. I saw his sculptures first, when I was about eight years old. I was deeply impressed and knew this art was touching other people’s lives in a beautiful way! I wanted to do this as well one day. I think I was personally shaped by his works. Classical music is another very important element and Bach is probably my favourite musician in the world, while my dear husband Wim is inspired by Rock and Roll and Blues. What a great combination! And last but not least, of course, the creator of the universe with his majestic art of nature and of the human being inspires me the most! What wonders above wonders we can experience! (Smiles) I can watch a blade of grass floating in the wind for hours—if I take the time for it! (Laughs). Just this one little tiny element is beauty in completion. There is this indescribable tenderness and liveliness in nature, driven by a force of love, with a total lack of sentimentality, as it seems, that inspires me and that we are all a part of. Yes.
And then I was, and still am, very influenced by performing artists, dancers and choreographers like Pina Bausch or Ohad Naharin as well as by film makers like Paolo Pasolini or Milos Forman (needless to say, I love the movies of my husband and especially the early ones that formed my path as well)
ME: You told me you are a religious person. Do you believe there is life after death?
DW: Yes, definitely! Life after death is already happening now. I believe the present is part of eternity. And if we live in the now, the life afterwards is present—sounds like a paradox! I believe as well that we will all be very surprised when we enter into the world in another way, after we die. I believe that the things we do now, which are mixed with love, will remain, and all that we do without love, will vanish, will not exist, will have been lived in vain. Does that make sense? It is a bit like going through photographs… lots of trash and a few jewels…(Laughs) I imagine it a bit like that… and hope a few jewels of my lifetime will remain in this and in the other world …. (Smiles)
ME: When do you think photography becomes art?
DW: I would say when the image reflects the world of places or people in a way that is more graceful, more kind, more loving than I have seen it until then… It is art when it reminds me of
being on the path to finding truth. Art is always a state of search for finding truth.
ME: Being together so long as a couple but also as artists, do you and Wim influence each other artistically?
DW: Of course. Most inspiring for me in Wim’s work is his attitude towards places and people. He listens to places and really observes people. He has a true gift to see and photograph the story that a place can tell within one image. His photographs move me, because they are a result of a dialogue and they show a listener, more than someone who wants to make a statement. For me he is an ambassador for places, often forgotten places. Just the way he is as a person is inspiring to me. I hugely respect how he handles ups and downs for example. He taught me that mistakes are very important and should not be despised or judged with contempt. They are part of the process and part of life. This is humbling, and Wim is a humble person. I love to show him a new work and ask him if he likes it or not. If he doesn’t love it, he always has a very good reason why. I trust him, of course! He is always constructive in his criticism, so it is a joy to share anything, unfinished work, too! He is always encouraging. I love that as well.
ME: What is the force in Wim’s photographs you like the most?
DW: Wim sees with the eyes of a painter. He is a modern painter: full of tenderness and clarity. Every place he photographs has a friend in him. And each of his photographs is composed as a painter would do it, with a lot of care and thought, only he does it in seconds! Well, sometimes.
His friendship, especially with strange places, moves me a lot. (Smiles)
ME: Is there one picture you still have to take?
DW: Oh! Soooo many! (Laughs) Right now I am searching for a way to do “minimalistic drawings with light”. I love Paul Klee’s drawings of angels, at the end of his life, that he drew with a single line in which I can see the whole expression of that angel. So beautiful, tender, funny, sweet, innocent… I’d love to find a way to do something like that translated to the photographic, so to speak, draw images with just light and shadows that reflect the essence of a moment, a person or of a state of emotion like joy or sadness, or whatever it may be. I have a long way to go, as I am a slow photographer. (Smiles) But I’ve started on that path, and I am the wife of a man who keeps me busy as well. (Smiles) Which I enjoy a lot.
ME: One day, when it’s all over, how would you like to be remembered?
DW: As someone who gave herself to others by listening well, by lifting them up, by supporting them in their hopes, someone who showed others how much they are loved, how significant they are, needed and wanted in this world and in this life, exactly as they are. Surely not as a heavyweight! (Laughs) As a delightful companion, I want to be remembered as joyful and as someone who gives joy. And with photographs, I hope, that after I have gone, some images will remain to still touch some people, because they remain timeless.
—Copyright 2018 Mart Engelen


In the Snow III, Allgäu 2010

In the Snow III, Allgäu 2010
© Donata Wenders


In the Snow VII, Allgäu 2010

In the Snow VII, Allgäu 2010
© Donata Wenders