I've known of Matthias Winkel's work for a few years now, following his blog A Picture of Brandon, as well as Them Bridges, a project of his documenting hundreds of bridges in Hamburg, Germany. Matthias, armed with a Hasselblad 500CM, began posting bits and pieces from a series he was working on that focused on the tattoos of the people he worked with as a social worker at a homeless shelter in Hamburg. Only seeing a small fraction of the series, I was very curious of the background of how it came about. As a photographer myself, one of the things I admire most of others is the ability to enter into the world of strangers and document their story in a personal way.
We're excited to have a photographer as skilled as Matthias be the first interview for Cadillac Ranch Dressing.
All photos by Matthias Winkel
Interview by Josh Sinn
Where were you born and where do you currently reside?
I was born in the period of martial law in Gdansk, Poland in 1982. My parents and I managed to escape the communist system and ended up in Stuttgart, Germany in 1988. After finishing my social work studies in Erfurt, I moved to Hamburg in 2011. So yeah, Hamburg is my base now; a lovely city that everybody should check out on a visit to Germany.
When did you first pick up a camera?
My parents had this old Zenit TTL that got into my hands when I was 17 or 18. No light meter, no nothing. Thought I was good enough to be an awesome skateboard photographer, until I realized that magazines were talking about weird stuff like Hasselblads, Pocket Wizards and X-Sync. Made sure to buy myself a Canon EOS 5 and fisheye after a while.
Do you have any formal education in photography?
Not really. I had a two-day darkroom class and went to a photo club at university, where everybody shot macros of flowers and shit. After graduating from high school, I did some civil service, with the plan to start looking out for a 3-year education program as a photographer - in the end, I didn't even apply. Part of the decision was some advice from a 95-year-old woman who had to go through the struggle of being one of Josef Mengeles’ patients in Auschwitz. She told me to leave the passion a passion and do something solid. I listened to her. To this day, I'm a self-taught photographer who learned everything on film.
I’ve always noticed that photographers who are also skateboarders seem to have a different view of their environment and the people around them. As a skater, do you think skating has changed your work at all? If so, how?
A friend of mine once said, "There is no need to be a studied person to be a creative director. Just tell a skateboarder to do the job because he knows what would work". He made a good point, in my opinion.
(Inner city) street skaters get a very subtle education in many aesthetic fields. After making it through the first phase of learning how to push and ollie, you start to try to make it good look - fluent, fast, effortless. The stylish movements make you a dancer. Then you realize how people dress. You figure all out about shoes and different clothing styles - you're on the way to becoming the new Hedi Slimane. When you're hitting the streets, you're constantly looking for new spots. You spot a certain building from 3 miles away and you get an instant feeling how the outside terrain might look like - congrats Mr. Architect! Pro skateboarders will show you their skills in videos and you'll love it so much that you end up watching about two hours of footage a day. Your friend Peter borrows daddy’s camera to follow your hero’s path. After filming, you'll check out this rap music that Gino used for his edit. By now, you could easily direct, film and edit the latest Wu-Tang music video. After spending 6 Euros for a skate mag, you spend hours and hours studying it in school. The ads, photos, graphic design, writing, printing... you get the deal by now. Many aspects can be added and it's not as easy as it sounds, but you get the point.
"Just tell a skateboarder to do the job because he knows what would work."
There’s no way you can't end up being an aesthetic person when you're skating. Without skateboarding I wouldn't have picked up a camera and my eye for good-looking things would have been blind. You can also see this from another point of view: to this day, I try to get to know my environment the best as I can, because it's in a skater’s nature. Taking long bike rides and walks through the city is important for me. Constantly looking out for new spots to skate and take pictures. Just being curious in what's going on next to you and using it for something that's fun.
At what point did you realize photography was something more than a fun little hobby?
At some point, I got asked to be a part of a magazine project including having my first exhibition. That shit felt good. From there, it was a constant process; I had some more shows and some pictures published. I think I could put more stuff out, but I hate asking people for anything and I'm a lazy bitch. Considering my current situation, I could make something out of it, but I'm not feeling it. My job gives me the freedom to have both aspects combined without pushing any pressure on photography. We'll see where it goes.
You interned at a shelter for asylum seekers in Antwerp, Belgium for a while. Elaborate on your time there and how you were able to combine your photography with your experiences.
At that time, I was at a low point of my life so I made sure to escape 1000 kilometers away to a place where I've never been and where I can focus on myself. Since it was winter and I didn't know any other people, I made sure to go out shooting pictures every time I could. The public library had always extended hours, so I'd spend hours and hours studying photo books. I came across modern Dutch conceptual photography a good amount of times, felt inspired what people would do at Rietveld and tried it out at the place I worked and out on the field. At that time, I was inspired by everything. Plastic bags, buying beers at night and the situation of the asylum seekers all ended up being series, all with different aesthetics and concepts. That was great. Kinda bummed that I had leave, because that place really got me pushed.
Currently working as a social worker in Hamburg, you’ve begun a series focusing on the tattoos of the people you work with. Explain your process in how you’ve approached your subjects and what you hope to gain with the project.
It's a shelter for homeless people I work at right now. People have a room that they share with another person and can stay basically forever, preventing them from sleeping on the street. Lot's of people with drug problems and mental issues. So basically, I try to combine my work with photography, considering it as a pedagogic tool. People love to get their picture taken because there is somebody in front of them with this heavy, old camera and a giant tripod. It's rare that anybody in their life made such an effort because they're interesting person. They also get a print afterwards that they can be proud of- a beautiful picture of themselves.
"There's a huge amount of interesting stuff that people have on their skin."
Anyway, there was this guy who grew up in Kazakhstan, but came to Germany with his family as a 18-year-old. He had German heritage and got a passport pretty quick, but everything went wrong with him from that point. He had lot's of trouble: no job, his first experiences with heavy drugs and jail. No social worker would talk to him, because he scared the shit out of everybody. One day he noticed that I was tattoed and soon enough, we started talking about his tattoos that he got in Russian prison and whatnot. This was basically the key to him. I was the first person with a governmental order that loved his tattoos and didn't judge him as a criminal or a dangerous person. So I asked him for a picture and he was cool with it- you can see through his expressions that he's quiet uncomfortable though. These pictures would have been really hard to make if I'd been a photographer from the outside. These people don't trust strangers.
That’s how it started. Now there are a couple of prints hanging in my office and it's basically a gallery for the people who live there. It's always a good topic to talk about because it's so different. At one point I'll publish a book. Could be in two or in 15 years… who knows. There's a huge amount of interesting stuff that people have on their skin.
What influences you to continue taking photographs?
It's hard to explain that without being cheesy. I consider myself as a person with a creative mind and I'm constantly daydreaming about things. The problem is that I can't make these ideas real. For example, if I'm thinking about skateboarding, it's mostly fantasies about tricks I would love to do. Switch crooked grinding 18-stair rails that I’ve known since I was a kid. There's just no way that I can do it, it's pathetic. Never did a handrail trick in my life and never will. I have lot's of these fantasies about other stuff like art, politics, sports. I’ve only found one medium that comes close to fulfilling those fantasies and that's photography. I'll never be a professional football player, but I can just think about a series or a picture with a certain look and just do it. It's easy for me. I know what to do. The other aspect is: It's a fun thing to do.
"These people don't trust strangers."
Do you have any projects planned for the future? Yes, but I have to figure things out - some stuff at work, some stuff that happens on the street. Last year, I had this bridge project going on, but I quit after 300-400 bridges. Maybe I'll continue it at some point. We'll see.
To see more of Matthias' work, please visit: