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Free yourself

Joachim Schmeisser
© + courtesy Joachim Schmeisser

Photographer Joachim Schmeisser presents the series Elephants in Heaven at the gallery IMMAGIS in Munich next 23 November in an exhibition that will be open until 27 January 2018. This work is the result of a very personal journey to the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, the world’s largest and most successful rescue and rehabilitation operation for orphaned elephants. Elephants are hunted and killed for their ivory tusks and that leaves behind several abandoned baby elephants. Joachim Schmeisser has documented the story of these elephants, their guardians, and their daily fight against poachers. In 2012, this project deserved the prestigious Hasselblad Masters Award.

Joachim Schmeisser began his professional career as an advertising photographer working many years for major international companies. Today he combines commercial photography with other more personal projects. His works as a photojournalist led him to Africa and since then that continent has become one of his biggest passions.  

What does art mean to you?

Art means freedom to me. Freedom of thought and creation. I approach things that interest me intuitively and I don’t really think about the art. Art is the part that creates an additional intellectual value. However, this is not my primary goal, but rather the result of an intuitive photographic encounter with a certain theme – in this case, the elephants.

And why did you choose photography?

Photography already fascinated me as a child. I received my first simple camera from my father when I was 12 years old. To decide which specific excerpt or detail of my ‘reality’ should be captured in this small camera frame was an exciting process. This was followed by the processing of the film and working in the darkroom. From total frustration, up to the highest euphoria. This might sound a bit declamatory, but this whole process has something magical to me. After 30 years of working almost solely with mid and large format cameras up to 8x10inch, none of this magic has been lost. Even though nowadays I am mainly working digitally.

What is a good photograph for you?

A good picture is a picture that moves you and touches your soul. It’s that simple.

Whenever my pictures are able to change or even expand an accustomed perception, then I can say that I have made an impact with my photography. This is what I call a good picture. It is not possible to create such an effect only with words, it is something that you must feel.

You work also in commercial photography. Some people use to forget that the main artists in arts history have made their most important works by comission, Velázquez for example. How do you live this dichotomy of creative freedom and comissioned projects?

Early on I already decided to work in commercial photography and still life. I am fascinated by the interplay between a relatively simple product in context together with light and perspective. Everything is possible in the result – from conventional to never seen before. However, in the beginning of the 80s, a photographer was more the ‘implementer’ of the art director’s or advertising agency’s ideas. This means that own ideas and perceptions were either not welcome or counterproductive to the aesthetics of the contractor and their agency.

The real duty of a photographer was therefore to free yourself from this and develop your own style. I required a lot of time to free myself from this commercial chain and realize that the only way is to stay true to yourself and go your own way. Despite it being very difficult and also hurting (financially) sometimes. But then everything is possible and iconic pictures can arise.

The most of your work is black and white. Why?

Colour distracts. BW steers the attention to the composition, the light and the content.

No disturbing colour components. This is what I love about BW.

What do you look for in the wildlife?

Actually, I am not a wildlife photographer and would also not consider myself as one. My pictures have nothing to do with the spectacular wildlife photography of many of my colleagues. I portray these animals just like I would do with a human being, and see them on the same coequal level as I am. I am looking for the nearest possible encounter with them. Every encounter is different and just as fascinating. Elephants are like relicfrom a past time, and if you stand just a few meters from a grown-up elephant bull and look him in the eyes, you feel like you are on another planet. I can only hope that we finally realize what incredible treasures our world has to offer.

Do you think we have lost our connection to nature?

Everything in our world is somehow connected. We cannot run away from this. This is why I think that we simply are not able to lose our connection nature, however, we can ignore and destroy it, which is currently the case, and eventually also destroy ourselves. We could learn so much from nature and the animals. Nevertheless, as long as we see planet earth solely as an exhaustless resource for increasing economic profit, it will certainly be difficult.

Only within the last few years a number of states in our ‘civilized’ world have freed the animal from the status of merely being a ‘thing’ and declared it as a sensitive being. There is nothing more to say to this and it clearly shows on which humane level we are truly standing.

What are the consequences of that lost in our life?

Well, climate change is the most obvious and by now noticeable changes can be seen on a worldwide scale. These changes have dramatic consequences and more will follow.

Are you optimistic in relation to the future of our planet?

In the end, this is a question of political will. At the moment, it does not look very promising. However, there are sparks of hope. Until the end of 2017, the Chinese government wants to ban ivory trade. The USA, the world’s second largest trader of ivory, also wants to introduce similar measures. It is not only about poaching and the destructive exploitation of our nature. By far the biggest challenge of our global civilization is the primary cause of our fundamental problems – our growing population.

You are presenting ‘Elephants in Heaven’. How did you focus this project?

Since 2009, my primary focus has been on the orphan elephants in Kenya. It all began when my son Konstantin began to foster one of the orphan elephants. At a stopover in Nairobi, we visited the small, one year old ‘Kibo’ and had our first contact with the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust. We had the permission to photograph and accompany these young fosterlings and their caretakers into the bush. Immediately we fell in love with these animals and also started a strong collaboration and friendship with the Trust. From the beginning, it was clear that we will support the work of the Trust and use the power of photography to attract as much attention as possible for this project and the fight against poaching. The project has become a matter that is near to my heart and we have been able to give the DSWT a significant amount of support through the sale of pictures, auctions and sponsoring of our partners.

In 2017, the publisher Hendrik teNeues approached me and together we developed the book ‘Elephants in Heaven’. A documentation of the work at the DSWT and the story of the little orphan elephants. From the rescue of the elephants by the trust and the long lasting and loving upbringing with the milk bottle, to the release back into the wild in the TSAVO NATIONAL PARK. After 8-9 years, the once small orphan elephants get a second chance to live their life in freedom.

What have you learned from elephants?

They are the most majestic creatures that I have ever met. Equipped with an astonishing intelligence and incredible social competence. They have an aura that is deeply touching and that you cannot escape. I have witnessed a lot of similarities to our human behaviour and a lot that I have never known before. They have a strong self-awareness, are highly sensitive, communicate via infrasonics and have telepathic abilities.

What are your future projects?

I have been to Kenya in April this year and the work on the pictures from the last two years will still take quite some time. I will definitely continue the project with the DSWT and will try to inspire more people to support this project. Becoming a foster parent for one of the little orphans would already be a huge support that is affordable for everyone and has a great impact. This was also the start of a beautiful friendship for me. We will see what comes next. There is a lot more to discover.

Could you tell us a dream that you’ve had while sleeping?

I’ve already forgotten in the morning ;) 

A selection from the series Elephants in Heaven available here

Exhibition Elephants in Heaven
from 24 November to 27 January 2018
at IMMAGIS gallery, Munich

An interview by Juan Carlos Romero 
Joachim Schmeisser portrait © + courtesy Joachim Schmeisser
All rights reserved