Maximilian Mann (b. 1992) is a German photographer. He holds a BA in photography from the University of Applied Sciences and Arts in Dortmund. His photographs portray and document stories about society, social and ecological chances. He won or were nominated in various awards, latest in chronological order the World Press Photo Award.
Maxilimian is also a founding member of DOCK Collective, a documentaristic team acting upon shared humanistic values.
Hi Max! First of all, welcome to Pellicola.
Documentary photographer from Germany, is that something you dreamed about as a kid, to be a photographer, or something that came up by the time?
I already had an analogue camera as a child and took a lot of pictures during family holidays. Later at school I co-founded newspaper and took many photos. I was always somehow the “photographer“ and at some point it was clear that I was going to continue with photography in the future. Working only at a desk wasn’t an alternative for me, so I decided to study photography. A good decision, because now I have time to work on topics that I think are important and worth telling.
Your research is mostly about social and environmental topics, where travelling seems to be one fundamental element, can you name other two essentials to start photographing? How would you describe your artistic process?
A good pre-research is of course very important. That means reading a lot about the topic, how have scientists, journalists and other artists dealt with it? And of course very practical things like finding translators, where to stay overnight etc.. But then a lot more just happen and you can’t plan it. I think curiosity and the desire to meet new people is a very important part. As much as, the review of the photos in retrospect: which images fit together and tell a story? Which ones don’t fit, content wise or visually? And Why? I think it is fundamental to ask yourself many questions and get a lot of feedback from colleagues. The DOCKS-Collective is very helpful in that way for me.
You received the World Press Photo nominee under the category ‘environment’ for your project Fading Flamingos, that documents the disaster around the lake Urmia, Iran. The lake was once the second largest in the world, now shrunk for the 80% by the agriculture’s high water consumption and by climate change. Why did you decide to document this reality?
I believe the climate crisis is the most important challenge of my generation. As a whole world society we must act. I am firmly convinced that we need as many diverse people as possible to solve the climate crisis. In addition to politicians and scientists, everyone else is also very important. Everyone should do as much as they can within their expertise. And as a photographer I have to take pictures. My hope is to reach people and decision-makers and perhaps make them think about this crisis. Because we humans are visual beings, and pictures can be the first step towards being aware of a problem.
From the first time you visited the area in September 2018, to the last, way more aware of the decline of this land, how much do you think your gaze and images changed?
Very good question. Over time I got to know more people and learned more about everyday life and how they deal with the situation of the lake. Maybe in the end I felt more empathic and this might have affected my view. Many pictures like in the hamam or in private living rooms were taken during the last trip in winter.
The desolate landscape, dried up by the salt winds, and the old ferry ships lying abandoned like stranded whales, become a sort of attraction. The tourism collapsed around the lake Urmia, people now only come to photograph the disaster. Beside the documentary intention, where do you think this attraction to what is falling is from?
Reportage photographers take pictures of environmental catastrophes such as at Lake Urmia to document the changes. So there is a journalistic approach. But why do so many people take selfies with stranded ships or with the salt desert? Maybe there is a certain fascination for disasters and it just looks visually fascinating. I think that the ship in the desert is almost the symbol of the catastrophe. A kind of sightseeing attraction. Maybe it’s a bit like Pisa. Without a Selfie with the “Leaning Tower of Pisa“ you were not really there.
There is an evident contrast between images of uninhabited and empty spaces and images with places of meeting (the teahouse, the hamam, the soccer playground). These two aspects reflect your research around environment and society. Do you agree with that? Did you want them combined since the beginning of your project?
A long-term project always develops visually. In the beginning I didn’t have a visual plan at all, I simply had a deep interest in the subject. I think my feelings and emotions have been incorporated into a visual language. That the visual difference between “inside” and “outside” is quite high, is surely also due to the feeling I had. Because there is an enormous difference between the private, often indoors, and the public. People have less freedom outside, there are many rules. Inside, the freedom is much bigger.
Speaking about the title, the fading flamingos are only one consequence of the disaster lake Urmia has caused, among residents desiccated crops, health issues, villages destroyed, money spread. Why did you choose them to introduce the subject? Do you have a particular affection to this animal?
Right, they are of course much bigger problems than the flamingos. But flamingos are the symbol of the lake. Flamingos are visible everywhere in the area. As statues on traffic islands, in villages and as paintings in restaurants. The number of living flamingos tells a lot about the condition of the lake. And for me the disappearance of the birds is symbolic for the whole catastrophe.
Many other artists developed projects around the lake Urmia, such as Solmaz Daryani, did they influenced your images? Generally speaking, who are your source of inspiration?
Looking at thousands of pictures, photo books and project developments for years, an own authorship develops which of course always refers to other photographers or artists. My fellow human beings shape me enormously. Regarding the concrete example of Lake Urmia, before taking pictures there, I looked at all the projects that have been made about the lake. There are at least 17 different photographers from Iran and abroad who have worked on it. For me, that’s very positive. The more people aware about the problems of the lake, the better. At the same time, of course, each project must have its own authorship. There are sometimes overlaps, such as the ships in the desert. But we have to look at the whole series. And than you will see: they all have an added value and are different with other focus points.
One last question Max, do you think to go back in Iran? Do you have something in mind for a new project that you would like to share with us?
I will definitely go back, but right now I am not planning a new project in Iran. I met a lot of great and inspiring people who I would like to visit again. A friend who helped me a lot is getting married soon and invited me.
Many thanks for this talk with Pellicola! Hope you enjoyed it.
Thank you very much for the good question and your time.
Interview by Claudia Bigongiari
Images © Maximilian Mann