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Greif Alumni: Q&A with Anna Thiele


We periodically invite our alumni, artists we have featured in the past, to share their new work and projects with us. Anna Thiele’s photograph Real World won the Julia Margaret Cameron Award for Women Photographers 2023 in the Professional Section/Single Images. Her work was featured in two of our past Guest Rooms: “The Meanwhile”, curated by David Campany & Taous Dahmani and “Wild Loneliness”, curated by Kathrin Schönegg & Kateryna Radchenko. In her artistic practice, Thiele takes a deep look at urban transformations. In doing this, she is particularly drawn to public spaces where urban and social visions find their expression. In 2020, her first book "Tempelhof. Metamorphosis" was published by DISTANZ and awarded the German Photobook Prize in Silver. A set of images from this work is part of the collection of the Deutsches Architekturmuseum in Frankfurt am Main. Increasingly, she also works on more associative projects dedicated to existential themes such as the fragility of life or isolation. Both of these fields of work cross-fertilise each other and are infused with her graphic signature, a certain calmness as well as poetic overtones. Thiele lives in Berlin where she was a master student with the German photographer and professor Arno Fischer at the renowned Ostkreuzschule für Fotografie.

Der Greif: Hi Anna! Firstly, congratulations for winning the Julia Margaret Cameron Award for Women Photographers 2023 prize! Could you tell us more about what's behind the image “Real World”?

I took this picture in 2011 in Berlin's government district. In this area I did photograph quite intensively for some years. I was attracted by this direct encounter between the architectures of power and the ordinary citizens as everyone can just go there. 30 years back that was totally different: before the German reunification there was nothing, just a huge martial fallow land right here in the heart of the city, full of barbed wire, border fortifications – the so-called "death strip". So it really is a place of transformation.

But my actual love for this image is basically detached from this particular place. For me, it's also a metaphor for human life, for its complexity, for the sometimes convoluted paths we tiny humans try to find our way along. Moreover, there is this simultaneity in it, meanwhile, which perhaps particularly characterises life in a big city. And then, I must confess, I also like these details, like the incredibly large bird shit in the upper part of the picture paired with these delicate pink clouds.

Der Greif: How much would you say winning a prize influences an artist’s work according to your experience?

I think the most important effect is the visibility which can be pushed significantly by winning a competition. I can make people aware of my work, especially on an international level. Yet, my nomination as "Woman Photographer of the Year" at the Julia Margaret Cameron Award 2023 is still quite fresh and my experience in winning such a big international competition so far is rather limited. The award exhibition will take place in April 2024 at Fotonostrum Gallery in Barcelona, plus a portfolio in Fotonostrum Magazine. So, I can tell you more next year.

When I think about the influence on my content, i.e. my creative work as such, I would say that winning an award has no direct influence on that. I don't produce anything for a competition and the choice of my themes is not based on what is currently in vogue. My pictures and projects arise only from my inner impulses. When you receive appreciation for that from international experts, as I did last year already with shortlist nominations at the Belfast Photo Festival and also at the Athens Photo Festival, that is real encouragement on your own path.

In a certain way, I see a direct influence of competitions on my work, but quite independent of whether the jury selects or eliminates my pictures: Every competition entry is an occasion to deal with my material, to look at it from different angles and to ask myself again and again what the core of my photography is, in terms of content and also visually. I find that very enriching!

Der Greif: Your overall practice gravitates around the topic of urban transformation. Where does your interest in it stem from? How has your research developed especially during and after the pandemic-related lockdowns?

I have always been interested in cities and architecture. I have been living in Berlin since 1994 and the city has changed dramatically in that period of time. But I guess, as a photographer, my interest comes from a bit of a different angle: places of transformation are usually emblematic of social trends. Visions find their expression in them. I'm interested in how these show up in real life. What do they do to people? How do people settle into those public environments? How do they deal with these structures they have created themselves? In such visions, the planning staff often thinks big, the world of tomorrow is to be shaped. This creates constellations to which I feel particularly drawn – whether in Berlin's government district, on Tempelhof Field, which is now also called a "Space Lab", among other things, or in my new book project, devoted to a failed urban utopia in form of a Brutalism colossus from the 1970s.

The Corona restrictions didn't hit me as hard as some other photographers. By some lucky coincidence, I was able to publish my first book "Tempelhof. Metamorphosis" in the middle of the first wave of the 2020 pandemic. Shortly before the outbreak of the pandemic, I had a meeting with the publishing director of DISTANZ, who, to my great delight, signalled his interest in publishing my book. I then worked through the first lockdown, so to speak, because we wanted to release the book in June 2020, close to the 10th anniversary of the opening of Tempelhof Field to the public. The ordered paper arrived from Italy just in time, and fortunately we were allowed to access the printing house to accompany the printing process. However, the pandemic did prevent me from presenting my book more extensively in public, which I regret very much. Otherwise, not so much has changed in the way I work. Some things have even become easier through or after the pandemic, because digital collaboration has become much more natural. Now I can take part in a portfolio review in Asia without leaving my desk.

Der Greif: Could you share your insights on isolation and how urban environments nurture it?

Yes, isolation is a recurring theme in my photography and I think it's a quite complex one. To be honest, I find it much easier to express myself on this with my pictures, but I'll give it a try ... First of all, for me, isolation as a term is not the intentional retreat that we sometimes really need in order to get back to ourselves. For me, it is a forced state. We all desire a feeling of security and being connected to other people. For me, isolation is ultimately any deviation from this desired state.

The most tangible isolation is certainly the physical one, as it became a collective experience during the lockdowns and brought the whole issue of isolation and loneliness into sharp focus. But it is omnipresent at any time, we just overlook it as good as we can. There are quite a few people who live a very secluded life, just because age, illness or disability keep them away from a dynamic, contact-rich life. I experienced this first hand after being injured in an accident. A second layer of isolation for me is the feeling of isolation within relationships. I think everyone is familiar with that, be it in a partnership or in friendships, where we feel sometimes temporarily, sometimes increasingly disconnected with the other person. And finally, I also see a kind of universalistic level in this topic: at the end of the day, we are all separated from each other, just physically and if you consider that communication is always a kind of pinhole. Certainly, a not so small part of what we do is triggered by the desire to overcome this separateness again and again.

As far as isolation in an urban environment is concerned, I find it difficult to resume quite clearly. Of course, the risk of getting lonely is much higher in a big city, as you can just dive down within this anonymity. In big cities, people live more next to each other than with each other. On the other hand, you have so much more opportunities to find people with similar interests and to get in touch with them, especially if you are not part of the mainstream. But what I can say as a photographer is that the isolation of people – on whatever level – becomes more visible in the city. The dimensionality of the urban settings makes people seem small, almost as if they are more exposed to fate. I think that is one of the reasons why I photograph so much in the city.

Der Greif: What’s your creative process like? And what’s the importance of “planning” in conceiving a new series?

Primarily, I work in a very intuitive mode. I'm drawn to certain motifs and then I just have to take pictures. My projects evolve over longer periods of time and quite often I recognise my motivation behind it much later. You could almost say that the themes find me rather than the other way round. Planning and also reflecting then usually come into play for specific occasions, like exhibitions or competitions. I find it very demanding to find appropriate series titles and to write the project texts, but it also helps me to understand and to grasp what I am actually doing. To me, it's important to then switch off the head again and to get back into this kind of empty state for the actual creative work. As a result of this intuitive approach, I think there is always a connection to my personal background, my experiences and my feelings in all my projects.

Perhaps planning will play a bigger role in some of my future projects, because I'm tempted to do something more in the direction of installations. In 2021 I had my first exhibition in a public urban space – "Fragments of Now", a free-associative project about transience, silence and loneliness. The special thing was that the pictures were shown on three advertising pillars that were placed close to each other. Planning this installation was a particular pleasure for me, as the pictures interrelate more than in a room and the overall object as such should also have a certain design quality. That gave me an appetite for more. I'm still very much at the beginning, but planning probably plays a greater role in the conception of such kind of works.

Der Greif: Actually, what’s your take on contemporary art photography market necessity of photographic series rather than single art pieces? It seems like narrativity can only be reached through a set of images to the detriment of photographic artworks that are conceived as single pictures.

Well, I have to say that I wouldn't necessarily call myself a market expert. But the question of narrativity with series versus single images is something that keeps preoccupying me. And you can see in exhibitions that more complex forms of presentation are increasing where the pictures don't just hang next to each other in a row. Basically, I find storytelling in series appealing because it supports a higher complexity and multi-layeredness. Doing that in book form gives you even more creative freedom, which is why I really like making books. On the other hand, I sometimes ask myself whether it always has to be a comprehensive series. Whether I can or shouldn't escape this tendency with some of my works. This is a question I ask myself, for example, with my two pictures "The Revolution", which are again about segregation and this "Meanwhile". Did I actually tell everything I wanted to tell with this mini-series of only two photographs? Does it reach the viewer enough? At the moment I think, yes, I'll leave it like this. But who knows, in a few years I might see things differently again.

Der Greif: Lastly, is there anything exciting coming up you’d like to share with our community?

Among the projects I'm currently working on, my new book "Home of the Birds" about the mentioned Brutalism colossus from the 1970s is the most mature. I hope to publish it in 2024.