Stargardt Vision – Understanding the World

Jan Bölsche, born 1973, works as photographer and author in Berlin, Germany. His photos have been published in newspapers, magazines, travel guides, catalogs and on websites and CD covers. He specializes in capturing the Decisive Moment.
Controlled by a defect gene, the cells of Jan Bölsche’s retina started to slowly fade away in his early adolescence. In an still ongoing process, a growing blurry and nebulous spot in the center of his field of vision covers objects he tries to bring into focus. This medical condition is called “Stargardt’s disease” or Juvenile Macula Degeneration (JMD). His sensation of color is also quite different.
 met him in a cold Greenwich to talk over how he works, and the state of photography now.

 How did you start taking pictures?

I wish someone had told me about photography. I always had a strong interest in the visual arts, but when this eye thing happened to me, I was desperate because I had the feeling, it’s over now. So I focussed on my computer interests.
Then a friend pointed out that a digital camera could be useful to me as a reading aid. Then I discovered it was a good way to read distant street signs and so on. So I would take a picture and read. It became a navigation tool. Which gave me more independence rather than having to ask for help 1000 times a day.

So you began by literally using photography to understand the world… How did you develop?

On Flickr. Flickr is the 2nd ingredient which brought me to photography. Which gave me another reason to leave the house and bring something back.
I had a challenge with a friend on Flickr to get the best picture on a specific subject. We lived far apart but could exchange images and criticisms online. That’s what it’s all about. Finding like-minded people you can learn from.

 And those who aren’t as like-minded?

‘Doesn’t happen very often. Most comments are almost exclusively positive.’

So what about the debate about the continued preference for monochrome?
Some would say the whole BW ‘look’ is merely due to the failings of the medium.

I agree. What I try to do is make something interesting and make a point about something. And so I tend to put emphasis on what I want the viewer to see, and a yellow plastic bag can be a distraction. And so I get rid of it…
Telling a story is what I want to do. Pushing a button that starts a thought process which has an open ending. An image which makes you think about the situation you are in.

How much do you sense the change in personal space, and the need to ask consent? Is there a new relationship between people and photographers when everyone is a photographer? A need to negotiate the space and moment.

How to deal with this dilemma. As a photographer I want to capture a moment which would be destroyed if I asked permission. I Like to run around cities and have to find situations that are special in that they last only a few seconds. Interactions. Might be an advertisement, a person yelling, and in the background a graveyard.

But isn’t a moment of consent just another moment, and as valid?

But the situation I’m interested in – I don’t want them to become aware that they are part of some interesting scenery. Their behaviour would change. At worst, they would start posing. Often it is about non-awareness of them interacting with their background or with someone else. So I can’t really point that out. So if you care for your personal rights You have to tell them afterwards.

The Creuzberg street market shot seems to embody your condition, with the dynamic details swirling round the empty centre.

The woman who looks a bit annoyed, right. It’s an interesting shot because it’s a May 1st street party with lots of people and food stands and she was responsible for this stand creating a bottleneck. What you see is this crowd – a very annoyed crowd because nothing moves because of this food stand. I couldn’t move for half an hour, and so I took the picture.

I’ve been in uncomfortable situations only twice. Once in a car park in Croatia. I took some shots of the car park, out of boredom, with some guys in the background. One of those guys approached me and said.’ Show me your picture, give me your camera.’ He scrolled through and said ‘delete it.’ I didn’t know how to do it, and he was getting more aggressive. There was nobody else there and his friend was coming over.. I got away in the end.

The other time was in Sicily, There were some elderly men on chairs having a discussion, and I took a picture of them. Candid picture, I thought. And one of them saw the camera and was offended and started yelling, I ignored it and he stood up. His friends were yelling. The bus came so we escaped.

If I do candid shots I feel a bit guilty. I’m not really supposed to do that. But then when I start thinking about exhibiting, is there a legal issue. And so I would never publish something which the person would probably not agree to. The least I can do is not make fun of People.

What about the whole digital versus film debate?

People are very opinionated about everything.

This reaction is an effect in all industries which used to be exclusive. Music business, Film industry, book publishers, they are all ranting about technological progress because they are not on the winning side. And the same is true of photographers. I am personally annoyed by this criticism of digital photography by those who insist on the darkroom. If you prefer an outdated and inefficient way of working, sure, do it. But don’t criticise those who are not willing to do the same.

Why is it more creative if you rely on random effects you cannot control? It is less creative in some ways. In the end it is all about different tools for a different medium. Live and let live. We all have our different views on what we call reality. And it’s healthy to accept that we see the world differently. Do any two people mean the same when they say yellow or blue? From that angle there’s no point in saying you manipulated the colour. There is no right and wrong colour.

I never had a big interest in documenting. What I do is more to express what – either telling a made-up story or it is expressing what I experienced in the situation and used every photographic tool that I master to get the point across. And it involves altering the reality.
The field where I is have a lot of dispute is image manipulation. 
I use the pictures I take as a painter would use paint. As raw material, and I would never ever publish this raw material because it is not interesting for me. For example the composition is never like I really want it to be. I never get the camera angle right fist and the horizon is wrong..

The dispute is mostly about colour. No one seems to care if you convert from colour to bw but if you start to shift the white balance to something that does not feel right, to emphasize the certain colours – it’s too ‘easy’.

But the opposite is Instagram, where suddenly everyone is doing the same manipulation because it’s built into the software and that’s what I would oppose, because there is a reason why I do things. Taking the colour out of a shot for me is because the colour does not add anything. It’s about pattern or texture and light and shadow and sometimes the colour is distracting for me, because you might have something very yellow in there that is just wrong.

But commercial manipulation, images of perfection? ‘Consumerist Realism’?

Magazines are are selling a made-up reality to a target market. On the issue of commercial manipulation it is important that people realise that by only seeing manipulated photos it’s shifting the balance of what is normal – the effect of that might be that the image of yourself is altered because you are way below that standard. And it effects variety too.

They have an interest in selling products, and they create the environment for advertising. And this is meant to be as attractive to as many people as possible. And now it’s too easy. You can even go one step further and create 3D models from software..

This is an educational problem – schools should be teaching that every photo published on a billboard, in a women’s magazine, in a teenage magazine, is a lie.

Can a manipulated image be more ‘real’, or ‘true’ than an unedited one? As in an old family portrait which misrepresents the sitter?

Just because an image came out of a camera doesn’t make it real. You can take 200 images in two minutes which completely distort the personality of the person. Because it was just not the right moment to take the picture.

And this is one of the challenges I face because I can’t see faces and the expression. So when I do portraits, I take 100s of photos. I cannot direct as you did to me, what I can do is set the lights up and take 100’s of photos, and statistically there will be one which feels right.

How do you compose and select?

I just use the same techniques as everyone else only sometimes they completely fail.
Sometimes on the optical viewfinder I see even less than in the real world. This would be different with a very long lens but on a viewfinder sometimes more what I normally do is take a series of shots and review and change the angle.
Focussing is not really a problem for me on the screen compared to the real world. I can magnify the screen making this area which is not responsive to light smaller in relation to the area I want to see.

Which presumably means more emphasis on the context than a star subject? A more general compositional approach?

Only partly true.
I compensate by not focussing what I want to see. A normal person would Just automatically centre on what’s most interesting to you, so you don’t have to adjust your eyes. But what I do is look for criss-cross patterns across what I want to see, left to the centre, and up and down, so I sort of collect the information and once it is in the brain it can be recalled and so the next time I focus the chair, for example, my brain just remembers it and makes up the missing information.
A friend once showed me a portrait of a woman and asked me if was there anything special about it..
‘No, it’s just a portrait of a woman.’ But w
hen I looked at it carefully I could see that the nose was actually terribly distorted. I didn’t see it. I saw a nose because my brain was just making up a nose from the context of the face. Something the brain just does. We all have this blind spot where the optical nerve meets the retina, and all make up the missing information to a certain extent. I’m just doing it on a grand scale.

So the context created the reality?
How do you handle say, dance photography?

My approach to all active scenes is the same as with portraits. I produce raw material to work with and make all the decisions afterwards. I combine and stitch shots. For example ‘Home Sweet Home’. A young girl in a Berlin subway with a few items from a flea market, sitting where people don’t normally stand. I asked if I could take her picture she was happy with that. But later I realised I was not happy with the composition. Because there was not enough context. So I locked the exposure and took lots of pictures of the now empty background. And I stitched them together and had a lot of space to work with and could get the composition I wanted.

About viewpoint in as a tool. What’s your angle on angles? I’ve noticed many photographers seem to only photograph standing to attention.

I use viewpoint to make a visual connection, getting two objects in the same shot, to alter the way you see or perceive the person. To put someone in a heroic pose because that is an interesting statement. This is the same with so many things. People seem to be opposed to doing the obvious thing.

I would say that nothing is wrong which is fun. For me its always about experimenting. Just another experience. On my Flickr stream there are lots of images which are completely over the top when it comes to separation etc. But I like the look.

If you look at the commercial signs I photographed this week, they’re not much to do with reality, and I shot with a very high ISO by accident. That is one of the hardest things, to use the camera interface designed for normal eyes. So I need a magnifying glass to see the menus. That is something makers should address. Accessibility.

‘What camera? For when?

I did not want to bring my DSLR to London because I was warned not to carry it around on the street, and also it’s a heavy burden. I use it in the studio, but when I take it out I wish I hadn’t taken it because it’s just another thing to leave in the pub.
I carry my Canon S95 around. It’s very good in low light, I think. I recommend the Sony TX . The nice thing was the speed of operation. I used it a lot. Not obvious that the camera was turned on.

How do you find London’s disability access post-Paralympics?

It is slightly better than Berlin but still inconsistent. If you’re lucky, you have announcements on the platforms. But you cannot count on it. For example, the lift situation is very bad in Berlin. The city simply doesn’t have money.

How has Berlin changed photographically since you started?

Gentrification.. It’s probably not fair, because if you spend a lot of time in the same place it becomes less interesting. It’s not the fault of the place. A lot more tourists, and the city’s adapting by providing services which are not too interesting..It’s the trend to globalisation.. the nice Turkish restaurant which is now gone, all that. The ruins have been replaced with office buildings..

I’m especially disappointed with Potzdammerplaz. Before the war it used to be a beautiful place. It looked like Paris. They had a one-time chance to create something completely new in the heart of a big city and they completely failed. As a pedestrian its a pain because they have built something that is completely car-centric, so it is very hard to cross the street. Canary Wharf style architecture. So if you are into Architectural Photography it’s fine I suppose, but for as a user of the city it’s a failure. I am annoyed I have to go there to see original undubbed movies. Its the only place. I leave as fast as possible, I just don’t want to be there. A lot of the interesting roughness has been replaced.

You’re a Berlin Boy?

I grew up in the west. Near Hamburg.

I didn’t want to go to Berlin to see The Wall, my parents forced me on a day-trip before 1989. On the way to the bus home, I got a bit separated and a group of punks shouted at us

‘Piss off tourists no-one will miss you!’

I was embarrassed being part of this trip. But then I came back in ’92. The situation was still new and we had a lot of fun. The people just took over the town. There were lot of vacant spaces and they just made their clubs and exhibitions?

How have you found Hackney?

Not really time to judge. A bit like Berlin in its use of industrial buildings. A lot of space, which is unusual. My neighbours here are artists and it seems they can get of living from what they like doing..

Berlin in a sense is like a club. When people ask where I come from I say I am a Berliner. I think the smaller the place is the longer it takes to get accepted. In a city of exiles everyone is the same. It is very suited to let them experiment with their lifestyles, so people are happy to just practice their art. There are not many places you can live without a lot of money.

I’ve been in London for not even a week, and two of my London friends in Berlin tell me they prefer Berlin, but they miss the openness of Londoners. It is perfectly acceptable to have conversations with strangers in pubs. This does not happen so much in Berlin. I was on a railway platform yesterday and ran into this guy who asked me ‘Are you aware there’s a steam train coming into this station?’ And we ended up talking about being disabled.. for 20 minutes. We parted and I got on the train, really happy. And this is something that adds so much pleasure to life. Just random encounters, and an exchange of ideas and points of view.

Jan Bölsche

Jan Bölsche

Abridged Version Reel Rebels Radio


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