In conversation with Juan Aristidez Otamendiz and Maren Schmitt

“I consider my work fiction. I am seeking maximum authenticity

and emotional charge, which is not to be

equated with reality. Rather, I love to reinterpret reality.

Kirstin Schmitt

Kirstin Schmitt
Kirstin Schmitt is a German documentary filmmaker and photographer who has lived in Berlin and Havana since 2006. Her long-term projects focus on individuals in transition, with recurring topics including faith, premonitions and liminal stages. Schmitt’s work uses environment and intimacy to showcase the strength and vulnerability of her protagonists. Her award-winning photographs and moving-images have been exhibited internationally at art fairs and festivals including Art Basel Miami, Somerset House in London, Dok-Leipzig and SIPF in Singapore. Her work has appeared in solo and collective exhibitions in the USA, Latin America, Asia and Europe and has been published by TimeLightbox, the Guardian, Spiegel, Zeit Online and The Huffington Post.

Born in Havana, Juan Aristidez Otamendiz worked as model and in fashion until he discovered documentary photography. He currently works as photo assistant and local producer for Kirstin Schmitt, is a member of the Sailor’s Yarn collective and is a founding member of Macro, the first Cuban independent photo agency. His documentary and street photography has been exhibited in Cuba and Italy.

Maren Schmitt is a German film producer and founder of the collective Sailor’s Yarn. Schmitt’s travels to Mexico, Brazil and Cuba led her to study film production in Buenos Aires, Argentina. She has produced several short films, which have shown at international film festivals. Her work has received the Argentinian INCAA TV Award and was nominated for the Argentinian film award Condor de Plata 2016.

A fine art documentary series by Kirstin Schmitt, Waiting for the Candymen is a portrait of a Havana in transition, capturing its spirit and people in a moment of tension, waiting each day on a brighter future for their country. Waiting for the Candymen is a long-term, ongoing project, begun in 2014, which has received international acclaim for its thoughtful, intimate style and documentary eye, including a show at Somerset House, London, International Photography Awards and the Sony World Photography Award.

An excerpt from Kirstin Schmitt’s ongoing photographic series Waiting for the Candymen, The New Men is focused on men in Havana, Cuba, who defy gender labels. The series, which is ongoing since 2016, has exhibited internationally as part of Waiting for the Candymen, and won first place at the International Photography Awards in the social cause category, as well as multiple Prix de la Photographie Paris.

Founded by the sisters Kirstin and Maren Schmitt, Sailor’s Yarn is a Berlin and Havana-based collective for film, photography and media art. Members of the collective include the Schmitt sisters, Juan Aristidez Otamendiz and cultural anthropologist PhD Anna Stoffregen, who manages PR.

With a predilection for capturing documentary moments, German filmmaker and photographer Kirstin Schmitt explores her adopted city of Havana with a camera and few scruples about approaching people in a crowd. The images make up her ongoing series Waiting for the Candyman, which captures the colors, shadows, faces and tensions of a Cuba in transformation, whose people are looking to the future while its leaders and infrastructure keep it rooted in the past. In her words, the images are “a study of Cuban idiosyncrasy and an allegory of waiting: waiting for the right moment, waiting for tomorrow, waiting for something or someone who brings redemption.”

The past few years have indicated a sea-change in Cuba. Fidel Castro, symbol of the Communist regime and the country’s leader from 1959 to 2008, died very recently. His brother and Cuba’s current president, Raul Castro, is in the process of normalizing relations with the US, lifting many sanctions and opening the country to American tourism. Cuba is at a precipice: there is still little access to the internet and the state controls most industries, but it’s also bursting at the seams with new opportunity. Schmitt’s images play with this dichotomy, hinting at the concurrent hope and despair of everyday life on the island.

Her series The New Man is an excerpt from Waiting for the Candyman, and focuses on Cuban men transforming themselves into women. The Spanish name for the series, Arroz Con Mango, translates to Rice with Mango, which Schmitt describes as “a typical expression for a sticky situation, something scandalous or a big mess.” The English name for the series references the Marxist-Leninist ideal of creating the “new man” to build a communist society driven by moral rather than material incentives. Together, they confront the stigma and hope in defying labels. Each of the images contains a full spectrum of emotion: the men are alone in the context of daily life, proud yet distracted, caught up in thought, perhaps a bit melancholy. Schmitt has exhibited this work internationally, including at the Somerset House in London, and has won prestigious awards including first place at the International Photography Awards, multiple Prix de la Photographie Paris, Latin American Fotografía 5, and the Sony World Photography Award.

Schmitt and her assistant, Juan Aristidez Otamendiz, call her sister and film producer Maren Schmitt from a park in Cuba, one of the few spaces in the country where WiFi is available to the public. People with smartphones are scattered around them, talking with family in Miami and elsewhere, while children play and older women sell homemade roasted peanuts. Over a spotty connection, the three discuss Waiting for the Candyman, how Schmitt developed her intimate style and what led her to Cuba.

“It is important to quickly build trust
with my subjects… The challenge is for people
to accept my presence without losing
their authenticity. I don’t like posed photos
because a pose is always empty.” 
— Kirstin Schmitt

Juan Aristidez Otamendiz: People always think that the series Waiting for the Candymen is staged. They are surprised when they learn it is a classical documentary project with candid photographs.

Kirstin Schmitt: That happens often.

Maren Schmitt: I guess that comes from your film background and the way you work with natural light and framing.

KS: Documentary film is a great training. There is just one moment, you are able to capture it or you lose it. Recreating the scene is not possible. The technical equipment is slow, so a documentary cinematographer or photographer has to decide quickly without doubts.

MS And you must be a kind of magician with the premonition to sense what might happen next.

KS: Although my work methodology is a classical documentary style (no staging, retouching, manipulation, etc.), I consider it fiction. I am seeking maximum authenticity and emotional charge, which is not to be equated with reality. Rather, I love to reinterpret reality. Right now, I believe that I may come closer to that through a documentary methodology. Documenting facts is not my aim, but becomes a collateral effect.

JOA Can you give me an example?

KS: There is something hysterical in the photo of the young woman in the hospital with the plaster cast. When the woman was sitting at the table, surrounded by people, I imagined a bride in wedding dress who was jilted. But in reality, she had previously fainted because the plaster was tight and she had not eaten anything all day. The doctors put chloroform under her nose, and she recovered. This kind of moment inspires me. Perhaps the audience does not see any of those stories, but something completely different or nothing. This game of subjectivity and intersubjectivity fascinates me.

MS How do you choose your protagonists?

KS: That is intuitive. Coincidence is my most powerful source. Ideas rise out of places, people or topics that cross my path during daily life. At the beginning, I don’t know why someone fascinates me, but they make me want to discover their individual tension. In the course of the process, a psychological leitmotiv crystallizes, and I discover an overarching theme.

JOA Do you know the protagonists?

KS: Some are friends, but most of them are strangers.

JOA Tell me about your methods.

KS: Until now, all of my work is long-term documentary film and photography projects. You can describe my method as participatory observation: I’m not staging. I’m not pushing. I am just here. Patience and rhythm are fundamental. Sometimes I wait hours in a place with architectural or psychosocial tensions until a story pops up. Another time, everything happens within seconds. In the end, time is not a central factor in the creation of a photo, but rhythm and proximity.

MS How would you describe your style?

KS: Someone once called my photographs “new sensuality.” I see my works as platonic, but I don’t have enough distance from the work to tell you about my style.

JOA Your photographs are very intimate.

KS: Often I am quite head-on and close to the protagonists—one to four meters away. Therefore, it is important to quickly build trust with my subjects and become part of the scene. The challenge is for people to accept my presence without losing their authenticity. I don’t like posed photos because a pose is always empty. Usually the approach and agreement are non-verbal at the beginning. It is like a dance. This exchange can only happen mutually: they give me a look into their soul for a few seconds; I give them undivided attention.

JOA Do you remember the first time you experienced this reciprocal photographic exchange?

KS: When you are in tune, you often realize it afterward. But when something is wrong, you know right away. I remember times of suffering because I still had not developed that skill [of approaching people]. It was an absolute nightmare looking at hours and hours of boring video material and photography: people from behind, profiles, far away, long-distance focus. I was too shy to direct the camera straight in someone’s face because of the intimacy. I felt like a criminal. It was fatal!

“Photography is a certain kind of
meditation in motion.
Its immediacy is a great balance
to filmmaking.”
— Kirstin Schmitt

MS How did you overcome this?

KS: Andrea, a filmmaker friend, and I spent a lot of time in crowded places in Havana where people from many countries pass by. We trained ourselves to get closer, bit by bit, every day. After two weeks, we had no problem filming strangers from one meter away. It is all about attitude.

JOA In photography there are three types of proximity: physically, optically and personally. When you are not engaged emotionally, you are lost! And even long focal distance cannot save you. People sense when you lack an honest interest.

KS: When you are sneaking around, people see you as a thief, and they are right. It is not necessary to be far away from your subject to take a natural photo. People also “forget” you and behave authentically when you are close. For me, the best way to make myself invisible is to be present with everybody, take part in the setting and come around with good vibes.

JOA You are a filmmaker. When and why did you start photography?

KS: Making a film is like a marathon—wonderful but often not very healthy. You become a possessed workaholic. An operation and four deaths in my environment forced me to ask myself uncomfortable questions and to modify some things. I began to take a class in contemporary dance at the National Theatre in Havana, which affects me on many levels. Right away, it shows you the boundaries of your body, but with concentration you can overcome these. You release a lot of energy, which also radiates into other areas of life. I guess it is no coincidence that I started photographing in parallel with dance—photography is a certain kind of meditation in motion. Its immediacy is a great balance to filmmaking.

JOA What are topics of your work?

KS: The topics and circumstances of my projects are quite different but with recurring meta-themes, for example liminality, the impact of transitions on the individual and daily-culture.

MS Can you describe the process of creating Waiting For the Candyman?

KS: I finished a long-term series called Pan Con Croqueta, and I wanted to make something new. After working a long time with a snapshot camera, I began using a full-format camera, which I hated at first. A new camera is always a pain in the ass because old habits and image-language do not work anymore. That’s when I knew: Here is the way!

MS Waiting for the Candymen is a long-term project. What motivates you to go out and do it?

KS: Curiosity and a Faustian drive. I love to explore and discover. Between birth and death, besides survival, we kill or use time. There a several ways to use it, some are better than others. Since 2000, I have had no television, and when I watch TV in my parents’ house, I quickly feel bad. TV steals lifetime. It’s a very mean deal because it takes more than it gives and subconsciously creates fear and concern that I did not feel before. Art is different. It gives you a lot more back than you may ever give yourself.

JOA And here in Cuba you have slow internet, if there is a connection.

MS Suddenly you have a lot of time and hunger for images, creation, impulse, movement and stimulation. You go out on the street.

JOA Especially here, art is a very important way to deal with time. The Cuban choreographer George Céspedes reflects: “Europe has a lot more sophisticated art, but just a few people participate. Cuba is the other way around: Art, film, music and dance take part in everyday life and culture. Everybody participates.”

KS: Art carries the soul over chasms proble.

JOA What influenced you growing up in Germany? What is your bond with Latin America?

KS: I was a tomboy, spending every free minute with friends and our ponies in the forest. During childhood and youth we moved every five years, so new beginnings, strangeness and authority problems have been big issues. Nevertheless, I had a very happy childhood because I am self-confident and my parents taught me to transform unpleasant experiences into something positive or productive.

Our dad once worked in Mexico. Our house in Germany was full of Mexican crafts and pottery. Watching slide-projections of prehistoric temples was fascinating. Latin America became for Maren and I a far, mysterious, creepy, beautiful continent.

In the meantime, my mum made me familiar with meditation and painting. When I was in elementary school, she put me into yoga classes and took me to a lot of museums. I was deeply impressed by Marc Chagall, James Ensor and large-scale history paintings with melodramatic scenes.

JOA What is your background?

KS: I studied Central-American studies and ethnology with a focus in visual and urban anthropology. I love theory; nevertheless it became too theoretical at some point. There was a big desire to get more practical. In 2006, I went to Cuba to study documentary film as part of an exchange program with my German film school.

JOA You once told me that you finally woke up artistically in Cuba. Why?

KS: I studied at a very prestigious German film school. Unfortunately, my department was not open-minded; it was reactionary. A professor wanted to kick me out of university because I refused to edit an audio-comment in a documentary film. It was absurd! All my energy was lost in fighting and maintaining instead of developing. In contrast, I found great support in the camera department. In 2006, I came for an exchange at the EICTV (Escuela Internacional de Cine y TV) in Cuba, an international film school founded by [Colombian author] Gabriel García Márquez with people from all over Latin America, Africa and Europe. The school is a creative audio-visual laboratory designed as a self-sufficient community, located in the middle of nowhere between citrus plantations in the Cuban countryside. Over the last 30 years, amazing lectors gave classes, including Isabelle Huppert, Abbas Kiarostami, Rube Goldberg, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Francis Ford Coppola, etc. Here I could develop things that had no space [at my German university]. I am grateful for the artistic formation and the cultural influences that I received and am still receiving—but also for the friction because it sharpens the will.

“TV steals lifetime… It takes more than it gives,
and subconsciously creates fear
and concern that I did not feel before.
Art is different. It gives you a lot more back
than you may ever give yourself.” 
— Kirstin Schmitt

MS That’s the way life is! Kirstin’s plan has always been to go Mexico, and I wanted to go to Cuba. Finally, it happened the other way around.

JOA Who influences you today?

KS: Today, I am particularly inspired by locations and “Lebensgefühlen,” a German concept that does not really have an English translation, [but roughly means an awareness and attitude toward life]. The people and regional discourses of Havana, Cuba and Luanda, Angola have been a strong artistic influence for me during the last 10 years. Yoerlis Brunet, my contemporary dance teacher in Cuba, is very important to me. He is my precious friend, padrino and muse. I guess it’s always people who are tattooing our souls…

JOA What’s your favorite book, film and music right now?

KS: I love Austrian cinema, for example Nordrand by Barbara Albert, Loss Is To Be Expected by Ulrich Seidl or The Castle by Michael Haneke. Also, Three Women by Robert Altman, Twin Peaks by David Lynch, Playtime by Jacques Tati, Memorias del Subdesarrollo by Tomás Gutiérrez Alea and directors Ingmar Bergmann, John Cassavetes, Andrei Tarkowski or the old stuff by Werner Herzog. I am impressed by Horse Money from Pedro Costa or documentaries by two young female filmmakers: Casa Blanca by Aleksandra Maciuszek and Hotel Nueva Isla by Irene Gutiérrez.

For me, music is definitely the queen of all arts. The only thing I really regret is that I have stopped playing piano. I have started to listen to vinyls again instead of tons of gigabytes on the hard disk. I listen to Cymande, Al Jarreau, Gil Scott Heron, Tim Maia, Lee Scratch Perry, Kelvis Oshoa, David Zé, Aziza Mustafa Zadeh, Los Van Van, The Cure, Patti Smith, Pink Floyd. I recently discovered Tycho and love what he’s doing!

On the table next to my bed, you’ll find the books Unterleuten by the German writer Juli Zeh and Uncountry by Yanara Friedland.

MS After the holidays, we will start editing a long-term documentary film called Adelheid, Kornelius & Die Töte.

KS: It was a big a struggle to get the funding for an art-house documentary. Without Maren I would have not succeeded. She is an amazing producer!

MS What does working in our collective, Sailor’s Yarn, mean to you?

KS: Those who want to travel far must go in good company. We are misguided by outdated and incomplete theories, like natural selection: the strongest wins, etc. This guides us in our social and economic life and is dangerous! The way is not competition but cooperation!

Images from Waiting for The Candy Man (2014–present) series and The New Men (2016) excerpt, by Kirstin Schmitt.

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