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.