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
— 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.