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Five Minutes With: Felix Diemer, documentary photographer

Felix Diemer spent two months working on the 138-meter-long cargo vessel “Sun Discoverer” to photograph 16 Russian-speaking sailors as they sailed from Bremen, his German hometown, along the coast of Portugal, through the Straits of Gibraltar to Libya – and back. His photobook debut, Maybe Maybe: Life and Work on a Container Vessel, was showcased at the London College of Communication’s postgraduate shows in November 2017. Maybe Maybe marks the beginning of the 25-year-old’s foray into “life at sea” documentary.

What do you think will become of books?

Books can be a piece of art themselves. For example, the coffee table books. I don’t think books have become any less important to us photographers at all. It is opposite: for photographers, publishing a book is the aim. It is not necessarily about making money but the book is about the most beautiful presentation of a photography work.

The relevance of the ordinary book has been changed by modern technology. However, this change in the way it is consumed might work to some extent for novels or technical literature but it will never work for photobooks.

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Left: man at work. Diemer had to work alongside the sailors in order to photograph them. Right: Maybe Maybe, showcased at the LCC postgrad shows in 2017, depicts the life of a group of sailors onboard a merchant vessel. Photos: © Felix Diemer

You mentioned Lewis W. Hine’s book Men At Work: Photographic Studies of Modern Men and Machines as your inspiration for Maybe Maybe. How similar is your framing to Hine’s, or did you uncover something totally new on your journey documenting the merchant seamen on that vessel?

Lewis W. Hine was an American society photographer who “wanted to show things that had to be appreciated”. He became famous through his photography based on labour in the 1930’s. For me, his most inspiring book is Men At Work: Photographic Studies of Modern Men and Machines. When I began my research for my latest project, I was reminded of him but I did not initially look any deeper into this kind of work.

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Through Men at Work: Photographic Studies of Modern Men and Machines, the sociologist Lewis Hine documents labour in the 1930’s in the US as a “tool for social reform”. Photo credit: © Wolfsonian-IFU Library

When I got back home and produced with a great number of photographs from the vessel, I realised the similarities between his and my work – it makes me proud. It is his type and style of photography that is so advanced for his time, but also the way he speaks about his subjects in his introduction. He speaks about builders and construction workers as “heroes”. What he means is even though we know so little about them, they are so important for our lives. It is figuratively the same men that I had met on my journey on “Sun Discoverer”. To my surprise, some of my photographs look similar to his, which shows how little the use of steel, cranes and manual labour has changed since.

Like him, I also mean to show a world that has to be appreciated and to be seen by us, who live a different life onshore. We should not forget that without the merchant navy, international trading is simply impossible. In the end, I understood that my project is not just about giving visual access to the seafarer’s world. It is also the other way around: the crew has finally got an opportunity to show the importance of their jobs to us, mostly to family and friends. That was a wonderful lesson.

You have a website to explain your documentary photography but why did you choose a photobook to explain your story?

Books are amazing, as you can take them with you wherever you go. It might share characteristics that are similar with digital devices but it is not the same. If you hand over a book to someone, people can literally feel your work.

When work is shown on the screen only, it might be seen as unfinished progress or simply as portfolio work. The printed book has a cover, a first and a last page that makes it complete as a body of work. It is a form of a publication, which is the aim of the photographer.

Maybe Maybe is a published work of my postgraduate documentary photography; I am still looking for a publisher to distribute it. Yet this publication gives me a clear notion of how it feels to have my work published. It does not mean that I will not put some of those images on my website at some point. It is more about that I would love to see my work somewhere else first, either in magazines or, of course in form of a book, before I put them online.

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Diemer in the captain’s deck of the “Sun Discoverer”. He spent two months between July and September documenting the sailors.

You are dyslexic. So am I. Do you think it has been instrumental in nudging you towards the photobook path, and not the written book?

Being dyslexic can be a barrier, but it is definitely should not stop you from reaching your targets or let a dream come true. On one hand, you may have to try a little harder than others, but on the other hand, it makes you even more proud if you achieve, given the obstacles.

On that note, Maybe Maybe is also written by me. I definitely love words. Dyslexia simply makes it just slightly harder for me to find the right combination of words and to write them down.

Photography is my passion. A photobook is simply the most beautiful presentation of photography: it literally lets you immerse yourself in a visual story. This the main reason behind my photobook path, not my writing and spelling difficulties.

Joseph Conrad or Herman Melville?

Herman Melville. His novel Moby Dick was one of my favourite stories when I was a child.

More on Felix Diemer’s documentary of various types of labour are published at felix-diemer-photography.com.

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