In Conversation: Willem Wernsen

Cynthia Haynes

For over 38 years, Willem Wernsen has been hitting the streets all over the world, and since then, he has created widely recognized and award-winning work in a genre that seems like it should be easy (there are people everywhere; just point and shoot!), but indeed takes a special skill to do well. The power and depth of his photographs make us smile, and sometimes cry; it’s evident that he’s invested in his subjects and the stories they tell on their faces and with their body language. Willem’s eBook, On Street Photography: Making Extraordinary Photographs of Ordinary Life, has been purchased and discussed worldwide. See what he's been up to lately on our Instagram feed, where he's taking over this week! 

How did you begin your career in street photography? What was it about that genre that drew you in over any other?

It was my interest in human beings and social documentary photography that drove me to the streets 38 years ago with my 6x6 camera. At 13, I bought second-hand photo books, mostly of French photographers who made street portraits. Inspired, I wanted a camera of my own to make that sort of photography. I had no intention of copying those photographers, but by studying their intention, I learned to watch life around me carefully and capture the moments that struck my eye and my heart. But it didn’t work from the start; it was a learning process. But after some time and a lot of trial and error, I saw my work evolve in a particular manner. I found my way of expressing the connection with my subject. To me, my photography has become a way of communication with my subject and also with the viewer.

I enjoy many forms of photography, but I will always concentrate on social documentary work. In my view, street photography is a big part of that social documentary spectrum. By choosing other subjects, I was afraid of losing my inner focus and creativity with regard to the subject that enchants me most of all: human in their habitats.

Tell us about a typical on-the-street portrait session. Do you coach the people you photograph, or do you just let the impromptu session develop?

My photography comes from 60% direct spontaneous encounters with people and 40% from snapshots of moments I see happen or sense are coming; I take my time and let the shutter go when the time comes. There has recently been a slight shift in my work and I see that capturing the moment is becoming more prevalent in my photographs. I notice that my awareness on the street is increasingly sharp, particularly regarding the content of the image.

When addressing people on the street I take off my hat, give them a hand. Or I put my hand on my heart and make a friendly nod (depending on the habits and culture). When travelling abroad, I can communicate in English most of the time, but language is never a barrier; good intentions and friendliness open many doors. My encounters are brief most of the time: I introduce myself and explain what I want to do.

I don’t really coach people. When people consent to being photographed, I ask them to just look at me. This might seem a bit too simple, but from experience, I know when moving the person, or by asking to look in a certain way or to smile it can make people uncomfortable. You can read it from their pose and in their eyes. Mostly I just let them stand or sit as I found them since I have already studied the light and framed my shot. The location mostly determines the composition, and that can be checked quickly on the LCD screen. To avoid certain elements in the composition, I prefer to move around my subject instead of moving him or her around.

Coaching people often destroys a certain open-mindedness in your subject as it leaves little room for spontaneity. I know from experience that their natural pose or a certain gaze in their eyes that made me choose can quickly vanish. If I want to catch that first impression, I have to act quickly.

My method is to let people stand or sit as you found them, and don´t disturb. I almost always take the photo first even if I also want to engage in a conversation, so I sometimes take some time for a chat. A unique life story often adds an extra dimension to the experience, and eventually, I get another opportunity to take more pictures.

People are at the very heart of every town, village, and city and everyone relates to being infinitely human. How do you think street photography influences communication across cultures?

Humans are inquisitive by nature, curious to know about the behaviour of others living in cities, villages, and towns all over the globe, and photography answers questions about people in all corners of the world. Where the drawings of the old explorers who painted a picture of the newly discovered worlds still seemed a fantasy, the first “street” photographers brought a fraction of an unknown reality to our eye. By means of the magic black box, this curiosity about other cultures was awakened. For many decades, photographers have displayed their images of unfamiliar cultures in expositions, lectures, and in newspapers and magazines. Today thousands of images per minute fill the internet. I find it a positive development that photography and consequently, movies, have broadened our view of the world. This disclosure of cultures by means of photography started a process of connecting people on a mental level. Photographs of the past and present also inspire people.

Nothing human is alien to us, so we’re able to recognize the emotions of others. This recognition can be strong in pictures because they are considered as a representation of reality. For example, humour in a photograph is a universal language; a humorous situation is clearly recognizable. Mutual respect comes from recognition, and recognition and respect is an opening to communication.

Besides the registration and communication of facts through images, a street photographer brings his or her own experience to the viewer. I try to convey my empathy for my favourite subjects: men, women, and children. Empathy with the subject appeals to the empathic skills of the viewer and fosters communication between cultures. And the photographer certainly plays a role in this.

How have the people you’ve met and photographed helped you grow as a photographer?

By constantly focusing on people and their actions, you discover an immense spectrum of emotions: a great challenge for a people photographer. The continual trust people I’ve been given by people I’ve photographed has encouraged me tremendously.

Subjects who confide in me make communication possible, which is crucial to achieving a good result. By experiencing this trust from people, I’ve become more self-confident in realizing that I am on the right track to my goal. But I also realize that I should not betray this trust; this awareness makes me humble and respectful. Because people are open and vulnerable with me, they give me a chance to make the images that I want to make, and I am very grateful for that. Trust gives me the chance to keep on digging into what I want to do: photographing all aspects of humankind. Trust is the driving force. The confidence that I get is a beautiful gift that encourages me not only as a photographer but also makes me richer as a human being.

If someone finds that their street images don’t convey an emotion, what would you tell them to improve?

It’s important to cultivate empathy and be aware of your own emotions and motivations so that you can also recognize them in another person or a situation. If this is difficult for you, I urge you to seek peace instead of panicking or shooting at random. Use this rest and peace to immerse yourself into the work of others and analyze the contents of their work, not just the form. Pore over books to see how those you admire make their photos by learning to look at the essence of the image. Try to find out how a photographer has captured emotions; learn to recognize the eye and heart of the photographer. Visit lectures and watch documentaries in which photographers explain their vision, and draw inspiration by listening to their testimony. It can be enlightening; the ear can often catch more than meets the eye. But don’t lose yourself in just imitating form or composition; concentrate on your own intentions and what you want to convey and keep practicing.

What do you think the photographic world needs more of right now?

Today’s hectic flow of images makes me miss peace and calmness. Quiet and ease is necessary for me to understand a topic, and that takes time and focus. I see too many effects being used in photography only for the purpose of drawing attention. The tendency is that if one doesn’t score immediately with a subject or method, they jump onto another topic, some other process, or to another camera. If you’re not expanding into something and exploring possibilities, you can’t grow. It might sound contradictory considering this medium captures slices of reality into split seconds, but photographers should take the time to cultivate calmness to work within that same medium.

But many aim too high too quickly, expecting too much in the short term, only to end up disappointed and frustrated. The camera that was purchased with such enthusiasm ends up sitting idle on a shelf when it becomes clear that contents, depth, emotion, and storytelling aspects complete an image. The development into a passionate and committed photographer is usually a lengthy process; patience and determination are necessary to keep the passion alive.

The massive response to photos on social media is also dangerous. Too many photos are assumed to be good if they get a lot of likes or comments; it often becomes an exchange of compliments for the sake of friendship. I recommend you show your work not only on social media, but also visit portfolio discussions and contact photographers who inspire you. Most of them are pretty open to their fans. This is my experience over the years and I still do it.

Learn more about Willem's philosophies of street photography in his eBook, On Street Photography: Making Extraordinary Photographs of Ordinary Life.

Willem Wernsen’s keen interest in people led him into photography 38 years ago. Since then, he has come to know that humankind responds to humankind and that communication is key to making honest photographs—a belief that is evident in his work. Willem searches through cities, villages, streets, alleys, markets and pubs in an ongoing quest for engaging stories to tell with his camera. See more of his work on his website


Interview Willem Wernsen

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    Thinking of Willem Wernsen, I see glass.
    His own (often dusty) glasses, the viewer glass, the glass of lenses and of course the glass to protect photos in a frame.
    Willem works a lot with glass.

    Glass is clear, sharp, transparent en also pure.
    A glass window is used because it acts like a mirror. The reflection creates another world. To capture that, is what Willem does in sharp contours and beautiful hard contrasts.

    At the same time glass is vulnerable.
    I know Willem is too – his health, Margaret – disarmingly transparent.
    A sincere man, opposed to decoration, fuss and unnecessary boasting.
    The honesty, sincerity, pureness en clearness, one look at Willem to see it all.
    As clear as glass.

    To me all reasons to enjoy his work and to be happy for being his friend. We raised our glasses many times and always left our fingerprints on the glass. That same fingerprint I recognize in Willem´s work … his own style, unmistakably recognizable.

    Like the way he works, nothing complicated, just some small talk and then a photo. And always the integrity, nobody loses his/her dignity, never a showcase.
    His large body and that small camera … an almost endearing image.
    Willem, I admire you for yourself and your work and I´m looking forward to the next time we will.

    Hans Niezen on
  • Willem Wernsen, man amongst men

    Many people take pictures to keep beautiful memories; places they have been, moments they have experienced, or to photograph family members for future purposes.
    Maybe this is the way things started for Willem Wernsen long ago, too, but to him photography means so much more. His photography is all about communication, connecting to his fellowmen. Both in taking pictures and in showing them, there is an exchange between him and the people around him.

    Willem is always hunting for images, for people to appear in his photographs. It is amazing to see him when walking the streets, or when he is seated on a terrace with you in the middle of a conversation, aiming his camera to someone and taking a picture of someone. Almost in all instances this is proceeded by seeking casual eye contact with the one who is about to be photographed. A friendly nod, a quick glance at the camera to let the other one know what is about to happen, followed by pressing the shutter button.
    This all happens in a matter of seconds. I have to admit that I always seem to underestimate what has just happened. My amazement and admiration come to life when I see the pictures after printing, beautifully produced in black and white.

    Willem’s hunting is not aggressive. Despite his imposing figure and body length Willem always seems to blend in with the people in a natural fashion. His power is in always getting people to feel at ease before taking a picture. I have seen Willem at work in China, where he towered over people and yet was ableo go about at leisure and inconspicuously.

    It is a fascinating ritual to witness.
    The moment Willem sees his image he walks ever so slowly towards his target. He then puts his cane carefully against a wall and makes contact with a nod or by putting his hand to his chest. People have already been able to see him coming and to take a good look at him.
    Then he greets them with a short and friendly hello, he looks into the viewfinder from the top and tells them in English or Dutch that he wants to take a picture. With some subtle gestures he shows them that he would like to include them in the picture frame. The other person almost always agrees.
    Willem adjusts some settings, there is hardly any directing and the picture is taken. Sometimes a second one follows and then it is finished. Willem expresses his thanks, sometimes he shows his picture or a short and friendly conversation ensues. Then Willem heads back to his seat or he proceeds to his next image.
    In this way we have traveled far and wide, but it does not matter where you are. Willem can take his pictures the same way in his hometown Amersfoort, or in Istanbul, or New York. If you head out with Willem for five days you will be amazed about how many images he can pick up from daily life. Pictures that show people and their environment, but all radiating that very Wernsen touch.

    It is always amazing to see this photographer being uncertain about his own work. He needs some else just now, he cannot do without them. I am proud to be one of the people forming his sounding board. Among the many photo friends that Willem has and relates to, Delta F represent a very special group.
    Five friends who are very different from one another, but who have one thing in common, an unequalled passion for photography. John Seegers, Frank Detrixhe, Ben Ros and yours truly have for over twenty years been getting together each month to review each other’s photographs intently.
    This is done in an open and fair way. It keeps all of us sharp to continuously improve our images. Of course we all know that our best picture is yet to be taken!

    On Street Photography has given us once again a beautiful picture book to look at and enjoy. This is a book that will inspire us all when taking our next pictures. Willem, we are deeply grateful.
    On behalf of your friends of Delta F,

    Marco Bastmeyer on
  • To my eye Willem’s photos are honest and direct, like the photographer himself. You can tell that Willem is one of the people he photographs, not just looking at them from a distance. This contact helps the viewer of his photographs to connect with the people and situations he has captured. They are people like him, like you, like me.
    Also, Willem has a great eye for light and for capturing the right moment. This combination has again resulted in a book full of wonderful photos of beautiful people from various walks of life. All in classic and sometimes slightly raw black and white and many of them in a square format. Looking at the many photos in the book, you will travel from Holland to France and then to Turkey in only a few pages. That might be a little confusing sometimes, but I think it also sends a clear message; no matter where on earth we’re from, we are all human beings, all trying to find our way in life.

    Dénis den Daas on
  • The B&W work of Willem is so appealing because it really touches something inside. Willem has the ability to realise a 1-to-1 contact between his subjects, himself and last but not least the one looking a his photos.
    His amazing post production technique on top of that give an exta emphasis on the characters he is interested in and wants to share with you. He is, like others have said before, a true humanist. Not looking for the most beautiful people, but for the regulars bringing along a truthfull interest in the other and by photographing them in the way he does, lifting your interest as well when you look at his pictures.
    A really positive and rewarding ‘vista’ at the others who cross his path and whom he seaks to encounter. Chapeau.

    Ben Ros on
  • Je blijft prachtige fotografie maken. Je straatfotografie heeft een klasse, die in Nederland ongeëvenaard is.

    Remmelt van VEelen on
  • This streetphotography doesn’t say anything to me.
    It has neither depth nor is it special or esthetically pleasing.
    It is not enough to photograph heads with hats.

    Martin on
  • Photographs: as always, very good. Fine interview that gives an insight to your passion, tour motivation and your modus operandi.

    Hans Ruiter on
  • You consistently tell and show the same message, using passionate words and great pictures. Thank you for being an inspiration!

    Peter van Eekelen on
  • Great interview with an extraordinary photographer and human being.

    Wim Stolwerk on
  • Great Willem, very nice to have you and Lieve as friends.

    Peter en Yolande on
  • Willem,

    Great interview with (again) great pictures. It represents exactly who you are. “For the Love of the Photography”… and you love it, see your photography, in the middle of life, it cannot be more social!

    Robert L.C. Sloot on
  • Your pictures Are about a constant love affair with people ! A joy to meet; each and every time !

    Theo Tomassen on

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