Christine Fenzl, a photographic journey in a social football

From June 11 to July 11, South Africa will welcome the 19th Football World Cup and its accompanying mass media scrum. It promises to be a curious encounter which could turn out to be astonishing and even explosive… Others are using the football event to discretely bring about support and motivation for street kids. This is what four non-governmental organizations from England, Macedonia, Brazil and Kenya are doing. The German photographer Christine Fenzl shadowed them in 2005 and 2006, as part of her continuing photographic interest in childhood and adolescence as experienced in different world cities.

From June 11 to July 11, South Africa will welcome the 19th Football World Cup and its accompanying mass media scrum. It promises to be a curious encounter which could turn out to be astonishing and even explosive… Others are using the football event to discretely bring about support and motivation for street kids. This is what four non-governmental organizations from England, Macedonia, Brazil and Kenya are doing. The German photographer Christine Fenzl shadowed them in 2005 and 2006, as part of her continuing photographic interest in childhood and adolescence as experienced in different world cities.

Hi Christine, let’s start at the beginning : why and how did you become a photographer ?

After finishing high school my parents gave me a present: my first camera-a pentax. I went on a trip with a close friend of mine; Italy and Spain-and took lots of pictures. I loved it – it was fascinating to me – to press the button and I got the memory I wanted. Later I started to develop and print myself and discovered the whole world of the black and white darkroom. I spend a lot of time in it.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but weren’t you Nan Goldin’s assistant? Was that a happy time for you? Did the experience enrich your life personally and professionally?

Yes, I enjoyed being her assistant. We had fun and I learned a lot from Nan. Not necessarily technically, but personally and artistically. Her ability to show intimacy without beeing voeuristic- I always admired her for that. I also travelled a lot with Nan, so because of her I got the chance to see a lot from the world and I met some of my close friends through Nan.

Looking at the projects on your web site (www .christinefenzl.com) I noticed that you are interested in taking photos of children and teenagers in difficult social contexts. Why this particular focus?

Fundamental themes in my works are urban, sociological and socio-economic boundaries. It is mostly children or juveniles who I portray because I think they show us where society comes from and where it is heading. They are like a mirror.

The particular age of adolescence lasts only a few years during which the personality undergoes extreme biological changes and is confronted with existential questions. While it is an age of exploring boundaries within oneself and the world outside, these years are at the same time a no-mans-land between childhood and adulthood. So it is a very fragile and “open“ age. I am interested in that and I want to show which living situations people have to cope with. Here and in other countries.

Your projects, which have a social vocation and a documentary aspect, close to photo-journalism, are shown in festivals and galleries and not in and for the press. Is this deliberate on your part? Do you mostly see yourself as a visual artist, a photo-journalist or a simple photographer?

I see myself as a photographer with the main focus on portrait. I try to get as close as possible and I want to show the environment at the same time. The pictures are taken at a  specific time and place and I don´t manipulate, so there is a “documentary“ aspect to it. On the other hand, there is also a timeless feel to them.

I regard the people I pick as a representative for their group and the viewer can make his/her own connections. The pictures can be shown in magazines and in the art context. It is not a deliberate plan on my part, though I do make sure that the portraits or series are shown in the right context.

What do you think about the current trend whereby it’s becoming harder and harder to distinguish the work of photographic artists from that of photo-journalists?

I don´t see that trend so much. I think it is an artistic decision when there is similarities or when art shows journalistic attributes. I do think there is differentiation.

Last summer I discovered your work at the Arles Photo Festival (that’s where I fell in love with your magnificent photograph of a burst football in front of a hazy little black girl). Looking back, how did you find the atmosphere and the standard of the festival? Do you think the exhibition boosted your career?

Thank you.
I felt very honored to be part of the festival in Arles. I have never participated at an photography-festival before so it was very exciting for me. Spending days and days with photography. So much to see. The standart/ quality is very high and Arles offers a wide range. The atmosphere is very special, beautiful.
Career-boosting would be the wrong expression..but yes, I did get feedback and requests and there will be publication because of Arles. It is surprising how many people have actually been there. I am very thankful for that.

Can you talk me through your project “Streetfootball”. How did you come up with the idea?

Actually through my friend Ciro Cappellari. He is a documantary filmmaker and worked on a project with the organisation streetfootballworld in Berlin. In 2006 they organized a world cup of streetfootball teams so there have been teams from all over the world playing against each other. The idea was to take not only portraits of the players but in their home countries- in their environment. That´s how I came into the picture.

You travelled to several countries and worked with several organisations to realise your project. How did you manage to finance it? How did you get in touch with the organisations? Was it difficult?

All the contacts  to the NGOs and their trainers I got through streetfootballworld, as well as the “infrastructure“ there, otherwise it would not have been possible.It was a longer process to organize it all.

streetfootballworld supported me with travelling  and material costs and the Goethe Institut supported my work with a scolarship for one month in Sao Paulo. The work in Kenya I financed myself.

Your photographs are essentially portraits of teenagers. From my own experience I know it’s not easy taking these types of pictures: how did you find things?

I am mostly very lucky. Most of the time I meet wonderful people  who help me in translating and assisting.
The kids and teenagers are very open and curious. Many times they are proud to show me their lives and enjoy being in a photograph.

Did you ever get the chance to play football with them? Did you show them the photographs you took of them?

I could have  – but I am not a good player – never have been. I can run but not kick…I prefer to watch and take pictures.

Yes – I showed the polaroids and I sent almost all of the teenagers pictures of themselves. It was very important to me and a way to show my gratitude for their openess and their involvement. Also the Goethe Institut supported me financially to have many prints made. I was very happy about that.

After you completed this project did you have any difficulty getting it seen or put on display?

For a relatively long time nearly nothing happened with this series. But fortunatly since more or less 2 years I have possibilities to show in exhibitions. I  did get a prize (Förderpreis der Stiftung Klein) which I am very thankful for and, for example, this summer the footballseries will be published in Marie Claire.

Finally, what advice would you give a photographer starting out who wants to embark on a similar photographic adventure to your own?

To follow their instincts their desire and to keep on doing even if there is  periods of doubt or “no“ feedback etc. I think it is important to stay open and to be involved with what you do.

Thank you!

Interview by SL