The war in Afghanistan is the longest war in US history. Following the 9/11 attacks in 2001 the US armed forces entered Afghanistan and, shortly afterwards, they were joined by German troops as part of the International Security Assistance Force. The German Bundeswehr base, Camp Marmal in the North of Afghanistan, was opened in 2005 and is the largest Bundeswehr base outside of Germany. More than 5000 soldiers are currently based at Camp Marmal, located on the outskirts of Mazar-i-Sharif. German-born and New York-based photographer, Jens Umbach visited Mazar-i-Sharif and shot portraits of both the German soldiers and the Afghan locals. The resulting series reflects a more personal approach than that of classic photojournalism, offering a humanized view of the subjects and subtly alluding to the universal experience of war.
“I want to give viewers time to consider and reflect so that through the portraits they put the people in focus and not the war itself.”
Perhaps you could start by giving us an insight into your background and how you got into photography?
I studied photography in Darmstadt, Germany. The fifth semester was an internship that I did in New York assisting various photographers and I never came back to Germany, even though I was able to finish my degree by going back and forth.
Was there anyone in particular, who helped you along the way or inspired you?
The photographer I assisted full time in the beginning of my time in New York helped me with my visa situation making it possible to work in the US. His work was also very inspiring to me.
As a photographer I always loved Irving Penn’s portrait work.
You first travelled to Afghanistan in 2010 and were based at Camp Marmal just outside Mazar-i-Sharif. How did you end up staying at the biggest Bundeswehr station outside of Germany?
Wanting to do a project on the Bundeswehr portraying the people directly involved in Germany’s military engagement I had to get on the phone with the Ministry of Defence and basically spend 4 months convincing them that it was a project worth supporting. We flew to Mazar with them and got to stay at their camp, which of course was also the location where we set up the photo studio.
What was your experience of the life at the camp?
The life in the camp was very much a bubble. Everybody had their work to do and everything was cared for. You had your times for your meals. There was a laundry to drop off your clothes, as well as a few different places you could go at night to play pool, darts or watch movies.
Your portraits of the German soldiers give a very personal and intimate insight into the human characters behind the headlines. Did you have a chance to get to know your subjects and their stories?
I did get to know a few of my subjects, since I photographed their families in Germany as well. Some have been to my openings and we are loosely staying in touch.
What struck you most about the soldiers you met?
They were all genuinely there to help the people and were hoping to make a difference with what they did. They also seemed realistic in their expectation of how much or little could be achieved.
Four years later you returned to Mazar-i-Sharif, the second largest city in Afghanistan, with the aim of photographing the local people. What was it that motivated you and what did you hope to achieve in doing so?
I wanted to show the other side of the conflict: the people who the soldiers were supposed help. Documenting a large variety of subjects, telling their story and showing how, and if, their lives have changed because of the military presence in their “neighborhood”.
Similarly to the images of the soldiers, your portraits of the local Afghans are very intimate and it feels like you really captured their different personalities. How did you go about approaching your subjects and did you have the chance to hear their stories?
Leading up to my trip my local crew and I determined a rough list of subjects I wanted to photograph (mullahs, former Taliban, school girls, etc.). My team then flew in from Kabul and began conversations with village elders in order to pave the way for us to come into their villages and photograph. Once I got there we were able to reach out to them again and stop by to find subjects and photograph them.
What struck you most about the local Afghans you met?
Everyone was very kind and friendly and loved being photographed.
Which camera and lens did you use to shoot this series and what do you see as the advantages of using this equipment for portrait photography?
The project was shot on the Leica S and I mostly used the 70 and 35mm lenses. The camera feels very much like a 35mm camera and allows a quick workflow, while also having an incredible resolution.
Although shot on location in Afghanistan your series is extremely well lit and composed. It looks as if it could have been shot in a studio. How did you go about shooting these portraits on location and achieve such excellent results?
We set up a mobile studio with a white background and a battery powered strobe system.
What was the biggest challenge in shooting on location and how did you overcome it?
We had to make sure that everyone was safe, which my producer handled perfectly. If there were areas that we could go to on a particular day he would know and guide the production through the days safely. The other challenge was the fine dust from the desert that was rather tough on all the gear, but we managed to keep things in decent working condition.
Why did you chose to extract the subjects from their “natural” setting in front of the clean white background?
I wanted to look at the people themselves and use a different visual language than the photojournalistic view everyone is used to in conflict photography.
How does your studio work differ from shooting on location?
It really doesn’t differ much. Of course in the studio there is generally more time leading up to a shoot so you can tweak your lighting even more if needed, but once the subject is on set things are pretty much the same.
How long have you been shooting portraits and what is it about portrait photography, which interests you most?
I have been shooting portraits for over 20 years and I always loved the fact that I get access to people’s stories and lives that I would never encounter if it wasn’t for me taking their picture.
How long have you been shooting with Leica cameras and how has your relationship to the brand developed?
I have been shooting with Leica since 2014. The reputation and quality of the cameras has drawn me to the brand.
Do you have any advice for fellow photographers interested in portrait photography?
Always stick to what feels right to you in a portrait and try to develop a style that you love. It does not matter if anyone says something has been done before or not. You are bringing something new to the table even if it is simply by your choice of subject.
In addition to your commercial work, what projects are you working on at the moment and what can we expect to see from you in the future?
I am looking at Iran and Ghana right now. I can’t give any details about either at the moment, but there will likely be work from one or both of these countries coming up.