How to Capture the Ephemeral

How to Cacpture the Ephemeral | ©Moritz Petersen
How to Cacpture the Ephemeral | ©Moritz Petersen

By Helena Lind

In today's interview, we feature an outstanding creative lady. Say hello! Gudrun Petersen—photojournalist and true humanitarian. For many years, we find her brilliant work in many European newspapers, magazines and online media. Gudrun is also a multiply published author of photo books.

Her popular work on the beautiful city of Hamburg was translated in six languages and has earned the status of an international city classic.

HELENA LIND: Welcome Gudrun, how are you and what are you up to right now?

GUDRUN PETERSEN: Thank you Helena, I am very busy and have a lot on my mind, but I am fine. So excited about this interview for your magazine. English is not my first language but I do my best.

LIND: Now, please tell us about your current project, the one I just pulled you away from for this talk?

PETERSEN: Haha, yes, but that makes it all the more fun. My current exhibition is named "Broken Flowers", on display at Katechetisches Institut des Bistums Aachen, Germany. For more than two years I photographed withering flowers.

They fascinated me more every day during their transition. One may call it an 'ageing process' but to me it is more a journey through the cycle of rebirth that is the life of flowers.

Selection from the art photography series 'Broken Flowers' | ©Gudrun Petersen
Selection from the art photography series 'Broken Flowers' | ©Gudrun Petersen

PETERSEN: That is why I photographed them exclusively with natural magical winter light. Since my childhood, I have been touched by this special light atmosphere, which I observe and use for my work between January and March.

The light then falls pale through a clouded haze, it manifests like spilled milk. I love that. Then, I'll be electrified to discover all that beauty.

The exhibition opened with 29 art photographs, which I printed on Hahnemühle Watercolor Paper. Finding the right paper was very important because only then my 'Broken Flowers' could remind of vintage paintings, a special effect I wanted to emphasize.

LIND: Absolutely, your "Broken Flowers" remind me of floral still life masterpieces by the Flemish artist Juan van der HamenHow goes the opening of your exhibition so far?

PETERSEN: Fantastic. And it is so touching to experience how visitors and patrons respond to my work. I would have never expected such an emotional level of shared perception.

Gudrun Petersen's exhibition "Broken Flowers". Special thanks to Benno Groten, director/curator Katechetisches Institut Bistum Aachen, Germany | ©Marianne Langen
Gudrun Petersen's exhibition "Broken Flowers". Special thanks to Benno Groten, director/curator Katechetisches Institut Bistum Aachen, Germany | ©Marianne Langen

LIND: You are also intensely engaged as a humanitarian. In 2017, you went aboard a Sea-Eye rescue ship. Tell us more about that mission?

PETERSEN: That's right, I was in the Mediterranean with this NGO as an activist and photojournalist. Exactly at the time when Italy refused to accept any more refugees, and the situation was tipping over.

It was unbearable for us as a crew to having stay put and idle, without being allowed to save those suffering people. And it's horrid, when you know for a fact that there are humans in need, but you are barred from any action to help them.

PETERSEN: At that time we also visited Zarzis (Tunisia) for three days, where I met and interviewed Chamseddine Marzoug. For years he has been searching the beaches with a few supporters for the bodies of refugees that drowned on their way across the water to Europe. He showed me the cemetery where he buried the nameless migrants. This man is restoring some final dignity to them.

Chamseddine's efforts will touch my heart forever.

PETERSEN: Since this mission in the Mediterranean, and the encounter with Red Crescent volunteer Chamseddine, I decided to use my abilities to help refugees whenever possible.

And to serve the general public with my honest reports. Last year, I visited The Gambia to research the topic 'causes of flight'. There, I have met a mother of ten children whose oldest son drowned on the way to Europe. To me, she became the face of this humanitarian catastrophe.

LIND: On a more personal level: we were both raised by our grandparents. How do you remember your childhood?

PETERSEN: My grandparents were great! Two fundamentally different people from whom I have certainly taken over many good things that I still cherish.

My grandmother played always the active part. She wasn't afraid of anything and was very straight. My grandfather was the sensitive one, attached to nature, which he brought to my attention early on. He also made me aware of the fact that there is more than what we can see.

I grew up with that sentence. And he always made me feel okay. My grandparents showed me how to be mindful and compassionate. A great legacy!

LIND: And your parents?

PETERSEN: My parents' relationship wasn't easy, so I grew up with my grandparents for twelve years. They lived nearby. As a child, I suspected that something was different in our family, but I grew up at a time when this was not necessarily a topic for children. It was just what it was. But it still felt awkward. I think that's where my sensitivity originated. I learned to sound out moods very early on. Also to observe closely.

LIND: When, and why did you decide to become a photographer?

PETERSEN: I discovered photography as a teenager. You see, I'm missing something like a filter! I am somewhere, no matter where, or whether with people or out and about and I'll absorb and notice a lot. That started when I was a kid. The camera is my medium to process everything that resonates with me, what I see and perceive.

LIND: Agreed. I've worked with a few excellent photographers in my time. Yet, you always struck me as highly sensitive. You often say "it's got to feel right' and you transpose your sense of that right feeling into your work. Tell me about how your emotional antennae work?

PETERSEN: Unfortunately, this is not so easy. There is this feeling I've always been able to rely on. It arises, so to speak, as a third entity when two people meet. Everybody knows that, and yet it is so important to be treat it with mindfulness.

In my profession, this is of course of utmost importance. I portray many people. Very few people initially like to be photographed. I get fully involved with the other person and try to sense how they feel right now. And that's where I can pick them up.

I don't act, I really feel it, and that makes working with each other uncomplicated and almost familiar.

LIND: You are also well known for being a person of the right moment. Please describe such a spark?

PETERSEN: For example, I intend to make an important phone call that involves a lot. It may take a few days for me to do this because I just don't 'feel it' before.

And then, all of a sudden, while I'm busy with something totally different, I know NOW is the time. And then, I just reach out and am at my best, convincing and all, because my basic feeling has already done half the work.

LIND: We both love cats. You often photograph them. Your thoughts?

PETERSEN: Yes that's true. Cats play a big role in my life. I find cats to be highly sensitive. I've experienced it many times. Once, even during an earthquake. They scan the emotional state of a human being and certainly have more sensory organs than we do.

LIND: Gudrun, do you trust in a higher power?

PETERSEN: Yes, fortunately :) I'm not always connected to it, but very often I am. These are the really good moments in my life. For me, the sheer belief also has something very comforting.

LIND: What do you see as your life's purpose?

PETERSEN: To look closely and to reflect life with the my occupational aptitude as a photographer and author.

LIND: Wonderful Gudrun, and that's exactly why you are here today. Thanks for talking to me on this important day and much success with your exhibition.

PETERSEN: Thank you for inviting me.

Last updated 25 March 2024

For more information please visit Gudrun's website and connect with her on Instagram.