New at laif: Sophie Kirchner

We are very pleased to introduce Sophie Kirchner as a new laif member. She works as a freelance photographer in Berlin and works on a regular basis for newspapers such as taz, Berliner Zeitung, Chrismon, F.A.Z. and Der Tagesspiegel, among others.

Sophie studied photography at the University of Applied Sciences in Hamburg and the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore (USA). Born and raised in the former East Berlin, the concept of change became one of the most formative in her life with the fall of the Berlin Wall, and it continues to engage her today.

You can also learn more about our new laif photographer on Instagram starting Wednesday, October 25, 2023. For one week she will take over the laif account and talk about her work.


laif at Instagram



Katja Kemnitz conducted an interview with her:


You usually have only a few minutes for your portraits of politicians and well-known personalities. How do you manage to take good photos in such a short time?

I think it’s the wealth of experience, for one thing. At some point you know what can be a good picture and what not. When I enter a room, I see very quickly which frame, which background or which light fits and where it’s worth taking a photo.

On the other hand, it also involves a lot of preparation. Before each assignment, I find out in which context the photo is to be placed. It makes a big difference whether the photo accompanies a text about the energy crisis, or perhaps illustrates a very light topic. With this knowledge, I can develop ideas in advance.

I also always try to be on site as early as possible. In the best case, with an assistant with whom I prepare and test the set. It’s like a dress rehearsal. We not only prepare everything for the performance, but also play it through completely once. That way, when it’s time for the premiere, I know that nothing will go wrong. With this preparation, I can then also concentrate fully on the person.


Of course, this confidence also creates trust. You also have unusual motives, for which not every public person would say yes.

I think I am a person who can quickly break the ice and approach others. But I have to say that people are often also very grateful for concrete directions. When they realize that I know exactly what I’m doing and what I want, most of them cooperate. That’s really interesting, because often they are very powerful people who are facing me. I think people are pleased when they realize that someone has really prepared. If someone comes to an appointment with no time and I say, “I have two cool ideas: I want to do this and this,” then suddenly the time is there.

But it’s not just about being confident and saying what you want. As a portrait and reportage photographer, I think you also have a certain love for people and, in the best case, some empathy. In my freelance projects, I mainly photograph people who are not so often the center of attention in society. It’s important for me to empathize with the people and their stories or fears.

Which assignment were you most excited about?

Oh, it’s not so easy to pick out a specific work. The ministers are always very exciting. I was very pleased to photograph Kevin Kühnert for the Taz, simply because he’s also a Berliner and I thought it might be a good appointment. And it was. Maybe it’s typical Berliners, but I could talk to him directly as if he were a buddy of mine. Simply very sympathetic and he had additionally also brought along some time.

Another very nice job was to photograph Geertje Marquardt, who planned to cross Greenland once with only one sled. To document her preparations for this journey, also to picture this inner, mental preparation, was fun and very inspiring.

One last example: The F.A.Z. had commissioned me to photograph a married couple in a so-called “intelligentsia settlement” in the former GDR. This settlement was built at that time especially for artists and intellectuals. The woman belonged at that time, as a teenager, with her parents to the first occupants. She still lives there today with her husband. I was pleased about this commission, because I also work a lot about East Germany and the post-reunification period in my freelance projects due to my own biography.

The GDR and the post-reunification period is my self-chosen focus. I think that we are still in the process of coming to terms with the past. This reappraisal makes a not inconsiderable contribution to how we understand the here and now. After all, there are still repercussions today. That’s why I find it very exciting when I meet people who can tell me about that time. About the country I also come from. I was born in East Berlin in 1984.

Very exciting. I myself was born in Saxony in 1984. But whenever I distinguish between East and West or take an interest in GDR history, I'm asked what I want with it. We are united and good, they say. Especially in West Germany, that's what I get told. Is that the same for you?

Yes, I am familiar with such conversations. But I also encounter a lot of interest from the West German side. It always depends on who you are talking to and whether there is a real interest. But of course I am more interested in a topic if I am personally involved, if there is a certain family biography. I see us as a kind of hinge between the GDR and the united Germany. I also think that the GDR experience holds a certain treasure that has yet to be recovered. But that is perhaps a topic for another interview.

In relation to this, I think your free work "Dreams made of paper" is great. You asked people what they bought with their welcome money and what it meant to them at the time.

With this work, I wanted to unravel the East German Wende experience a bit. You can’t claim that there was a collective Easter experience. You have to look at how old people were at the time of the Wende, what changes they experienced, and other aspects. I wanted to tell about these changes and the different experiences of the Wende period with this work.

On the other hand, it was also an impulse to deal emotionally with what it actually did to people. Many of them became very emotional during the conversations, and they were very touched by the fact that someone came to them and said: I think your story is worth telling. That amazed me, because it also showed how little had been worked through internally up to that point. How important it is, in this case for the East Germans, to confront their own history.

What are you currently working on? Also something about East Germany?

I am currently photographing young men in eastern Germany. The fact is that there is a surplus of men in eastern Germany – apart from the big cities of Berlin, Leipzig and Dresden. This has given rise to the prejudice of the deficient eastern man who doesn’t know what to do with himself and is somehow backward. Who, in the worst case, also votes for the AfD. – According to this cliché. But it’s not that simple.

I went to Zwickau for the project with a scholarship and at the beginning I had some prejudices, coming from my ivory tower in Berlin. But after two weeks, I didn’t really want to leave. I met so many cool people. Especially young men who shape their local environment, see the problems, tackle them and are very creative. Many are in volunteer positions and are extremely involved. They organize non-profit festivals, or go on demos against Nazis. Above all, they consciously decide to stay because they see a quality of life for themselves locally, beyond the strengthening of right-wing structures. But they lack a lobby, no one sees that or wants to see that? That really surprised me.

With these works I would like to differentiate the image of the East a little more, to show and work out the many facets of East Germans (men). The project is to become much larger. I am now gradually covering each new federal state. I was just in Saxony and Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania. There is still a lot to do.

I think your images have a strong recognition value. If I had to describe them, I would say they are gloomy, dramatic, but also a little melancholic. Do you go with that?

Yes, I would go along with that completely. I was inspired early on by the old masters like Rembrandt, Vermeer and Caspar David Friedrich. They all had something dramatic and melancholic in their works. I would also say that in terms of content, I’m more attracted to things that reflect that. Journalism is seldom “everything was great today,” but it’s usually about the fact that there’s a problem somewhere.

At the time, I didn’t just stage the Minister of Economics like that because it was 8:30 in the evening and there was no sun, but because he was facing a crisis. I’m sure everyone can remember not knowing how high the next gas bill would be. That was exactly in this time and he, the man of the hour. That’s what I wanted to convey with the picture. It made the front page of the TAZ newspaper and underneath it said: Coal is a sin. Of course, that was a great match for the dark image.

So yes, I think that’s part of my visual language.

Now that you mention Rembrandt yourself, I also see this special light in your paintings. One last question in conclusion: Do you remember what you bought with your welcome money back then?

(laughs.) Yeah. You know those big flat lollipops that are rolled up like a snail and stuck on a wooden handle?


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Photos from Sophie Kirchner