Manu Theobald started out as a fashion and commercial photographer, but then switched to travel documentary and portrait photography, driven by a desire to tell stories about people. Her assignments for magazines such as ADAC Reisemagazin, Abenteuer & Reisen, AD, Brigitte, Elle, Merian and Vogue have taken her to Africa, Asia and large parts of Europe, into the lives of well-known personalities as well as seemingly forgotten people. The native of Munich now photographs for foundations in the fields of culture, innovation and science. After the publication of her book „Silence is „at the end of 2020, she is currently writing her second book.

Photography: Laetitia Vançon

Real encounters – an interview with Manu Theobald by Christine Moosmann

You originally come from fashion photography, what fascinated you so much about this field?

I danced for a long time, especially modern ballet, and I was always interested in the pictorial aspect of theater, film, painting and photography. In photography you have different narrative levels and can tell a whole story in one image – in fashion especially. I really liked this playful component. However, many assignments came from advertising agencies that worked out the concept in advance and I just implemented this as a photographer. At some point, that no longer appealed to me, because I had started photography to tell stories.

Today you no longer have models in front of the camera, but composers, musicians, actors and scientists. Many of the people you portray are not used to being photographed, but you don’t notice any insecurity in the pictures. How do you manage to take away people’s fear of the camera?

The most beautiful thing about any meeting is when it is allowed to become a real encounter. For me, that means that you don’t have to pay attention to what you hold back or what you put in the foreground, but that you get involved in just being for the time being and seeing what happens. Everything is allowed to be present. And that only works if the person facing me as a photographer, feels absolutely safe and accepted. My work is like a protected space in which something is allowed to develop, a joint immersion, back and forth reflection. In the end, only pictures are selected with which we both feel comfortable. It is important to me to meet my counterpart empty, but very attentive. The tension in which a successful portrait can arise is to remain with my perception and at the same time concentrated on the other and what surrounds us.

You photographed Bill Gates, what was that like?

At the end of the eighties, Microsoft decided that Bill Gates should stand for the company with his face in the future and they needed a photo. I didn’t even know who he was, because nobody knew his face back then. I was excited anyway. There is always an excitement before every shot, it spurs me to be alert and awake. I always meet my counterpart with anticipation, but also great calm. I have been privileged to meet very famous people, as well as forgotten people in slums and many personalities somewhere in between. There is no interesting or uninteresting for me, every life story is an exciting one and the exchange about it mutually enriches.

What is striking about your portraits is that they are often taken in unusual places. You say that you rarely use the same location twice, how do you choose the places?

Often there is a conversation beforehand about which places have meaning for the person and why. Then I love to take photo walks. This creates images with different backgrounds, only with a break, for what let us stop and immerse ourselves in it. This way you don’t get set and frozen, because you move very awake. I as a photographer and the people to be portrayed make like a kind of little journey together. We become a team and get involved with new places and lighting conditions together. And since the places often have a personal meaning, a field of tension is immediately created. In this way, places become occupied with what I’ve experienced, and I don’t want to overlay them with repetitive use.

You are not only a photographer, but also an author. How did you come to write books?

The idea came out of my work for magazines. For reportages, you went out and collected as much material as possible on location as quickly as possible. With these pictures and texts, one then became an opinion leader for a certain region, city or event. At some point I thought, what am I actually doing? What can I understand if I only travel to places for such a short time? So the need arose in me to devote myself to a subject in depth, as with my first book “ Silence is“, to give space to silence. I see my work in collecting and retelling stories. In this project, a collage of aspects forming a whole together. Strictly speaking, I approached the matter in a similar way to my photographic work, went into conversation with selected personalities and created a space for exchange. 

It was important to me to carry out the project with all processes from beginning to end, from the idea, the conceptualization, the selection and implementation, to the search for an agency and publisher – until I happily held the finished book in my hands. Therefore, I would not call myself an author, but it is nice to have accepted the new challenge of writing texts, to have received support and to see that it works. I am currently working on my second book.

What is the best thing about your work for you?

There is a phenomenon. When I pick up my camera, my counterpart reveals himself within seconds, in all his weaknesses, his beauty, in all his history. This is something very poignant. The trust that develops in this process is so special. Anything is allowed. It’s almost like a love story. I think I always fall in love briefly when taking photos. If a person allows you to get to their innermost core, then I can show them how beautiful they are, beyond clichés.