Ones to Watch 2019: Charlotte Schmitz

Each year, British Journal of Photography presents its Ones To Watch – a selection of 19 emerging image-makers, chosen from a list of nearly 750 nominations. Collectively, they provide a window into where photography is heading, at least in the eyes of the curators, editors, agents, festival producers and photographers we invited to nominate. Every weekend throughout May, BJP-online is sharing profiles of the 19 photographers, originally published in the magazine. Discover more here.

Her choice of subjects – the refugee crisis in Europe, and prostitution in southern Ecuador – may suggest that Charlotte Schmitz is following the arguably well-trodden path of the documentary photographer. Which would not be unusual given her study of photojournalism and documentary photography at the University of Applied Sciences and Arts in Hanover. Yet her approach is far from conventional, using collaboration and experimentation to get beyond the purely descriptive in order to produce work that is far more personal. “When she brings that originality to her photojournalism, the stories take on a new form,” says her nominator, Olivier Laurent, foreign photo editor of The Washington Post. “One that can often surprise and delight, while still staying true to the ethics of the form.”

In her work, Schmitz often uses instant Polaroid photography, explaining that she “prefers being present and talking to people rather than focusing on taking many pictures”. It’s an attitude that shows in the raw and direct images of series such as Take me to Jermany and La Puente [left and below]The latter focuses on the biggest brothel in the city of Machala in southern Ecuador, where some 170 women work. For this project, Schmitz used Polaroids both to instil a sense of trust in a place where photography is generally unwelcome and to allow the women she photographed to become involved in the creative process. She began by inviting her subjects to use nail polish to paint over the images so as to protect their identity, but this soon turned into something more playful and creative, giving the women the opportunity to shape their own image.

© Charlotte Schmitz

Another example is her ongoing projectI am so beautiful, so beautiful [page 82] for which she photographed women’s private spaces in a traditional Istanbul neighbourhood – where she lived for two years – in 2013,
with the female voice always playing an important part. “One of the fundamental motivations for being a photographer and an artist is because women are misrepresented and under-represented in almost all forms of media,” she explains. Through overexposed, highly colourful images of vibrant interiors and their exclusively female occupants, the series reveals a dynamic life that is generally hidden from view.

In her most recent series, Schmitz photographed the former military site of Moria on Lesbos [page 83] – now a reception centre where more than 6000 asylum seekers live closely together. While the cramped, bare conditions of these locations are evident in her photographs, the series feels uplifting and hopeful. Through her relentless collaborative approach and her engagement with the community of Moria, Schmitz shifts the focus from the difficulties the refugees face to champion the way in which these women are able to create moments of everyday joy and look toward the future. “My intent is to make it possible to form a deeper and more complex understanding of the people I photograph, by making them co-authors, who create and define their own narratives,” she explains.

Read the profiles of more Ones to Watch photographers hereThis article was originally published in issue #7884 of British Journal of Photography. Visit the BJP Shop to purchase the magazine.

© Charlotte Schmitz