Conceptual Photographer Katinka Schuett Explores the Idea of Space

All images by Katinka Schuett. Used with permission.

“I like to plan pictures in advance and to deal intensively with picture ideas during the research phase,” explains conceptual photographer Katinka Schuett. “Conceptual photography leaves a lot more control than other photography subjects and allowing me to work with the subject very consciously.” Katinka is one of the two winners of the Female in Focus photography award recently. Her project, Cosmis Drive, revolves around the exciting intersection of conceptual images and realistic scientific components. It’s also an exploration of the human desire to communicate with the unknown. Below, we delve deeper into the ideas present throughout her body of work and discuss her artistic journey as a photographer.

Phoblographer: Talk to us about how you first got into photography.

KS: My parents took a lot of pictures of me when I was a kid, so it was very easy to get access to the camera and I quickly discovered it as a means of expression that worked so immediately. That inspired me early. At the age of eighteen, I then completed a classical technical training as a photographer and then first turned to art photography in my studies. In the course of my career, I have tried so many different aspects of photography and I am very grateful for all the experiences and the possibility to exclude in the end working methods I do not like for finding my own way into photography.

Phoblographer: What made you want to get into the kind of conceptual photography that you present in Cosmic Drive? It’s very much unlike anything else out there!

KS: I think it’s mainly the way of working that suits me very much. I like to plan pictures in advance and to deal intensively with picture ideas during the research phase. Conceptual photography leaves a lot more control than other photography subjets and allowing me to work with the subject very consciously.

Phoblographer: What do you feel makes an image completely and uniquely yours? Like, if we looked at a photo, what makes someone say, “That’s a Katinka photo!”

KS: Of course it is difficult to answer this question yourself, but I think it is obvious that I like to clean up my pictures and I try to hide or remove everything that I think is superfluous when designing the picture, so that only the essential plays a role, I basically like the factual in photography.

Phoblographer: Do you often connect your emotions and thoughts and translate them into images in some way or another? You’d be surprised how difficult this is for lots of folks.

KS: I think that this link should take place especially in larger and more personal projects. It is not always easy to translate your own feelings into pictures, but for me, it is definitively a goal in my photography. Often these pictures trigger something in the viewer and give the project something special.

Phoblographer: How long did it take you to find your creative flow? What challenges did you experience in the process?

KS: I get closer to my creative flow with each picture, but I definitely have not found it yet completely.
For me, especially the constant exchange with other artists is important, and this, of course, includes criticism of my own work. That can be challenging sometimes, but it is indispensable for my creative process.

Phoblographer: What was the inspiration behind Cosmic Drive, and what do you hope people will take away when viewing the project?

KS: My interest in this topic was initially people-driven. I photographed people who cataloged UFO sightings and inexplicable, possibly extraterrestrial phenomena in Germany.
For this Project I looked for the physical manifestations of this human desire – spaceships and giant antennas and telescopes, made to communicate with unknown, extraterrestrial entities, to send or receive signals from outer space. It was fascinating to see how these thoughts and theories sparked real-life inventions and created enormous buildings that you can just walk past, and meet and talk to the people who work with them, whose lives are shaped by the way these devices work.

In the end, the project Cosmic Drive deals with my strong interest in the way humans handle ignorance, the perception of space and the question about whether or not there is more life to be found in the universe.
I hope I can also encourage viewers to think about these omnipresent questions.

Phoblographer: How do you come to conceptualize your imagery? Some images are clearly constructed, created scenes, while others feel like a slice-of-life documentary. Is that accurately reflective of how you made the project?

KS: Definitely. For conceptual reasons, I have planned to photograph in certain places and I often knew what I would find there. Nevertheless, I reserve the right to spontaneously react to things that happen there and thus mix different scenes. I think the approaches complement each other and create a more interesting view of the topic.

Phoblographer: What made you want to take this project from an idea to a fully conceptualized piece?

KS: When I felt that this topic was taking longer and was not only an entertaining fascination, I decided to make this work my final thesis. All in all, I’ve been working on the project for 2 years and I think the natural deadline that comes with a final exam has been good for me and the project. Maybe I would still work on it otherwise.

Phoblographer: Do you feel like your appreciation for science influences the way you approach your photography? Do you think creatively or technically, or is it as blended in creation as it is in the final outcome?

KS: I do not think that my appreciation of science is reflected in my photography. This theme touches me in an emotionally charged way and photography is a tool that I have chosen to produce.

Phoblographer: How did you adapt the project into book format, and how did that new method of presenting the work influence how it communicates to the viewer? What determined whether or not an image made it into the book or not?

KS: The decision to make a book out of the project fell very early and was thus also present when photographing. It just made sense to me from the beginning and the work always involves strong pairs of images, which unfold their optimal meaning only in interaction such as on a double-page. A book needs a flow that takes the viewer along and surprises them again and again. The work has different aspects and in a book, you can play with them. My final question for the edit was again and again: is this photo an important fragment for the story and where can it best develope its message in the book?

Phoblographer: Photography inherently has a lot of scientific aspects built into it (math, understanding how light works, etc.). Do you think that’s part of why you gravitated towards it as your artistic medium of choice? Did you ever consider or explore other artistic forms?

KS: These aspects did not affect my choice of medium. It was first and foremost a tool for me. My enthusiasm for science actually only came through my topics that I treat as an artist and seemed important to me. So far I have limited my work to photography, but in the future, I also plan to include videos it in my projects.

Phoblographer: What first inspired your appreciation for science? How did you learn to blend that love with your art (which I feel is representative of the ‘fantasy’ aspect you reference in Cosmic Drive’s artist statement) in a world that usually treats the arts and the sciences as opposite ends of the spectrum?

KS: I developed my love and strong interest for science first during my artistic career. For me, the connection of these two spheres has always made total sense. The scientific world resonated back into the realm of new theories, and also fiction. It’s interesting how the look and appearance of an »alien« body, or the picture of a glowing finger is universally understood! All spread throughout the world by science fiction books and Hollywood movies. At some point, I worked on both of these aspects, visiting fan based science fiction conventions where for example audience members reenacted science fiction scenarios but also spoke to professional scientists at respected space centers at the same time. Even though I initially tried to avoid science fiction movies, I developed a fascination for the aesthetics of space travel.  During my work, I came in contact with so many aspects of the topic. From the current state of science, over pseudo sciences to pop culture.

Phoblographer: The maths and sciences are especially difficult industries to break into as a woman. Do you feel like photography (another male-dominated industry), reflects these same issues? How are they different, and how are they similar in your opinion?

KS: Since I do not work in science myself, I can only speak from my perspective as a photographer. In my private and professional life, I am surrounded by many female photographers and artists who are very well established and therefore women in photography are definitely not underrepresented, at least in my environment, and also very successful in their job. With such an environment and role models, I’ve never had any doubt that I can even get my bearings in this industry. I also found the handling of each other particularly positive. There is hardly any competition among these women and there is a very regular exchange that includes both artistic feedback on work, fees, and working methods. Of course, I am aware that photography is still a male-domed industry and I think it needs the power of all involved to change that.

Phoblographer: Do you feel like winning Female in Focus (and having contests like Female in Focus, Sony Alpha Female, etc. in general) adequately counteracts these issues? Too far, just right, or not far enough?

KS: I think competitions such as female in focus are important at the present time to increase the visibility of women in photography and thus to stimulate a discussion in the industry. But I also very much hope that it will soon be no longer necessary and competitions and prizes will be advertised and awarded regardless of gender and it will create a representative selection of people in photography.

Phoblographer: What are some of the biggest things the science and art industries need to do when it comes to creating more equality for women, minorities, and men overall?

KS: I think the only way to really make a difference and to ensure more equality is to do it together. It is particularly important for the younger generation to represent certain professions and their role models as diversely as possible. Responsible for this is journalism as well as research and art institutions. It does not only impart technical content, but also more than ever impressions and values – whether explicitly or implicitly.

Phoblographer: We all know Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong as the first men to walk on the moon, and yet Margaret Hamilton, the woman responsible for getting them there in the first place, is a name no one recognizes. As a society, we are only just learning the names of Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackon, and Dorothy Vaughan, and only because of the recent movie Hidden Figures. How do you contend with this erasure of women’s contributions to science?

KS: I think we know the names Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong because they have just taken the first physical steps. In Society, they are thus the heroes of the mission. Of course, they have accomplished what so many people have worked hard for. Also Margaret Hamilton and her team, who have laid a foundation for coding with their work. There have been many women throughout history who have contributed to groundbreaking achievements through their work and research, and many of them have unfortunately never received due attention. In retrospect, I think it is important to award these women the fees they deserve, such as NASA’s award of the Exceptional Space Act Award 2003 for Margaret Hamilton.