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Joseph Wolfgang Ohlert

Photographer, Berlin

The passion that photographer Joseph Wolfgang Ohlert has for his art is plastered all over the walls of his Berlin apartment. As we enter his home on the border of the Prenzlauer Berg and Mitte districts, low winter light illuminates the countless artefacts that define the young creative’s life: photographs, sketches, paintings and pamphlets for parties long gone. “My space is an open diary, a gallery,” Joseph tells us, explaining the history he’s building in his home. “This bed, for example. It’s a French antique, about 100 years old.” And his beautiful marble-topped coffee table? “Oh, I found that on the street at Rosenthaler Platz.”

We spent the afternoon in the artist’s makeshift museum, followed by a tour of his local neighbourhood, to hear more about the unique education Berlin affords its creatives and the journey behind his recently-released book, Gender as a Spectrum.

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You’re originally from Bavaria, right? What brought you to Berlin?

I moved here five years ago, when I was 19 years old. As a young German guy I couldn’t resist the pull of Berlin and wanted to experience it for myself, even if just for a few years. I’ve recently started studying at the Universität der Künste (University of the Arts) so I’ll be here for another three years at least. We’ll see what happens after that.

Tell us about your approach to photography.

For me, it’s all about the angle. Even in the most unattractive places, I’ll always find an interesting perspective. I’m always shooting here in my apartment but often you can’t tell. I have so much stuff so every position is different.

It’s also very rare that I’ll plan my shoots in advance. Sometimes I’ll have a vision of what I’m going for, but when it comes to the shoot itself, I’d rather it be super spontaneous.

In your pictures there’s such intimacy between the models and the camera. How do you get people to open up in front of the lens?

Maybe it’s just how I look at people. When viewing my work, people will often say to me, “oh you’ve really captured their soul” or something similar, which makes me want to throw up! It’s certainly not my intention to capture someone’s soul – they can keep it. I’m just taking a picture and trying to make it as nice as possible. The composition, the colours and the surroundings are much more important to me.

It’s certainly not my intention to capture someone’s soul – they can keep it.

You have an amazing collection of photography books. Which photographers are currently inspiring you?

Some people are always inspiring me: David Armstrong, Paul Jasmin, Alasdair McLellan, Wolfgang Tillmans of course, and so many more. I don’t have one particular influence. All of these references come together to form my inspirations.

People often say they can see Nan Goldin influences in my images but I personally think our work is completely different. Goldin is creating a diary of real life stories. I love that, but for me I’m all about portraits; more staged and neutral, with no facial expression.

How does Berlin influence your work?

Without Berlin, I could never have reached this point in my work where I’m finding my own language. As a photographer it’s so important to practice taking photos – something you can only do when you have the time and the money. I have friends in London and New York who are great photographers but because they have to work during the week, they only have the weekend to create their own work.

Here in Berlin, when I want to do my own work, I do it. It’s one of the few cities where you can afford to give yourself an education like that. I used to have a day job at a local store, but quickly realised it was killing my creativity. Now I’m really happy I can live for my art.

You’ve just released your first book Gender as a Spectrum. Can you tell us a bit about it?

The project started when I was still in photography school. At that point, I was becoming sick of model boys and model photography and wanted to start something a little more personal. When I was preparing for my final graduation project, I knew instantly that I wanted to focus on the subject of gender. At the same time, I got to know a trans-woman named Kaey, a mother of some queers on the scene, who asked if she could do a project with me.

We started in Berlin – shooting people who were expressing themselves through their gender – aiming to capture around 30 subjects initially. Then we did some shoots in San Francisco, Paris, New York and London and quickly it grew into a much larger project. I wasn’t sure what the end product was going to be at that point but I knew it was going to be something.

As we continued, I became increasingly aware that I had to present a diverse cross-section of people. I was also cautious not to create a catalogue of every section of gender. The images I’ve captured are portraits of people, not portraits of gender. Although I have a drag queen on the cover of the book, I didn’t want it to have a drag theme. I just wanted to explain that guys who do drag are fine with being guys, they just like to play with gender.

As a cis man, I was constantly questioning my authority on discussing such a subject, which is why we interviewed everyone we met. Everyone had the opportunity to express themselves how they saw themselves. There are 80 people in the final book – I had to add an extra 100 pages!

The images I’ve captured are portraits of people, not portraits of gender.

You mentioned San Francisco as one of the cities you visited when shooting for the book. How did you find San Francisco and how does it compare to Berlin?

San Francisco is a funny place. I was originally due to go with my boyfriend at the time, who was always bugging me to travel more. But soon after we booked it, we broke up! I decided I still had to go.

San Francisco is the gayest city ever. It’s where everything happens. Whilst I was there I thought I should try and get to know some of the local drag queens and the queer people and interview them for the book. I wrote to a few different people and luckily I was put in touch with one of the most popular queens there. I became integrated into the drag scene very quickly and in no time at all I was backstage at shows. Everyone was incredibly friendly.

After my boyfriend and I broke up, I was looking for places to stay on Grindr. “I’m a photographer from Berlin,” I would write on my profile. Of course, 90% of the guys who replied were like, “OK, you can stay with me, but you have to fuck me.” I did consider it, you know. It would’ve been a funny story to tell back in Berlin!

You must’ve met some amazing characters along the way.

I really did. This lady, for example [opens book]. This is May from Copenhagen. She’s a model, of course with those eyes, but was born in a male body. I’m so grateful I got to photograph her.

May – a trans-model from Copenhagen and one of Joseph's subjects.

How does it feel to have finished the project? How important was it that the end product was a printed book?

Having my work presented as a book is super important. It’s a medium that will always get a response. Exhibitions come and go, but a book is something real, something permanent.

After all of your travels, how do you feel about the treatment of different genders back here in Berlin?

It’s changing here, the drag scene especially. A couple of years ago there was nothing. RuPaul’s Drag Race has done a great job at changing people’s perceptions. The screenings here in Berlin… everyone loves it.

I think there’s also a change happening in the gay world too. Femme guys are gradually being accepted into the wider gay community. These days, listening to Britney and Beyoncé is no longer a bad thing –  even the ‘masc4masc’ men are fine with it.

Just like in many other capital cities, the presence of ‘straight-acting’ gay men is highly prevalent here in Berlin. How do you feel this is impacting the wider gay community?

To be honest, I used to consider myself a ‘masc4masc’ guy. When dating guys in the past, I would sometimes think, “he’s too feminine.” But then I realised it’s just because I got told somehow that I have to be attracted to masculine guys. Nowadays, I really don’t care.

I think a lot of it is due to miseducation and a lack of self-confidence. Maybe ‘masc4masc’ guys are attempting to retain an image of ‘manliness’ because it’s now considered okay to be gay? Maybe they think, “I have to appear like a man so people can see I’m normal.” Who knows? God, what is ‘normal’ anyway?

Maybe ‘masc4masc’ guys are attempting to retain an image of ‘manliness’ because it’s now considered okay to be gay?

What’s next for you now that Gender as a Spectrum is out?

Promoting the book is my biggest priority at the moment. I’ll be at the Leipziger Book Fair in March, followed by a photo exhibition at SchwuZ, a gay club here in Berlin. We’re having a disco fairyland party called Drags & Eggs over the Easter weekend!

To get your hands on a copy of Gender as a Spectrum, contact Joseph directly at info@ohlert.de or click the link below.

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