Jannis Chavakis has worked for several different agencies and newspapers, sending him around Berlin to meet and photograph the kaleidoscope of faces that make up the city. In IMAGO’s 25 years, it has played many roles in the media and photography industry as it evolved throughout the digital age –  but portraits are one of the few elements of photography that have, in some ways, remained constant. Even as photography was invented, portraits have always been a staple of the craft – whether it be personal, professional or journalistic. 

To photograph a person in their own space requires a level of trust and always comes back to an interaction between the photographer and the subject. In Berlin as in Germany, the culture of privacy has become such a defining part of photography – there are even laws protecting people from being photographed in public places. IMAGO’s picture desk receives requests almost daily to have images showing someone’s face removed, and the job of the portrait photographer in Germany means something very different than in many other places. Gaining the trust to photograph someone in an often intimate setting, is a hurdle many German-based photographers have to navigate with each project in their work.  

IMAGO/Jannis Chavakis
IMAGO / Jannis Chavakis | Hartwig Piepenbrock The Chairman of the Cultural Foundation. 12 July, 2005.

Anyone who lives in Berlin knows its varied and at times outlandish cultural landscape filled with people who are extraordinarily unique but also influential, being both Germany’s capital and a creative, international hub that is growing every day. 

Chavakis’ portraits reveal the different sides to Berliners. In his various commissions, he has found  ways to connect and observe, to make a person’s story come alive, and to gain trust and sometimes even a friendship through his portraits. As part of our IMAGO 25 Years series, we spoke to him about his work photographing the people of Berlin, and how being a portrait photographer has changed over the decades.

“The city always pulls me back like a magnet. As a photographer you can really grow, but you can also get lost in the masses. ”

IMAGO/Jannis Chavakis
IMAGO / Jannis Chavakis | Cathy Boom, Editor in Chief of Style the Family Tunes Berlin. 23 October, 2006.
IMAGO/Jannis Chavakis
IMAGO / Jannis Chavakis | Mark Benecke, Criminal Biologist, Berlin. 17 September, 2015.

How long have you been a photographer in Berlin and what is your relationship to the city? How have you experienced being a photographer in Berlin? What are some pros and cons? 

I moved to Berlin at the end of 1999 and I tried to live somewhere else several times – the city always pulls me back like a magnet. We all know and love the freedom that comes with living here, it never feels crowded and the city surprises us every day, and I find that so exciting. As a photographer you can really grow, but you can also get lost in the masses.

IMAGO/Jannis Chavakis
IMAGO / Jannis Chavakis | Liebknecht Luxemburg Demonstration 2011 in Friedrichshain, Berlin. 9 January, 2011.

Your portraits and reportages show a variety of stories and faces of Berlin – can you tell me a bit more about how you came to photograph some of these projects or assignments? 

I started as a photojournalist for the Feuilleton of the Berliner Zeitung, and then joined the Ostkreuz agency and later Laif. I quickly established contact with editorial offices, communication and advertising agencies in Berlin and Hamburg and mainly worked as a commissioned photographer but I didn’t have time for my own projects.

IMAGO/Jannis Chavakis
IMAGO / Jannis Chavakis | Oliver Polak, actor and comedian in Berlin. 1 February, 2010.

Especially in Germany where privacy is so important to people, how do you approach the subjects you are photographing, how do you gain their trust?

Sometimes I prepare by finding out some things about the people I am photographing, but this is often not the case. I like surprises and I surrender a lot to chance. I am open and also don’t take myself too seriously, and people enjoy that. I ask questions and show that I am interested, and am always observing. My ability to read different situations often helps when I don’t have much time to photograph.

IMAGO/Jannis Chavakis
IMAGO / Jannis Chavakis | Pentecostalist from Angola, Religion in Berlin project. 6 April, 2003.

Were there any people or moments that stuck with you the most in your time photographing?

I have met many people from different walks of life and education levels. One that stood out to me was an older artist who was so happy after the photoshoot  that she wanted to gift me one of her paintings. It hangs in our apartment and I always have fond memories from that moment when I look at the painting. 

 

What do you hope to show with your stories and photography? What is important for you as a photographer when it comes to portraits? 

As a contract photographer, I usually discuss the shoot with the editors in advance. You can’t plan everything, and you often don’t even know what it will be like on-site and how the person will react. So for me it is important to come back with a selection of meaningful photos. The environment is important and if the reality isn’t pleasant, I occasionally try to block out.  

IMAGO/Jannis Chavakis
IMAGO / Jannis Chavakis | Writer Benjamin Lebert together with the actress Julia Hummer, Berlin. 31 January, 2006.

Where do you draw some of your inspiration from for your photos?  

Dreaming and observing. 

 

Is there anything else you would like to add? 

People do things in front of the camera that they normally wouldn’t do. But this has changed a lot over the last 20 years, we have all gotten more controlled, and a lot more boring! 

IMAGO/Jannis Chavakis
IMAGO / Jannis Chavakis | Rabbi Teichtal, at Chabad Lubavitch Synagogue in Berlin. 28 January, 2010.
IMAGO/Jannis Chavakis
IMAGO / Jannis Chavakis | Home of Vlado Summer, Religion in Berlin project. 7 April, 2003.
IMAGO/Jannis Chavakis
IMAGO / Jannis Chavakis | BND The Federal Intelligence Service in Berlin. 8 December, 2014.
IMAGO/Jannis Chavakis
IMAGO / Jannis Chavakis | Frank Walter Steinmeier Frank Walter Steinmeier SPD , Federal Foreign Minister, (current President of Germany) in Berlin. 13 November, 2014.
IMAGO/Jannis Chavakis
IMAGO / Jannis Chavakis | Thomas de Maiziere, the head of the Federal Chancellery, Berlin. 17 March, 2009.
IMAGO/Jannis Chavakis
IMAGO / Jannis Chavakis | Seif al Islam Gaddafi, son of the Libyan leader. Berlin. 1 July, 2005.
IMAGO/Jannis Chavakis
IMAGO / Jannis Chavakis | Robert Lebeck was a German photojournalist and major collector of 19th century photographs and magazines from the early days of photojournalism. 16 December, 2010.
IMAGO/Jannis Chavakis
IMAGO / Jannis Chavakis | ZDF-Journalist Dunja Hayali in Berlin. 15 September, 2015.
IMAGO/Jannis Chavakis
IMAGO / Jannis Chavakis | Day of German Beer 2009 in the Bavarian State Representative Office in Berlin. 23 April, 2009.
IMAGO/Jannis Chavakis
IMAGO / Jannis Chavakis | Hans Schenker, actor, author and director in Berlin. 15 June, 2007.
IMAGO/Jannis Chavakis
IMAGO / Jannis Chavakis | Fashion designer from Berlin Michael Michalsky. 3 December, 2010.
IMAGO/Jannis Chavakis
IMAGO / Jannis Chavakis | Cilly Kugelmann, Vice Director of the Jewish Museum in Berlin. 28 January, 2010.
IMAGO/Jannis Chavakis
IMAGO / Jannis Chavakis | Antique preservation and restoration – Rainer W. Leonhardt in the workshop of his handicraft business. 1 September, 2008.
IMAGO/Jannis Chavakis
IMAGO / Jannis Chavakis | Managing Director of Tortoise Design (technology design company), Simon Lee. 8 December, 2008.
IMAGO/Jannis Chavakis
IMAGO / Jannis Chavakis | Art collector and restaurateur Michel Würthel. 19 September, 2007.

All photos by Jannis Chavakis. Interview by Sofia Bergmann. Part of our IMAGO 25 Years series.